Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

June 28th, 2004

Let's Go Get Lost
By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson

"Let's go get lost" is a statement I heard many times as a kid on a Sunday afternoon. After church, and usually after eating dinner, that's what we call the noon meal in the south, Dad, Mom and I would load up in the car for the weekly, Sunday adventure. We didn't care where we went and, as far as I could tell, it was whichever way Daddy's nose pointed.

Back in the late '50's and early '60's, central Florida was a whole lot different than it is today. There were literally thousands of acres of citrus groves. These groves were dotted with hidden lakes and ponds and, through later discovery, weren't fished all that much. There were millions of things to discover. Heck, I had only been on the face of this Earth for a mere eight, or ten years.

I was raised in Auburndale, Florida, a small town located right slap-dab in the middle of the state; everybody knew everybody. We had two stop lights, two main highways, and an "uptown" that closed around five-thirty in the afternoon. Taylor's Drug Store was the local hangout after school. They made real milkshakes, root beer floats, and the best hamburgers in the entire world... well, our little world, anyway. The population of A-dale, as we called it, was somewhere around five thousand and I was one of 'em, and dang proud of it. But in my short time, I had already seen most of it, visited all the dime stores; all two of 'em, rode my bike all over the place and knew about everyone and everything in town. So, the Sunday afternoon, "let's go get lost," trips were much anticipated.

U. S. Highway 27 lies east of Auburndale and treks north and south. There was a lot to be discovered on 27, especially heading south. Out there were miles and miles of orange, grapefruit, and tangerine trees. Every once in a while there would be an old "mom and pops" fruit stand with a sign, miles before one got there, that read, "Fresh Orange Juice Ahead". And sure 'nuf, there would be an old, bare-wood shack on the side of the road with several out-of-state cars parked out front on the dusty roadside. Inside, their passengers were sipping a sample of fresh, cold orange juice and browsing among the many jars of orange blossom honey, and jellies. We hardly ever stopped at these stands, Dad would just say, "Too many Yankees." And keep going. There was one we did stop at one day, and it was true, the best dag-gum orange juice I had ever drunk. I'm sure they laced that stuff down with sugar to sell more to the unsuspectin' Yankees!

Bok Tower

Heading southerly from the groves, we came to Lake Wales. Here was another old town kinda like A-dale. The calling card to Lake Wales is Bok Tower. The tower has a carillon and every hour the music would play. Acres of well-kept gardens surrounded the tower. We could see the rising tower from US 27, built as a memorial to a man's wife a long while back. It's on one of the highest elevations in Florida, somewhere around three hundred and fifty feet high. Hey, to a Florida kid, that's a mountain.

Fountain Bok Gardens

I remember one afternoon I saw a multitude of small signs on the side of the highway in sequence. They announced an attraction that surely peaked my interest. Each word had it's own sign, "UP"..."AHEAD"... "SEE"..."REAL"..."LIVE"..."ALLIGATORS". I asked my dad to stop.

Inside of this colorful, fairly large building were Indians! Real, live Indians! The women were dressed in multicolored dresses that billowed out from their waists. They were dark skinned and mysterious to me. I found hand-made moccasins, stuffed rattlesnakes on logs, beaded belts...everything! What a find! They had fresh orange juice, too; a little disappointing. It wasn't as sweet as the juice from the other place. Out behind the store was a fenced in area with a couple of 'gators that just lay there in the sun. I couldn't even tell if they were alive, or if they were even real. A few minutes later, after a few more visitors had gathered, an Indian guy came out and climbed in the pen with these big 'gators. He was bare-chested and wore buckskin pants. The 'gators were alive alright! As soon as he climbed over the tin-sided pen, those rascals sprang to full, red alert! I thought for sure there was goin' to be major trouble for that guy! Next thing I knew, that old 'gator had been flipped over on his back and the Indian guy was rubbin' that sucker's belly. He put that big lizard to sleep right in front of us!

I begged for a belt, or neither.

Auburndale was the home of "Allen's Catfish House." Dad always called him "Goo Allen"; I never did figure that one out. The restaurant was decorated with old Florida memorabilia; old crab floats, shellacked crab bodies, faded sepia photos of men with 'gators and large bass, nets; just all kinds of stuff I found interesting. He even had an aquarium set up with invisible fish from the Amazon. There was nothing in the tank but water. We found it amusing when the tourists would stand there and peer into it, never to spot the invisible fish. There was a mongoose cage, as well. Most people had never seen a mongoose, I certainly never had. There was a wire mesh cage. Inside the cage was another box with a small hole cut in the front. What no one knew was the box was rigged with a trip wire and someone very close to the cash register had the trigger. After staring for several minutes, straining to see the illusive mongoose through the hole in the box, the cashier would trip the box door and a large swatch of fur would erupt outward and scare the living hell out of the person standing in front of it. I was a victim of the mongoose box.

Allen did serve up some of the best fried catfish, hushpuppies, coleslaw and homemade French fries in the world, his sign out front said he would; I would have to agree. His menu included soft-shelled turtle, frog legs, catfish, and swamp cabbage. All of Florida's culinary delights were there; key lime pie made from real key lime juice and egg yokes...the good stuff, and thick meringue piled high on top, slightly toasted. One didn't leave that place hungry, Goo saw to that, personally. He would visit each table.

As I mentioned, there were lots of lakes; some small and some extremely large. Some we couldn't even see the other side of; they looked like the ocean. We visited one of these lakes one Sunday afternoon. We were on one of our afternoon trips when we came across a handmade sign, nailed to a telephone pole, pointing off to the right, down some dusty, clay road. It simply read, "FISH CAMP," scribbled in someone's handwriting in red on a white background. Sure enough, Daddy turned down the road and we drove for what seemed like days. I looked back and couldn't see the orange trees for all of the dust we were kickin' up. Way down the road was another sign with the same type of writing on it, "WELCOME TO LAKE TOHOPEKALIGA FISH CAMP."

Once out of the car, I thought we had discovered paradise. I didn't realize then, we probably had. There were ancient oak trees covered in Spanish moss; their branches spreading over grey-white sand, and there was a certain coolness under them in the shade. Old cabins hid among the oaks. The big lake was far in the distance, and I could see an old, gray, wooden dock with numerous, brightly colored, wooden "boats with kickers for rent." The sign at the dock said so.

I tagged along behind Dad into the little store that rented the boats and kickers and cabins. I remember Dad asking the lady behind the hand-operated cash register, "How do you say the name of this place?" She politely smiled down at me, then looked up at him, "To hope ta hell ya like it," that's how we say it." Hmmm, catchy. We never went back there to fish or stay in the little cabins. Today the lake is renowned for its large-mouth bass fishing. Big national tournaments are held there, and it is now know simply as, Lake Toho.

There were many of those Sunday "let's go get lost" trips. Many led to future fishing trips that Dad and I would spend hours catching bluegill, speckled perch and catfish.

Florida was a simpler place then. People waved from their front porches as few cars passed on the "hard road." Neighbors were real neighbors. There were no huge, plastic ducks and mice with first names that lived here back then. There were only a few shops that sold Florida souvenirs and there was free, ice-cold orange juice inside. Not any more. There are hardly any groves; new homes have replaced them, and the new residents lay claim to the shores from where I used to fish.

Now, when I return to Auburndale to visit my roots, I always make that trip on a Sunday afternoon. I drag Linda with me to point out where I used to discover things. The old lakes are still there, they just wear way too much makeup. But, if you stop in some of those old towns, that somehow have gone untouched, and shoot the breeze with the old men that sit in front of the barbershops, they remember those places. Their eyes light up when they talk about that old Florida.

There are many stories to be remembered from around the cypress knees that grow at the shore where I would sit and catch bream. The same cypress knees the Seminoles would cut off and create lamps, and sell them in their 'gator wrestlin' Yankees.

See y'all next week. ~ Capt. Gary

About Gary:

Gary grew up in central Florida and spent much of his youth fishing the lakes that dot the area. After moving a little closer to the coast, his interests changed from fresh to salt. Gary still visits his "roots" in the "lake behind the house."

He obtained his captain's license in the early '90's and fished the blue waters of the Atlantic for a little over twelve years. His interests in the beautiful shallow water flats in and around the famous Mosquito Lagoon came around twenty-five years ago. Even though Captain Gary doesn't professionally guide anymore, his respect of the waters will ever be present.

Gary began fly fishing and tying mostly saltwater patterns in the early '90's and has participated as a demo fly tier for the Federation of Fly Fishers on numerous occasions. He is a private fly casting and tying instructor and stained glass artist, creating mostly saltwater game fish in glass.

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