I must have been around four or five when Dad
got into one of his moods to go check out a new
place to fish. He loved to explore, and I'm sure
one of his buddies had told him about the
Hillsborough River, just east of Tampa, Florida.
It was again hot and humid, as Florida summers
always were. Mom, Dad and I had launched the old,
flat-bottomed, wooden skiff somewhere on the
Hillsborough. We had never been there before;
a new adventure was about to unfold.
I remember it was quiet and peaceful, dark and
mysterious. Back then, the river was as clear
as a Montana stream. Greenish-blue, underwater
mosses undulated in the current just above the
white, sandy bottom. Ancient logs crisscrossed
the river from steep bank to steep bank. Some
jutted out from the current's swirl, posturing
boastfully like dark brown goblins, silently
wishing to send us to her bottom.
The old, green boat plowed on with its three-horse
kicker, puttering and smoking, pushing ahead to
unknown destinations. The sounds of kingfishers
and red-winged blackbirds pierced the still and
cool air as we glided down the pristine river.
Looming cypress trees provided patches of shade
and warming sunlight, and the sunlight filtered
to the white bottom where small bream and bass
could be seen, marking time in the current, waiting
for falling bugs from sweet gum and river birch
Around one of the many bends in the river, sat a
large, black woman on a red, tin bucket. She wore
a huge hat made from tan straw that covered her
entire head, and was as wide and deep as her body.
She was the largest woman I had ever seen. She
wore a colorful dress of oranges, reds and greens
and held two cane poles that reached almost to the
center of the river; a spirit-like being, not
belonging to the bank, appearing to be out of
Dad never met a stranger, not even a ghost, as I
saw her. "Ya catchin' anything?" Dad called to her.
"Naw, not much. Jist some fry-haahds, and sitch.
Y'all?" Her voice was musical and high-pitched.
I had never heard a voice such as hers. It had
a tinkling sound about it. "Nothin' to speak of."
My dad answered back and then said in a whisper,
"What the hell is a fry-haahd?" "What's a fry-haahd?"
He hollered back as we began to take another bend
in the river. "Little breams and sitch; ya jist
fries 'em up, guts, feathers and all…eat 'em like
a tater chip!" She laughed aloud and her belly and
bosoms bounced to the beat of her giggles. I could
still hear her laughter echoing through the trees
and fading as she went out of sight.
The memory of the big, black woman haunted me as
we tied up to the bank at a wide spot in the
Hillsborough to fish. Several "breams and sitch"
were caught and Mom fried them in a cast iron pan
over a charcoal fire. Hushpuppies with green onions,
grits and fried fish; nothing smelled, or tasted
better on the water.
The day was spent sputtering lazily up the river
as it grew narrower and the sun began to slowly
descend westerly. It was time to turn back, and
I hoped the woman was still fishing. But, she was
gone; as if she had never been there, and I sat
in the floor of the boat wondering if she had
really been there on the bank, sitting on the
red bucket. Perhaps she was a spirit that had
lost her way and had stopped to rest and fish,
to greet and speak with us.
Suddenly, a loud cracking sound interrupted the
quiet. It was accompanied by a lurching of the
skiff quickly to the side. One of the dark brown
goblins had ripped a hole in the floor, and the
Hillsborough began pouring in. Dad quickly pulled
off his tee-shirt and crammed it in the hole, as
Mom and I bailed out the river with the tin bait
bucket. A close call, but we made it to the ramp,
loaded the boat on its rusty trailer and headed
It was dark and I slept in the Buick's backseat,
dreaming of the big black woman on the bank of
the Hillsborough River.
Two weeks later, Dad bought a new, fourteen-foot,
fiberglass boat with a ten-horse engine. The old
wood boat was turned into a planter in the backyard
for Mom to grow plants from cuttings the neighbors
gave her. We never returned to the Hillsborough.
See y'all next week. ~ Capt. 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.