April 22, 2015
A story about passing time, cracker style.
The beauty here is unique: 1.5 miles of black, deep creek water curving through swamplands. The water seems to flow at about the same pace as fingernail growth. Such is Cross Creek, capped by Lakes Lochloosa and Orange. Drifting in the canoe, I notice some water collecting around my feet, but the view more than counters my ire at the shoddy patch job. Both lakes are shallow (up to 12 feet) but cover some ground—5,600 and 12,706 acres, respectively. Lochloosa is surrounded by pine, oak, cypress and palm hammocks. In some places hundreds of feet of aquatic vegetation precede the tree line. The creek, so black that the paddle disappears mere inches beneath the surface, serves up memories of quaffing double-malted stout. And the birds...moorhens shuck and jive across the surface without disturbing the herons. Ospreys compete with eagles for the catch of the day while limpkins provide an eerie sound track from opposite directions of the canoe. The duck population is such that I fear my partner Terry Gibson is too busy setting up blinds in his mind to think about fish.
But it is time to fish.
I toss a Muddler-looking fly called a Tarantula, and Terry works a chartreuse standard popper. I watch him quickly peel about 60 feet of line off the reel and stretch three or four beautiful casts. Abruptly, he spins the line back on his reel, says only, “Nope,” and stows the fly rod in the forming puddle under his seat. He thinks for a few seconds, says, “Search bait,” grabs his Beetle Spin-rigged ultralight and proceeds to catch several specks, warmouth, stumpknockers and bluegills, with a smattering of small bass.
We fish for about two hours and release several panfish. Terry glances back at one of the holes I “patched,” scans to my pruning feet and says to nobody in particular, “Let's see: no cooler, no stringer, but we do have a canoe with a custom livewell.” Caught up in the tranquility, I manage to refrain from polluting the acoustic environment with a volley of profanities that would make paratroopers blush. A misting rain casually evolves into a drizzle, then a steady rain. Now the canoe fills from both sides, and tactless though the suggestion might be, the 5-inch-deep black water proves to be a very adequate livewell.
It rains pretty much all day. Terry and I spend the day eating, reading, eating, lounging and eating some more. When we find time to kill between those important activities, we eat. The restaurant at our cabin, The Yearling, is documented to have some of the best cracker-style food in the state. The recipes date back to when Marjorie Rawlings lived on the creek and wrote her prize-winning novel of the same name. The crawfish po-boy served with grits, greens and oversized hushpuppies would make any city-slicker kick off his shoes and swear he was a cracka.
JJ Grey, lead singer/songwriter for the bluesy Florida rock band Mofro, and his cousin Tim Padgette arrive early the next morning. Tim has his skiff (which unlike my canoe has no holes in the hull) and we are ready to explore the lake. JJ is the reason we are here—when I hear his music I know he is “one of us,” and his recent CD titled Lochloosa does justice to the lake.
They arrive under cloudy skies, and after howdys we jump into the boat. Terry, Tim and I make “stranger” small talk when I notice JJ standing alone in the bow, beholding the creek's tallest cypress. I can't help thinking of lyrics from one of his songs: Florida I know you're out there hidin' from me/You get harder and harder to find/Every day she keeps slippin' away/Florida please don't fade on me now.
Discussing the scenery with JJ is unavoidable, but almost painful because of the changes time is making to this simple but deep place. “Kids today, I feel for them,” JJ later comments. “What do they have to talk about? Video games and TV shows? Nobody seems to care about places like this anymore. The fun we used to have with my granddaddy was wild. Spending time here with him, catching panfish and catfish, opened the door to new worlds. Real conversations, sparked by imagination and curiosity, came easy. Kids don't know about those things anymore.” Words like that strike me and I see my own children: too young for kindergarten but content to stretch their bellies across my dock and watch bream scare mosquitofish away from bread balls that drop in the water. JJ is right. More kids need that.
JJ talks about the memories Lochloosa holds for him. Friday night he and his granddaddy would catch catfish, then Saturday morning they would bring in the specs and bream with canepoles and minnows. They would then tote the catch back to Grandma where she would fry the fish, make hush puppies, grits and baked beans.
Mofro is starting to hit it big (Lochloosa made the Americana top 40) but they still perform tons of shows in Florida so JJ can visit sublime places like this. He is a frequent guest at the Yearling restaurant. JJ wrote the song Lochloosa in London while longing for his home. The slow groove is one of his most requested songs no matter where he plays: Homesick but it's all right, Lochloosa is on my mind. I swear it's 10,000 degrees in the shade, Lord have mercy, much lovin'/Every mosquito every rattlesnake, every canebreak, everything. Every alligator every blackwater swamp every freshwater spring, every thing/Lord, I need her and she's goin' away.
We are chased off the water by lightning. But JJ has a friend he wants to introduce us to, Mister JT Glisson, painter and author of The Creek. We spend a few hours listening to raindrops on Mister Glisson's porch while he gives us his account of over seven decades of local residency. He was a youngster when Marjorie Rawlings lived next door, and although she was actually an outsider, he is proud of her accounts of the place where he grew up. When considering whether to write his story in The Creek, he was hesitant. In his words, “If one grows up next door to Ernest Hemingway, he should write about the sea only after prudent consideration.”
Mister Glisson's family largely subsisted by fishing Lakes Lochloosa and Orange and he keeps things in proper perspective. Case in point: A sinkhole drained Lake Orange several years ago. Mister Glisson tells of the local concern about water levels remaining low forever. When I ask him for details about this “natural disaster,” Mister Glisson casually states that this is the fifth time he has witnessed the lake drop like this, and although the water is now up from last year's hurricanes, it will certainly drop again. He recounts the first time he saw the lake drop when he was a young boy. Someone asked his dad if he thought the lake would ever come up again. His dad said, “I've put a lot of thought into that. I've come to the conclusion that it's rained at the end of every dry spell so far, and I'll be damned if I'm going to worry about this one.” That, my friends, is cracker philosophy in a nutshell.
Mister Glisson said that last time the lake was low he walked across the bed of the lake and there were more dead 8-plus-pound bass than the vultures could eat. That is my excuse for our lack of any bass over three pounds, and Mister Glisson assures that they come back quickly. He occasionally fishes the lake for bass. True to cracker style, he prefers to keep things simple. He says several decades ago he only had an “injured minner for a topwater lure and a Johnson spoon for deep retrieves,” and he did just fine, thank you very much.
After lunch, the weather clears enough for us to hit the water again, and we work over a shallow area just south of Burnt Island. We take turns poling, and we catch several bream and specks, although many are on the smaller side. Most take small offset spinners, and we have success with a fly we decide to call “Black Crappie Magic.” Between dodging raindrops, swapping stories and occasionally just dropping everything to admire the pristine surroundings, we catch a fair share of fish.
Lochloosa might not crack any formal list of top-ten fishing holes, but that isn't the point. Everybody whose toes tingle when thinking about the first big fish they dragged to shore has their own “Lochloosa”—mine is Keg Creek in western New York. I remembered riding my bike home from the creek, 5-gallon bucket filled with catfish sloshing around as I wiped out 10 or 20 times. I can still feel the wind across my cheek, smell the earth and hear the blackbirds like I was there 10 minutes ago. You don't need to make Cross Creek or Lochloosa yours. In fact, please don't. As JJ wrote, “All we need is one more damn developer tearing her heart out.” But if you don't have your own Lochloosa already, I suggest you start looking before it's too late. FS
Originally Published Florida Sportsman Aug. 2005