3/28/2018 Wednesday, somewhere near Ocala
When Bob Stonewater isn’t being a fishing guide for boneheads from Michigan, he sometimes participates in billiards tournaments. This evening being a tournament in Orlando, Bob chose a more local venue for fishing on lake called Lake Diaz.
We meet him at the 7-11 and drove about 15 minutes to a small boat launch. I’e left my fishing poles and tackle behind this time, and his first words are, “Are we shiner fishing today?”
I smile and say, “I see you’re onto something.”
As he puts the boat on the water, I see a bird I’d seen once before but never gotten a good photo of…a limpkin. The lighting on the bird is dim, so I blast it with a flash and capture it wadding in the water, nabbing a snail and taking it to the shore to eat. This is a bird that only lives in Florida, eats primarily apple snails and clams, and was nearly extinct in the early 1900s due to hunting. The 2006 version of The Complete Birds of North America states that their populations had recovered to 5,000 pairs. I’m hopeful my lucky sighting is a sign of good fishing ahead.
On Diaz Lake all floating vegetation is along the shoreline and some of the veggies are pond lilies with stems the thickness of rebar rods. My first bass takes my shiner and while wrapping itself around a weed, takes the minnow and leaves my hook snagged on the weed’s stem. As Bob puts on another minnow he suggests I move the minnow out of the pads “if it starts weaving around in there.”
As we wait for fish to bite, Bob tells us that the Fish and Game Commission had electroshocked this lake recently and pulled out an 18-pound fish. I’d had the pleasure of electrofishing while working for the MSU Fisheries and Wildlife department way back in the day and wonder if the fish was tagged. Bob says he doesn’t know.
We fish the one weed bed for several hours without a single fish worth photographing. I did, however, photograph this tern.
As we get settled on another part of the lake, we ply Bob about his history, and amongst the stories he tells is fishing once with a man who happen to have a video camera, and how they saw this big, brown thing floating in the water. It turned out to be a dead deer…with a gator behind it, pushing and pulling it along. Bob tells how he went to maneuver the boat, hit a stump and knocked himself in the water. Mark comments that it’s good the gator already had a big slab of meat in its mouth. Bob says, “Yes, I felt really lucky to get home that night.”
We end the day at the weed bed where we’d started, and while the bass fishing is slow, we do catch a gar.
It’s late afternoon when Mark pulls a nice, big fish out of the weeds. We didn’t weigh it, and looking later at the photos, I’m not sure why we didn’t.
As Bob heads us back to the boat launch, Mark notes that our catch percentage is better than yesterday, “and that’s an accomplishment.” Bob agrees.
Mark and I celebrate by heading to Cook’s Buffet Cafe Bakery in Deland, per Bob’s recommendation. It’s an old house which the original owner lived in upstairs and converted the lower level into a restaurant in the 1960s. It consists of several connected rooms, with the centerpiece being the buffet: a huge selection of salad options, numerous tasty sides and veggies, along with the choice of one meat: turkey, chicken, a chicken casserole of some kind, beef, ham or leg of lamb. Mark goes for the lamb; I go vegetarian and pile up on some of the yummiest carrots and brussel sprouts ever, along with a great salad. The garlic bread is awesome, too, and along with one beer for me, two for Mark, a giant slice of chocolate cake for me and cheery cobbler for Mark, the bill is only $41.50. Amazing. The place is adjacent to the local university, so the streets are small and quaint in spite of being busy. Mark pats his tummy on the way out and says, “I could get used to this.” I say, “I’d get as big as a barn door if I ate like this on a regular basis.”
We return to our motel room and spend the evening looking through photos and talking about how awesome tomorrow will be, going back to the Rodman Reservoir.
3/29/2018 Thursday – Rodman Reservoir
We awake before the alarm because we’re both excited about returning to the reservoir after a slow day on Lake Diaz. We get to the 7-11 a little b efore 7:00 and don’t see Bob in the parking lot. At 7:15 I call Bob and learn he’s half way to the reservoir because nobody in the Deland area had shiners and he had to stop at a town halfway to the reservoir to get minnows for us. He says he’ll meet us there and all we have to do is go the way we did on Tuesday. “Do you remember how you went?”
“No,” I say, “I was half in the bag two days ago and in lemming mode.”
He tells us to take this road to that and to highway 19 and it’s south of Pallacka or Pallayka or Palatka. We don’t have a Florida map, because I really expected to have followed our guide to wherever it was we were going fishing. While Bob quickly recites instructions as if I just need a quick reminder, Mark tries to pull up Rodman Reservoir on the truck GPS, and upon failing to find that, the name of the boat launch, which he also doesn’t find. Mark finally uses his phone GPS and we use that to get to the boat launch an hour or so later.
It’s windy by the time we get to Bob’s first spot on the Rodman Reservoir, and he sets two anchors to keep the boat from drifting around. The fishing is slow compared to the first day, but while the number of bites is lower, our hook-up rate has improved. And that’s great if you like catching gar and bowfin (dogfish), both of which are, admittedly, fun on the end of the line, but not what we were fishing for.
Bob tells us that gar and bowfin tend to be aggressive when bass are not biting. I lose optimism that fishing will result in a big bass, put my rod down and go about taking photos of the osprey.
We catch a few bass throughout the morning, but it’s not until late afternoon when I set the hook on a fish that sends Bob scampering for the net. I’m pretty excited, and he’s smiling when I pull in another bass the size of the first big one, if not larger. Mark takes lots of photos, and, before putting my fish back into the water, Bob asks if we should weigh it. I have three thoughts all at the same time: 1) It doesn’t seem bigger than the other one; 2) it was Mark’s dream to catch a bass over 10 pounds, so why make him feel bad?; and 3) we’d already stressed the big fish out enough. So Bob releases my big fish.
Only when we looked at the photos afterwards did we realize that bass was perhaps bigger than my 8 pound 14 ouncer.
Shortly thereafter, Mark catches another nice fish…we did not weigh.
I’d just picked up my rod again when we see a common moorhen, doing whatever it is common moorhens do.
It’s long after 5:00 when I wrap up the day with a two-pound bass. Bob poses with me, handling my fish like I might a guppy.
On the way back to the boat launch I realize how hard Bob had worked for us, continually keeping three lines going with fresh minnows and handing us what he thought was the most active pole, lifting anchor when he thought we should move, not throwing us into the water on day one, which was the best of our three fishing days. As I write him a check, I tell him he did well for us and that I hope we didn’t embarrass him too much. He’s about to respond when we hear squawking from a large pine tree nearby. I peek through an opening in the parking area and see not one but two eagles sitting on a tree together. One has its wings held out to its side, as if cooling off. I raise my camera and zoom lens to take a photo and realize how tired my arms are.
We follow Bob until we get near Deland where he goes one way and we head back to Cook’s for dinner. It’s later in the evening than yesterday and a huge line has formed for the buffet. The lady in front of me says that she was scolded previously for thinking she could get her salad first and, afterwards, cut to the front of the dinner line, so she stands in the salad line for the second time for her main course. Mark gets to the meat shortly after and sees the turkey Bob had raved about–and which was in abundance yesterday–is gone. He chooses the beef and is grumped the rest of the dinner because he missed out on the turkey. I tell him “next time.”
He says, “Do you think there will be a next time?”
I say, “Depends on your bucket list. If your bucket list was just to have the chance to catch a 10-pound bass, I say we’ve done that. If it’s to actually catch one, it appears we’re going to have to come back.”
Mark says, “Poor Bob.”
And we both laugh.