A Fine Kettle of Fish

Vic Miller returns to On The Fly South with a tale of kayaks, gators and bluegills!

On The Fly Freshwater

March 2023

By O. Victor Miller

For more of Vic Miller’s tales, check out his latest book Buzzard Luck. It is available on Amazon.com.

Photos by Jimmy Jacobs

(This is an abridged version of a tale from Gray’s Sporting Journal’s May-June 2018 edition.)

Joe Lawless, a crabber who took me under his wing and introduced me to St. Mark society, showed me where to go ā€” a backwater slough of the Wakulla River, where the bream are bedding in water too shallow and too clear to fish in full daylight. I paddle my kayak through the mist upstream to my waypoint, the first of Joe’s crab pots, marked by his green Styrofoam buoy.

The slough. opens into a lagoon, where the full moon brings spring tides and bedding bluegills. There’s no dry land at the eastern edge of the beds. The shore is swampy with pickerel weed, water hyacinth, and hydrilla. Beyond that is a tropical backdrop of cypress, tupelo, water oak, and one palm tree. I arrive by kayak in darkness, just before the full moon sets to a rising sun. A low-lying mist tickles my nose.

The source of the Wakulla River is Wakulla Springs, the largest and deepest spring in the United States. Through glass-bottom boats, tourists can see mastodon bones at the mouth of the cave, 190 feet from the surface. Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller were filmed here, Hollywood’s idea of Africa, where monstrous alligators standing in for crocodiles bask in the sunshine. A horror film, The Return of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, was shot here as well.The wide-bellied cypress trees with Gothic roots and long beards of Spanish moss lend themselves to an eerie setting in the moonlit fog. The Wakulla is nine miles long. It joins the St. Marks at Fort St. Marcos, and together they flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

I scan the thin mist with my flashlight. Red alligator eyes glowing like automobile taillights are scattered across the lagoon, more than a dozen pairs. I paddle quietly through them, each submerging tail first as I pass. judged by the distance between eyes and nose (an inch between eye and nose equals one foot of gator), most of the reptiles are less than five feet, but there are some eight-footers and one or two larger than that. Gators can get big in this tidal river. Joe has a skull in his living room more than 12 inches from knobby eye to button nose. He measured the monster at just over 13 feet.

I nurse a grudge against Wakulla alligators, since one caught and ate my beloved Boykin spaniel, Geechee. Joe showed me where the dog tracks and gator tracks commingled at the low-tide mark near the ramp at Shell Island, where I’d set up my Airstream for the summer quarter, clearing out cobwebs gathered from teaching freshmen how to write. I suspect the big gator that hangs around the fish-cleaning station. You’ve got to blame something else when you know a misfortune is your own damn fault.

The bream that inhabit these crystal waters are the sweetest you’ve ever tasted. I’ve bought a sturdy chain stringer at Shell Island Fish Camp. I plan to fill it with bluegills and return to camp with the rising sun. There I’ll fillet them, dip them in cornmeal, fry them up crisp, and serve them with cheese grits and hushpuppies to the staff of the fish camp, my Florida friends. I told them dinner is at high noon.

Anybody can fry fish, but crafting a good hushpuppy is an art form I take pride in. Anchored in a lagoon near a Kuna Indian village in the San Bias of Panama, I fed my Kuna visitors hushpuppies the size of cow pies. Pan perro, they called it, “dog bread.” Whole families came out to my sailboat on Sundays in dugout canoes with bright sails. I set up a generator and a TV monitor and we watched Disney movies, and ate dog bread and popcorn. If you ever want to make friends with Indians, feed them fried bread. At the time I didn’t realize the irony that my mere presence among the Kuna threatened the purity of the life I so ardently admired.

In the dark, I smell the bream beds – funky, fishy, and fecund. I ease my kayak as close as I dare, blindly casting a popping fly in the area where yesterday Joe showed me the sandy piebald circles at the edge of floating hydrilla solid enough to support wading birds. The fly lands, broadcasting tiny rings of moonlight. A big bluegill slurps it u- thup. I set the hook to the smack. The bluegill fights enough to pull the kayak, running in circles and figure eights. Plenty of action on a 3-weight rod, especially when the fish manages to tangle itself in hydrilla.

This first fish is too wide to grasp with one hand. Holding my flashlight in my crotch and the fish against my chest, I remove the hook It’s a bull-headed male with a deep-russet breast. I undo the first clasp of the stringer, add the fish. Worried that the  bluegill has tugged me too close to the beds, I backpaddle a few strokes and cast again. Another bream smacks my popping bug. Iā€™m casting to smell, setting my hook by sound. Nearly every cast is met with a sip or a splat.

A streak of pink and smut on the horizon heralds the promise of a new day. The moon sinks into the western horizon, splashing silver lace through the treetops. The emerging sun in the east does the same in bright, gold filigree. By the time it clears the trees, my stringer sports a bluegill on every clasp. I start back to the fish camp, trailing my catch, which rises to the surface with each paddle stroke, sinking back down as I glide. The stringer of fish catches scratchy tendrils of hydrilla that I remove every now and then. With bright colors hyped up by the early-spring spawn, these saucer-sized beauties are fashioned by the Grand Jeweler Himself – ruby red breasts on the males, antique gold on the females, silver sequins that fade to pewter in the open air.

I’m happy as a man can get with his clothes on. Every once in a while, I lift my catch out of the water just to admire them and to hear them rattle the chain, a bouquet of lovely flowers. Soon I’m back to Joe’s crab pot, the green buoy smothered by strands of hydrilla swaying on its tether at the ledge where the channel drops off.

Suddenly the clear water boils sediment and tendrils of moss, fizzing like ginger ale. There’s a sharp metallic rattle as the kayak is lifted, plunging backwards. A quick drubbing of triangularscutes runs the length of the kee1-buripp – asif it were raked lengthwise by a crosscut saw, a vibration that rattles me tooth and bone. The stern is snatched under. Water rushes into the cockpit. I grab the gunnels, losing my paddle. “Hey!” I scream. “Whoa!”

The swamped kayak wallows backwards, the raised bow wagging. The wide head of a bull alligator parts the water behind me like a hideous idea, a genuine creature from the Black Lagoon. There’s a quick jerk and a loud ping as the clasp securing the stringer to the stern ring snaps open. I’m eye to amber eye with a creature that crawled through primordial slime with the dinosaurs. It rattles my lovely stringer of fish in his toothy smile, sinking slowly back through the surface.

Gone is my double-blade paddle. Gone is my bright bouquet of fish. Now what? I’m sitting in a swamped kayak that wants to capsize, impotently splashing water out of the cockpit with the palm of my hand, leaning to one side as far as I dare. I’m drenched all the way up to my armpits. I’m shaking all over, but not from the cold. My stricken heart thuds wildly in my chest. All my neurotic aversions and petty fears have dissolved into one orgasmic moment of stark and unmitigated terror. The cobwebs swept from my soul. My paddle floats in the water 10 yards away.

Now the morning sun is well above the horizon. The moon is down. The vision of the creature has left me shaky yet curiously elated, glad to be alive. Long strings of black cormorants fly across a blue- gray sky from their roost upstream. A cruciform anhinga perches on a channel marker drying her wings. Migrating upstream, silver mullet take their oblique plunges into the air, plopping tail first into the channel. Gaudy gallinules and spade-toed coots walk on the thick mats of hydrilla, an invasive species imported as aquarium greenery that threatens to clog every lake and river in Florida. A great blue heron spears a minnow and lifts its head to gulp it down.

My blood still sizzles with pure adrenaline. I have no bright ideas of what to do next beyond sit- ting in a swamped kayak contemplating how quick a man’s good luck can sour. Before long I hear the distant burble of an outboard motor, amplified by fog. It seems to be headed upriver toward me. Soon I can see the outline of a Carolina Skiff, a stocky boatman standing midship steering with an extended tiller. Joe, bless his rugged heart, blooms through the low mist. The top of his head catches a ray of early sunshine like a golden crown. He pulls up alongside, grinning that broke-tooth smile of his.

“Boy, am I glad to see you!” I squeak.

“Morning,” he says, “this looks like a mess only a college professor could get himself into. I thought I’d taught you better than to hang a stringer of fish into the Wakulla River.”

He helps me up into his skiff. We lift the kayak, empty out the water. After we recover my paddle, he pulls his crab pot, dumps a couple of blue crabs into a dry washtub, where they scratch around, facing off. I’m still shivering. He thinks I’m cold. He hands me a yellow oilskin with a fishy smell and helps me back into my kayak.

”Join me for lunch at the fish camp?” I stutter.

“Sure, what we having?”

“Pan perro and cheese grits,” I say, “with maybe a blue crab or two.” ā€¢

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