The two track dirt roads were hardly 44th street in Manhattan. Tall grasses grew three feet high between them, now smoothly flowing beneath the vehicle’s bellypan as we drove. Their movement produced a pleasant swishing sound, like running your hand across a soft bristled brush. We made our way towards a remote creek deep in the swampland wilderness that is the Woodbury WMA, or wildlife management area. We soon neared our destination, a journey of some ten miles off the pavement of Highway 378. Once tire met earth, it seemed we had been magically transported to some uninhabited region of the African wilds. I half expected to see a lion resting beneath a tree, or the head of a giraffe emerge from the tree tops. To my surprise, we saw no wildlife at all during our ingress to the swamps, but it was early yet.
Reaching the terminus of the trip, Mike stopped the vehicle. Attached was a small trailer, upon which rested his small two man plastic boat and its electric motor. We saw the opening in the woods ahead where the creek lay. Between us lay a large muddy hole, maybe 8 feet across and 3 feet deep. Mike disembarked the vehicle, and warily made his way towards the creek, always alert to the many snakes that call the swamp home. It was crystal clear that we would be unable to back the trailer, either with the vehicle or by hand, across the mud filled chasm separating us from the water. Mike sought an alternate path, but all was blocked by downed trees. We considered simply carrying the boat by hand to the creek, but Mike had another option. We remounted the car, and wound our way via a circuitous route over sandhills and more two track roads to a launch point further down the same creek. Here there were no obstructions to the water, only a steep creek bank, perhaps eight feet in height. Mike managed to back the trailer into position, and I dropped the boat into the water without difficulty, my eyes spending more time scouring the ground around the put-in than looking at the boat, always mindful of the venomous slithering creatures which abound in such areas. The cottonmouth is indigenous here and extremely territorial. It will pursue any interlopers with gusto and is equipped with deadly venom and a needle sharp delivery system to ensure that intruders immediately withdraw from its turf. No problem here. I am more than ready to surrender any and all territory to this brute.
Fortunately, we had no such encounters, and quickly were underway. We sailed to starboard initially. The scenery before our eyes was surreal, like a movie set. This area apparently was original growth. No loggers’ saw had ever touched the bark of a tree here. Massive cypress trees and, to my amazement, huge live oak trees lined the banks of the smallish creek. The water was turbid, but flowing at a moderate pace. Mike informed me that even here, the ocean’s influence was felt. This water was tide affected, despite being many miles from the sea, and lying deep within a primordial swampland. As if to verify this explanation, a mullet jumped ahead of the boat, leaping three feet into the air, landing broadside in the creek, the sound of its impact breaking the silence of these deep woods. We heard no other sounds, save an occasional airliner headed to the Jetport in Myrtle Beach. This would soon change, however.
Movement in the branches of a tree ahead of the boat caught my eye. We silently made our way beneath the tree, to be greeted by the sight of a large bird. I had hoped to see a hawk, but instead, a yellow crowned night heron rested on a limb above us. After allowing us a brief inspection, he lifted off seeking a spot with more privacy.
The huge trees lining the banks of the creek, as well as those which had succumbed to disease, lightning, or old age and fallen across the creek, made fly casting difficult. Undaunted, we picked up our small spin rods and began casting amongst the wood in the creek, and beside the stumps and trees along the bank. Mike was fishing selectively for large bass. He threw a big white spinner bait. Early on, he had a savage strike from a medium sized bowfin. He brought the fish boatside, where we got a brief glimpse before it spit the hook and disappeared into the murky water. That was just as well. The aluminum bat Mike used to sedate these fish for release could now remain neatly in its storage spot. I was in a sporting mood, and was using an untried, homemade plug for bass. I had taken a cork from a bottle of Concha Y Toro red wine and crafted a plug from it.
There is just something about taking an seemingly worthless object and creating something useful from it that intrigues me. This is especially true if that object is one that would otherwise simply be discarded. This, like so much in our adult lives, may have its roots in childhood. I am from a family of, shall we say, modest means. We scrounged for many of the things we needed. I learned to substitute things I could scavenge for the things I saw in the Sears catalogue, or that my friends had. This, I think, helped develop a certain ability to improvise and find alternate solutions to all manner of problems I have encountered later in life, a valuable lesson, despite my not recognizing it at the time.
As I prepared to throw away a small collection of wine corks accumulated in a vessel in the kitchen, I recalled an article I had seen about making bass lures in Field & Stream magazine. Soon, I was out in my shop, band saw whirring. I carefully cut the cork at a 45 degree angle and brought it inside to my fly tying desk. Here I added a coat of Clear Cure Goo and waited overnight. Next, I drilled a small hole fore and aft, and ran a length of fishing wire through it. A Haywire twist upfront to act as a hookeye, a Chartreuse skirt over a medium treble hook to the rear secured by a second Haywire, and I was almost done. I next added a pair of large red eyes, and the plug was complete.
Mike remarked that it was the strangest looking plug he ever seen. I could not disagree. It seemed to sit well in the water and acted like a combination of a slider and a popper, depending on how it was worked. I had applied a coat of green Sally Hanson nail polish to give it some resemblance to a frog, however slight. I was determined to catch something on it. I thought maybe at least one of those ugly, but aggressive bowfins might attack it. After actually having several bites from unknown species, I was finally rewarded by a small bass slamming the lure right by the boat. It was a proud moment as I felt a certain amount of satisfaction and redemption. My homemade plug, no matter how homely, had worked.
Mike meanwhile remained true to his goal of catching a large bass on a spinnerbait, but had no luck. The little fish that had eaten my wine plug was our sole catch that day. The sun by now was dropping below the tree tops, so we made our way back towards the put-in. As we motored back, we were careful to remain as quiet as possible, speaking in whispers and keeping movement to a minimum. Soon we heard the hooting of an owl, then an answer from across the creek. I looked ahead, and between the trees, I saw a large barred owl swoop low across the water, its wingtips, gently caressing the surface, quickly disappearing into the woods. It would have made a spectacular photograph, but neither my point and shoot, nor my questionable photographic skills, were up to the task.
Mike next noted something falling into the water from an overhanging cypress limb. As we approached the tree, a flock of about 5 wild turkeys bolted from where they were roosting for the night. The loud flapping sound was startling, reminding me of the time my father in law nearly fell from his deer stand when turkeys left their roosting place above him. I was amazed to learn from Mike that turkeys have the ability to sleep standing straight up in a tree. It seems that their leg muscles can rigidly clamp their feet around a limb, enabling them to rest in an upright posture, high in a tree where they are protected from predators. Nature never ceases to create a new sense of wonder in me.
Upon reaching the take-out spot, we carefully disembarked and loaded the boat, after clearing the immediate area for reptiles. We secured the boat and reversed course, setting sail for Highway 378 and points east. There was a bit of light remaining, but even so, I could never have found my way out of there. I was not certain even if a GPS might work, so remote was our location. Fortunately, Mike was at the helm, so navigational capability was never in doubt.
As we approached the pavement, Mother Nature had two remaining surprises for us to enjoy. The first was a nice sized doe that bounded across the road in front of us. She faded quickly into the darkening forest, and just then, a large barred owl, my second sighting of the day of this magnificent bird, swung low across the road into our headlights and continued into the piney woods to our right. That was a real treat for a raptor lover like me. If only I had been able to get a photograph!
On Manhattan’s 44th Street, not far from Times Square, sits Birdland. It is a cozy jazz club named for its founder and most famous performer, Charlie Parker. Parker, known to his friends as “Yardbird’, of more commonly just “Bird”, was a master of the alto sax and a legend among jazz affectianatos. I was privileged to enjoy an evening at a stage side table there once, though “Bird” has long been gone. Great jazz lives on at Birdland, a boon for music lovers everwhere.
Woodbury, I suppose, can be thought of as a birdland as well, although of an entirely different type. Enjoying both enrichens my life immeasurably.