Carved along the shore of Lake Monroe, lined with cypress and palms, the inlet looked like a 1940’s Florida postcard. Spotting it from the I-4 Bridge, we wondered why each time we passed it was uninhabited. As our Chrysler 22’ sailboat glided silently into the shady, idyllic cove we anticipated a special day. Jerry and I, along with Stephen, 14, Amy, 11, & Jason, 9, and our friends, a husband and wife, decided to try our hand at fishing there. We had brought along simple rods and reels and a few cane poles. Our friend was an avid bass fisherman, so this trip was a step back in time for him. It turned out to be a step back in time for all of us.
The black, soupy shoreline sucked at our Sperrys as we hopped off the bow. One by one we began to tilt our noses up and sniff gingerly. What was that smell? Could there be sewage in the St. John’s River? We had lived in the Central Florida area only a few years but had sailed the lake often, even jumped overboard on occasion to cool off. The water was brown with tannic acid, but smelled clean and seemed safe enough. We were aware of alligators, but were pretty sure they hung out near the shorelines, not in the middle of the lake. Lake Monroe’s gator population was nothing like the infamous Lake Jesup, so we decided certain chances were worth taking.
Finding logs and dry spots on which to sit, we cast our lines. Small, slimy creatures took the bait, but lived to tell it because we decided that whatever smelled in that water was in those fish. This would be a catch-and-release adventure just to satisfy our longing to spend time in the picturesque cove.
Amy and I grew bored and decided to lay down our poles and explore the high ridge on the other side of the cove. The inlet was less than two acres, so our walk was short. Our stay on the other side was even shorter. As we climbed the ridge, a straw hat came into view. It was perched on the head of an elderly, black lady, sitting on the embankment beside a bait bucket, fish bucket, and a pile of drink cans. Amy and I gasped at the same time. What we witnessed was unbelievable, surreal, like a scene from the beginning of time. The small pond below (round and about a hundred feet diameter) was covered shore to shore with alligators, their leathery hides forming a crust on the placid water. But that wasn’t the most frightening part; along the banks all the way around gators sprawled as the sun beat down on them. The eerie prehistoric snapshot in front of us was steeped in stillness. The creatures seemed frozen and even the leaves of hanging branches hung motionless. I grew lightheaded and swayed. Amy caught me. Suddenly a three-foot gator began to creep slowly up the embankment toward the fisherwoman. Her fleshy arm reached and grabbed a soda can. Her good aim landed it right on his nose, at which point the gator swung his body away from her with the lumbering prowess of a bus rounding a corner.
Amy had to ask, “What are you doing here, aren’t you scared?”
Without turning to look at us (apparently her eyes never left the predators) she said, “They knows beter’n to steal my bait and fish.”
Amy and I were fixated on a spot about twenty feet from the woman where a small gator rose quickly on his short legs, and swiftly headed toward her. A bit faster this time, she reached for another soda can and hit the charging reptile right on the nose. He stopped and lowered his belly with hydraulic aplomb, his eyes still fixed on the woman. Amy and I ran back to the other side.
After the others had checked out our fantastic story, we packed up the boat and sailed out of there. We had a lot of questions: How did the lady get there? How did the gators get there? We can only assume she lived close enough to walk or parked off I-4. As for the alligators, what appeared to be a pond was obviously an inlet off Lake Monroe. For the thirty years or so we’ve passed that cove time and again, never stopping, our curiosity more than satisfied.
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