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Outer Limits

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 30, 2002

Catch a mullet? Are you kidding? I didn't even know what one looked like.

Fortunately, Deborah Henderson, 46, of Webster was kind enough to show me the one she caught Thursday morning at Mary's Fish Camp on the Mud River, west of Weeki Wachee.

It was black and silver and, well, looked like any other fish I'd seen. That really narrowed my scope.

You catch it with chum. Now chum I know about.

Mullet chum, I'm told, is a mixture of four parts chicken-laying mash crumbles and one part steam-rolled oats. All I know is, when you add water, it looks like soggy oatmeal.

After you've cast your line, you're supposed to grab a fistful of this stuff, squeeze it into a ball and throw it in the water, ideally near your bobber. That way, it sinks to the spot where you have so cleverly laid a trap: a hook disguised as a white rubber worm.

Only, in my case, the chum ended up all over me: caked on my hands, arms and knees; clinging to my clothes; dripping onto my shoes. Five minutes into my first mullet-fishing experience, I knew this much: It was going to be messy.

* * *

Unlike me, most of the people at Mary's Fish Camp know what they're doing. They've been doing it for years.

Just south of the head of the Mud River, the camp has been a haven for recreation and relaxation since the 1940s. It got its name when Mildred McDonald (who answered to "Mary," and whose friends called her "Winky") bought the camp in 1967 and set up permanent residence with her husband, Max.

"It's a little piece of God's country that ain't screwed up yet," said Maxine Gagnon, 63, a camp regular for 14 years.

Visitors come from as far as Australia to fish for drum, sheepshead, mullet, redfish, mangrove snapper, snook, trout and catfish; watch for wildlife -- manatees, dolphins, otters, pelicans, ospreys and herons -- or simply sit on the shaded porch and share stories, food or company.

"It's a way of life," said Kim Perry, 54, who inherited the camp after McDonald died about six years ago. "It's beautiful. To be able to share it with anybody else is a blessing."

McDonald had two rules, which are enforced and respected to this day: No profanity and no alcohol.

"She ran a tight ship," Gagnon said. "She wasn't scared of nobody."

* * *

Of course, McDonald never met me.

Armed with a 20-foot cane pole, fishing line with a sharp hook on the end and 1-gallon can of chum, I was about as frightening a sight as the camp had seen since the tidal surge that dumped 8 feet of water on it in 1993.

I hadn't gone fishing since a friend's family invited me along on a camping trip in junior high school. My most vivid memory is snagging a hook in a tree while attempting to cast. That and the mosquito bites that covered half my body. After a few quick pointers from camp managers Perry and T.J. Nicks, 76, I found a spot next to Henderson and her 14-year-old nephew, Jonathan Hildebrant, along the seawall.

Things didn't look promising. Henderson, who once caught more than 60 fish in a day, showed me her haul from the previous five hours: a single mullet. She hoped to catch five more for dinner before leaving but managed to miss every bite over the next three hours while attempting to help me.

I asked Henderson the difference between a cane pole and a rod and reel.

"A cane pole is easier to control," said Henderson, who stands 4 feet, 11 inches.

You never would have known by watching me. Though I am 6-2, I found the pole unwieldy. I spent much of the first hour learning to push it away from me so I could cast into the water.

After a few good casts, I grabbed some chum, squeezed it together and threw. Most of the chum found its way onto my shorts. What little made it to the water was nowhere near my bobber. So I tried again. Same result.

"Pull your bobber into the chum," Henderson said.

Returning her eyes to the water, she realized she had just missed a bite.

I decided to sit down, except I had a 20-foot pole in my hand. Perry had told me to balance it on my hip, but my unsteady hand was causing it to bounce up and down.

I was thinking of standing for the rest of the day when Henderson came to my rescue. She showed me how to tuck the pole under the arm of my chair, keeping my line low. As she did, she missed another bite.

Line in the water, chum near my bobber, pole inside my chair, I sat down -- content. An air conditioner hummed in the background. A slight breeze cooled my face. A great blue heron glided across the water and touched down on the opposite shore. I was reminded of something Gagnon told me earlier.

"It's just the serenity of sitting down there looking at the water," she said. "It's just calming."

I was starting to understand.

* * *

A cry came from the end of the seawall.

"We got another one," a little girl shrieked. Her family, which had been fishing for less than an hour, had caught a couple of small fish and a crab.

Henderson had her one mullet. And I was waiting for my first bite.

I looked at my bobber, which was sitting sideways in the water. It's hard enough to tell if you've got a bite when the bobber is sitting up. Sideways, it's nearly impossible.

Henderson pulled a weight out of her tackle box and put it on my line, allowing the bobber to sit up in the water. And, of course, she missed another bite.

Suddenly, my bobber was moving. I yanked my pole out of the water. Was it a bite? No, only the current playing games with me.

I threw in some chum and sat back down. I waited. I threw more chum. I wiped off my shorts and waited some more. I threw more chum.

The bobber dipped. Adrenaline rushed. I pulled up on my pole. Again, nothing. This time, it was the chum hitting the water that caused the bobber to dip.

More chum. More mess. More waiting.

As my third hour neared its end, I had some things I wanted to write down. I put down my pole, leaving the line in the water. I rinsed the chum from my hands and sat back down. I started writing.

"You're getting a bite," Henderson said.

I turned to look at my bobber, which disappeared below the surface.

I reached for my pole -- too late.

To my right, a mullet jumped. At least now, I know what one looks like.

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