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The easiest way to look like a genius is to surround yourself with idiots. I’m sure I learned a lot of other important things at summer camp in 1979, but that’s the lesson that stuck with me the longest.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up for a week of learning and fun at the Blackwater Environmental Education Center in Santa Rosa County. For one, we weren’t exactly a “summer camp” kind of family. My father believed that the best place for a teenager during June, July and August was at a job or behind a push mower making tight circles in the yard. Also, I had never been away from home that long before and I wasn’t sure how I would fit in with the other kids.
My first pangs of anxiety came as I was going through the packing list from the Division of Forestry. Some of the stuff I just didn’t have, so the sleeping bag and hiking boots became a blanket and tennis shoes. Backpack? Duffle bag. Poncho? Long sleeved shirt. Insect repellent? Rusty can of Cutter’s from Daddy’s tackle box.
You get the picture.
The most embarrassing part of my makeshift kit, however, was my fishing tackle. The packing list recommended bringing a rod and reel, but my old Zebco 202 had been plunged into the Gulf one time too many that summer. It wouldn’t turn no matter how much I oiled it.
I asked Daddy if I could use one of his. He actually laughed and said, “No way.” What he gave me instead was about 20 feet of fishing line and the little pack of hooks he kept in his wallet. (Also, he wanted the hooks back when I came home.)
“Just break off a limb about as big around as a cane pole,” he told me. “Tie on a piece of line and a hook and you’re all set.”
Yeah, right. So much for fishing, I thought. If I broke out that setup, I’d be the laughingstock of the whole camp. As it happens I was right to worry. That’s because there were about 100 kids — from places like Pensacola, Tallahassee, Jacksonville and even Tampa and Orlando — who had more brand-new camping and fishing stuff than I had ever seen in my life.
I was thoroughly intimidated, at least at first. But that feeling went away as soon as we went to the woods. That’s when I realized that, no matter what cool stuff they brought, most of these kids had spent precious little time outside the city or the subdivision.
It turns out that growing up in Blountstown had given me something of a home field-advantage. I knew most of the trees, a lot of the plants and nearly all the critters we saw. I understood why fire moves faster going uphill and that rattlesnakes hang out in gopher holes.
Most important was the fact that I had no problem stomping around in the woods all day, while some of the other kids cringed and cried about it. It was pretty obvious their parents had sent them to camp just to get them off the couch.
By the end of the week, I was feeling pretty good about the whole experience. But my stellar performance in the field quickly turned into a liability: I was selected as one of the top 10 campers who would get to stay for a free second week that would be spent entirely in the woods.
As much as I enjoyed the first week, I was ready to go home. So I explained politely that, while I’d love to stay, my parents were planning on picking me up that Saturday. But, thanks just the same.
“Oh, we’ve already called your parents,” the camp director said. “They’re thrilled and said to tell you congratulations and that they would come get you next week.”
“That’s great,” I said through clinched teeth. I had to stay, but now all my hard-won confidence was gone.
I didn’t mind the camping out part, but the second week also featured a ‘survival day.’ We would have to find our own food — and that meant I would have to unveil my bare-bones fishing rig.
When survival day finally arrived, however, all the other kids went straight to the river and started casting way-too-big lures into the clear, shallow water. It was obvious to me that there was nothing there, and that’s exactly what they were catching.
I didn’t want anybody to see my jury-rigged fishing tackle — and I did want to catch fish — so I wandered upstream a little ways and, to my surprise, found a small pond just off the river. I broke off a suitable limb and tied on my line and hook. There were grasshoppers everywhere, so I put one on the hook and tossed him in. There was a slurp, a swirl and then the unmistakable pull of a fish on the line.
I sat down right there and caught three warmouth before the crowd at the river realized what was going on. When we showed up back at the camp, I was the only one who actually had fish. At that point, I was a little proud of my broken-off-limb-pole. And normally, I wouldn’t recommend warmouth at all, especially not roasted over an open flame, but these were actually pretty good.
Folks used to tell me that fish is ‘brain food’ and I guess they were right. I know I was feeling mighty smart that evening.