An Old North Florida Hunting Camp | Photo Journal

In the grander scheme of things, our camp really isn’t that old. I know of families whose camps date back to the pioneer days when their ancestors hunted for survival and they didn’t call it “camp,” it was just called “home.”

Our hunting camp is a 5-ish-hour drive to North Florida, nestled in the backwoods of a place called Perry. I first laid eyes on these woods when I was 13 or 14. There was nothing here then but a couple thousand acres of planted pines and a small clearing in the center which would become our fabled Big Racks Hunt Club; aptly named by my then-12-year-old brother with his appropriately adolescent humor.

Today, this place has campers, elaborate sitting porches, string lights, running water fed from a natural spring and, of course, power. You see, this camp was founded and built by former linemen, mostly. One look around, you’ll see retired power poles used to construct the cook shack, feeders, and gate posts. There’s an old transformer by the equipment barn, insulators for feeder pole braces, and culverts made of spun concrete poles, the kind they use in transmission line construction.

But still, we have no cell service here. We gladly become unreachable a few miles out, pretending we’ve reverted back to our primitive roots. While some have modern-day camper amenities, Mike and I prefer to cook meals over the campfire, bathe with wet wipes, and bask in the sounds of the wilderness.

The founding members have invested blood, sweat, and tears, into keeping this a place we enjoy escaping to. We kill cottonmouths and harvest food for our freezers. We honor traditions and camp rules. We gather over whisky and Apalachicola oysters. We debate Florida versus Florida State, with that inevitable Georgia outlier. We recap our hunts with child-like vigor and deny ever falling asleep during the day’s first sit.

On our most recent work trip, I found myself in awe of this place, as usual. At the time of this writing, it’s been 17 years since I harvested my first whitetail at this very camp. The pines were hardly 4-feet tall then, today they tower over the tree stand at 60-feet or more.

I’m a sucker for tradition, sentiment, and Old Florida values. I felt so inspired, I snapped some photos of our hunting camp as it stands today. I pray that I never take these wild places for granted, always seek adventure over comfort, and respect the fruits of hard work and good old-fashioned sportsmen ingenuity. Enjoy!


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Tales From Charlotte Harbor: Don't Mess With Big Ugly

Christmas Eve 2018. It was the first time I’d cried over a fish (in a long time, anyway). Not a pitiful sobbing, but just a few glistening tears. The same way you’d cry quietly when you got picked last as a kid.

Mike and I were fishing the bridges on Charlotte Harbor, a popular place to target big black drum lurking on the bottom. They’d been on my wish list ever since that episode of Flats Class where Capt. C.A. Richardson and Capt. Al Keller get worked in the Louisiana bayou by monster black drum, more akin to livestock than fish.

We anchored upcurrent and soaked a few lines with cut crab. The extent of my bridge fishing experience includes very little patience before we reel in and head to the next spot. I’m more of an active pursuit type of angler who gets antsy with static fishing like soaking and trolling. So, naturally, I grabbed the only unoccupied rod on the boat and went to work.

It was a medium Falcon Coastal XG rod with a 3000 Florida Fishing Products reel, pre-rigged with one of those fancy 4.5-inch Live Target sardine swimbaits. I’d never tried Live Targets, but I didn’t expect much. I’m more of a “stick to what you know” kinda guy.

I cast the lure square on the left corner of the piling, dropping it flush against the concrete, then feathered out a few yards of line so the current would carry it beneath the structure. After a few steady-paced retrieves, I switched to a slower twitch-and-stop, still slinging every cast in the same methodic process.

My mind had wandered from fishing by the third attempt when I was suddenly snapped back to reality by a slight movement at the end of the line. I did that thing where I went to set the hook, but a solid halt indicates you’ve actually hooked bottom. Mike looked back, and I tried to play it off casually, “Just hooked bottom… I swear, it felt like something moved, though.”

I jerked the rod back a few more times. Then, there was movement again: a slow wiggle. For sure this time. I jerked back harder. “Holy s***, it is a fish!” I shouted to Mike.

I could hardly budge the thing so I knew it must be big. The drag screamed as line ripped out. I let him run at first, then started pumping firmly to ease him away from the pilings and into open water. Slow, heavy runs, not a lot of shakes... when it felt like he was almost to the surface, he dug down and hauled ass again.

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My heart was racing. I’d been here before; adrenaline pumping, hands sweating, trying to sidestep my own eagerness to land the fish and allow instinct to run the show.

Minutes passed. Fifteen? Thirty? Finally, I had worked him within inches of the surface. A massive silvery blob refused to fully reveal itself, still weighing down the line like a stack of bricks. “It’s huge!” I yelled in disbelief, considering… I hadn’t expected a single bite. '

Before I had the satisfaction of seeing his face, he lurched down once more, this time taking a straight shot toward the piling.

Slow-braking, easy pressure, inset panic. There it is. The panic. That’s when it all starts to crumble. All the progress begins to melt away, as you scramble to do anything you can to take control again. But sometimes… you just brought a knife to a gun fight.

SNAP.

And just like that, the line went slack.

My insides twisted. I threw my hands in the air like a child throwing a tantrum, shouting explicits that are only fitting during heated exchanges and sporting events. I’m not sure at what point in your angling career one should be able to handle moments like this gracefully, but apparently, I’m still far from it.

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I felt as if I’d just lost the war of my life.

I stormed to the bow, grabbed a beer from the cooler, and stared out toward the pilings. When your wound is open is when those salty feelings seep in. “Was it fate? Was it something I did wrong? Was it a jewfish? Or was it really a black drum? It had to be a drum. Did I put too much pressure? I’m a terrible angler. Someone better would have landed that. I’m done.”

That’s when those little crocodile tears rolled down. Mike was silent. “What could I have done differently?” I asked him, “I need a lesson from this or it was all for nothing.”

We talked through tactics and pressure and ultimately using the right tool for the job. To be honest, I never dreamed I’d hook up to a monster when I cast that plastic chunk into the depths.

As anglers, how is it that something like a fish can stir so much emotion within?

I will never know for sure what happened that day or what that fish looked like. He took a piece of my soul with him when made a break for it. He instilled a new faith in me, a reminder not to get complacent. To be prepared always. To approach every cast as if a monster awaits. And never to take a good fight for granted.

Here’s to the Big Ugly ones: may every encounter make us better anglers for it.

Taking Kids Fishing on Charlotte Harbor | Our 2nd Annual CAST for Kids Event [Recap]

In the fall of 2016, after a late night heart to heart [full story], Mike and I went in a search of a non-profit that could help us take kids fishing. We stumbled across the CAST for Kids Foundation and, after an enthusiastic conversation with Jeff Barnes, the Eastern Regional Director, we were hooked.

We learned that anyone could host an event and take on all the planning and fundraising independently. The organization would help us along the way and provide everything needed to take the event to the next level - custom t-shirts, plaques, tackle boxes and rods for the kids.

We held our first ever CAST for Kids event on November 17, 2017 at Laishley Park in Punta Gorda, Florida. Instead of fishing from shore, volunteer captains each took a child out on the harbor to fish by boat. We learned that many of the children had never fished before or even ridden on a boat. After witnessing the impact that was made, not just on the children, but everyone involved - Mike and I knew we would host this event every year.


Year Two Recap

Our 2nd CAST for Kids event took place on Saturday, September 8, 2018. As the sun came up over Laishley Park and the volunteers began arriving, there was a different energy than before. More excitement, less uncertainty. It seemed as if we were more confident because, together, we had done this before and we knew it was going to be just as incredible.

The captains were eager to get out on the water and help the kids catch fish. They gathered for the boater safety meeting, each receiving their custom “captain’s bucket” by Barracuda Tackle, stuffed with Boca Coast chum, Mustad hooks, hats, buffs and more goods from our sponsors.

Twenty children showed up that day, many who had fished with us at our very first event! They even requested to go with their same captain as before. At check-in, I overheard Rylee telling his mom, “Captain Matt better not be late!”

The same kids who were nervous or standoffish the first year, ran to the dock with excitement because they already knew what awaited them. Doreen told us that her grandson Gibson rarely talks, but on this day, he couldn’t stop talking about fishing!

Just as before, everyone was all smiles as the kids were paired up with their captains and they ventured out on the harbor to cast some lines.

Throughout the morning, we received text updates from the captains showing us the catches of the day. Some kids even got to drive the boat!

This year, we had 50 shore volunteers who helped make this event happen. I don’t always get to speak to everyone, but if I could, I would tell them this:

Thank you for showing up. Thank you for believing in these children enough to give them your time and compassion. Thank you for helping us do the heavy-lifting (sometimes, literally). Thank you for smiling even when we run out of things to do. Thank you for creating good in the world and in our own little community in Southwest Florida. This day wouldn’t be possible without you!

For me, I have two favorite parts of the day. The first is watching the kids board the boats and how excited they get as they depart the marina. The second is the award ceremony.

It’s not a tournament or a competition. There is no first or last place. Every child receives a plaque with a photo of them and their captain. When they come up to the front, the crowd cheers and claps. Their faces light up with pride and joy; this level of acceptance and celebration doesn’t come along for them every day.

They get to tell the crowd how many fish they caught and what their favorite part of the day was. The captains are always overcome with pride, admiration and pure happiness. It’s a special moment that will melt your heart.

Lessons Learned

  1. There were many familiar faces as more than half the participants had returned for the second year! They loved fishing and wanted to do it again. That tells us there is a need for more events like this and so we’ll keep at it.

  2. We need more help reaching families with children who could benefit from a day of fun and fishing. We didn’t have many connections in the education or health system and it’s not exactly easy to find the right person to talk to.

  3. Keep calm, it’s all about the kiddos. Sometimes, we get flustered over minor details. In a few years, these kids won’t remember that we ran out of coleslaw and sodas; they’ll remember the way they felt that day.

Bring More CAST for Kids Events to Florida

In 2018, nearly 100 CAST for Kids events are being hosted across the United States, many of them going at least a decade strong! But guess what… we’re the only one in Florida, the Fishing Capital of the World. Seems crazy right??

We can fish year-round, we have hundreds of miles of coastline and access to the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and countless freshwater lakes. We have the largest saltwater angler population at 2.4 million anglers with more world record fish catches than any other state or country (FWC). And I believe that there are children in every community who could benefit from a fun day of fishing, if just given the opportunity.

The good news is… anyone can host a CAST for Kids event! The organization does so much to help out along the way and sends a representative to every event. It takes a lot of planning, coordinating and hard work, but the reward is indescribable.

If you’re interested in learning what it takes to host your own CAST for Kids event, email Jeff Barnes, the Eastern Regional Director, at Jeff@castforkids.org.

2018 CAST FOR KIDS EVENT LOCATIONS

2018 CAST FOR KIDS EVENT LOCATIONS


Thank You!

This event would not exist if it wasn’t for Mike Downs, our generous captains, volunteers and sponsors. We’ve created momentum and we look forward to making each year better than the last and getting more kids out on the water!

Special thanks to:

I Got Caught in a Standoff With Two Osceola Turkeys

I Got Caught in a Standoff With Two Osceola Turkeys

The day started like most serious hunting or fishing excursions do. With silence. Filled only by still darkness, a few early morning grumblings, and the tension of hopefulness.

Would today be the day? Would we be successful in our pursuit of the sought-after Florida game species, the Osceola turkey?

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Celebrating a Fun Day of Fishing for Children with Special Needs [Event Recap]

Celebrating a Fun Day of Fishing for Children with Special Needs [Event Recap]

I checked my watch. 6:19 am. Mike hammered away at a rusty hitch pin lock on my truck, surely giving the whole neighborhood a Saturday wake-up call they weren't expecting. 

Mike and hammer versus the hitch. This wasn't going to end well. We had a trailer full of tables and chairs and a whole venue to set up for the C.A.S.T. for Kids event we were hosting that day. We were already behind schedule by almost half an hour and the day hadn't even begun.

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HELP BRING “C.A.S.T. FOR KIDS” TO FLORIDA

HELP BRING “C.A.S.T. FOR KIDS” TO FLORIDA

These words hit me almost with a pang of guilt. Two things I enjoy most in this world, boating and fishing, and so easily take for granted.

Jeff Barnes, the Eastern Regional Director of C.A.S.T. for Kids, was giving us a rundown on the history of the non-profit charity. Just the night before, what started as a heart-to-heart led Mike and I down a path that we had both been pulled toward for quite a while and hadn’t yet realized.

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