Monday, September 18, 2006

The Off Season

My wife and I (that's us in the photo's reflection) spent last weekend down in Boca Grande and it was good for the soul. Mainly because Boca Grande is the last place left in Florida that still embraces what used to be an honored tradition in these parts — shutting down for the month of September.

Time was when Florida enjoyed a true Off Season, a blessed interlude when sensible heads prevailed and everyone understood that it was just too damn hot and miserable to carry on with everyday life, much less attend to tourists. Tradition held that after Labor Day the state was ours until sometime in mid-October when the first of the snowbirds came trickling down. September was when things got truly slow. It was a most restorative month.

It's still that way in Boca Grande, which sits on Gasparilla Island, along the north shore of Charlotte Harbor. Despite being an enclave for the super-rich — you can't buy a place here for less than a million — Boca Grande hasn't gotten too gussied up over the years. The beach is gorgeous (although there was a lingering tinge of red tide while we were there.) Iguanas rule the roost (Boca Grande even imposes an "iguana levy" on local property tax bills to help control the critters.) And condos have yet to supplant Whidden's Marina, where they still sell live bait shrimp on the honor system.

Downtown Boca Grande was locked up tight. Almost everything was closed for the next month or so, including Hudson's, the island's only grocery store, and The Temptation, our favorite watering hole and restaurant. But that was fine. We'd come for the quiet. And we spent lots of time on the back porch by our room at The Innlet, looking out on the water and the mangroves.

One morning, I got up early and was casting a white bucktail jig around some pilings near the dock when I got a strike, set the hook and the line ripped off the spool. Snook season had just started and I knew it had to be a 30-pounder. Debbie was standing on the dock and I heard her shout: "Look, a manatee!" I turned and, sure enough, just a few yards off the dock, a massive gray hulk poked its snout out of the water and gave a snort. And, in that instant, I gave that 40-pound snook a bit too much leverage. It wrapped the line around a piling and broke free.

Still, I'd hooked a good fish, seen a manatee in the morning, had some quiet time with my baby ... all was right with the world.

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