Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

October 11th, 2004

On the Banks of Cypress Lake; A Gathering

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson

Again, returning to my roots, I think back on one of those, "let's go get lost," Sunday afternoon drives. I was around twelve, or so.

Mom, Dad and I had left the house that particular Sunday afternoon and headed south. I really don't remember where we turned off the main road, but we wound around some old, sandy road through orange groves, following the directions from a sign Daddy had seen nailed to a pole. All of that seems a little foggy to me now, but when we finally got to the end of the road, it seemed as if we had gone back in time at least fifteen years.

There, on the northwestern bank of Cypress Lake, sat a fish camp, boat ramp, cabins and a barbeque shed with two huge pits for cookin' the real stuff. Old yellow dogs were laying in the shade of gigantic oak trees; the entire setting became a watercolor painted into my young memory. I remember Dad saying, "We gotta come back here with the boat." With that said, we turned around and drove away.

Several weeks later, Dad and I loaded up the boat and headed back in the direction of that place I didn't get enough of. It was "blue in the east," when we arrived back at the camp. I don't believe it had a formal name, but it had these old, wood cabins and each had a nickname above the doorway in front. There was, "The Boars Nest," "Liar's Den"; too many for me to actually remember, but there must have been ten or twelve of these small houses.

We had to pay fifty cents to use the boat ramp, and I noticed the ones that were awake at that ungodly time of morning, were staring at us. I didn't pay too much attention to them; I was too mesmerized with our new surroundings. In the blue, morning light, I could see hundreds of cabbage palms lining the banks of the lake; the yellow dogs were still there and barked at us briefly when we went to pay the ramp fee. The smell of camp coffee lay heavy in the thick air, and I could smell the aroma of bacon and eggs, biscuits and grits, coming from the already lit cabins.

The boat was launched, and we headed southwest around a deep bend in the lake. The bank suddenly swung a hard right into what looked like a wide canal to the north. I found out later it was the South Port Canal.

The venture that day turned out to be a recon trip. We fished a little, but mostly the day was spent moseying around looking for "good spots," and there were many. But my mind was on the camp. I wanted to explore it, but I never said anything to my dad about doing so.

We returned to the camp around three-thirty that afternoon, and two old men were standing around on the dock at the ramp. Both wore faded overhauls with thin, long-sleeved, light-colored shirts under them. Old straw hats adorned their heads, providing shade in the bright, Florida sun.

Dad eased up to the dock to tie off the boat and one of the men asked, "J'all do enny good?"

"Fair to middlin'", answered Dad. We had ten, or so, nice bluegills in the cooler. The other old man asked where we were from, and a polite conversation ensued. We were about ready to leave when the man, once again, spoke to my dad, "Y'all ought to come back next weekend an' plan on stayin' fer a while. All us are gonna cook up a mess of pig and other stuff." My head spun in the direction of my dad; fingers crossed.

"Might as well," Dad answered back. "Whatcha want us to bring?"

"Nerry a thing, we got it all righ' cheer."

Studying his face, I asked a million questions on the way home, probably annoying the fool out of the old man. He just drove, nodded, and grunted from time to time.

That was the longest week of my life. That's all I thought of, and spoke of, in school that week. Finally, Friday afternoon was upon us.

The three of us packed up the tent, the sleeping bags and army cots. Coolers full of block ice, fishin' poles, tackle boxes…everything in the house, I honestly believe. And then Saturday, 'fore light, we were off for the fish-camp on Cypress Lake.

We arrived there again when it was "blue in the east." The same scene was being played out, but the old men were already at the cook shed. Strong, oak and hickory smoke was billowing up from the two pits, and the yellow dogs were sound asleep, never looking up at the new folks arriving with the entire household in tow. One of the old men that Dad had spoken with came to greet us and expressed his happiness to see us again, just as though he had known us all of his life. He politely introduced himself to my mom and asked if we were going to stay in one of the rental cabins. Dad explained we had brought the old, canvas tent and we were planning on camping out on the bank of the canal. The old man told my dad to be back around three and everything would be just about ready. I wanted to stay there and hang out, but I went with the folks. I think Dad sensed this, and once we had the camp set up and fished for a while, we returned to see if we could help out.

I never was one to run off with the rest of the youngun's to play. I had rather hang out with the folks that were cookin.' I would ask question after question, and usually got answers. I still use those answers today. I do most all the cooking at home.

One of the old men opened the pit for me to see inside. There were two pigs that had been cut in half, right down the middle. I, of course, had to know where they came from and the old man explained why the "dawgs" were so tired. They were "catch dawgs" and, with a little help from a "bay dawg," caught the pigs the previous night. Dang, no wonder they were asleep when we arrived. The men would open the pit from time to time and mop a liquid over the pigs. It was white vinegar and water, a little honey, crushed garlic cloves and hot, red pepper flakes, with salt and black pepper. I still use that very mopping sauce today on my barbequed pork.

The wives of these old men began to appear from the cabins. They were dressed in simple dresses made from flour sack material, my mom made her casual dresses from the same. The women were carrying pots, bowls and Dutch ovens loaded up with potato salad, baked beans, collard greens, swamp cabbage, you name it, and it was there. The smells were incredible!

Around five in the afternoon, a light blue pickup truck came around the corner loaded with crates full of fresh, sweet corn. The farmer apparently lived around there, and everyone seemed to know him. Three crates of corn were unloaded and carried to the shed. Number three washtubs were brought out and filled with the ears of corn, still in their shucks. An enormous amount of salt was added and the tubs were filled with water. The corn was allowed to soak, and the old man apologized that the corn should have soaked all night, but the farmer had forgotten to bring it out. Old coffee pots, with the guts removed, came out as the corn was added to the grill. They stuck the corn everywhere there wasn't pig. Butter was placed into the coffee pots, and they were placed on gas-burner stoves that had been set up out and away from the pits. When the corn had cooked, the burnt shucks were pulled back and served as "handles." The whole ear was dunked into the butter, salted and peppered, then handed off to waiting kids.

People were showing up from everywhere. Cars pulled up, people brought more food. Bare light bulbs had been strung around the area, and a few of the old men were playing guitars, banjos and fiddles. Hushpuppy batter was being mixed with fresh, green onions, and then dropped into hot, hog lard. The pigs were removed; one side at a time, and the meat was pulled away from the bones, while another added homemade barbeque sauce and mixed into the steaming pork. Conversations could be heard, and laughter would erupt from time to time, as bluegrass music filled in the blanks.

It seemed to happen quickly. We had been there for hours, but seemed like minutes. The food was being served to maybe fifty folks. They all knew each other, and the best part; we had been accepted into this wonderful, festive gathering. I ate 'til I couldn't breathe! That was the best!

Over the years I have hosted a few gatherings, none the likes of the one on the lake. I often thought about that camp on the banks of Cypress Lake. I realized, even back then, the food wasn't the important part. It was the gathering; the fellowship of friends; a time to mingle and catch up on all that had happened.

The three of us returned time, and time again; the scene never changed. I haven't been back as an adult. I've tried to find that special place a few times when I visit back home. I have yet to. But I would hope they still have those wonderful parties; those gatherings.

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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