Living and Loving an Outdoor Lifestyle
by Ron Presley
Sharpies are part of an active outdoor culture.
Devin Whidden is a fifth-generation local of Glades County, FL. He is a prime example of what growing up with outdoors traditions is all about.
“My family moved and settled here in the early 1900s,” offered Whidden. “I think they were the second family to settle in this area. Being local and growing up here as I have is really rewarding for me. Living the history that we have here with Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River gives us something special to pass down to our kids and their kids. It is just really special.”
“Nowadays not many people are fortunate enough to have kids that love to hunt and fish and be in the outdoors,” continued Whidden. “It is kind of a dying thing. My wife and our kids love it because they grew up with it, they have a passion for the outdoors. I kinda’ wish everybody had the same passion. I think we would have a lot less problems in the world if we could keep our kids busy in the outdoors. It is so much more fun, and it is better for the kids.”
It was no accident that Whidden’s youth was filled with outdoors experiences. His dad, Bret Whidden, is a long-time city commissioner and current mayor of Moore Haven, FL where the Caloosahatchee River begins its flow towards the Gulf of Mexico. Bret enjoys the outdoors passionately and has worked endlessly over the years to promote the area for its hunting and fishing opportunities while passing on the love for hunting and fishing to his kids.
Looking for Sharpies
Part of the Glades County fishing tradition is the channel cat. Unlike many other parts of the U.S., when local residents are fishing for the dinner table they are targeting a very small channel cat.
Fishing in the shadows of Lake Okeechobee, known widely for its big bass and numerous crappie, Devin loves to motor up to the lock above the Hwy 27 Bridge in search of what the locals call sharpies.
“A sharpie is a juvenile channel cat about 8 inches or less in length,” instructed Devin. “Once cleaned and cooked it’s a fried morsel about 4 to 5 inches long. A true sharpie is a tiny channel cat.”
Officially he is fishing in Lake Okeechobee even though it is below the spillway. The state designates the water below the lock and dam as part of the lake until it reaches the bridge. This is more important to bass anglers, because bass regulations are different in the lake than in the Caloosahatchee River (once anglers pass under the Hwy 27 bridge they must meet river regulations).
Devin’s typical sharpie day begins at Moore Haven Marina where he maintains a slip for his boat. There is a boat ramp at the end of the canal that gives anglers easy access to the river. Once Devin leaves the marina it is a short distance to his fishing hole. It was a weather threatening day in May when I accompanied Devin to a spot below the spillway.
“We will tie off to the buoy chain below the spillway,” advised Devin. “I have caught 100s of sharpies in here over the last month. We will be fishing where the Caloosahatchee River begins. We should catch a lot of small catfish and some bigger cats too. The channel cats in this area can range anywhere from a sharpie to 15 pounds.”
Devin’s wife, Aurora, prepared a rope to tie off to the buoy chain where we would be fishing. Once the boat was secured she was the first to have a bait in the water. She obviously has the same passion for fishing as Devin.
“The current is barely churning in there today,” said Devin. “Anytime the water is moving it is good for catfishing. When the spillway is open and water is moving fast, it is good for other species too. An open spillway dumps millions of little shad out of the lake. That’s when the tarpon, snook, and bass come up here and eat those shad too. That’s also when lots of anglers show up. Since it’s not churning we will probably have it all to ourselves today.”
Devin describes his sharpie rig as a slip sinker rig. He begins by sliding a ½ ounce egg sinker on the mainline and securing it with a small swivel. He adds a 12-inch hook drop leader and a #2 or 1/0 hook.
“I am a mono-man all the way,” explained Devin. “I use 15-pound mono on the reel and tie leaders from 10-pound mono. If it snags I only lose a hook. Using that rig allows the weight to set on the bottom and the current will lift the bait a few inches off the bottom giving the catfish an easy target.”
Devin’s preferred sharpie bait is red worms, but he will occasionally use cut bait. Anglers should be aware that gamefish are not legal cut bait in Florida. Shiners, mudfish, shad, or chicken liver are the options that Devin uses if he doesn’t have red worms.
Aurora put the first sharpie in the boat. Her method was deliberate, effective, and tuned to perfection as she repeated it many times during the morning fishing trip.
“As the bait sits on the bottom it drifts up,” instructed Aurora. “The catfish will bump it. It is similar to a bass bumping an artificial worm. It’ll be a few quick bumps. That is when I take up any slack so I can feel the bite. I want to make sure he’s still bumping the bait. I can feel it in the line and I give it a good, solid hook set.”
“She has to hook em’ most of the time,” joked Devin. “I fine her if she misses three in a row.”
The morning ended as threatening clouds began to build and move in from the southeast. It had been a very successful outing with a combined bag of 37 channels and polywogs (bullheads) in the cooler. The largest channel of the day weighed about 6 pounds, but unlike trips I had taken before, size didn’t matter unless they were too big. And the 6-pounder was too big in Devin’s eyes.
“I don’t even like em’ if I have to fillet em’, said Devin. “I like the little sharpies. I can make a quick cut around the head, grasp that skin with skinner pliers and peel it right off. Cut off the head, gut it, and it is ready for the frying pan.”
The Glades County area is also great for crappie and other panfish and many locals catch them for the dinner table too.
“We catch a lot of crappie, but they are probably my third favorite fish to eat,” confessed Devin. “Second is shell crackers and first is catfish. I fillet all my fish except catfish. When I set down to eat fish I don’t want to fight with the bones. But them little sharpies are different. When I get thru eatin’ a sharpie it looks like one of them cartoons were the cat pulls the fish out of the garbage can and you can see every one of them bones are intact. We eat the tails too. When you fry em’ whole you can crunch that tail off first and then leave nothin’ but the bones when you are finished.”
The Deeper Message
Although sharpies were the target of the day, the real message coming from Glades County was the ability of the locals to pass on outdoor traditions to future generations. The county is full of likeminded citizens who understand and promote the simple but worthy values of an outdoors lifestyle.
“I wish I could take everybody fishing,” declared Devin. “We work a lot with the Turkey Federation, youth livestock organizations, and other groups that benefit the kids. That is what it is all about. You can’t beat that smile on their face when they catch a fish. My kids, they have caught a lot of fish, but every time that rod goes down they just light up and say, ‘there he is–there he is’.”
“When it comes to fishing, you and I have caught more fish than we could ever put in the bucket,” concluded Devin. “When I go fishing it is about the kids and giving them that passion so they can pass it down. We need to keep the outdoor traditions going on from generation to generation.”