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TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
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North Tampa– The night light shines like a beacon on the bait shop’s buzzer, beckoning to early morning and nocturnal fishermen.
At A-24 Hour Bait the workday doesn’t end. The rustic store sits off the Fletcher Avenue ramp to Interstate 75 South. A windowless blue mobile home and worm bed are it’s companions on a one-acre slice of land.
The buildings are a sharp contrast to their new neighbors, Hidden River Corporate Park rising out of the woods on the north and growing Tampa Telecom Park on the west.
Owners Joe and Kim Brown work about 20 hours a day, occasionally resting in “the cave”, the mobile home they live in behind the store.
The couple’s shop is well stocked with shiners and worms.
“What we try to do here is carry the best of baits,” Joe Brown said.
He’s got night crawlers from Canada, salamanders from North Dakota and wigglers from his own worm bed behind the store. A refrigerated tank is home to cured shiners and minnows sedated by the cold.
“Wild shiners in a non-refrigerated tank would be going crazy,” Brown said as he peered into a tank of fish separated by size. “They’d be jumping around trying to commit suicide. With the cold water they’re pretty sedate, but you let the water (temperature) rise, a shiner would be like a race horse.”
Larger shiners are selling for $24 a dozen a dozen today because the fish are dispersed and spawning, so they’re are difficult to catch. Normally, large shiners cost around a $1.50 each, Brown said.
Good bait, proximity to the Hillsborough River and convenient hours lure in fishermen.
“It’s all the time,” Brown said. Catfish lovers are out early to snag popular fishing spots, and during snook season there’s a real run for shiners, he said.
It’s not uncommon for someone to ring the bell at 3 a.m.
“I stick my head out of the door real fast and tell them I’ll be there. It takes a lot for someone to ring a bell that time of the day,” Brown said.
The Browns opened their shop about two years ago with a top notch but small stock of bait and tackle. Born anglers, they knew it was hard to get bait late at night or early in the morning, so they decided to stay open 24 hours.
Now they think their hard work is paying off. The shop has gradually grown to include all kinds of lures and bobbers, rods and reels. Hillsborough River fishermen know they’re there. And others find out every day, Brown said.
“I’ve seen this place a bunch of times, off the interstate, but this is the first time I’ve been here,” customer Michael Walker said one afternoon. “We got a pretty good (fishing) hole near here, so this will suit us just fine.”
Walker said he’s been to a few saltwater bait shops that were open till midnight.
“But I don’t know any that stay open past midnight,” he said.
Although sometimes blurry-eyed when he waits on customers, Brown is never too tired to swap fish stories and other tips.
Normally when he’s fishing with a shiner, Brown hooks the bait behind the rear dorsal fin with a Khale hook. A bass usually grabs a smaller fish head first, so the gills and fins smooth back as the larger fish swallows its victim, Brown said.
But during spawning season, like now, he uses a straight hook and punctures the crease at the bottom of the shiner’s mouth, hooking upward through a hole in the snout.
“Now bass are eating and striking so hard they take him and swallow him,” Brown said.
The shop has given Brown more than a chance to make a living and tell stories. A former designer of conveyor systems, he gave up two houses, boats and other luxuries to move to the woods 10 years ago.
“I had what you’re supposed to want,” Brown said. “I just wasn’t happy.”
But he loved the river, and he lived for years on the Hidden River property north of his shop. Today he said he thinks the land surrounding his home will become Tampa’s version of Central Park.
“I had the foresight to have bait and tackle because there’s 25,000 acres of Southwest Florida Water Management district property adjoining the river that will always be public,” Brown said.
As the area grows, the Browns hope their business will follow suit. They feel lucky that they’re in the middle of a developing area minutes from the pristine quiet of the undeveloped Hillsborough River.
Soon Joe Brown plans to have canoes for rent.
“We’re going to grow slow, we don’t believe in carrying debt,” he said. “It takes a lot to start a business.” We’ve had to sacrifice, but we wouldn’t trade it.”
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HILLSBOROUGH RIVER ROLLIN’ ALONG
Tribune Outdoors Editor
The Hillsborough River has seen some tough times, It’s been dammed and drained and polluted and sea-walled almost to the point of death.
But it keeps on hanging in there. Old man river just keeps on rollin’.
The upper river, above the Fowler Avenue bridge, shows fits and starts of the sort of thing that brought the lower river to its knees years back. But all things considered, its still got a whole lot to offer a city-world wearied soul.
I went up there a week or so ago with Joe Brown and his fishing guide pal Ted Sawyer, both Hillsborough River fans since they wore knee pants.
Joe asked ask me to ride along to take a look at some of the trashing problems that are starting to peak out here and there along the shore lines, and we saw more of it than you’d hope to.
But what we saw mostly was rich-looking black water and tall, thick cypress dams, lots of birds and fish and turtles. And solitude.
It’s not pristine wilderness. But considering it’s within shooting distance of the downtown towers of a major American metropolis, the upper Hillsborough ain’t bad. Not bad at all.
The river snakes through the backyards of a number of homes and an apartment complex or two until it slips under the Fletcher Avenue bridge. From there on up, city turns country in a hurry. There’s a landing at Tampa Palms, but you can’t see any buildings, and for much of the rest of it, the river swamp spreads out all around the flow, a lot like it must have when Tampa was a two-bit fishing village 10 miles away.
There are lots of interesting creeks to explore, including several that Joe said were excellent bassing spots.
HILLSBOROUGH RIVER ENDURES DESPITE TRASH
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Lettuce Lake, the only open spot in the river, gave us a look at the county park tower where folks so inclined can view the swamp without getting their feet wet. And a little further up, we found the buzzards.
They come in hundreds, maybe in thousands, Joe said, every winter. They show up in November, they stay until March. They festoon the trees in dozens, fight and hold discussions along the banks, bath in the river.
Yep. Buzzards bath.
Apparently they get a bit too strong even for themselves after a time. We watched a dozen of them flutter like sparrows in a bird bath as they washed up along a sandy shoreline near Nature’s Classroom.
The birds roost in the trees along the river at night, fly out over the surrounding pasture land by day looking for assorted horribles to fill their stomachs.
Sometimes they go visit the downtown towers, where they whirl for hours on the thermals of heated air rising up the glass cliffs.
We found the trash piles, too. Heaps of plastic cups, beer cans, paper plates, the fallout from the civilization that bustles around the edges of this little piece of wilderness.
Joe said he can’t understand why folks would take the trouble to come out here, to get away from the pollution and the ugliness of some parts of the city, and then turn the shorelines into a dump wit their leftovers.
I couldn’t either.
FISHING THE RIVER
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Joe Brown runs 24-Hour Bait, on Morris Bridge Road just off Fletcher Avenue. It’s the nearest bait shop to the river, and the only one that operates around the clock. (Well, sort of around the clock. If you show up at 3 a.m., you have to press the buzzer and wait a couple of minutes until Joe rolls out of the sack and comes on down to the shop to serve you.)
The folks who buy bait there return with stories of their successes, and this along with his own long angling experience has allowed Brown to put together a pretty good picture of what works, when, on the river.
Wild shiners, Joe says, are the choice offering for the river’s large mouth.
“We sell ’seasoned’ shiners that have been in chilled, chemically treated water for a week or two. This gives them a slightly silvery color, makes their scales a lot tougher and makes them stay alive on the hook longer than domestic shiners or even fresh-caught wild ones,” he says.
Brown says the way to fish the shiners is to use a Kahle-style hook with a big bend, made of light wire so the bait stays lively. The hook should be inserted under the skin back of the dorsal fin. The bait is then either free-lined, with no weight or cork, or with a cork only, around beds of floating grass and along the deeper cypress shores.
Joe says that simply putting a couple of the baits out behind the boat and letting it drift with the current will also turn up plenty of fish.
He says the side creeks are good spots to fish plastic worms, rigged Texas style with a slip sinker. Colors favored by river experts are tequila shad, red shad and crawfish.
Joe says that the waters above the “pop-off canal” dam, which shuttles water to the Palm River in time of flood, are good for top-water plugs early and late in the day.
Brown is also a catfish angler, and notes that there are plenty of spots where big channel catfish gather in the river.
“Every major bend has a deep hole along the outside bank,” he notes. “Most of these holes have big catfish in the bottom.”
In fact, some of the holes marked nearly 30 feet deep on Ted Sawyers LCD depth finder, and suspended dots showed there were plenty of cats waiting in the depths.
Brown said that cut shiners were the best bait for cats. He said the fish usually feed right on the bottom, so the bait should be weighted with plenty of lead to make it hit and stay put.
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He said speckled perch or crappie have been biting well in the river for several months, and should stay active through March.
Some of the best spots, he noted, are the hole just below the Fletcher Avenue Bridge, and the island near the upstream end of Lettuce Lake. He said Missouri minnows about two inches long are the best bait in either location.
The river offers good fishing year around, but water levels drop in late winter and early spring.
This means possible problems for boatmen new to the river, according to Brown, because there are many unmarked rocks and stumps, particularly near the Fowler ramp.
Guide Ted Sawyer suggests using only shallow-draft aluminum boats during the low water period, and proceeding slowly until you learn the water.
If you’d rather let Sawyer show you around, he can be contacted at 949-7517. The number at A-24 Hour Bait is 989-2248.
Joe has one request, however you fish the river: take a trash bag with you.
‘FISH JOCKEYS’ HAVE RADIO LISTENERS HOOKED
Tribune Outdoors Editor
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They call themselves the Mutt and Jeff of Saturday morning fishing shows.
On the air they are argumentative, querulous and cantankerous by their own admission, but Jim Lee and Joe Brown of WFNS, 910 AM’s “GETAWAYS” radio program get along just fine when they hop into a boat and head out for some redfish and snook action, as they did a few weeks ago with captain Tod Romine of Bradenton.
Lee is an insurance man at his “real” job, while Brown runs Tampa’s only 24-hour bait shop. Both say the Saturday morning radio gig is more for fun than profit, but the 25 weeks since they started they’ve managed to collect enough sponsors to break even and enough listeners to put them in the ratings book.
“It ruins your Friday’s nights because you have to get up at 3:30 on Saturday morning to be on the air by 6,” Lee said. “And we usually like to get together at least once during the week to go over the next show and plan the sound effects.”
The program not only covers hunting and fishing, but also family adventures like locating shark’s teeth on the beaches near Venice and going on-site at Gatorland at feeding time.
” We enjoy a lot of foolishness on the air,” Brown said. ” We want to provide information, but more than that we want to entertain. It’s humbling to know you’re just a push of the button away from disappearing from your listeners.”
For a part of the trip on Sarasota Bay, the fish were somewhat humbling, too, with the temperature around 95 degrees and baits scarce, Tod Romine had to delve into his bag of tricks to turn the fish on. But after a few dry holes, he managed.
” The big problem with fishing this summer has been the bait scarcity in this area due to the red tide,” Romine. ” There’s lots of little stuff on the inside that are good for chum, but the larger sardines we want as bait are very hard to find.”
Fortunately, Romine had a “sardine mine” in a 15-foot deep hole in the grass flats where he managed to collect several dozen 4-inch baits with five or six throws of the 10 foot net. He then visited a spot near the mouth of the Manatee River where one toss of of a small-mesh net captured all the chum-sized sardines he could lift aboard.
” I like small sardines for chum because they turn the fish on but don’t fill them up,” Romine said. ” Once you get them popping on top, put out a bigger bait and you’re hooked up in a hurry.”
Lee caught the first fish, a snook of about 23 inches. He pulled it aboard and was still posing for photos when Brown nailed one of about the same size.
” That fish is just like mine, only an inch shorter,” Lee told him.
” Yeah , but it’s an ounce heavier,” Brown said.
” Mine has a higher IQ,” Lee said.
” He wouldn’t have hit if I hadn’t put it in there just right.
” Mine is better looking,” Brown said.
” Yours has a crooked nose.”
And so it went. We managed 15 snook total, all but a couple smaller than the legal 24-inch minimum, and a dozen redfish, six of them in the legal spot, six over the 27-inch maximum. In between was a mix of lady fish, jacks and undersized trout — a busy day considering the sweltering heat.
Romine fishes a mix of yellow holes on high or rising water, deep cuts and island points on the drop.
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