by Fredric Martin
Stepping from the shadows of the darkened parking lot onto the fluorescent lit showroom floor, Phil Bridges encountered a scene that could be described only as surreal.
Cabin cruisers up to 32-feet in length gleamed dazzlingly under the lights. Open fishermen with center consoles loomed alongside, outriggers splayed wide. Runabouts, bass boats with power plants ranging from 50 to 235 horsepower, jon boats, personal water craft of every manner and description crowded each other for space in the mother of all aquatic traffic jams.
Many of the boats, particularly those of impressive power or dimension were manned. Only the jon boats and bass boats of less than 100 horsepower failed to attract any of the two dozen or so young and near-middle age men testing the wheels, checking the electronics and jockeying the throttles of the silent fleet.
photos provided by ProPhoto
An open beer cooler in the middle of the room had "Help yourself" emblazoned on the lid. After several others did just that, Bridges grabbed a Coors Lite and looked around for a place to sit. Not finding a chair, he self-consciously straddled a wave-runner and waited.
"All right, you Bozos, listen up." Floyd Crocker, self-appointed President of Seminole Bass Club, seated in the fighting chair of the dominant cruiser, hushpuppies propped up on the transom, called the meeting to order.
This was Floyd's club. It represented the perfect convergence of the two loves of Floyd's life, fishing and selling boats. As sales manager of Seminole Marine by day, Floyd provided the perfect after-hours meeting place for the club. And if a club member wanted to buy a bass boat, or upgrade his existing equipment with, say, one of those new Japanese two-barrel oil-injecting honeys, well . . .
Some of the Bozos listened up respectfully. Others ignored him, continuing their chatter. Floyd reached in his shirt pocket and retrieved earplugs, which he inserted. He then lifted the portable aquatic air horn from the deck, pointed it toward the ceiling and tugged the toggle switch.
Air horns are designed exclusively for use out-of-doors, and not for use in enclosed areas, according to the owner's handbook. The wisdom of that cautionary instruction was immediately apparent. The decibel level might have been enough to shatter the windows of the showroom, had the blast lasted more than a second.
The more alert members, including Bridges, saw the air horn in Floyd's hand and had sufficient time to protect their eardrums. Those who didn't, responded with a variety of curses and threats directed toward their leader. Moments later peace was restored and the business of the club commenced.
Minutes of the previous meeting were read and approved, and the Treasurer's report reflecting $161.12 in assets and $ 243.65 in unliquidated debt was read. Floyd asked if there were any items of new business.
An immediate hand shot in the air from the deck of an open fisherman. "Yeah, I've got a motion." From Bridges's spot near the back of the room he couldn't see the speaker, but the voice was familiar.
"What is it, Neuhart?" Floyd asked.
"I move that we replace that freakin' air horn with a whistle," he responded.
A chorus of seconds was ignored by the President. "We do have some new business. We have a new member. Phil, stand up. This is Phil Bridges who just joined today. He'll be fishing with us next tournament."
Bridges waived perfunctorily.
"His check for the new boat must have cleared," Neuhart hollered, generating a laugh or two.
"Phil, the loud-mouth over there is Fred Neuhart. We all call him the Mouth-of-the-South. You can ignore him if you want to" Floyd said.
Neuhart craned his neck to get a better look. "Hold on. I know him; he's a damn lawyer. When did we start lettin' lawyers in the club? Before you know it we'll be fishin' with wimmin'." Bridges joined in the laughter, his face slightly flushed.
"Next tournament is Sunday the seventeenth. Nominations for location," Floyd continued, taking control of the meeting.
"I nominate Lake Harney," someone volunteered.
"St. Johns River," three voices from different parts of the room sounded simultaneously.
"Move nominations cease."
"All in favor of Harney?. . . . . .St.Johns?" Floyd inquired.
Bridges saw several hands go up near him for the St.Johns River, and quickly raised his own hand.
"Damn near unanimous. We fish the St. Johns River. Blast off at 6 a.m. sharp. Anyone want to meet for breakfast I suggest Daisy's Cafe no later than quarter till five," Floyd said.
Someone handed Bridges a clipboard, with the sheet divided Boater-Non-Boater. He considered a minute, then added his name to the list of non-boaters. No sense in using his boat for the first tournament, at least until he learned the ropes, he decided.
"Tournament rules. This is a boat tournament, gross weight per team. Dead fish can't be weighed, and will cost you a pound off your gross. All fish must be released alive," Floyd intoned.
"When we gonna' have a mudfish tournament?" Neuhart asked.
"Soon as you resign from the club," a voice shouted from the back
"Would you like to put that in the form of a motion?" Floyd asked. Everyone, including Neuhart, joined in the laughter.
Floyd studied the clipboard after it had circulated around the room. "These will be the pairings for the tournament, listen up," he said.
"Madison . . .Simmons; Miller . . .Thompson; Crocker . . .Oliver," he droned on through the twelve teams. "Neuhart . . .Bridges," he concluded to a chorus of laughter and a few groans.
In the parking lot Neuhart caught up as Bridges was unlocking the his car.
"Wanna' pre-fish the river the day before the tournament? Mebbe' find some the hot spots?" he asked.
Bridges considered it a moment. "Sure, why not? We'll take my boat Saturday and yours Sunday."
Saturday the sixteenth broke clear and sunny. By the time they launched Bridges' new Skeeter bass boat, river traffic was moderately heavy. They headed to an area of backwater sloughs to avoid the skiers.
"Nice boat," Neuhart said, perched on the rear fighting chair as Bridges sat in front guiding the boat with the trolling motor. Bridges accepted the compliment with a nod, flipping a plastic worm into the underbrush.
Bridges looked around.
"This one-fifty. Got any guts?" Neuhart asked.
"Bet my one-thirty-five will outrun you."
After a couple hours they finally stumbled on fish near a sandbar at the mouth of Snake Creek. Each boated a nice bass and decided to weigh them at a fish camp where they could stop for a burger and a beer
Neuhart stood on the dock, holding his fish by the gills while Bridges secured the boat. "Grab that camera out of my bag and take a picture." Neuhart asked. Bridges found the Polaroid camera and snapped a picture of the beaming Neuhart and his prize.
Bridges handed the camera to Neuhart, pulled his own fish out of the live well and stepped with his right foot onto the oily dock. His foot slipped, he teetered off balance and felt the bass slip from his grasp and hit the water below.
"Aw, tough luck!" Neuhart exclaimed.
Bridges felt the beginning of a headache that was to last the rest of the day.
Daisy's was busy by five o'clock Sunday morning. Early-morning fishermen and long-haul truck drivers competed for booth space, doughnuts and a cup of coffee. Most of the club members were on time.
Bridges sat at the counter. Neuhart circulated among the tables drawing laughter. "What I call the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat," Bridges heard Neuhart repeat several times. Curious, Bridges walked over and saw the two pictures Neuhart held. One was of Neuhart, proudly holding his bass caught the day before. The other showed Bridges with a look of dumb surprise, and water splashing upwards to his knees.
Neither Bridges nor Neuhart had anything to say as they drove from the cafe to the boat ramp.
Pickups and vans formed a double line as they launched their boats. Neuhart asked Bridges to man the boat while he backed it into the water and parked the truck. Moments later Neuhart approached the dock. Bridges was in the boat, holding on to a piling.
"Put my keys in the tackle box," Neuhart hollered, tossing a set of keys toward Bridges. His aim was high. The keys sailed clear of the boat; a foot above Bridges' outstretched fingers, and splashed on the other side.
Bridges sat down heavily.
A burst of laughter broke out from the club members gathered at the ramp. Neuhart was laughing louder than the others, as he hand-over-hand retrieved the keys that were tied to a length of monofilament line. Bridges noticed the familiar tightness in the back of his neck, and fumbled in his tackle box for the Excedrin.
A month later, Bridges was still in the club although he had not formed any close friendships. He agreed to fish the tournament at Pleasant Grove Reservoir, only because it was an over-nighter with a club barbecue. Sleeping out under the stars reminded Bridges of good times with the Boy Scouts.
He signed up to bring his boat, although the fish-finder was still on back-order. At least he avoided the possibility of having to fish with Neuhart, who also planned to bring his own boat.
Saturday night was a riot. The food was good and there was plenty of beer. Some of the men drank more than others, but a few had brought their wives and kids and were camping out in tents. Overall the atmosphere was wholesome, but there were enough stories and practical jokes to keep everyone entertained.
Sometime during the evening Bridges noticed Neuhart slipping out of camp and wandering down toward the beach where the boats had been launched in preparation for morning.
The Eastern horizon had barely begun to lighten when Floyd motored slowly toward the middle of the lake, the airhorn at the ready beside him. According to club rules, none of the other boats could be put in gear until his signal of safe light.
Eleven boats rafted slowly side by side, separated by barely enough space to insure some degree of safety when they would simultaneously hit full throttle in an attempt to be the first to reach a favorite fishing spot. Partners conferred quietly. The time for laughter was past. Engines purred, perfuming the air with blue smoke. Light fog obscured Floyd's running lights in the distance. They waited, checking and rechecking their lights, their instruments and their tackle that was velcroed in place to survive the blast-off.
Before the horn blast had time to echo across the lake, eleven throttles hit the wall. Eleven bows elevated and lurched forward. Ten boats were immediately on plane. One Skeeter wallowed in the prop wash of the others, impotent.
It was a moment before Bridges realized that the roaring engine was useless. He pulled back on the throttle. The boat bobbed like a cork in the shallow water. The sound of the other engines faded into the fog. Only the slap-slap of the water against the hull broke the silence. His fishing partner stared at him silently.
Bridges hit the engine lift button on the console. The outboard tilted forward slowly, exposing the naked shaft. Wading six feet behind the boat, his foot stepped on the prop halfway buried in the sand.
Another boat approached. Neuhart held a cotter pin aloft between his thumb and forefinger. "Lose sumthin'?"
At the next club meeting Bridges was again paired with Neuhart for a tournament on Lake Monroe. He was familiar with the lake, and enjoyed fishing there, but eight hours in a boat with Neuhart was not his idea of a good time. He had just about decided to resign.
Bridges arrived home from work early in the afternoon, Thursday. The long-awaited U.P.S. package was at his front door. With a pair of scissors he snipped the plastic binders and sliced through the tape ast-off, most of the boats headed toward the discharge area at the power plant or to the fish attractor near the southeast corner. One or two boats headed toward the weed bank to the East. Bridges motored calmly toward the very center of the lake, shut off the engine and lowered the bow-mounted trolling motor.
Neuhart slouched patiently in the rear fighting chair, a faint smile creasing his leathery face. His customary three fishing rods with three different baits lay at his feet.
"Exactly what are you lookin' for," he asked as Bridges maneuvered the boat foot by foot, this way and that, sighting in on the power plant to the west, then the radio tower blinking off to the north.
"Looking for the hole. Looking for fish. Isn't that why we're here?" Bridges answered as he reached down and turned on the depth finder, pressing the "on" button for a full two seconds.
"Like I been tellin' you, this damn lake's seven miles long and . . ." Neuhart watched as the screen glowed green. He leaned forward watching the depth numbers at the lower right corner.
"Jeeezusssss!" he swore, as the screen displayed a craggy bottom and a depth of 15 feet. Gradually the depth fell off to 18, 23 then 31 feet. The bottom was a mountain range of peaks, cliffs and ravines, 41, 47, 53 feet deep.
Neuhart blinked as clusters of pixels moved across the screen from left to right. "What the Hell . . ."
"Those are fish, Neuhart, and big ones," Bridges shouted.
Neuhart already had his bait in the water, cranking feverishly through the imaginary school.
"Try the dive-bait," Bridges hollered. Neuhart immediately dropped the rod with the partially retrieved spinner-bait, and grabbed another, arms flailing, casting wildly.
"No! Try the worm, the worm," Bridges said. Again Neuhart dropped one rod and grabbed another.
Attracted by the commotion, three other club boats converged on the scene.
According to club legend, they found Bridges sitting in his chair, holding his sides. Neuhart was on his hands and knees, transfixed, staring at the screen that displayed a depth of one hundred and twenty-five feet, and fish the size of sharks gliding by.