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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.

R.W. EMERSON

1873

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 branch pilots."

"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 Montréal."

"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 quit.

"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 birds.

"What is this, doctor?—a jay? It looks rather different from our blue jay."

"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 to-day."

"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 than 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 fatter bird?"

"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 also."

"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 the doctor.

"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.