Last week, I alluded to a conversation I had with Ott DeFoe recently. We ended up on the same flight after a promotional meeting at Minn Kota and, while we waited what seemed like hours for the de-icing of the plane in Minneapolis, somehow the topic of Florida bass fishing came up. Ott went into detail about how his early trips had such an incredible influence on him as a youngster, learning to fish. Judging by his record, it must have been a good place to learn.
Like Ott, I too had taken trips to Florida as a kid with my dad; it was my first real exposure to true bass fishing. The memory of those first trips still burns in my mind. Now an adult and seeing things through far more skeptical eyes, the endless possibilities of youth often hazed, at times it seems like it was only a dream.
The car rides to Florida as a boy from the North are epic regardless of the reason for traveling. Clearing the Ohio River, the whole world seems to change. Giant billboards advertise for the maniacal firework vendors with names like Sad Sam and Crazy Charlie. When the magic exit number finally arrives, the stores themselves are a bit of a letdown, dwarfed by the colossal advertisements directly overhead.
I remember being obsessed by the fact that many of the stores still offered souvenir items sporting the Dixie flag. While the symbol means drastically different things to different people throughout the country, if nothing else, purchasing a few trinkets got me a little closer to being a Duke boy.
The next 3 hours were spent spooling dozens of reels with line so thick it could wrestle a shark. I had once read that Gary Klein flipped with 40-pound Trilene Big Game when in Florida and, though I had never broken anything stronger than 17-pound test, I took his advice and stepped up my game. For a kid who was a marginal pitcher, despite relentless practice, 40-pound test doesn't help anything.
Arriving in bass heaven near Ocala, the air was different. The smell and feel of everything changes when you first get out of a car in Florida. I remember being mesmerized by the fact that people parked everywhere around their homes – there were no real driveways. It took a while to conclude that most of Florida doesn't have mud like back home.
That night sleep was difficult, and made even tougher by the relentless noises emerging throughout the small cabin. Flipping on the lights, I was horrified to find giant cockroaches –called "palmetto bugs" by locals – crawling everywhere. The thought of one of them falling from the ceiling and landing on my face kept me up until the pre-dawn alarm.
That morning, dad and I were ready to go early. The fist stop was the local bait shop, where we would meet our guide. I remember feeling really out of place when we entered the shiner store. It's that neighborhood bar feeling: You walk in and it seems like the music stops and everyone turns around to look at you. I'm sure we were just two of a thousand glow-white tourists to come into the shop each spring, but at the time, I wanted nothing more than to blend in with the sun drenched-locals, each one wearing at least one piece of camo clothing.
My awkwardness soon dispersed when I looked into the shiner tank. There, below me were the biggest "minnows" I had ever seen – surely they weren't for bass fishing. The local shop owner assured me they were while ensuring my dad they cost a bundle, then directed our attention to the corner of the tank, in the shaded area near the shop’s rear. There he placed a dip net in the water and spooked out a captive 14-pound bass that was brought in alive a few days prior.
Whether or not that fish was actually 14 pounds is irrelevant; all I knew at the time was that it was drastically larger than any bass I had ever seen, alive, dead, or mounted. I wanted nothing more at the time than to simply hold that fish; the way I had seen Doug Hannon hold the Florida giants in the videos I had watched so many times they were burned in my memory. The fish wasn't a conquest or trophy. It was pure beauty, more so than a sunset or a rainbow or a deer grazing in a snow-covered meadow. To me, at the time, that fish was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. To me, bass were the only thing that could attain that magnificence.
After meeting our guide, he hand-selected each individual shiner we would fish with that day. Although we were after just one fish, for some reason we were required to buy about eight-dozen shiners. At the time, trivial matters like cost seemed irrelevant, at least to me.
We rode out from the ramp in the pre-dawn light. Everything looked so wonderful; as far as I was concerned, we could fish right there. Floating hyacinths, lily pads, cattails: surely there were giant bass right in the access canal. Then we entered Rodman Reservoir.
Nothing can put into words the feeling a 12-year-old boy who's obsessed with bass gets when he first sees Rodman. For those of you who have never been there, you need to go before you die. Unlike any place I've ever been, Rodman, nestled in the once-famed Ocala National Forest, may be the last bit of Old Florida still in existence. While I've made a life on the Great Lakes, my ashes will someday go to Rodman.
We spent the day lobbing giant shiners into seemingly impenetrable cover, waiting for the behemoths of Florida to swallow them alive. Surely, our guide grew tired of my relentless questioning: Had he ever seen a world record? Did he ever meet Glen Lau? Did he know any gator wrestlers? Could his airboat really take us deep in the swamp to bass fishing’s pot of gold?
Throughout the day, the clickers on the big Garcia reels screamed several times, but resulted in a few disappointing gar and mud fish, and even one giant snake that swallowed the shiner whole. Once abroad, the guide told stories of the poisonous water moccasins we saw with regularity. He mentioned how they would silently crawl in the boat, then hide under consoles or in compartments, biting unsuspecting fisherman.
As we ran up the Oklawaha River later that day, the boat skated through hairpin turns. It seemed so dangerous yet liberating; far from the stuffy, conservative North where such a waterway would be mandated with a speed limit, enforced by a water cop with a radar gun.
Rounding a turn, the guide motioned for us all to duck down. We careened beneath a giant overhead log, leaning across the river; surely we would have been beheaded had we not heeded his advice. Good Lord, it was like an Indiana Jones movie. What was next, a treasure map to the gold of Cortez?
As the years passed, we continued to travel to Florida. I remember doodling in class, awaiting the magic day when dad would come pick me up at school with the bass boat in tow. The pictures sketched in my spiral notebooks were not those of race cars, but of Gambler bass boats. The bronzed men I’d seen launching them each spring were immediately elevated to hero status, regardless of their fishing knowledge.
We became experts at fishing shiners, and caught 10-pound bass. We were there for the opening of the world-famous Stick Marsh. We learned of the sinkhole draining Orange Lake, the site of my largest catch to date, and the renewal of the lake when the water came back. We still routinely check on the status of Rodman, and the progress of the insane environmentalists who want to drain this magnificent beauty.
Florida isn't the same as it was back then, but nothing ever is. Today, water problems, both in terms of quantity and quality, have changed things. The state’s farming and development practices have thrown the delicate balance out of whack.
But Florida fights on – better late than never. The state's fisheries and wildlife experts are paying close attention to what it takes to sustain its valuable bass havens. Many lakes are on the rebound. But others are gone now.
Either way, somewhere soon, a kid from Ohio will take his spring vacation with his dad. And if you're that dad, if you're considering where to take your kid bass fishing, disregard the hype. Forget about Falcon. The heck with Guntersville or Chickamauga. Yeah, the fishing may be better somewhere else.
But for the world’s best bass experience, to reach the true roots of where the hype began, take that kid to Florida.
> BassFans interested in the status of Rodman Reservoir and who would like to help this magnificent fishery should click here.
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)