My first Florida trip

Bassmaster Elite Series pro Charlie Hartley

It's Tuesday. I'm putting the final touches on my Open preparation. Basically, that translates into running around the lake looking for specific types of cover and structure that'll give me a last-minute bite during the tournament. And, as you might suspect, it gives a man time to think.

My first Florida fishing trip was back when I was still in high school. A friend and I came down here to catch some of the legendary big bass that the Sunshine State offers. That's the way it was back then if you were from Ohio. The big ones were in Florida. They were just waiting to jump in your boat. Everybody dreamed about a Florida trip.

We planned our trip to death. Every possible destination was considered and then reconsidered. We studied every magazine article we could get our hands on until we had it memorized. Every detail of every catch was important.

Nothing was left to the imagination except the big fish we were going to catch. There was plenty of imagination on that subject. I can assure you of that.

We finally settled on a place called the Kissimmee River Ranch. It had a small landing strip for private planes as well as a rodeo and plenty of access to good fishing. It was quite the deal. And it was right in the middle of big bass territory, too. It was well worth a 24-hour drive and $25 for gas.

When we pulled off the main road onto a gravel drive, we realized we'd made the right choice. That fish camp was everything we dreamed it would be. It had cabins, campgrounds, outdoor grills, fish-cleaning stations that smelled and plenty of old men hanging around who knew about fishing ... or at least talked like they did. It was heaven on earth as far as we were concerned.

Good as it was, however, the 10-pounders didn't jump into our boat. Nevertheless, with the help of a local angler, we did catch a few bass. I want to say they were giants, but they probably just looked like giants when we compared them to what we were used to catching. I still smile when I think about it, though. It was the trip of a lifetime.

How could it not be? We were away from home, fishing in a tropical paradise and dreaming about doing this for the rest of our lives. The real world hadn't caught up to us yet. We still had everything by the tail.

Things are very different now. The pressures of running a business and fishing professionally — at this level nothing counts except how much weight you have at the end of the day — gives you a different perspective on life. Still, every now and again I slip back 30 years and relive that first trip.

How could anybody not like this place?

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