Gone Fishin'

    By Laura Spinale

    The fishing's great in Central Florida's Lakes Country, even for the first timer.

    "Do you think this guy has a bathroom in his boat?" I'd asked my friend Janet. It was well past midnight; we planned on meeting our guide at 6 a.m., and the toilet thing was keeping me awake.

    I have never before, not once in my life, fished. And while I'm no stranger to 4:30 a.m., I usually only greet the hour after a particularly good party, or a bout of insomnia. So I feel a little grumpy, rising in the dark, making a pre-dawn run to a Shell station on the outskirts of Lake Wales before the appointed rendezvous with my bass guide. I am fueled only by a weak cup of coffee, that I know, just know, will run right through me.

    This is your last chance!

    That's Jim Dowling, my guide, meeting up with us. He points to the boat he's towing. That vessel proves, even to my untrained eye, bathroom-less.

    I purposefully put this thought out of my mind and decide to enjoy the ambiance. An alligator floats placidly by, ignoring us. It's all new to me. I'm sitting in a 22-foot Champion Bay boat atop Lake Walk-in-Water, listening to the dawn songs of anhinga and herons, on a catch-and-release expedition to find some largemouth bass.

    Keep your rod in the water. When he runs, count to five, turn the handle, tighten the line, and jerk the rod as hard as you can. Then crank.

    They call Polk County Central Florida's Lakes Country. With 554 bodies of fresh water, largemouth bass reign. You'll find no shortage of spots to cast your line. Camp Mack's River Resort is a fisherman's legend.

    If you want to hook your kids, think about visiting the Tenoroc Fish Management Area, near Lakeland, where an intensive management philosophy has created some of the best catch rates in the state for a variety of sport fish. Special opportunities are available for children and disabled anglers; bank fishing access is provided on many lakes. The 14 lakes in this former phosphate mine range in size from 7 to 227 acres. All anglers are required to register at the area headquarters, where a daily use fee of $3 is charged. Access quotas control the number of anglers on all lakes, and harvest restrictions on sport fish ensure angler satisfaction. Limitations on the use of boat motors also apply here.

    Let him run for five, then turn the handle

    Jim owns Bass Fishing Charters out of Indian Lake Estates. He has spent more than 15 years carting tourists and corporate groups to some of the state's best fishing holes. Along the way, he has captured, in freshwater and salt, a 13-pound bass and 180-pound tarpon. Now concentrating on central Florida lakes, he guides at least 200 days each year, and, on vacation, goes fishing in Tennessee. He goes to bed, generally, by 9 p.m.

    Jim's a great teacher. He laughs a lot, with – never at – me and my equally inept friend. And he shatters my preconceived notions of the sport, my dread of being stuck on this 7,500-acre lake for hours with nary a nibble to interrupt my enjoyment of the - as the Madison Avenue guys would put it – rich, satisfying aroma of my coffee. It's a picture I've culled from an old Folgers commercial, and Jim thinks it's a pretty accurate depiction of fishing in Northern climes.

    You can sit there for hours and hours and say, "oh, we got a bite, now." That's not much fun.

    Not as much fun as being surrounded by bass who seem perfectly willing to jump into our boat. It's high spawn season after all – February through April – although you can catch bass here all year long.

    See, you've got the hang of it already.

    That's Jim talking to Janet, who, moments out, gets first bite. She pretends to kiss the bass, and Jim encourages us to feel its sandpapery teeth. While I'm trying to compose my jealous face into a congratulatory one, I realize something's on my line. A three-pounder.

    You got a bite. It's a pretty good indication, when your bobbin goes down.

    It's amazing to me, the physical strength this takes, even with a fish of only two or three pounds. My arms ache, and the next morning my sternum, where I've rested the fishing pole, feels sore. It's the price of a good day. During our four-hour expedition, we catch roughly 15 fish, using wild shiners as bait. I learn to cast, and love it - the feeling of tension, the feel of release. It's a sensation marred only by my obsessive need to look over my left shoulder before I throw out my line, so worried am I about hooking Jim or Jan. As an extra added attraction, I learn the etymology of phrases such as "getting your lines crossed" (which I had always assumed arose from the early days of Ma Bell) and "in the weeds."

    See, if you keep your rod down, and pointed toward the fish...

    Out again, from Camp Mack's. Another guide. Another early morning call. We head out at 7 a.m. My feeling is, in any civilized society you'd fish at noon-ish. "Ha, ha," you say, "fish are most active at dawn and at dusk." Let me counter: In any civilized society, the fish would also arise around noon-ish.

    As generally nasty as the early morning has left me, I can't help but fall in love with Camp Mack's River Resort. You get the feeling that, when Sheriff Andy Taylor took his boy Opie out to fish – not just for the afternoon strolls pictured at the beginning of every Andy Griffith Show episode, but for weekend respites – this is where they landed. Pulling in, I feel immediately assailed by memories of Girl Scout campouts. I don't understand why, until I see the campfire. It's the smell that has brought me back in time. The campfire here runs 24/7, the restrooms are labeled "inboard" and "outboard." You buy your bait at the Liar's Haul (make sure to check out the 13-foot stuffed alligator), and share fish stories at the Liar's Lair Saloon. Bring a boat or rent one. If you want to make a vacation of it, take the RV, rent a cabin or spend the night at the 40-room Liar's Lodge Motel.

    This time out, I feel a little more sure of myself, but far from competent. Under the tutelage of the camp's guide, I fish Lake Hatchineha, part of the Kissimmee River Chain. Like Jim, the guide knows what he's doing. He finds a spot where the bass are plentiful.

    We want to keep the lakes full.

    I toss all the bass we catch back into the lake. I would have preferred to do this, even if the guides hadn't insisted upon it. Bass are sport fish – not great for eating. And I've never been a fan of killing an animal just to hang it on one's wall. I'd toss the fish back the same way I sort glass and plastics on Sunday night – when I think of it. I'm an armchair environmentalist, no better than that.

    My guides walk the walk far better than I can hope to. Part of their commitment arises from enlightened self-interest: If Polk County lakes are fished out, their businesses face a grim future. More than that, though, these Coast Guard-trained guides embrace a genuine commitment to conservation.

    "When I was growing up, I was as guilty as anybody," Jim says. "I kept every fish I caught. We didn't know about conservation. Now, I want to keep this lake so my grandchildren can fish it." (From Jim, this is no idle talk. At the time of this writing, he had 9 grandchildren, and a 10th on the way.) I am assured by both guides that hooking a fish does no long-term damage to the animal. It's the ichthyologic equivalent of getting one's ear pierced.

    I catch seven bass in the few hours between 7a.m. and the threat of a thunderstorm. Of course I've forgotten the catches and remember The One That Got Away. I feel this monster bite my line two, maybe three times, but my jerk is too weak to truly hook him. At some point, I start to yell "C'mon buddy, C'mon, buddy." My frustration grows to Moby Dick-like proportions. Don swears the bass is an eight pounder. I say more. Ten pounds, maybe 12. And I was thisss close to catching him. Thissssss close, but then...

    I may still need to hone my fishing skills, but I seem to have perfected this lying thing.