The white, crescent-shaped outlines of bubbles bloom and split on the surface, an early-morning invitation for a gathering of shad.
The 62-year-old freshwater fishing captain, who knows Bradenton's Lake Evers as well as the lake's oldest fish, unravels a cast net onto the water. Shad have swarmed to the high oxygen levels provided by a churning aerator. Now they're surrounded by walls of green mesh.
"That's a lot of bait," Doc Lee says, flipping the net into a bucket as the shad flop into a gob of shimmying bait fish. "That should last all day."
A Florida country lake before dawn sleeps like a resting heart. It's barely alive with the staccato call of a purple gallinule or grunt of a frog. Purple light seeps through the curling, shoreline frame of Brazilian pepper trees. Pockets of rain empty themselves broke on the 400-acre lake.
"The rain should come and go all day," Doc says.
He drops the motor on the 13-foot Boston Whaler and sets his mind on one of the prettiest and ugliest, tastiest and muddiest, infamous and famous, fish species there is — catfish.
Who hasn't had a big cat that got away?
Long, black whiskers on a fish? Always an oddity.
There may not be a tougher fish, physically or spiritually. Cats have skin so thick and fixed to the bones, some use pliers to get to the meat. Their barbs can etch hard lessons in your hands. Throw one in the ice chest, and six hours later, it's as though they've developed lungs.
Run this route: Go deep, no more than a foot from the bottom, with 10-pound test line, a small hook and dead shad clipped twice on the belly to emit enough grungy scent to attract this stink-loving fish. Split two 12-foot extension poles wide. Cast corks into the four and five holes. Hit the structure. Silent count.
What makes good catfish bait? Chum with Cheetos and bait with cheese. Catfish Charlie is the nastiest concoction besides Jack Mack. But whatever works, right? Hot dogs, ham sandwiches, grasshopper behinds, dough balls, mullet heads — how about jigging a cigarette butt?
The most common bait is, of course, a pile of worms fished right on the bottom.
If we are what we eat, there are plenty of bottom feeders holed up in the South. Still, soak the fillets in buttermilk, toss them in white corn meal (with no egg wash for extra crispiness), sear them in scorching corn oil, dash the salt and pepper, and the Southern feast that began in the bowels of a lake sings on the edge of the dinner plate.
But let's talk Tampa Bay area catfish holes. Many are a bit inland. Lake Manatee and Lake Evers, as well as the upper Manatee River, are decent in Manatee County, and the Myakka River in Sarasota County has some good holes on bends with overhanging structure. But try the Apalachicola and Escambia rivers for some big boys.
Some of the canals of the Kissimmee and Clermont chains have been favorites of some catfish chasers, and the St. John's River reportedly has some good cat spots as well.
In general, catfish like to hang around structure or areas with good tidal flow. Most catfish anglers know catfish bite best at night.
Or in the early mornings, like on Tuesday at Evers. Six catfish in two hours. Four white cats and a pair of brown bullheads. All fought like cur dogs on a boar hog.
It's mid-morning, and headed back to refurbished the Boston Whaler splits the rain-lashed lake. Doc braces a hand on his fishing hat and flexes his eyelids. He is shouting something, but the words collapse in a gauntlet of rain and prop chopping.
Appropriately, the word "catfish" makes it through.