Florida Gators and Little Minnows!

By: Bob Alexander

Memories of last spring's fishing trip to Florida help warm up the night as I sit next to a glimmering fire in the den of my home here in northern Alabama, listening to the sleet bounce off the window panes. Spike the cat gently meows in his sleep next to the fireplace, no doubt chasing mice in his dreams.

March on Lake Jessup, about 20 minutes away from Orlando, is when nature out does itself, staging a wild life production that really can't be duplicated on cable TV. You have to be there!

Wild flowers of every variety native to that area are in bloom, yellows, pinks and reds contrasting with a powder blue sky. Trees are in their springtime finest foliage. Birds are nesting, crappies are bedding and the menhaden are practically coming ashore in their desire to spawn.

Menhaden are little shad-like minnows about 3-4 inches long. In the spring the spawning season is awesome, with thousands if not millions, of the small fish swimming within inches of the shore, laying eggs by the millions. They were so many that when I cast a net off the dock, I hauled in approximately 60 pounds of the small fish.

That particular morning we arose early because all fishermen know that you catch fish by getting up early and dangling your bait in front of them while they're having breakfast. Just at daybreak my brother-in-law and I walked from his house to his dock where the boat was tied. As we came closer to the pier, we both heard a noise coming from the bank that sounded like a buffalo dying.

Startled we crept closer to the pier, unsure of what we would see as we heard the sound of water splashing and roaring sounds as if some prehistoric monster was feeding. Indeed it was! There were fifteen mammoth alligators ranging from 8 feet long to 12 feet or more and they were doing something I've never even seen on Animal Planet! They were all lined up at the shoreline like cowboys at a bar in an old western movie and they were having breakfast!

We'd moved stealthily to peer from behind a large Cypress tree, that was dripping with Spanish moss, and about 60 feet from the alligators. All of them were lying on their sides engulfing mouthfuls of the hordes of menhaden. Their powerful jaws were acting like scissors as the snapped time and again; the minnows filling the gators' mouths by the hundreds, if not thousands.

We estimated that all of these animals weighed between 500 and 1000 pounds. My brother-in-law wanted to get closer. Not me! Most of the alligators were already too close to me as it was. I didn't want to get on their bad list by interrupting their breakfasts.

It was truly an awesome sight! These modern day dragons were all laying on their sides scooping up minnows by the bucket, or mouthful. None of this seemed to deter the menhaden, for they kept swimming toward the shore seemingly oblivious of these monstrous amphibians that were about to eat them alive!

The desire in all living things to reproduce no matter what obstacles may lie ahead was driving these midget shad toward shallow water. By swimming to the shoreline by the millions and depositing their eggs in very shallow water, they were insuring that some of the eggs would hatch. By the large amounts of menhaden we saw, it was evident that this theory had worked in the past.

We watched until the alligators left. As if someone had flipped a switch, first one of the largest gators suddenly twisted around, slapped his tail on the water, lunged toward the open lake and was gone. All the others immediately followed suit. Nothing was left but muddy water as all the alligators churned up the bottom of the lake making their get a way.

While we were fishing later that day, we saw alligators everywhere. The morning was made even more exciting by two young guys in kayaks paddling around the lake, about 30 yards from the bank, unaware of what might be lurking beneath the surface. It was almost like being in a "B" movie where the kayakers ignore the warnings from the good guys and keep flirting with death.

Thankfully they didn't capsize and made it back to shore after thinking the matter over. Every time I go to that lake in Florida, there are sights that I never see anywhere else. I'm going back soon!

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