We all have memories that have not faded. And will never fade. Fleeting moments in time that are so precious, so valued, that their mere recollection brings enormous joy and brightens our lives.
A few of those memories entered my mind as dawn began slowly stealing across the blackened Florida sky as I sped eastward on Highway 60 from Tampa to tiny Lake Wales in Polk County. I was on a mission to fulfill a promise my brother made to his grandson a few years ago — a promise he never got to keep.
When my nephew, Tanner, who was sitting in the back seat peering into the darkness, was a little boy, my brother began teaching him how to cast a fishing rod and coaching him almost daily on how to become a good angler. In time, he told him, “I will take you fishing for bass, something you will never forget.”
In similar fashion, my brother John taught me the ins and outs of bass fishing and how to become an expert at landing the legendary Florida largemouth — lessons that I treasured and practiced with him at my side for more than 35 years in the rivers and lakes around central Florida.
Now, on Tanner’s 12th birthday, it was my opportunity to keep my brother’s promise made when Tanner was only 4. My brother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly not long ago, and I knew this was a vow he wanted badly to keep. I decided that when the time was right, I would keep it for him.
One Of Florida’s Best Fishing Spots: Historic Camp Mack
We were headed to historic Camp Mack, a rural fish camp that dates back to 1836 when it was known on geological maps as Tyson’s Camp. It was a small outpost on the banks of the Kissimmee River where steamboats used to dock for a brief respite. Roughly a century later, this outpost in a cluster of dense, stately oak trees would be acquired in the early 20th century by two Coca-Cola executives — Leon Grady Bruce and his partner known only as “Mr. Mack” — who created a private retreat for company workers from Tampa.
In the 1940s, Leon Denton, his wife, and two sons bought Camp Mack and turned it into a renowned fishing destination whose popularity spread mostly by word of mouth. Over the years, the camp entertained sports personalities like boxer Jack Dempsey, football coaches Ray Graves and Charley Pell, evangelist Billy Graham, journalist Bob Woodruff, and a host of other celebrities.
My brother took me there to fish back in 1972, when its reputation for fishing was unparalleled. It was the first and only time I went fishing on the Kissimmee River until this endearing outing with my nephew.
Camp Mack Today
Camp Mack has evolved over the years, becoming a Guy Harvey Lodge, Marina, and RV Resort in a place so remote that few roads would ever be built onsite. It still caters to fishermen, campers, adventurers, and family gatherings. Today, however, there are first-class amenities carved into the wilderness, including lodging rooms, cabins, and RV sites. There is a clubhouse and pool, an outfitter shop, a sports bar, and rentals from boats to bikes. As the saying goes, “Not your grandpa’s Camp Mack,” but it’s still pristine and a hidden treasure that maintains its rustic appeal.
The camp offers access to the famous Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, which includes Kissimmee, Lake Hatchineha, and Cypress Lake — more than 40 miles and 21,000 acres of world-class bass fishing in all. I decided there was no better place to bring my nephew for his first big bass experience, and we were both brimming with excitement as we raced to our destination.
Why We Hired A Guide
Jane Waters Murphy, the director of Camp Mack, had pre-arranged a rendezvous with our fishing guide, Captain Scott Taylor of TMC Guide Services, at a truck stop gas station on Hwy 60 not far from the road to the camp.
Taylor is a renowned fisherman who specializes in catching trophy-size largemouth bass and is especially experienced in teaching young kids how to fish. His 22-foot bass boat is equipped with all the new technology as well as rods, reels, and bait — artificial and live. Using live baitfish almost guarantees a catch unless conditions simply aren’t favorable.
Fishing Florida’s Kissimmee Chain Of Lakes
This morning, thankfully, was a “blue bird” day, as fishermen like to say. Moderate temps, little wind, calm waters. After brief introductions at the Raceway gas station, Scott instructed us to follow him to the boat ramp at Camp Mack. By now, the sun was just starting to creep above the horizon and our adventure was about to begin. It was obvious from the outset that Capt. Taylor was kid friendly. He grasped the significance of this outing immediately and engaged Tanner in stimulating conversation about fishing for bass and how, with a little luck, he might just catch his first “lunker” largemouth.
We launched from the Camp Mack boat ramp and within minutes we were at the spot Capt. Taylor selected. He set out the anchor and put some live baitfish on two rods he secured aft of the boat. With patience and precision, he explained to Tanner what to do if the “floats” attached to the line began to twitch or sink below the water. Within moments of those instructions, one line began to quiver and Scott yelled, “Fish on!”
I handed the rod to Tanner and he waited until he felt the line tighten, and then he jerked the rod upward until it went taught and the rod tip bent forward, obvious the line’s hook was now embedded in the fish’s jaw. He reeled hard and with youthful exuberance as the bass resisted his exhaustive efforts. “It’s a good one, I think,” Capt. Taylor shouted.
The bass broke the surface with one valiant leap in an effort to throw the hook, but Tanner kept up the pressure, and before long, he brought the fish alongside the boat where I gently placed the net underneath it and hauled it aboard. It was indeed a beautiful specimen, and Tanner was shaking with excitement. The bass weighed in at just over 4.5 pounds, his biggest fish ever, and words could barely express what I was feeling at that moment.
Tanner would go on to catch five more bass before we would call it a day and head back to the camp. After landing one of his catches, he asked me if I thought his grandpa would be proud of him. “No doubt,” I said, saddened because my brother wasn’t there to see this.
I have faith that God has a river in heaven where I can fish with my brother once again. I also will have to tell him what happened on that special trip with his grandson and how he would have been proud of him.
If there isn’t a river there, I can at least say that for one day, I had a taste of heaven on earth.
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