A mysterious night of snook fishing on the Manatee River
Night fishing in our local waters is an experience any avid saltwater angler should experience, especially those anglers who like to target snook. Snook, especially big snook, are nocturnal feeders, so what better time to target them than at night.
This brings to mind a recent fishing excursion to go fish some docks up in the Manatee River for big snook. My buddy, Capt. Josh Peurifoy, and I had planned this outing for about a week. The moon was approaching full and a high tide was going to occur at just about midnight.
We arrived at Keyes Marina around 11:00 p.m. to load up Josh’s Pathfinder with our tackle and headed out to cast net some shiners. We figured we could catch bait and reach our fishing destination by midnight, which would be just in time for the change of the tide. We knew snook like to feed on the outgoing tide and had timed our evening just for that.
Upon arrive at the bait spot, Josh eased the boat up close to a lighted dock and I threw the 10-foot cast net along the edge of it.
“I got ‘em,” I said.
I could feel the bait dancing in the net through the line I held in my hand. Josh slowly backed the boat away from the dock as I pulled the net aboard and emptied a few hundred perfectly sized shiners into the bait well. I then stowed the net as Josh steered the boat east, toward the mouth of the Manatee River.
We headed past the entrance to Bimini Bat and onward over the Key Royale flat watching for the red and green flashing lights that mark the Intracoastal Waterway.
The moon was 3/4 full, which gave us enough light to see the silhouette of Gilligan’s Island ahead of us. Josh pulled the throttle down as we made our approach and the Pathfinder flew over the shallow grass flats below us.
As we buzzed east along seven pines, we could see the phosphorescence in our wake. Mullet scattered on either side of us, spooked by our presence. We rounded the outflow that drains from Robinson Preserve and cut south back toward the shoreline to avoid the sandbar to the north. Then, as we approached the Boca Del Rio Maine, Josh raised the jack plate and we hopped the bar and headed towards Shaw’s Point.
As we made our way past the eastern-most dock before passing Desoto Memorial, we ran close to the shore to see if we could skip some pompano. That’s when I spotted something in the water.
“Josh, watch out!” I yelled.
Josh saw the figure and cut the boat hard to the left to avoid a collision. We then stopped to see what we had successfully avoided. As we slowed down we heard a voice yelling to us.
“Have you seen my boat? Hey there, don’t hit my boat.”
To our surprise, the voice was coming from a young boy standing out on the sandbar. He looked to be about 10 years old.
“You know, we almost ran you over!” Josh exclaimed.
“I’m just trying to find my boat,” the boy replied.
He was standing in waste-high water and we were able to pull the Pathfinder right up to him. Before we had time to question him further, he stated, “There it is.”
Josh turned on his spot light and to our surprise, there it was. A small toy sailboat was floating a few yards away from us. It looked old and as if someone had made it from scratch. The boy waded over and retrieved the small vessel.
“I’d sure appreciate it if you could give me a lift back to shore,” the boy said while standing there holding his boat in his arms.
Still in shock from the near collision, we lifted the boy and his boat aboard.
“What are you doing out here in the middle of the night?” Josh asked.
You could sense the frustration and confusion in his voice. The boy didn’t answer. He just sat there looking forward.
I sensed he was scared over the whole ordeal so I quietly asked him where he lived. “We should get you home to your parents,” I said. “They’re probably worried sick about you. By the way, what’s your name?”
“Asa,” he replied.
As Josh pulled the boat up to the beach at De Soto Memorial, you could see the Gumbo Limbo trees high on what used to be an old Indian mound. When we stopped, I suggested to Josh we drop anchor and walk the boy safely home. We could always snook fish later. He agreed, but before we had a chance to ask where the boy lived, Asa jumped out of the boat and started running towards the Welcome Center of De Soto Memorial. Josh and I jumped out too, and followed him trying to get him to wait so we could help him. He ran faster, and headed toward the north trail onto the nature walk. The faster he ran, the more we gave chase. Unfortunately, I still had my flip-flops on which caused me to trip and face-plant right in the middle of the shell trail. I could hear Josh yelling up ahead of me. “Asa, stop. We just want to get you home!”
I stood back up, pulling shell fragments from the palms of my hands, half dazed from the fall. The air was thick and humid and the smell of detritus filled my nostrils. The buzz of no-see-ums and mosquitos was all I could hear.
“Josh,” I yelled, “Where are you?”
In a slightly softer voice we if not to alarm something, he replied, “Up here. Hurry.”
As I rounded the corner of the trail, I recognized where I was. I was approaching the ruins of the old Tabby House that dated back to the 1840s. There was Josh standing in front of the ruins.
“Shhh. Look. There he is,” Josh whispered.
The young boy, Asa, stood amidst the ruins holding his toy boat and just stared at us. The light of the moon shone down upon him, which gave him a slight glow amongst the trees. As this point, I was in such a state of confusion, coupled with exhaustion. Josh and I stood in the blanket of darkness as the boy just looked at us. Then he smiled and ran straight into the bushes. I yelled for him to wait, but he had disappeared. He was off trail now and all we could do was hear branches cracking as he put more distance between us.
Well, we tried once more to give chase but the attempt was futile. Josh was barefoot as I was then, too. I had left my flip-flops back own the trail so I wouldn’t trip again. There was no way to follow the boy without slicing our feet to bits.
The bugs were so thick we were inhaling them with every breath so we headed back to the boat. We figured the boy must have lived close by and was probably home, scared out of his mind thinking we were trying to get him.
Exhausted and bug bitten, we decided to head home —snook fishing could wait. Upon arrival at Keyes Marina, we were so tired we didn’t even clean the boat. We emptied the bait well and headed straight for the truck. The drive home was silent.
A few weeks later, my four-year-old daughter, Isabel and I visited the South Florida Museum. Isabel loves going to visit Snooty the manatee, and I love learning about the history of Manatee County. After seeing Snooty, we ventured upstairs to the Old Florida section of the museum. As we walked past the displays, Isabel stopped and said, Daddy, look at this toy sailboat.” At first glance, I saw a model sailboat in a glass case. Then, after further inspection, I froze in my tracks. I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as I realized what was happening. It was the boat the young boy, Asa, was carrying that night at De Soto Memorial. I frantically searched the display case for some kind of information about the boat.
Finally, I found a small placard that read, “Eva, 1900,” which was the name of the boat. Under this, it stated, “the “Eva” was carved from one piece of wood by Asa Pillsbury when he was a teenager growing up on the Manatee River at the turn of the century.”
I couldn’t believe what I was reading, but there it was. I searched my thoughts but came up with no other conclusion other than I had witnessed something I could not explain.
This being said, if you are out night fishing for snook, around the mouth of the Manatee River, always keep a watchful eye out for Asa and his model sailboat.
Happy Halloween y’all.
NOTE: Asa Pillsbury Jr. arrived in Manatee County with his father in 1885 from Chicago. They settled in an area called Palma Sola near De Soto National Memorial. As a boy, one of Asa’s favorite hobbies was to build model boats and sail them across the Manatee River. This hobby eventually spawned into a passion, which resulted in the creation of Pillsbury Boatworks. Before his death in 1969, Asa Pillsbury had many other ventures, including creating a bird sanctuary on Passage Key, becoming a game warden there and being an avid conservationist.