BRIGHTON — Fish began to bite almost immediately for seniors on a chilly January night at the Harney Pond Canal lock near Brighton.
Five hours later, 70 black crappies and a handful of catfish and bass filled a cooler.
“It’s good eating,” said Willie Johns, smiling as his first catch wiggled and wrestled still hooked on the line.
Nighttime fishing, hosted monthly through winter for the past nine years by the Brighton Elder Services Department, brought 17 seniors to the water’s edge Jan. 12 for relaxation and good company. The previous night out, Dec. 20, landed 50 fish.
Chairs, poles, rods, snacks and drinks are provided by the department. Staffers stand by from 4 to 10 p.m. to serve all senior needs from baiting hooks to releasing fish into the collective catch.
“And if fish are biting and they want to stay until 11, we stay,” said the center’s site manager Patricia Yates. “In the past, when we had enough volunteers, we’d clean some catch and cook fish snacks up right then and there.”
Activity coordinator Donna Turtle said the winter activity series can run through April if night temperatures are cold enough to keep most mosquitoes away and all seniors cool and comfortable.
The next fishing night is Feb. 18, but seniors will enjoy December and January’s now frozen catch several days earlier. On Feb. 11, the fish will be fried outdoors on the senior center patio and then brought inside to eat with hush puppies and cheese grits at a lunchtime Valentine’s Day soiree.
Officially, the elder fishing nights were started by Turtle’s mother, Leah Minnick, who for 35 years worked for Elder Services until her retirement as the department director in 2012, Turtle said. Minnick passed away a year later, said her other daughter Debbie Carter, who fished for hours on the recent Wednesday.
“Our mom loved to fish. When she was alive we’d just come out, sit on the concrete and fish all day. We didn’t even care if we caught fish or not. Now, every time I come fishing I think of her,” Carter said.
Then, the lock was more accessible without fences and danger signs that now infringe on the otherwise bucolic scene.
Born and raised in Brighton, elder Onnie Osceola remembers earlier days when night fishing was a necessity, not a pastime, and Tribal citizens lit small fires in the rocks along the canal bank to keep warm. She recalled when groups of seniors met up at Indian Prairie Canal closer to Lake Okeechobee where more fish seemed to bite – until Seminole seniors were prohibited from the site.
“Now we have heaters out here, we get to eat sandwiches and drink hot coffee, and our grandkids come out,” Osceola said.
Onnie Dallas Cypress, Onnie Osceola’s daughter, brought her fiance, Jose Serrano, and four of their children to enjoy the night. Mostly, the kids wanted to play on the rocks but Oddyssie Cypress, 6, made her first catch and Marley, 3, sat on a folding chair patiently watching and learning about fishing from her grandma.
“The children have more questions about alligators being in the water than fish these days, but Marley still told me, ‘Get that fish on the hook.’ It’s nice out here,” Onnie Osceola said.