ORANGE LAKE HUCK FINNS

Orange Lake is both a body of water and an unincorporated community north of Ocala, Florida.  It and neighboring Lake Lochloosa are prime spots for bass fishing and are considered by many to offer superb fishing opportunities.  Orange Lake covers nearly 13,000 acres, much of which is dense with the spatterdock, reeds, and hydrilla in which the wily bass like to take cover.

Needless to say, fish camps are pocked around the lake.  These “resorts” appear to have year-round residents and their own societies; driving into one you feel as if you have intruded as much as you would intrude at a gated golf course community.  The same suspicion of the outsider–perhaps even more so–is evident in the way the residents look at visitors in shiny Japanese SUVs.  This is pickup territory–the better for towing one’s boat–and it is not the place to ask a stupid question, like “What’s biting?” or other urban-idiot interrogatory.  Fishermen are as full of secrets as lake honey-holes are full of the elusive bass.

Fishing in these lakes is both sport and way of life.  The fish camps house trailers decorated in such a way that they cannot be mere getaway; other trailers seem semi-permanent, used for weekends and vacations. Old mobile homes gone green by way of algae and moss on their siding creak with the sound of ancient window air-conditioning units. Each camp has basic amenities and necessities and a store of a sort, but this isn’t a luxury vacation.  It’s all about the bass, about the art and act of fishing.

There are a number of camps around Orange Lake and a public pier that is located in Heagy-Burry Park, just south of McIntosh. You can usually find at least a couple of people fishing from the piers, where besides bass they catch bluegills, warmouth, and crappie.  As is true with most freshwater bodies of water in Florida, you will also find alligators.  If you spend enough time on or near the water, you will learn to spot them; in their classic attitude of floating with eyes and top half of snout above water they can be mistaken for logs or clumps of vegetation. They hover, treading water, and then slide back into the murk like a sinking submarine.

Although I wanted to photograph a fish camp, Mr. B. reminded me that my barging into the camps feels as if we are crossing a border with a sign that reads None of Your Freaking Business.  I’d made the error of breaching a secret camp a few months ago, a mistake in judgment that made me feel as if I, and not the bass, might be prey.  For this reason I skipped Twin Lakes Fish Camp and headed north on 301, where I saw a small sign for the Heagy-Burry Park and the local fish pier.  The piers make me irrationally happy, especially if people are actually catching fish.  In many instances, you get the feeling that the catch of the day is the food source for the day. Today, the pier held a black woman of late middle age who was wearing a long, two-piece dress and a sun bonnet, and three boys, two of whom were around 11 or 12 and third, larger boy in a camouflage fishing hat who appeared to be in his mid-teens but had yet to acquire that leathery gaminess of older anglers.  Mr. B. and I walked to the south end of the pier and looked out over the lake.  The water level was low and the lake was full of reeds and lily pads.  The sun was sharper than I like, and at this degree I always feel that I have been struck by it.  We looked out over the lake, but from this angle it was impossible to tell its size.

To our left, the older boy in the camo hat was practicing some kind of ritual with a rope net.  Holding an edge of the net in his mouth, he used two hands to fling the net into the water, where small popping circles appeared about twenty feet from the pier.  The popping circles were the small silver fish known as shiners, which are frequently used as bass bait.  To catch these shiners, the boy took a handful of bait and flung it outwards.  Then he’d cast his net and quickly drag it in, pulling up weeds and tiny silver fish that he shook onto the pier.

I stepped over to photograph the shiners as they came up in the net.  I called them minnows. This terminological illiteracy amused all three of the young fishermen.  I’m from the city; I said, San Francisco, as if this would explain away my absolute lack of knowledge.  My photographing the shiners made the older boy instruct one of the younger boys to show me their prize catch.  The younger boy walked over to the edge of the pier and pulled at a line that held two large bass, which had been stored in the lake for safekeeping. He hauled the fish onto the pier and stood back while I took my picture.

The black woman who was silently dipping a line into the water suddenly pulled up something called a warmouth, a name I’d not heard before and which I had to repeat a couple of times to make sure I’d heard it right:  A warmouth? W-a-r-mouth?  The aggressive name pleased me; I imagined this small black large-mouthed fish marauding unseen in the dark waters, lurking in the grasses and reeds, lying in wait and then going in for the kill.  Despite its small size, it certainly looked hostile.

The sun was of a sharpness and the heat so intense that it caused me to need to return to my car for my Gatorade.  Warm Gatorade is my summer drink of choice, original flavor. I grabbed my outsized bottle and was headed back down to the pier when Mr. B. called out that there was an alligator in the water.

The gator was swimming around the area the boys were chumming.  They’d explained their bait as cat food coated with honey and vegetable oil, and I suppose the smell of this rank gourmet treat might have aroused the gator’s sense of smell, as the popping shiners probably aroused its sense of sight. It was a small gator that moved slowly in the direction of the bait before disappearing beneath the water.

Since we were obviously in the company of experienced fishermen, I asked the older boy about alligators in general.  I’m from the city, I said again, just to cover any stupid question I might ask, which, given the knowledge these modern-day Huck Finns had about this body of water, was going to be all of them.

The question about the alligators caused all three boys to “talk gator.”  They catch them inadvertently when fishing for bass.  Catch them? I asked.  Don’t they bite? Don’t their teeth carry terrible and deadly bacteria?

The older boy explained that yes, they do bite, but then he mentioned something I’d seen demonstrated at Silver Springs.  If you flip a gator on its back, it goes into some kind of gator coma until you flip it rightside up again. It should be obvious to anyone that this works best and most safely with very small gators.

My naive questions about fishing and alligators were met with polite answers, not smirks.  My enthusiasm (“Wow! No kidding! Holy shit!”) led the older boy to announce, matter-of-factly, that they would show me where there were even more gators.  They’d liked that I photographed their bass and the lady’s warmouth and had shown an interest in their activities. 

One of the younger boys piped up excitedly.  The place to see these gators was in back of the bar.  The bar was a one-story orange building a few hundred yards up the road, behind which were some old and crumbling boat slips and low marshy water.  The boys set out up the road, crossing some grass to get to the slips, but Mr. B. cautioned me that I might not want to go tromping through the grass after I asked the older boy if there were cottonmouths around.

Cottonmouths?  Sure!  Here was another topic in which he had a vested interest. He explained that just the other day, a cottonmouth had wrapped itself around the handle of his bait bucket, and before that another cottonmouth had gone after one of his fish.  He said this in such a way that I got the impression it was no big deal, and when we got to the slips he advised me that I might want to walk to the end of the slips via a cracked cement patio at the rear of the restaurant and not along the edge of the slips themselves, a narrow cement lip overgrown with reeds where an ill-tempered snake might lurk.

The three boys walked to the end of the slips and then walked out onto a six-inch-wide wooden beam that had once separated slip from slip.  The jungly-looking water beneath was so low that it resembled a swamp. I followed them partway out onto the beam and then stopped, not wanting at that moment to experience a bout of vertigo.  One of the boys pointed out a small alligator in the water below.  The alligator watched us intently. There’s another! the boy in the oversized navy-blue shorts shouted, but the noise caused the tiny gator to flick beneath the water.

We tried other beams and the dock itself, but the alligators were quick to vanish.  It wasn’t the right time of day to see them. Alligators feed at dusk and it was only five in the afternoon.  Sweat dripped from my hair and I noticed my t-shirt was soaked, but I stayed on the dock to take pictures of wasp nests.  This was also prime territory for bass, so the boys fished while I took pictures and asked a series of increasingly stupid questions. I stepped back when I noticed one of the younger boys bring back his rod in preparation for the cast.  I’ll just get out of your way, I volunteered, and I moved backwards onto a creaky plank.  Don’t have to, he said, I haven’t hooked anyone yet!

Since the dock proved unsuccessful, one boy volunteered to run back to the pier to see what had happened to the gator we had seen earlier. He took off under the blazing sun, his skin that flushed golden color that once signaled to me a person who had enough money to take a Florida vacation in the dead of a Northeastern winter.  The boy returned in a couple of minutes, still running, to say that the alligator we had seen earlier was now right at the edge of the pier.

All three boys were faster than we were.  They were halfway back to the pier by the time we huffed off the dock, and as we passed by the back of the bar, a window shot open and a man leaned out to yell at Mr B.:  Hey! he shouted, there’s a woman in here who wants you to take a picture of her boobs!  That ended an earlier idea I’d had to grab a beer there.  Mr. B. questioned the existence of the woman at all, and we both agreed that if there were such a woman, then she probably would have flashed Mr. B. on her own.

The alligator at the pier had gone by the time we returned.  The boys turned around and raced back to the boat slips.  It was nearly six, still two hours before the alligators would feed.  We had no spotlight with which to see their eyes, and no stamina to see the setting sun cast the orange glow for which the lake is named. The timing was off.  Mr. B. needed to go home. I was soaked to the skin and dehydrated. We thanked the boys, these local Huck Finns, for their efforts.  A shadow of disapppointment fell over the face of the boy with the oversized navy shorts.  They’re leaving! he said.  Are you coming back tonight?

Mr. B. and I have had a lot of adventures while exploring Florida, but they have been mostly of my own dramatic devise; I am known to turn a leaf-covered trail into a snake pit and a splotch of water into a teeming pool of large-jawed primeval creatures. The Orange Lake Huck Finns demolished my cinematic efforts with the commonplace nature of their routine and I promised that we would be back soon to visit, which is, I do realize, a most unusual but highly rewarding way to spend an afternoon.


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