There's one kind of place in the Sunshine State where even the tourists don't care if the sun won't shine.
Here in central Florida in the big bass and crappie country there's a fish camp at the end of every little sand road that leads to a lake. It's a long, long way from Miami Beach.
"My biggest problem," says Leo Cosce, owner of Camp Lester on the Kissimmee River, "is with Yankees who come down here and expect a Holiday Inn." There is a little swimming pool tucked in among Camp Lester's cinderblock cabins and faded trailers, but the similarity ends there.
The fishermen and their families arrive late Friday, dragging along the boats they've towed from Miami and Indainapolis and New Jersey. They look up at the night sky and pray for warm rain, or at least an overcast sky.
When it rains the flood plains along the river get drenched. The drainpipes the Army Corps of Engineers installed start running, and where the drainpipes spill out, the crappies and bass congregate, feeding on the minnows that are feeding on the biota in the runoffs. And the fishermen catch fish.
There are other things to do around the fish camps if it doesn't rain. There's wildlife to look at, like the female cardinal that flew into Cosce's dusty camp store last night. It took three men 15 minutes to help it back out through the open door.
Night before last there was supposed to be a fishfry and wild-boar roast, but the rain knocked it out. So the wild-boar hunters went looking for more game. You could hear them firing up their air boats in the dusky darkness, and watch the light from their miners' lamps cutting paths through the swamps.
"It's sort of half-legal," said Cosce. "There's still a lot of wild pigs out there, but the farmers let their farm pigs loose in the swamp, too. You're not supposed to shoot one if he's got an owner's mark on him, but how are you going to see that if you're screaming along a canal like the Lone Ranger, shooting through the dark with a .38 pistol?"
Rattlesnakes and cottonmouths and alligators like it in the swampy backwaters, too. Cosce once caught a rattler that was over eight feet long, even after he cut off the head.
Out in front of his store, just to keep the tourists on their toes, he has a little box on a stump with a screen over the top. The sign on it says "Baby rattlers." Newcomers tiptoe up and peer nervously through the screen. Inside are a pair of rattles lifted from a baby's crib.
Bass fishing is the big draw in these parts, where a ten- or twelve- or thirteen-pound fish is not uncommon. But most of the longtime visitors to Camp Lester have a more mundane pursuit -- crappies, or speckled perch as they are called here.
There's a limit of 50 crappies a day per person, which seems fair enough. Yesterday Cosce and I went out with another fellow and fished along the drainpipes, which were flowing after the rain. In four hours we caught about 80 crappies, the biggest about a pound and a half. That was slow fishing by his standards.
When there's a warm still night the real crappie hunters go out. They ride into the lake on pontoon boats specially rigged for speckled perch. Floodlights ring the roof of the boat. The anglers anchor, turn the floodlights on and rig 10 or 15 cane poles around the rails, each with a minnow and a bobber.
The floodlights lure the fish in and before long they're coming over the side two or three at a time.It doesn't take long to fill a limit for five fishermen.
To protect against overkill, the state has a limit on the number of rods. No angler can fish more than three at a time.
About the time the crappie fishermen and the wild-boar hunters come in from their all-night games, the bass fishermen are starting up their hundred-horsepower floating stock cars and heading down the river to the lake. The old men sit around a little ground fire in front of the store, talking about the ones they caught in their day.
It's a three-ring circus with sideshows.
There are even great fundamental lessons in life to be learned. Stop into Cosce's store one night and start poking around at the scores of different plastic worms he keeps on hand for bass fishermen.
He'll tell you the pros and cons of each one -- too soft, wrong color, too long, too short, can't set the hook through this one and this one hasn't got enough action.
Yet in the end the truth will out. "Any one of these worms will catch bass," Cosce admits. "It's just a matter of confidence. You have to have confidence in your worm."
It's quiet now. The weekend crowds have gone and Cosce has a hundred things to do and can't quite figure out where to begin. Me? I'm just sitting back here in true fishing-camp fashion, staring at a six-inch J.W.'s original Ding-a-Ling royal blue sliptail plastic worm, wondering how it could have let me down.