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Original Issue


Off Florida's northwest coast lies a nightmare of an island, a place of darkness and danger. But to a fisherman St. Vincent can be a dream of an entirely different kind

Indian Pass, on Florida's northwest Gulf coast, is only 1,500 feet wide, but it might as well be 1,500 miles. To cross it is to enter another world, a world consisting entirely of St. Vincent Island. St. Vincent is a weird, 12,000-acre blend of the Bronx Zoo, a fisherman's fantasy and local chamber of horrors. St. Vincent crawls with a witches' brew of scorpions, four-inch spiders, seven-foot rattlesnakes and water moccasins. A super race of mosquitoes and flies is lurking there to drive you mad; with luck, St. Vincent's wild hogs—which grow to 400 pounds—will merely drive you up a tree. Then why bother to go there? Well, should you survive the welcoming committee, in five freshwater ponds there are largemouth black bass only slightly smaller than the wild hogs.

The ponds of St. Vincent Island total only 600 acres, and few people have ever fished them, but one thing is clear to those who have: they are flirting with angling immortality on every cast. The 22-pound world-record largemouth bass has stood without serious challenge for 39 years, but two years ago on St. Vincent a Florida game biologist named Charlie Turner caught an 18-pounder, and he was so unimpressed that he gave it away. A close friend, also a biologist, says he has personally seen at least a dozen larger bass in the island's ponds. "There is just no practical tackle that can hold them," he says. "Either something gives way or they run into the brush along the shore and you have to break off. Who wants to get out of the boat and swim around after them with all those alligators and water moccasins?"

A St. Vincent Island fishing scene is straight out of The African Queen. The water is dark and mysterious, and as sunset approaches eerie cries and groans fill the marshes. Alligators glide silently. Eagles and hawks wheel overhead. A newcomer to the island sits in a kayak beneath overhanging palms and flips a surface lure to the reedy shore. What happens in the next two minutes will haunt him always. He twitches the lure, then watches it disappear into a hole the size of a washtub. The bass that jumps clear of the water looks like a short, chunky alligator. Holding the fish on 10-pound line, even in open water, suddenly seems ludicrous, and quickly the bass is free. The fisherman has a sick feeling in his stomach, but there is no time for brooding. The sun is nearly gone, and it is two miles to the landing, with many turns and dead-end channels to test one's memory. The trip back has just begun when the boat nearly rams a dark mass the size of a truck at the channel's edge; the truck sprouts four legs and runs careening through the reeds, mowing down small trees. It is a seven-foot-tall sambar deer. So goes a typical evening on St. Vincent Island.

Considering its attractions for the adventurous, and its proximity to the mainland, St. Vincent has a unique quality: it would probably be easier to organize a fishing trip to the upper Amazon. The problem and salvation for St. Vincent are the rules set up by its owners, the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. Visitors must be off the island by nightfall. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the island's web of rough roads, and no outboards may be used in the ponds.

This leaves two options for fishermen. They may trailer a boat to Indian Pass, cross the water towing a smaller boat for fishing, then carry it eight miles to the nearest pond. The small boat is a necessity because the ponds are completely surrounded by marsh, and no fishing is possible from shore. An alternative is a 12-mile boat trip from Apalachicola to a tidal stream on St. Vincent's northeast shore. The fishermen would then go upstream to a dam, leave their motor, carry their boat over the dam and paddle inland to the first pond. At any rate, whichever the tactic, in order to be off by nightfall the visitors must leave the ponds well before the best fishing begins each evening. The only ones exempt from these rules are government fish-and-game people. We were lucky to have a friend in Charlie Turner. We rented a house on the mainland and crossed the channel at 3 a.m. each morning, taking a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the island on a government-owned barge, permanently moored at Indian Pass.

Our first day on St. Vincent began with a screech of brakes. A family of six wild hogs stood in the road and stared at the truck—five scruffy piglets and a 350-pound sow. They had been digging for roots, a favorite pig pastime that turns most island roads into freshly plowed fields. St. Vincent hogs are not fussy eaters. When not eating roads, they can be found on the beach dining on jellyfish and shellfish, and the eggs of seabirds and loggerhead turtles. St. Vincent is one of the last stretches of U.S. coast where loggerheads lay their eggs. Hogs are the turtles' mortal enemies, eating the eggs and even chewing the flippers off the turtles themselves. Charlie Turner and Co. conduct occasional mercy missions to the island during the loggerhead spring spawning season, but the hogs do not frighten easily and, though they may leave the beach temporarily, they return as soon as the men go away.

St. Vincent is so overrun with hogs that a three-day bow-hunt season was declared in July of 1969. It was the first public hunt in the island's history and 80 archers killed 60 hogs, but they weren't very happy doing it. There were swarms of ticks, crawling insects and yellow flies that raised terrible welts, and the heat was so oppressive that none of the archers penetrated inland for more than a mile. Perhaps it was a good thing. Hogs are tough and fast. Wherever they are hunted there are stories of men crippled, killed and even eaten, and St. Vincent just doesn't have enough tall trees with low branches.

The Spanish conquistadores brought the hogs to Florida 400 years ago. There were no other large mammals until 1908 when Dr. Ray V. Pierce of Buffalo, N.Y., who had bought the island a year earlier, imported three does and a buck sambar deer from the Bronx Zoo. The sambar is native to Asia, where it lives in aquatic, marsh-type habitat similar to that found on St. Vincent. Today there are more than 150 sambar on the island, and they grow to 700 pounds. Dr. Pierce had made a fortune in patent medicines—Dr. Pierce's Pleasant Purgative Pellets—and he built an extensive compound of five buildings at the island's southeast corner. In 1948 the Pierce estate sold St. Vincent for $140,000 to Henry and Alfred L. Loomis of Middleburg, Va. The Loomises built a dam to stabilize water levels in the ponds. In 1967 the Loomises sold the island to The Nature Conservancy for $2,200,000, and it is now a national wildlife refuge under control of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife.

A coterie of St. Vincent lovers has become alarmed by rumors that rest-rooms, an information office and a small-boat landing will be built. "Start making things comfortable and St. Vincent Island is through," Charlie Turner says. "The average guy wants to drive down the block, get out of his car, no insects, no snakes and catch a 10-pound bass. But St. Vincent is for the serious angler, the one who won't go off with four iceboxes full of fish. These ponds are small, and a couple of hundred fishermen could destroy an entire spawning class."

"St. Vincent Island is the best example we know of people management," a biologist says. "It's the only reason game is so plentiful and fishing is so good. You get gangs of cub scouts over here and the game will run scared, it won't feed, maybe it will even swim off the island. If a pack of hounds ran through your little house four times a day, how long would you stay?"

The ecology of St. Vincent Island is indeed a frail thing, but then, geologically speaking, so is the island itself. Twelve thousand years ago it was not an island at all, just a high part of the mainland, but when glaciers melted to the north, sea levels rose and much of northern Florida was drowned miles offshore. Oysters grew on what had been high land, forming bars that gradually rose from the sea once more. For a few thousand years the island provided sustenance for many living things, and finally pleasure for man. But the eternal beat goes on. The Apalachicola River pours its sediments into the bays landward of St. Vincent, and each year the water becomes a few centimeters shallower. Finally, once more, there will be no island at all.

But now, when you are there, you cannot conceive of anything ever ending. The wild turkeys introduced by Charlie Turner in 1965 are thriving, and the native whitetail deer are so plentiful that a public hunt was declared in 1970. Great flocks of widgeon rise ahead of the jeep when you drive along the 14 miles of barrier beach. Charlie Turner says that last summer he saw tarpon breaking for more than five miles along the surf. And one day you watch three does running gracefully and unafraid at the water's edge.

These are some of the things you remember about a brief stay on St. Vincent Island, but one morning is particularly unforgettable. The other fishermen go off to a favorite pond. You explore another, fishing alone from a tiny kayak. The best bass fishing on St. Vincent is usually at the mouths of channels connecting the ponds, and on this morning you stop in such an area. Fishing is anticipation, and on St. Vincent the feeling is especially acute. You try to relax. Concentrate, you keep thinking. First cast now. Reel slowly. Make that rubber worm crawl along the bottom. What's that...? Tap tap tap...let him strike.... A great weight begins moving off, slowly towing your boat toward the reeds. Wait. Now he's coming up. At the top of the leap the head-hooked worm falls from his mouth. He only had the tail.

Now how big was that bass, you think. Forget it. Go catch another one. But your hands are still shaking so badly that you can't reel in the worm for another cast. Finally you calm down and land two five-pounders. In just over an hour you lose six others, and five of them are far larger than any you have caught in 20 years of fishing up north. How big were they, you wonder weeks later, still scratching a variety of insect bites. Ten pounds? Fifteen pounds? They were big. That's enough. Just think how lucky you are. "Sure there are world-record bass on St. Vincent," they told you before the trip, "but if you go there you'll never get back alive."