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Florida Bass: Lessons in Customer Service

April 25, 2016

As a mid-western kid growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I lost count of the times I watched Roland Martin catching monster Florida strain bass on Lake Okeechobee aka “The Big O.”  It was one of the places that I someday wanted to fish and I was kicking myself several years back when I made a business trip to Florida and it dawned on me that I had just missed a prime opportunity to catch some Florida bass.  Right then and there I promised myself that if I ever had the opportunity again I wouldn’t let it pass.  Well, the stars aligned perfectly this year and I found myself headed to Florida on business the week of April 18.   The next question became should I fish before or after the trade show.  Both?

Florida is ripe with options.  Largemouth Bass on the Big “O”, Toho, Stick Marsh, Harris Chain, etc.,  I mean the list goes on and on. Crappies and Bluegills?  Inshore for Snook, Redfish, or Tarpon?  Miami for Peacock Bass? The possibilities were endless.  Water Moccasin snakes (Cottonmouth), invasive pythons, and alligators all leave me feeling queasy so that ruled out a DIY wade fishing trip for Largemouth.  I read some great things in Eastern Fly Fishing magazine about inshore fishing near Melbourne, Sebastian and the No Motor Zone (NMZ) near Canaveral.  Falling back on my original premise, I first decided on Okeechobee and booked a trip and hotel room at Roland Martin’s Marina.  Then I talked to a friend who had recently fished the Harris Chain and he suggested I contact his guide for recommendations even though he’d returned to his home waters in New York.  His suggestion led me to Capt. Mike Arnoldy of Haulin’ Bass and after talking to Capt. Mike we agreed to a half day trip on Stick Marsh.

Saturday, April 16th, found me, after weeks of anticipation, on my way to Florida.  Finally.  The only unfortunate thing, and I noticed this several days before, was that the weather forecast was predicting strong ENE winds for both the 17th and 18th.  I anticipated that this would be problematic, especially on Okeechobee as Roland Martin’s Marina is located in the SW corner of the lake.  Cancelling crossed my mind but I thought I’d stick with the plan.  It’s a huge lake and having never been there thought that maybe there were islands and miles of reeds and vegetation that would make the wind manageable.  Arriving at Orlando International I headed for the rental car desk where I found myself waiting with countless others for up to 45 minutes or more to get our vehicles as a computer glitch had slowed down their systems to a crawl.  One of the ladies at Hertz did a fantastic job of greeting clients, explaining the problem and handed out water and coupons to those waiting in line.   The most bizarre thing though was the customer in line ahead of me who had her sleeping boyfriend on Facetime. After several minutes the poor dude woke up and they proceeded to have a 30-35 minute chat with me in the back ground.  First of all, let the poor guy sleep.  Secondly, do you need me to be in the background on Facetime.  Can’t you just talk to the guy and leave me out of it? The whole experience was bizarre.  I tried my best to be inconspicuous and invisible as one can be standing behind another person in a cattle queue and to avoid visual contact, but you know, you got to take a look every once in awhile.  It’s human nature.

The 4 oz in-flight bag of pretzels provided by Delta was less than filling so I thought I’d head to the nearest Waffle House before heading to Bass Pro Shops. I’ve heard and read lots about Waffle House and how FEMA uses it to gauge the seriousness of natural disasters. I couldn’t wait to try their legendary hash browns and waffles but my most immediate concern was the toll road booth ahead.  Seems I’d forgotten about the toll road deal from my last trip.  This was problematic in that one lane was for prepaid vehicles and the other was coin only.  I of course had no coins and had no idea as to whether I was prepaid. I’m such a rookie when it comes to traveling.  I stopped in the coin only lane and…drove off.  What else was I going to do?  Throw a $20 in the urinal like collection device.  Finding the comfort of the Waffle House parking lot I then noticed the the prepaid toll sticker in the upper corner of the windshield.  You know, it really would have been nice of the dude at the Hertz checkout lane to ask if I’d driven in Florida before, explain the toll road situation and that I could go through the prepaid lane.  It would also have been nice of them to tell me how to start the car and to give me a car that allows you to change the radio station when the car is in motion.  Oh, I’m such a novice when it comes to traveling, especially alone.  Thank god I was only in Florida.  Anyways, the Waffle House was a delight. It was a bit odd hearing them call the manager “Mom” though.

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Smothered, covered and chunked. Yum!

My appetite sated, I headed for Bass Pro Shops for a few goodies and made my way to Clewiston, FL, and Roland Martin’s Marina.

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Turning towards Okeechobee at Yeehaw Junction, I headed south and was amazed by the number of cattle farms.  I mean the herds of cattle just went on for miles.  Cattle were soon replaced by bass boats upon my arrival in Okechobee. Another forty minutes or so and I rolled into Clewiston, FL with a stiff wind a blowin.’ Clewiston felt a lot like some of those small communities in northern Minnesota that border Red Lake, Lake of the Woods, etc. Kind of desolate, not overly prosperous, and supported purely by the fishing industry.  You are an outsider in another world.

I could have done the safe thing and ate at Roland Martin’s Tiki Bar for dinner but I noticed an authentic looking Mexican Restaurant on my way through town and stopped there.

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Prior to ordering the hostess handed me a disposable cup with a spoon sticking out of it and my first thought was: ceviche.  Wrong.  The first spoonful appeared to be a bean soup mixture with just a hint of spicy heat.  The second bite gave me moment for pause.  I’ve seen enough Bizarre Foods and Anthony Bourdain episodes to know that the pale tubular shape balancing precariously on my spoon was tripe.  Tripe soup.   Picky around the mystery tubes I finished the soup and rewarded my palate with tacos stuffed with carnitas, pollo, and al pastor, and a Mexican Coke.  Not bad for seven bucks and some spare change.

6:30 a.m. – Sunday, April 17 – a howling ENE wind. Walked into the marina to hear a couple cancelling their trip due to the wind and the “bait situation?”  Bait situation?  I knew that the water was high earlier in the year which made it difficult to catch shiners but i wasn’t prepared for the news I was about to receive. Once the couple ahead of me was dispatched I asked the lady at the counter if my guide, Mark King, was around.  Yup, he’s right outside and pointed to the guide/bait station.  Pleasantries exchanged Mark laid it out for me with something along the lines of  “it’s really windy and we can find fish, but we only have two dozen shiners. We can take the shiners and try some artificial baits but you might only want to go for four hours instead of six. It’s up to you. I apologize for the bait.  They aren’t really hitting artificial baits right now with the wind.”  Okay. I’m thinking two things.  First, I just wasted a bunch of time by flying to Florida one day early, not to mention renting a car and hotel room, driving two and half hours, with essentially nothing to do for the next 24 hours.  Out of bait?  Are you freaking kidding me? How can you run out of bait? My second thought was screw it, we are going fishing.   I didn’t come this far to get stymied.  “Let’s fish.  Grab the shiners and let’s go for four hours” I said.  Mark agreed and a few minutes later we were flying down the inner ring of the Big O in his Ranger Bass Boat.  Navigating a weed choked channel tucked behind an island and out of the wind Mark had a shiner baited up and ready to go.  Essentially a drop shot rig with a line for the shiner to swim, it only took about 5 seconds for the neon orange float to disappear.  Fish on.  The first few were little guys and a I caught a couple that were 5 plus pounds.  Not the double digit fish one dreams of, but decent fish.  The double digit fish came in the form of a big ol’ catfish and one ugly bowfin.  Soon enough we were out of bait  and so we switched to flippin’ Texas rigged worms which resulted in one 12″ bass.  The Big O is huge and we barely scratched the surface.  Taking a look at the endless stretches of habitat it is easy to see why it is a bass producing mecca.  I’d like to give it a shot again on my own terms.

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One sweet ride

Okay, so here is the problem.  If I was the owner of Roland Martin’s Marina, which in this case is his ex-wife, or if I was one of the guides, I’d be livid about not having bait.  One trip that I know of was cancelled.  There’s a minimum of $300 in revenue gone, not to mention the guides tip.  My trip was reduced by a couple of hours so there is another $50 in revenue and tip lost.  Shiners go for $20/dozen.  So between our two trips there is another $120 in lost revenue at least, assuming one dozen shiners per hour.  I thought about buying a shirt ($30) and having lunch ($10) but passed at the sight of a spilled cup of hot cocoa that had been sitting on the counter since before I checked in the day before.  Add it up and they lost at least $500 in revenue in one day by not having bait and a sloppy check in counter.  Not a winning recipe.

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Hungry and with the rest of the day open I headed to Dixie Fried Chicken for lunch.

The two piece – snack pictured above set me back less than $5 and was finger lickin’ good.  Best fried chicken I’ve had for a mighty long time.

Next stop Palm Bay, FL. However, to get there I had to drive through Pahokee, FL, and let me tell you, if you think Clewiston is economically challenged, Pahokee, is downright depressed.  Wow, was that an eye opener.

Visited Pareidolia Brewing in Sebastian on my way and had a delicious beer – Double Concave – a Belgian style ale, along with some complimentary pretzels which were a nice touch.

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Pareidolia refers to seeing something seemingly significant, in this case faces, in various objects or places.

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The beach at Sebastian.

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Good thing I didn’t book an inshore fishing trip as the Indian River Lagoon was rolling.

Monday, April 18, found me fishing one of the lakes that comprise Stick Marsh.  Accessible only by fan boat, Capt. Mike opted for one of the smaller lakes due to the main body of water being all stirred up by the heavy winds that were once again howling from the ENE. Capt. Mike was awesome.  We had a great time chatting about fishing equipment, fly fishing, trout fishing and bass fishing in Texas.  He offered some suggestions on DIY shore fishing options – just need to get over my fear of gators and snakes – and went out of his way to rouse countless gators along the way, which was pretty cool.  Thank goodness we didn’t see any snakes.  Fishing was good and I caught well over a dozen fish on top-water and plastic baits.  Again, no double digit fish but I did hook a nice Terrapin.  Pretty cool to get away from it all and be surrounded by nothing but swamp.

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The famed main body of “Stick Marsh” is just beyond the row of trees.

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Give Capt. Mike a call if you are heading to Stick Marsh, Toho, inshore fishing or are looking for a fan boat ride.

– Hats

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