A Day's Sport in
East Florida by
S. C. Clarke
Through these green tents, by eldest Nature dressed,
He roamed, content alike with man and beast.
Where darkness found him, he lay glad at night:
There the red morning touched him with its light.
On the 18th of February we arrived in the yacht off Mosquito Inlet
about sunrise, and as the tide served our pilot took us in over the
bar, which happened to be smooth at the time, and we anchored just
above the junction of the Halifax and Hillsboro Rivers. Rivers they
are called by the Floridians, but are long stretches of salt water
lying parallel with the coast, and separated from the sea by a sandy
beach of a mile in width, which is covered with a growth of pitch-pine
and palmetto scrub. In New York and New Jersey such waters are called
bays, and on the coast of Carolina they are sounds. They furnish a
convenient boat-navigation for the people, who in consequence do most
of their traveling by water.
Here we found lying at anchor a couple of large Eastern schooners:
they were waiting for cargoes of live-oak, which was being cut by a
large force of men in the employ of the Swifts, a firm that supplies
all this timber for the American navy. A lighthouse is much needed
here, the entrance being narrow, with only eight or ten feet of water
at high tide. The Victoria followed us in, and we had not been long
at anchor when a canoe came down the river under sail, and rounding to
alongside, a tall young man in white duck jacket and trousers stepped
on board, and accosted our pilot: "How are you, Pecetti? So you are
taking up my trade?"
"Well, yes: I've shipped as pilot for this cruise, and Al. Caznova
has the other yacht.—Captain Morris, this is Mr. Weldon, one of the
"How do you do, Mr. Weldon? Is there a collector of the port here?"
"There's a deputy living in that cottage that you see on the bluff to
the left—Major Allen; and there is his boat coming down the river."
"Any hotel here, Mr. Weldon?"
"Yes, there is a very good one at New Smyrna, about three miles up the
river: Mr. Loud keeps it."
"We think of stopping here two or three days: where would be the best
place to anchor the yachts?"
"If you are going to Loud's, you can anchor near Major Allen's: there
is good holding ground, and you would be in sight of your vessel."
"Won't you stop and take breakfast, Mr. Weldon? and we will get you to
show us the way to the hotel."
"Much obliged, but I want to see the pilot of the other yacht. You can
see the hotel when you get to Major Allen's;" and he departed.
"I believe I have seen that man before," said Captain Morris. "We sent
a party ashore here in '63 to get wood, and they were fired upon by
the natives, and one man was killed. I shelled the place and burned a
house or two, and we took a couple of prisoners and left them at St.
Augustine. I think this young fellow was one of them."
Presently a yawl boat, rowed by two negroes, with the revenue flag
flying, came alongside, and a stout man of middle age came on board.
Morris came forward: "Mr. Allen, the collector, I suppose? I am master
and owner of this yacht, the Pelican of New York, a pleasure-vessel
on a cruise. The other schooner is also a yacht: she belongs in
"All right, captain! I will step below and look at your papers, if you
please. A handsome vessel, upon my word!"
"We are just going to breakfast, major: you will join us, I hope?"
This the major did, and being a Yankee of fluent speech, we soon
learned all about him—how he had served in a Massachusetts regiment,
and had been the first secretary of state under the new constitution
of Florida. This has an imposing sound, but when we learn that almost
all the better class of whites were mere unreconstructed rebels,
leaving only a few poor whites, some carpet-baggers from the North
and the negroes from whom to select the State officers, the position
ceases to seem exalted. During breakfast he told us all about New
Smyrna and its people, which was not much, since there are only five
or six houses there. The conjecture of Captain Morris about the pilot
was correct: he was of a good old rebel family, every man of whom of
suitable age had been in the Confederate service.
Major Allen went to visit the Victoria, and on his return we both got
under way and beat up the river about two miles, anchoring in three
fathoms water under the bluff on which stands the collector's house.
About noon a boat from each yacht started for the hotel. The river
here expands into a bay of a mile in width, containing several
islands, some of them wooded, and some low and grassy. The main
channel of the Hillsboro' River comes in from the south, half a mile
wide, with ten or twelve feet of water. On the west side the bay is a
low island with a creek between it and the mainland. On this mainland
is a shell bluff, twelve feet high, on which stands the hotel—a long
two-story building, with a piazza in front and out-buildings behind.
In the front yard are young orange, olive and fig trees, with two
splendid oleanders fifteen feet high, one on each side the door.
Another tropical plant, seen at the North in greenhouses, but here
growing ten feet high in the open air, is the American aloe or
century-plant. This house will accommodate twenty-five boarders, but
it was not full at the time; so we obtained rooms. It is one of the
most comfortable places in Florida, with a well-kept table, provided
with fish, oysters, turtle and game. New Smyrna is about thirty miles
from Enterprise, on the St. John's River: to this place there are
three or four steamers weekly from Jacksonville.
A hunting-party was organized to go the next day to Turnbull's Swamp,
which lies a few miles west of Loud's, and contains deer, turkeys and
ducks, with bears and panthers for those who desire that kind of
game. The party consisted of Captain Morris and Roberts of our yacht;
Colonel Vincent and two of the Englishmen from the Victoria, with
Weldon the pilot, and a tall Ohio hunter named Halliday, who lived in
the woods near Loud's. He took three fox-hounds, and Morris brought
his deer-hounds ashore. They took with them a mule and cart, with a
tent and blankets, intending to stay in the swamp over night. Captain
Herbert and I preferred to go a-fishing, and we hired a man to get
bait and take us to the ground in his boat. Doctor White went off by
himself to shoot birds for his collection.
About eight A.M. we anglers sailed out of the creek, and stood across
the bay with a light southerly breeze. Our boatman was one of the
Minorcan race, of whom there are many on this coast, descendants of
the men of Turnbull's colony of 1767. He was a cousin of our pilot, by
name Pecetti—a stout, well-built man forty years old, with keen black
eyes and curling dark hair and beard, and a great fisherman with line
and net. He lived near the inlet, and had the kind of boat commonly
used in these shallow waters—flat-bottomed, broad in the beam, with
centre-board and one mast set well forward. He had dug a peck or two
of the large round clams, and two or three throws of his cast-net as
we came through the creek procured a dozen mullet.
We ran into a channel between the eastern shore of the bay and an
island, and came to in a deep channel near the shore, which was marshy
and covered with a dense growth of mangrove bushes.
"Now," said Pecetti as he made fast the painter to a projecting limb,
"if the sand-flies don't eat us up, we ought to get some fish here."
"What kind of fish do you find here?" asked Herbert.
"Mostly sheepshead, some groupers and snappers, trout, bass, and
whiting. For sheepshead you want clam bait—for the others, mullet is
best. Rig up your rods and I will bait for you."
I had a bamboo bass-rod, with a large reel: the captain had a light
salmon-rod, with click reel. Pecetti selected for us some stout
Virginia hooks tied on double gut, with four-ounce sinkers, the tide
being quite strong here and half flood.
I found the bottom alongside the boat with about twelve feet of line,
and left my hooks upon it as directed. Soon I felt a slight touch, but
pulled up nothing but bare hooks. Twice was I thus robbed by the small
fish which swarmed about us, and which get the bait before the larger
ones can reach it; but the third time I felt a heavy downward tug, and
found myself fast to a strong fish, which fought hard to keep at the
bottom, and made short but furious rushes here and there, so that I
had to give him line. In a few minutes he tired himself by his own
efforts, and I wound him up toward the surface, but no sooner did he
approach daylight than he surged downward again. Five minutes' play
of this sort exhausted him, and I lifted on board a five-pound
sheepshead, the same thick-set, arched-backed fish, with his six dusky
bars on a silvery ground, which we buy in Fulton market at half a
dollar the pound, and which the wise call Sargus ovis. In the New
York waters it is a scarce fish, but runs larger than on the Southern
coast, sometimes up to ten or twelve pounds. Here they do not average
more than four pounds, a seven-pounder being rare. I agree in opinion
with Norris, whose theory is that those found on the coasts of
the Middle states are the surplus population of more Southern
waters—perhaps the magnificoes of their tribe, who, like the rich
planters in the good old times, like to amuse themselves at Cape May
or Long Branch.
But to return to our muttons. Here Captain Herbert pulled up a
handsome silvery fish of about a pound weight.
"A whiting!" cried Pecetti, "and the best fish in the river." Next
I hooked a couple of sheepshead, but lost one by the breaking of a
hook—a common accident, the jaws of this fish being very powerful.
Herbert now got hold of a big one, which played beautifully on his
elastic rod, and gave him a long fight and plenty of reel music, but
was finally saved, a six-pound sheepshead.
Pecetti, who had waited on us attentively, baiting our hooks and
taking off our fish (a service of some danger to a tyro, as the
sheepshead is armed with sharp spines), had a hook baited with
mullet away astern of the boat. This line was now straightened out
by something heavy, which he pulled in, hand over hand, and lifted on
board a handsome fish, near two feet long, with darkly mottled sides
and shaped like a cod-fish. "That's a nice grouper," said he—"ten
pound, I think." This is a percoid, Serranus nigritus of Holbrook,
and one of the very best table-fishes of these waters.
We took six or eight more sheepshead, and the captain caught a
handsome, active fish of about four pounds weight, resembling the
squetegue or weakfish of New York, but having dark spots on the back,
like the lake-trout of the Adirondacks. This is the salt-water
trout, so called, though it is not a salmonine: it is Otolithus
Caroliniensis, the weakfish being Otolithus regalis.
Next I hooked a strong fish which seemed disposed to run under the
mangrove roots. "That's a big grouper," cried Pecetti. "Keep him away
from the roots, or you will lose him."
I did my best, but he was too strong: the rod bent into a hoop with
the strain, but I had to let him run, and he took to his hold under
the bank, from whence I was not able to dislodge him, and had to break
my line, losing hooks and snood. While this was going on, Herbert, who
had put on a mullet bait and let it float down the current, hooked and
secured after five minutes' play a channel bass or redfish of about
seven pounds. This is a fish peculiar to the Southern waters, good
on the table when in
season, which is the spring and summer: in the
winter it spawns, and is not so good. When above ten or twelve pounds
in weight it is of a brilliant copper-red on back and sides: the
smaller ones are of a steel-blue on the back, and iridescent when
first caught. It grows to the weight of fifty or sixty pounds, runs in
great schools, and in habits and play when hooked resembles the allied
species Labrax lineatus, the striped bass. Cuvier named the species
Corvina ocellata, from the black spot which it bears near the tail.
The bottom here was rather foul, being covered with old logs and
branches of the mangroves, which, being a very heavy wood, had sunk
to the bottom and become covered with barnacles and other crustaceae,
which attracted the fish to this spot. They bit well, but so did the
sand-flies: as soon as the breeze died away they came out from the
bushes in clouds, and attacked us so fiercely that we were obliged to
"We'll go down toward the inlet," said Pecetti: "there's good
fishing-ground and more breeze." So he set the sail, and we ran down
the river, past the yachts, about a mile, where we came to anchor near
a bluff covered with trees, in a deep channel. Here we first caught
blackfish or sea-bass, of small size, but plenty; also snappers,
lively fish of the perch family, of a red color, and from a pound to
two pounds in weight, which usually take a mullet bait, in the swift
current near the surface. Then a school of sheepshead came along,
of which we got a dozen. After these we found bass, of which we took
eight, weighing from six to ten pounds each; also three fine groupers,
the largest twelve pounds. Pecetti caught a Tartar in the shape of
a monstrous sting-ray, four feet across, with a tail three feet long
armed with formidable spines. This creature lives on the bottom, his
food being chiefly mollusks and crustaceae, for the disposal of which
he has a huge mouth with a pavement of flat enameled teeth. He lies
usually half buried in the sand, and is much dreaded by the fishermen,
who are in danger of treading on him as they wade to cast their nets.
In that case he strikes quick blows with his whiplike tail, the jagged
spines of which make very dangerous wounds, apt to produce lockjaw.
After much difficulty our boatman got the ray alongside the boat with
his gaff-hook, and gave it a few deep cuts in the region of the heart
with a large knife. The blood spurted out in big jets, as from the
strokes of a pump, which soon exhausted its strength, and Pecetti
dragged it ashore and cut off its tail for a trophy. As the creature
was dying it ejected from its stomach a quart or more of small
bivalves, which must have been recently swallowed.
"That makes the best bait for sharks," said Pecetti: "I always bait
with sting-ray when I can get it."
As the rays and sharks both belong to the order of placoids, it
appears that the shark is not particular about preying on his kindred.
"Are sharks plenty here?" I inquired.
"Indeed they are!" said Pecetti: "I wonder we have not had our lines
cut by them. I have caught half a dozen in an hour's time right here.
I think I can show you one very quick." He went ashore and launched
the ray's carcass down the current. It floated slowly away, but had
not gone fifty yards when it was seized by a shark, which tugged and
tore at it, till directly a second and a third arrived and struggled
furiously for it, lashing the water into foam with their tails.
Presently more came up, till there were five or six of the monsters
all fighting for the prey, which they soon devoured. "There, you see
how soon they smelt the blood. What you think of sharks, now?"
"I think," said I, "that this is not exactly the place to bathe in."
The tide being now well on the ebb, the fish stopped biting, perhaps
driven away by the sharks, and we sailed down to the inlet, where
there is a long sandy beach fringed with mangroves: behind these, low
hillocks of sand covered with saw-palmetto extend across to the
ocean, perhaps half a mile; and here is an expanse of sandy beach some
hundreds of yards in width at low tide, hard and smooth, so that one
could drive from St. Augustine to the south end of the peninsula were
it not for the creeks and inlets.
On the river-front is a long bed of oysters, growing up to high-water
mark, the upper ones poor, called "raccoon oysters" by the natives,
but the lower ones, which are mostly covered with water, large, fat
and delicious. We gathered about a bushel of these, built a fire of
dead mangrove wood, which is the best of fuel, and when we had a good
bed of coals threw on the oysters. The heat, at the same time that it
roasted them, obliged them to open their valves, so that it was both
easy and pleasant to take them on the half shell. Besides these free
gifts of Nature, we had with us from the hotel biscuits, cold meat and
doughnuts. While we were eating, a handsome sailboat from the hotel
came to the beach: it contained a party of ladies and gentlemen who
were going for shells, which are numerous on the sea-beach, though not
many of the finer sorts are found so far north. After a heavy storm
the paper nautilus is sometimes found. Sea-beans of various kinds
are numerous, and the search for them, and the polishing of them when
found, seem to be the principal occupations of many Florida tourists.
Were it not for the sharks, this would be a fine bathing-beach.
Whether they are man-eaters or not, may be a question, but we
preferred to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.
On our return to Loud's we found Doctor White very busy skinning his
"What is this, doctor?—a jay? It looks rather different from our blue
"Yes: this is the Florida jay: it has no crest, you perceive. Here is
another Southern bird, the fish-crow, smaller than ours, you see.
Here I have a white heron and a wood-ibis. These will give me work for
"What game did you see, doctor?" inquired Captain Herbert.
"I saw some quails in the palmetto scrub behind the house, and shot
one to see if it differs from ours. It is the same bird, Ortyx
Virginiana: they call it partridge in the South—rather smaller
ours at the North. In the swamp I found snipe, Scolopax Wilsonii:
they call them here jacksnipe. Here is one of them: did you ever see a
"I should like to go and look them up to-morrow morning," said the
captain. "How far away were they?"
"About half a mile only, north-west. You will find some small ponds,
and near them the snipe were plenty: there were wood-ducks there
"I will go with you, captain," said I. "We will take Morris's old
pointer, Dash: he is steady and staunch."
About four o'clock that afternoon the hunting-party returned,
bringing in three deer, six wild turkeys, twenty-five ducks, ten
gray squirrels, and three rabbits, besides a wild steer, killed by
Halliday. They had also killed a wild-cat, and a small alligator about
seven feet long. A good heap of game it made.
"What are you going to do with that alligator, Captain Morris?" asked
"I thought I should like to take home his hide to put in my hall. He
was going for one of my hounds when I shot him."
"I will take off the skin for you," said the doctor: "you had better
pack it in salt till you get to New York. We will save that wild-cat's
skin, too: it is a handsome pelt—Felis rufus, the Southern lynx."
"Well done!" cried Mr. Loud, who just then came out to the cart.
"That's the biggest gobbler I have seen this year. I must weigh that
bird: bring out the scales, Peter. So—eighteen pounds, and this other
sixteen: fine birds indeed! Who killed them?"
"Colonel Vincent killed the largest, and I two of the others," said
Dr. Macleod of the Victoria. "Captain Morris, I think, shot three
turkeys and a deer; Mr. Weldon killed two deer; Halliday shot the
steer and the cat, and the small game was pretty equally divided
between us, I believe."
We had that night a fine supper of venison steaks, roast ducks, stewed
squirrels, oysters and fish, all well cooked by Mr. Loud's old negro,
who was really an artist.