Fishin’ In The Ditch


“…but me and Mose and Little Jim,
we does our fishin’ in de ditch.”
Don Blanding—Floridays

The smell of creosote always makes me think of fishing. Most of you readers probably don’t know what creosote is. Well, it’s some sort of coal tar derivative that is used to make wood resistant to rot. If you’ve ever seen one of those blackish-brown telephone or light poles—well, that’s creosote. If you’ve ever smelled one, that’s the smell I mean.

In Florida, in the first half of the 20th Century—so, so, different from today—they used creosoted lumber for all sorts of things that weren’t where people would have to smell them a lot. Railroad ties come to mind, along with poles of various kinds, and bridges. Just about any bridge that didn’t need suspension spans would be made with creosoted pilings, braces, and even roadbeds. In the hot subtropical sun the bridges had a smell all their own, comprised of muck, creosote, and a sort of fishy smell that seemed to have little to do with the presence of fish.

The farm where I spent my early years, on the edge of the wet prairies that rim the everglades, was defined by water. They aren’t called “wet prairies” for nothing. Under natural conditions the soil would be saturated or beneath shallow water from two to as much as six months out of the year—perhaps a couple of feet for a short time after a tropical storm or hurricane. Farming and ranching on the prairie are possible only because of an intricate system of drainage ditches, canals, big canals, really big canals, locks and such, that are able to draw the water table down a few feet and which eventually dump the “excess” into the ocean—although the concept of “excess” water in today’s Florida is, at best, defined by which special interest you happen to be talking to. Without the canals, dropping rain on the area east and south of the Central Florida Ridge would be like pouring water onto a flat table. It would never get too deep, but it would take a loooong time to run off. The canals allow access to the rich black “muck” (actually peat) that makes the area ideal for farming and the growth of forage for cattle. (The drainage system destroyed most of the historic everglades, but that’s a tale that has been told better elsewhere.)

In south Florida, no body of water wants for fish for very long. If you dig a hole, it will fill with water on its own, like as not. Shortly thereafter plants will sprout from seeds that were dormant in the muck, or brought in on the feet or in the craws of pond birds such as egrets and moorhens. It won’t be long before the critters appear: worms, crawdads, freshwater shrimp, whirligig beetles, and the myriad other small creatures that inhabit ponds, both in Florida and elsewhere. Within a couple of years, lacking some sort of pollution, most new ponds and lakes will have a well-developed ecosystem and be busily adding to the planet’s biomass. (That was just to show that I know some science words.)

Bodies of water that are connected to the drainage system populate even faster, with a variety of turtles, largemouth and smallmouth bass, mudfish, alligator gar, bream, crappies, speckled perch (specks), Florida mollies, and the ubiquitous mosquito fish (genus Gambusia) that all by themselves make the state tolerable during the warm season. Along with the smaller animals come the predators: the American alligator, the river otter, raccoons, the cottonmouth snake and his non-poisonous cousins, eels, ‘possums and the occasional Florida bobcat.

To build a road in the prairie country, you dig a canal. You pile the muck on one side of the canal and after you’ve dug beneath the organic layer you pile the marl or limestone that comes next on the other side, where you’ve stripped the muck down to the “hard pan.” Packed down, leveled out, and provided with an occasional bridge or culvert to let the water drain from the “uphill” side, you have a roadbed. You can let the rain and sun harden the bed so that it can be driven on, or you can pave it. Either way, a road has a canal. That’s just how it is. And the canals have fish.

If you were poor—and we were, by most people’s standards if not our own—a canal is a readily available source of high-quality protein. Fishing becomes not only the usual silly attempt to outwit a creature with a brain the size of a pea, but also a serious matter of feeding the family. I used to go with my Aunt Tood (don’t ask…I’ve no idea) and Uncle Albert Kalani (a transplanted Hawaiian whom she’d found and married in the sinful city of Mi-ama) on their expeditions to the Indian Prairie Canal, a few miles east of the farm on SR-70. There they would hunker down and man several cane poles, with a variety of baits to entice whatever might be hungry that day.

I used to wonder why, after a day of catching nothing, they would be back at it again the next. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that the “cats,” “brim,” “specks” and the occasional turtle were a substantial part of the family diet. I just knew that we ate a lot of fish. (To this day, a piece of fish rolled in corn meal and fried in the pan will send me out the door looking for a hamburger.)

While the old folks fished, I explored. I became adept at moving up and down the steep sandy sides of the canals with their growth of maiden cane, all the time keeping an eye out for “Mr. No-Shoulders,” as the black folks called the cottonmouth. The big snakes, (their Latin species name, piscivorus, means fish-eater,) are quite attracted to stringers of fish, which to them must seem like a lovely buffet set by the serpent-god for their special pleasure. A machete was an essential piece of fishing equipment along the canals, due to the occasional need to dispute Mr. No-Shoulders’ ownership of a mess of fish. A half-century and more later, I can still pick out a snake from the clutter of a marsh without even looking for it.

Snakes notwithstanding, there’s not a lot to interest small boys alongside a country “hard road” canal after the initial few minutes of looking for roadkill and whatnot. In those days there were few cars traveling the road, so there wasn’t even any traffic to watch. The only shade was beneath a bridge, if one happened to be nearby. What few trees there were would most likely be “cabbage” palms, (Sabal palmetto,) not noted for their shade-producing qualities, but famous for the variety of creepy-crawlies that used them for shelter.

Fortunately, there seemed always to be a bridge, so a kid could at least squat down in the shade—being mindful of the thumb-sized Golden Orb spiders, who spread their webs across amazing distances, and the mud-dauber wasps that considered the darkness beneath the bridges perfect spots to build their nurseries. On a really hot day the creosote fumes would keep you coming back into the sunlight every few minutes to catch a few hot, humid but uncontaminated breaths, but at least it was shade. (Not to be confused with cool. On a wet prairie with 100-plus degree (F.) heat and 90% humidity, no place is cool! There were no other kids, and in those days I hadn’t yet gained access to the libraries where I would so often find intellectual salvation in the future, so “fishing” became synonymous with “uncomfortable and bored.”

The old folks did the best they could, but even today if I smell creosote my immediate reaction is to head for the coolest place I can find—preferably rather dark—carrying a book and a big glass of iced tea.

And I’ll fight Mr. No-Shoulders or anyone else who tries to drag me off to go fishin’.

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