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Story Five
Where Lunkers Lurk
By MaryAlice Yakutchik
Georgetown -- Whenever there's a quiet moment on the houseboats, sound technician   Joel Tower sets down the telescoping microphone he totes around all day and picks up his favorite fly rod.  

If he had to survive on his catch, he'd have starved days ago.

It's frustrating -- okay, excruciating -- to land nothing, not even a little catfish, when you're out for consecutive   dawns and dusks on a river famed among sportsmen for trophy lunkers. Allegedly, these black bass have mouths so big   they could swallow both my fists at once. Here, as the St. Johns flows through Putnam County, self-proclaimed   "Bass Capital of the World," who could blame us if we were to jump ship?

Catch ya later, Ladies Mary and Jane, we're heading out with local fishing guide Adam Delaney on his personal boat,   the Alli-quacker, and his guiding boat, an 18-foot skiff with a 9-inch draft that is perfect for poling through   the shallows and spotting bass beds. It's not just a fishing boat, it's a catching boat.

"The bass are spawning now," Adam says, plugging a pinch of wintergreen tobacco under his gum and then pouring   dozens of bullhead minnows into a live bait tank built under the bow. "These are egg-eaters." He looks away to   spit. "When you pull these bait into the bed, the bass will crush them with their jaws and spit them out. "

Ingenious! Our goal is not to entice these bass to eat, which is a futile exercise because spawning bass are intent   only on egg laying and egg protecting. Rather, we're setting out to annoy and infuriate them. As a career   journalist (and a mother of two kids) I should be darn good at this.

"Development is an issue, but without development, the economy goes down. It's a question of how much can the river take."


Adam, 33, is a fifth generation Floridian with a young son and a baby on the way. When he's not guiding trips   along the St. Johns, he and his wife hunt and fish for fun. While motoring up the St. Johns, he says how   grateful he is to be able to raise kids on a river that's both his workplace and his playground: "I think   its up to the individuals who use the river to take care of it."

In eight years as a guide, he hasn't noticed any major changes in water quality: "One thing we do have going for   us is a lot of federally and state-owned lands," he says, indicating the Ocala National Forest on our left.   "Development is an issue, but without development, the economy goes down. It's a question of how much can the river take."  

He points out a pair of bald eagles perched at the tippy top of a cypress tree on the point of Drayton Island.

"We should see manatees in here, seeking shelter from the cold (51-degree) river water," he says, veering right   into Salt Spring run and slowing down to an idle. The entire west shore has a 1500-foot no-wake buffer zone.   The temperature of the run rises as we head up toward the spring, first to 60 degrees F, then 64 and finally 69.

A gator glides under the boat. Adam points out a hammock of land on the right where he was camping over New Year's.   "We were sleeping so hard that we never realized our friends put a gator in the tent with us." Some friends,   I'm thinking. Adam adds: "They were nice enough to tape his mouth shut, though."

The holy grail of bass fishing is a 10-pound. fish. "Everybody's lookin' for that double-digit fish," Adam says.   "They do catch 'em 13 and 14 pounds up in this area, but that's a very rare fish. I don't guarantee big fish,   but I do guarantee fish."

There are a few monsters -- dare I say it? -- that get away. But I finally land a 4-pounder, the biggest,   so far, of the day.


Dressed in Levis and Skechers, Adam is standing on the bow, peering through six feet of water, "You're lookin'   for white spots where they (the bass) fanned the silt off the bottom. Boy, there's a really nice one!"   He throws a green stake on the east side of the bed, marking it. He finds more "nice" beds; marks them likewise. 

"Bed fishin' is a delicate game," he explains, baiting a rod with a shiner and casting out expertly just beyond the   bed before handing it to me. The trick is to reel the bait fish into the bed, across it, slowly, slowly, a quarter   turn of the reel at a time.

"Don't be afraid to pull up hard to set the hook," Adam instructs. "Their mouths are bony. Literally, try to break   my rod by pulling up hard on it."

There are a few monsters -- dare I say it? -- that get away. But I finally land a 4-pounder, the biggest, so far, of the day.  

"It's a good-lookin' fish," Adam admires, as I gingerly take it off the hook. "It's nice and healthy, thick at the   tail and through the shoulders. (Fish have shoulders?) And it's got nice slime."

Slime proud, I pose for a photograph.

"These are delicious bass," Adam says. "There's no mossy taste like they have in land-locked lakes."

Releasing my catch so it can go back to guard its nest, I'm thoroughly satisfied. However, the matter of dinner   remains. I ask Adam where I might purchase edible souvenirs of a St. Johns fishing trip. He gives me directions to   the Lakeside Fish Co., tells me J.W. is the man to see.

They sell stuff that other locals catch -- shrimp, for instance. But crabs and catfish from a healthy St. Johns are   the meat and potatoes of JW's business.


J.W. (pronounced Jay-DUB-ya) is a third-generation commercial fisherman on the St. Johns. He and Linda Hutchinson, his   wife of 37 years, are busy in the back room of their small retail store, vacuum-sealing prodigious amounts of pink-fleshed   catfish. They sell stuff that other locals catch -- shrimp, for instance. But crabs and catfish from a healthy St. Johns   are the meat and potatoes of JW's business.

J.W., 60, has been fishing and crabbing on the St. Johns all his life.

"I like to mess with fish," he says, "always have."

"When I was just a little feller, I was fishin' with my daddy; by 12 years old, I went out all the time.   Most fishermen, that's the way they are -- raised in it. If you haven't been raised in it, you would probably   starve in a week."

Linda tends to a customer, wrapping up J.W.'s freshest catfish fillets ($1.50 a pound in food stamps or money;   both are welcome here according to signs, posted about). Lakeside market manager Joe Walker advises seasoning   the fillets first with salt and pepper, and then dredging them in corn meal or seafood grits before deep-frying.   "The secret to catfish," he says, "is leaving the salt and pepper on for a couple hours, at least."


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