|LOWER HILLSBOROUGH RIVER |
The worker on the barge yelled over the noise of the traffic, "They’s a bunch of ‘um ‘round the pilings on the other side." I waved, but was intent on the big snook that had busted the red and white Zara Spook clean out of the shallow water. A two-hand sized crab scuttled away from the rocks, heading for the deeper channel as I drifted, beating the water to a froth until the snook finally hit again. But no keeper for me, not out of the Hillsborough River. I was just north of Hillsborough Avenue at the new bridge. Not that I get too excited about the chemical content of the fish in the river. Cripes, most of the snook caught in the bay are recent deportees from the rivers.
I like to put in at Lowry Park. It’s about eight miles upstream from the anchorage of Josť Gasparilla’s flagship, Tampa General, the Tampa Convention Center and Hillsborough Bay. When you come out of the park you are in a no-wake manatee area, but soon are in a wide stretch of river lined with big boats, grassy flats and fish.
The rumble of the traffic overhead didn’t seem to bother the formation of rays sailing along under the old Hillsborough bridge. They peeled off like a squadron of P-38’s, wings gracefully propelling them in smooth curving formations just under the surface.
The most remarkable feature of the river south of Lowry, presuming you don’t run across any abandoned bodies, is the legacies of the collegiate racing shell teams. All along the walls on both side of the river, especially south of the University of Tampa, home of the silver minarets, crews have painted reminders of who’s to beat, logos like "Eight big men, one small Cox."
But back to fishing. As you slowly wander along the Hillsborough north from Lowry, all is not for the faint of heart. Where the small park borders the river south of the dog track several apparently homeless men sit with their grocery carts. On the other side under I-275 three young men are doing something. I choose to decide they are fishing and focus on the water, watching as I should for the possibility of manatees. Even though the big mammals rarely, if ever, venture this far up the river in the summer. Along the banks red-tails have dug nests in the sand, some of the holes up to three feet across and at least a foot deep, each with a guard waving its tail in the current. I always wondered if it was the mom or the dad, or if they took turns.
The river transforms as you glide past old Sulfur Springs where the manatee congregate in the winter around the warm outflow of the springs. The bottom goes shallow and sandy, and the water is clear and full of cruising fish. Schools of adult mullet flash around the boat and the water shimmers with clouds of tiny fry. And the number of large snook make your eyes water.
As you approach Rowlett Park the gaps between houses and the overhanging trees leave you isolated for a moment, cut off from the roar of traffic and chatter of people. It’s easy to let your mind go back to the days when a Calusa paddling his dug-out canoe on a trading trip from the Ten Thousand Islands might meet a Tocobaga from over Safety Harbour way. Pottery, flint, or maybe even a carved decoration could be part of the trading material, enough to make your eyes search the bottom, harder to see now as the river takes on the tannic-stained tea color true to all the rivers running through the deep swamps. Limestone outcroppings line the bank and a large fish, silver back covered with spots, cruised from the shade of a overhanging oak, a young drum looking for a spawning bed.
The bark of the propeller grinding itself down on a chunk of limestone reminds me I’m approaching the spill way and that its time to turn back to the world. I’ll have to put in at Fowler Ave. and do the upper stretch next week.
Life's tough, ain't it?
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University of Tampa
Go west on Sligh Ave. from I-275, turn north on North Blvd., then right into the picnic area and roll downhill to the boat landing. The twenty or so trailer parking slots tend to be full on the weekend, but plenty of room on weekdays. If you are one of those who can get lost on a river, try A World of Maps. They are just off Nebraska south of Sligh. For my USCENTCOM friends interested in downtown Baghdad, they have street maps for there, also