A Place I’d Rather You Forget

There’s an old saying that its better to have a friend who owns a boat than to own one yourself. I have a john boat and a couple of kayaks that my daughters and I drop into Limestone Creek on lazy weekend days, but I don’t own a real boat. I do, however, have a friend who owns a real boat—a 24’ Dorado center console fishing boat with a 300 Yamaha outboard motor. Maybe that means more to you than it does to me. Its much more boat than I would want but I do enjoy fishing from it. My friend keeps it down at Lanark Village near Carrabelle, Florida, on the Apalachicola Bay just inside Dog Island.

               I must confess I’m not a big fan of Florida but there’s something different about this part of the state. It’s called “The Forgotten Coast” because it is still relatively untouched by obnoxious commercial development and high rise condos. The whole region is pretty much just a series of sleepy little fishing villages. I suppose it remains so largely because it is surrounded by the Apalachicola National Forest. Thank God for that.

In the early 1900s, the Georgia, Florida, and Alabama Railroad tried to make Lanark Village into a fashionable resort. That didn’t take hold and Lanark Village retains its quiet character. Lanark’s heyday occurred during World War II when Camp Gordon Johnston stretched all the way from Alligator Point to Carrabelle. During that time it was full of military personnel training for the amphibious landing on the beaches of Normandy. This was the last stop for those troops training for D-Day.

These days, Lanark Village is composed of a few residential houses, a retirement community housed in the repurposed old officer’s barracks, and the Lanark Marina, which also serves as a convenience store/gas station/tackle shop. As you drive along Highway 98 through Lanark Village, staring between the pine trees at the bay to the South, you’ll wind up in Carabelle if you blink. Formerly called Rio Carrabella, the beautiful river, Carrabelle began as a settlement where Indians and European settlers hunted, trapped, and fished for game to supply food and furs, which were shipped out of St. Marks, about 40 miles away.

Today Carrabelle has a population of about 2500 people, a Dollar General, An IGA grocery store, and one or two Mom and Pop restaurants. That’s about it. There are a few large wood-frame homes built on pylons along the water’s edge beneath the sand pines, but most of them are modestly, and not too densely built. My friend’s house is relatively simple with a living area, small kitchen, 3 beds, and 2 baths. Nothing fancy.

Docks extend out into the bay from most of these houses from which you can smell the brackish water and watch the crabs scatter at the water’s edge. Pelicans glide in or perch on pylons. Mullet jump and break the smooth plain of the calm water in the early morning when the sky has that pinkish purple glow.

I get down here once or twice a year for a couple days of fishing. The drive down typically sets the mood. Leaving home, I drive through the fields of Southwest Georgia, through Moultrie, Thomasville, across the state line, then on to Monticello, as the land grows ever more lush and green, ever more densely draped in Spanish moss. My route takes me across the wild Wakulla and St. Marks Rivers lined with Magnolia, cypress, wild palm trees, tupelo, oaks, bay trees, and pines, through acres and acres of the Apalachicola National Forest, and through little towns with names like Medart and Sopchoppy. Every house I pass along the way has a vegetable garden.  When I reach Highway 98 along the coast there are no beaches in the classic sense. Just pine trees and native flora right up to the bay. Its still a wild place in many respects. Caution signs dot the roads warning of bear crossings. It wouldn’t surprise me to find a panther or two lurking deep within the 572,000 acre Apalachicola Forest.

This region has a rich early history that includes stories of Native Americans, Fransiscan friars, steamboats, inventors, botanists, bootleggers, pirates, hurricanes, and turpentine. But, this place has always been known for its seafood. It was home to a thriving shrimping and oyster industry in the 1920’s. Late in that decade there were 16 seafood processing plants just down the road in the town of Apalachicola or “Apalach” as it is affectionately known. In 1935 a severe drought dried up the flow of the Apalachicola and many of the oysters died off as the salinity of the bay’s water rose. By 1937 only 6 of the 16 seafood processing plants in Apalachicola remained in operation. Eventually the oysters returned, although their numbers are again on the decline and the commercial oyster industry is in peril once more as the river’s water flow is affected in dry years by upstream water use, the subject of the ongoing battle between Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. Today, commercial and recreational fishing are a major part of the region’s economy.

It is the seafood that brings me here too. If I am fortunate my visits involve two days of fishing. Each morning we leave the dock, idle through the bay, round the West side of Lanark reef and race to the “bait hole”, a small bite just inside the Northeast corner of Dog Island. The island, a portion of which is owned by the Nature Conservancy, is accessible only by boat and is undeveloped save for a few rarely repaired houses that dot its beaches in between the sea turtle nests.

We putter around the bait hole with eyes trained on the water looking for glimpses of baitfish—primarily schools of 3-5” long pilchards, also known as whitefish, which look like big shiners—flashing their silvery sides in the seagrass. My friend is handy with the cast net and throws it expertly from his shoulder with a twisting motion of his arms and torso while standing in the bow of the boat. The net’s maw opens wide before hitting the water and the weights which line its edge pull it to the bottom trapping the baitfish in its fine mesh. Each time I come here I marvel that there must be thousands upon thousands if not millions of these fish in these waters, comprising a vital link in this marine community. The net is hauled in, my friend dumps the pilchards into the dip net I hold on the deck of the boat and I then dump them into the live well. A good haul will have 25 or more pilchards at the time and on a good day, after four or five hauls, we’ll have our bait and move on.

When the days are calm we may ride out 10-15 miles to deeper water, 50-60 feet or so. The boat bounces in a steady rhythm upon the waves. The wind in our hair feels good as we maintain a speed balanced between a smooth ride and quick arrival. Occasionally the sea’s waves get out of rhythm and our faces are sprayed with salty foam as the rollers crash into the boat’s hull. The sun, the wind, the sea. It feels great to be alive.

We arrive at our destination according to “the numbers”, latitude and longitude coordinates that mark this non-descript spot out here seemingly in the middle of the Gulf. Every fisherman on the waters has “numbers” to guide them to favorite grouper and snapper holes, or at least they do if they expect to catch any fish. Such numbers can be quite valuable and are sometimes sold when charter boat captains retire or go out of business. I’m not sure how grouper and snapper fishermen found these spots before LORAN and GPS.

People have been fishing these waters for red snapper since the 1840’s. After World War II, tourism increased along the Gulf. Mass production of fiberglass boats, improvements in motor technology, and new equipment made bottom fishing in the deeper water more feasible for the average Joe. As a result, recreational fishing increased in those years following the war. Over the years, ever-improved new equipment has made fishing too easy and concern grew over the effect of fishing on snapper populations. Allowable catch limits plummeted and fishing seasons were shortened to just a few weeks in June and July.

Red snapper are long-lived fish, capable of reaching 50 years of age or more. They are brilliant red in color, a very deep orangish-red on their backs, which fades to white on the belly with deep red fins and fat ruby red lips and eyes. They are commonly 15-24” but can reach 40” or more. Along with gag and red grouper, red snapper are found mostly along natural or artificial reefs where colorful orange, yellow, and pink coral grows on wrecked ships on the sandy bottom. Sometimes the snapper are found at the bottom itself or lingering just above in the water column. A snapper at the end of your line often nibbles at the bait and when the fish finally takes it, may run and jerk the line.

Grouper are one of nature’s oddities. They begin their lives female and as they reach eight years of age, they morph into males. As you might expect, the reasons for this have to do with reproduction. The ability to produce offspring for male grouper increases with age. As the fish ages, it also grows larger, which gives it a reproductive advantage in that it is better able to defend its territory and dominate female fish. This leads to younger and smaller grouper reproducing more readily when female, and as they grow larger, male as well. The best of both worlds. It is said that there is usually one large dominant male at any certain hole. If he’s caught, the largest of the females in his harem down below will develop into the new dominant male.

Lazy fish, grouper. Much like bass in this way, as in appearance. They  lie in wait for food to pass by and in a brief burst of energy, they grab their prey. Gag grouper, the most common in this part of the Gulf, are a drab greenish-grey or brown with semi -circular and wavy markings. As opposed to the tapping nibbles of red snapper, grouper tend to snatch the bait and hug the bottom, using their bulk to pull and fight. Both are excellent table fare. Fried, grilled, broiled, blackened, you name it, there’s no bad way to prepare these fish. One delicacy I had never heard of until I began spending time in this part of the world, is grouper or snapper throats. This delightful treat is exactly as it sounds. The throat meat of most fish is discarded. But, grouper and snapper have meaty throats. Relatively speaking, it’s a lot of meat. You generally fry them with fins attached and pull the soft, flaky flesh off the bone. It is super-tender and delicious. And if you’re like me you also chew the fins after they’ve been fried crispy.

You never know what you’ve got on the end of your line when out bottom fishing in the Gulf. You’re just as likely to pull up a cobia, black sea bass, Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, mangrove snapper, flounder, scamp grouper, shark or sting ray as a red snapper or grouper. Most of these are edible (except the shark and ray) and quite tasty too. The diversity adds to the fun. Lurking down deep in the sunken wrecks and reefs lies the Goliath grouper. A massive fish, which can weigh up to 700 lbs in these waters. The Goliath was nearly over-fished to extinction and has been a protected species since 1990. Today, you can catch them but you can’t keep them. They’ll eat most anything down there that doesn’t eat them first. Even divers have reported being attacked by goliaths.

If you hook into one of these beasts, it’s a heck of a fight, much like pulling a volkswagon off the bottom of the Gulf. When he decides he’s had enough fun, the goliath retreats back to his lair in the wreck and sits there while you pull and strain with all your might until you finally give up or the line breaks. Those who do get them to the surface, generally have to use the boat to pull the fish away from its reef onto a smooth, sandy bottom so the line won’t be cut.

After bottom fishing, we head back to the Apalachicola Bay to work trout  holes inside Dog Island from the West end of the island itself all the way to the Florida State University Marine Lab near St. Teresa to the East, just down the road on Highway 98. We  pitch our pilchards into the sandy spots amid the sea grass in the shallow water of the bay. If our aim is off and we happen to land in the grass by accident, the juvenile pinfish hiding there will eat the eyes out of our bait. We watch the tarpon boats in the distance, the guide on his platform in the back poling through the shallows, while the fisherman is up in the bow, watching, watching, occasionally casting, and rarely catching.

Spotted sea trout move around in schools. They bite better on a rising tide and once we find them and the bite begins, we usually catch our limit quickly. Trout bite aggressively and fight all the way to the boat, which is what makes them so much fun to catch. They come to us through brackish water turning golden near the surface as the sun catches their scales. Occasionally a bluefish will take our pilchards and dance upon the water as we reel them in. They are edible but nowhere near as tasty as a trout. And then there are the ladyfish. Long, slender, fast fish who steal bait and though they get reeled in, you hope they shake the hook before they reach you. For lady fish have the ever-so-effective defense mechanisms of voiding their bowels on you.

Red drum, or redfish, lurk these same waters, often in the same areas where trout are found. We find them inshore, offshore, off the beaches of Dog Island and beneath the docks along the bay. Redfish may be the hardest-fighting fish of all those we catch. They hit the bait like a freight train and strip line off in a hard run. Big redfish can take a few minutes to land as they wear themselves out. When you finally do land one the fish’s color is iridescent, changing from pinkish red to gold depending on how the light hits it. You can often locate redfish by their habit of “tailing” in which their copper colored tail breaks the water’s surface while they forage. As they do so, the black eye spot just in front of the tailfin is often visible just above the rings retreating outward on the bay water.

But, gamefish are not the only representatives of nature’s grandeur you find out here on the bay. There are bald eagles and osprey flying above, black skimmers gliding over the water’s surface, dragging colorful beaks in the water, raucous laughing gulls who gleefully wait at the dock to fight the pelicans for discarded baitfish and whatever is left of our catch after cleaning. Pods of bottlenose dolphin surface near the boat with a gasping blow as they exhale, as curious about us as we are about them. They dive again and surface once more a little further out, over and over until they are gone. Occasionally loggerhead sea turtles swim past and retreat again into the sea grass as quickly as they appeared.

Much of modern-day Florida has become a garish, tacky, urban caricature of materialism on steroids. But not here. This is the Florida that attracted people in the first place.  A lush, unruly, hard scrabble wilderness bursting with the stuff of life. It’s all on display here, not as a sterilized, Disneyesque side-show. No, here you can taste it, smell it, touch it, feel it. The deerflies that will swarm you late in the evenings attest to that. The Forgotten Coast still holds onto something so rare these days that we hardly recognize it anymore—-authenticity. May this place long be forgotten.

3 thoughts on “A Place I’d Rather You Forget

  1. Sure do like to read your descriptive essays, Lenny! And this one about an area of the Gulf Coast that I love is a keeper. Thanks for your investment in writing.


  2. Having a boat is real happiness! I also started my journey with a small boat, but now I have a Cobia boat. Maybe in time you’ll also move to a larger boat.


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