National Geographic : 1955 Jan
Cruising Florida's Western Waterways into banks and mowed the grass on both sides, but somehow made it back to the Gulf. We spent the night anchored at the river mouth. Next day startled flocks of coots swept above Water Wagon as we nosed into the Chassahowitzka River. Safe behind markers that show the limits of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Ref uge, mallards, ruddies, black ducks, and ring necks swam in flocks. Canada geese honked mournfully in the distance. Rafts of bald pates swam on the river. Toward the Gulf we saw hooded mergansers, white pelicans, boat-tailed grackles, and herons of three species-little blue, great blue, and Louisiana. Chassahowitzka is a Seminole name mean ing "hanging pumpkin." As in other west coast rivers, its water is sparkling. In con trast to the Weekiwachee, which has a heavy growth of hardwood trees to the water's edge, the Chassahowitzka's banks are grassy, the curves easy and gentle. Thick forests stand solidly on each side a few yards back from the river. Seven miles upstream we were greeted by permanent residents-a family of otters. Un afraid of the boat and intensely curious, they followed us to a landing where a trail con necting with a paved highway met the river. Otters Slide Like Kids in School Otters, unlike many other forms of wildlife, are holding their own along Florida's rivers. These furry clowns of the animal world play many games for amusement; a favorite sport is sliding down slick banks into the stream. The clear water of Chassahowitzka Springs, bubbling up from crevices and holes in the limestone, is surrounded by hovering giants water oaks bearded with Spanish moss. As the sun moves across the sky, the oaks cast fantastic shadows resembling immense figures which appear to be studying the fish swimming below. Fage 60 + Pleasure Boats Skim Tampa Bay, Where Galleons Bobbed 400 Years Ago Conquistadors, searching for gold and pearls, berthed their fleets here in the 16th century. Five of Florida's springs empty into the twin-pronged bay; a 30-foot-deep channel carries ships to Tampa. Water Wagon flies the triangular burgee of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and the flag of the U. S. Power Squadron, an honorary unit of the Coast Guard. A ketch crosses her bow. © National Geographic Society Kodachrome by National Geographic Photographer Bates Littlehales Bass, bluegill, and perch compete for space in the springs with salt-water species: chan nel bass (redfish, or red drum), sheepshead, mangrove snappers, and sea trout. Fish are especially numerous in the fall and winter, when Gulf waters are cool. Salt-water fish seem to love this clear river water, which stays close to 750 F. all year. Kent Myers, manager of Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, loaded us aboard his air boat-a shallow-water craft driven by an airplane engine-for a fast look over the river country. Then we saw the geese I had heard when Water Wagon entered the river; with wings clipped, they were penned in the refuge. While the birds were growing new feathers, they served to lure other geese into the area (page 58). Nature's Fish Bowl Inspires the Crew From Chassahowitzka landing we cruised downstream, then northward in the Gulf to the Homosassa River mouth. Here we saw fishermen attach motors to the bows of their boats and operate the craft stern first. Nets are carried forward instead of aft as in other coastal waters. I asked a fisherman about this unusual practice; he pondered carefully before answer ing. "Well, it's like this," he told me. "Some people take a pointed bow and slice through the water and then drag the whole blamed river after 'em in backwash-and they ain't gettin' nowhere. We push our flat and slopin' end, like yours," he pointed to Water Wagon's bow, "over the waves, not through 'em. The sharpened end we trail, 'cause everybody knows that a canoe stern eases the backwash." We cruised to the headwaters of the Homo sassa River, then went ashore and inspected Nature's Fish Bowl, a spring-formed pool filled with snook up to 40 pounds in weight, mullet, sheepshead, catfish, mangrove snap per, and many other species. The sight whetted our appetites for both fishing and the taste of fish. Until this moment we had disciplined ourselves and re frained from spending precious time with rod and reel. We could stand it no longer, how ever, and cast Water Wagon loose to drift downriver, fishing as we went. Long after sunset the sound of whirring reels, plopping lures, and cries of delight broke the stillness as one after another of the river's finny in habitants hit our offerings.