Capt. Gary Henderson, Florida

December 27th, 2004

The Hillsborough River and The Big Black Woman

By Captain Gary (Flats Dude) Henderson
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 trees.

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 place.

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 home.

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

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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