Catfishing, a Dying Culture in Florida (Fall, 1996)

(originally aired on WUFT in the Fall of 1996)

Lochloosa Lake in Alachua County

When most Floridians get in the mood to eat a little catfish more than likely what they’ll find at the market will be farm-raised channel cats.  Florida has about 30 catfish farmers.  But a few decades ago most catfishing took place on Florida’s freshwater lakes and provided a living for many local fishermen.  Donna Green-Townsend reports that at least one Cross Creek fisherman is helping to keep the old ways alive.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

shorelineFull Script

(SOUNDS OF A BOAT HEADING OUT ON A LAKE)

“MAMMA WANTED ME TO BE A DOCTOR OR A LAWYER WHEN I GOT OUT OF HIGHSCHOOL.  MY HEART WASN’T IN THAT.  IT WAS IN FISHING SO I WENT RIGHT AWAY IN THE FISHIN’ BUSINESS WHEN I GOT OUT OF HIGHSCHOOL.  BEEN IN IT EVER SINCE, 40 YEARS OF IT.”

FOUR TO FIVE DAYS A WEEK RIGHT ABOUT DUSK, 57 YEAR OLD DON BAUKNIGHT OF CROSS CREEK MANEUVERS HIS 18 FOOT HOME-MADE WOODEN BOAT ACROSS ORANGE LAKE IN SOUTHEAST ALACHUA COUNTY.  HE HOLDS HAND-CARVED WOODEN CAT-LINE BOXES HOLDING 15-HUNDRED HOOKS ON A TROT-LINE, A VARIETY OF ANCHORS AND CYPRESS KNEE FLOATS.  LIKE HIS FATHER AND UNCLES BEFORE HIM, BAUKNIGHT’S CARRIES ON A CATFISHING TRADITION….ALMOST A LOST CULTURE TODAY.

“BACK THEN WHEN I WAS ABOUT SIX YEARS OLD I REMEMBER I HAD SEVERAL UNCLES FISHING OUT HERE ON THE LAKE.  THEY HAD TO MAKE TWO TRIPS A DAY TO HAUL THE FISH IN TO KEEP FROM SINKING THEIR BOAT THEY CAUGHT SO MANY FISH,” SAID BAUKNIGHT.

(SOUND OF SKINNING CATFISH)  STANDING UNDER A CHINABERRY TREE, BAUKNIGHT DRESSES OUT THE MORNING’S CATCH….50 POUNDS OF CATFISH CAUGHT ON 15-HUNDRED HOOKS….BAUKNIGHT SAYS IT’S STILL A FAMILY BUSINESS.

“WELL MY UNCLE HE HELPS ME A LITTLE BIT.  HE TAKES THE KNIFE AND WRINGS THE HEADS, CUTS THE SKINS WHERE I CAN GET A HOLD OF IT, PULL THE HIDE OFF.  MY BROTHER HE HELPS ME SOME, GUTS ‘EM AND EVERYTHING.  IT’S KIND OF A FAMILY JOB.”

(SOUND UP FULL OF SKINNING OR FISH DROPPING IN A BUCKET)

“DOWN THROUGH THE YEARS, 30, 40 YEARS AGO, 20 YEARS AGO THERE WERE PROBABLY A SOLID DOZEN COMMERCIAL FISHERMAN MAKING A FAIRLY GOOD LIVING AT IT AT TIMES.”

NOW DON BAUKNIGHT REMAINS THE SOLE CROSS CREEK FISHERMAN WHO CONTINUES TO MAKE HIS ENTIRE LIVING FROM CATFISHING…A WAY OF LIFE REQUIRING LONG DAYS TO GATHER BAIT FOR THE HOOKS, RACKING THE LINES ON THE WOODEN CATLINE BOXES, BAITING THE HOOKS, PUTTIN’ IN THE LINES, TAKING THEM IN AND CLEANING THE FISH.

“IT TAKES ABOUT 18 HOURS OF WORK TO GET THE JOB DONE.  ONE DAYS WORK TAKES ABOUT 18 HOURS.”

ALONG WITH THE LONG HOURS, BAUKNIGHT ENDURES WHAT MOTHER NATURE DISHES OUT…WIND, THUNDERSTORMS, GATORS TANGLING THE LINES IN THE SUMMER MONTHS NOT TO MENTION THE DANGERS OF PUTTING OUT THE TROT LINE ITSELF WITH THE THOUSANDS OF HOOKS.

“THAT WOULD BE THE DANGEROUS PART, PUTTING THE LINES OUT.  A FREAK ACCIDENT.  YOU GET A HOOK STUCK IN YOUR HAND IT COULD PULL YOU INTO THE WATER, INTO THE LINES…PULL YOU UP INTO THE PROP YOU COULD BE INTO IT TOO AND ALL CUT UP AND KILL YOU INSTANTLY.  I HAD KNOWN A COUPLE OF FRIENDS, FISHERMAN THAT GOT KILLED THAT WAY…DOWN AROUND LAKE APOPKA.”

(BOAT SOUNDS)  CYPRESS ISLAND, GRASSY POINT,  SEVENTEEN SISTERS, LITTLE HAMMOCK, BURNT ISLAND, TWENTY BROTHERS AND SAMPSON POINT…..ALL WELL-KNOWN FISH TERRITORIES IN ORANGE AND LOCHLOOSA LAKES.  AUTHOR OF “THE CREEK,” J.T. GLISSON FROM EVINSTON, RECALLS THE CATFISHING HEYDAYS IN CROSS CREEK IN THE 1930S AND 40S…A PERIOD OF TIME WHEN GLISSON’S FATHER TOM COORDINATED THE SALES OF TRUCKLOAD AFTER TRUCKLOAD OF BUTTERCATS, SPOTTED, BLUE AND CHANNEL CATFISH UP TO GEORGIA AND ALABAMA MARKETS FROM THE DOZEN OR SO CATFISHING FAMILIES FROM CROSS CREEK:

“THERE WAS ABOUT A THOUSAND TO 12-HUNDRED POUNDS OF CATFISH CAME OUT OF ORANGE LAKE ON AN AVERAGE PER WEEK FOR A LONG, LONG TIME.  I MEAN FOR YEARS AND YEARS.”

WHETHER THE FISHERMAN USED BEEF HEART OR CHICKEN GUTS, FRESHWATER SHRIMP OR SOAP FOR BAIT, GLISSON REMEMBERS HOW –WHAT THE FISH WERE BITIN’ DIDN’T SAY A SECRET FOR LONG.

“THERE WAS A THING THAT NO ONE WOULD BE SO GREEDY AS IF THEY FOUND SOMETHING THE FISH WOULD BITE, THEY WOULD IMMEDIATELY SHARE IT WITH EVERYONE SO THAT THERE WAS ALWAYS THIS ATTITUDE THAT THERE WAS PLENTY OF FISH OUT THERE FOR EVERYONE.  IT WAS JUST A CASE OF KNOWING HOW TO CATCH THEM AND HOW TO DO IT.”

AND ALWAYS SAYS GLISSON, THERE EXISTED AN ETERNAL OPTIMISM ABOUT THE TASK.

“CATFISH CAN BE THE MOST CANTANKEROUS THING IN THE WORLD ABOUT WHAT THEY WOULD BITE AND WHEN THEY WOULD BITE.  IT WAS ALWAYS AN ASSUMPTION THAT IF I CAN FIND THE RIGHT BAIT THAT THERE WILL THEN BE A FISH ON EVERY HOOK AND PROPERITY WILL REIGN ON US ALL.”

ANY DISPUTES SAYS GLISSON FISHERMAN TOOK CARE ON THE OLD CROSS CREEK BRIDGE…ONE WAY OR ANOTHER.  ALTHOUGH SOME FISHERMAN CONTINUED CATFISHING THROUGH THE 1960S, THE HEYDAYS ENDED WHEN GLISSON’S FATHER TOM DIED IN 1950.   BUT GLISSON SAYS HE’LL ALWAYS CHERISH HIS MEMORIES OF THE COLORFUL CONVERSATIONS AROUND HIS DAD’S SKINNING BENCHES IN THE HAND-BUILT PALMETTO LOG FISH HOUSE IN CROSS CREEK…AND SAYS HE’S GLAD AT LEAST ONE CATFISHERMAN KEEPS THE CULTURE ALIVE.  DON BAUKNIGHT,

“I AIN’T TIRED OF IT.  I LOVE TO DO IT.  I’M CONTENT WITH IT.  I’M BUSY WITH IT.  TIME GO BY FAST WITH IT.  I’M HAPPY WITH IT.  IF I HAD TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN, I’LL DO IT.  I HAD TWO WIVES TRY TO GET ME AWAY FROM IT BUT THEY FAILED.  THEY WENT ON.  I STAYED.”

FOR MID-FLORIDA PUBLIC RADIO, I’M DONNA GREEN-TOWNSEND.