Hooked on Bass
Josh and Beckley Waldrop, Dale Sorensen, Jr. and Scotty Emerick catch some big bass with the help of guide Roy Bass on Blue Cypress Lake. ROY BASS PHOTO
Fishing trips on Blue Cypress Lake are plentiful and informative
BY CHRISTINA TASCON
When visitors turn north at the big recreational sign pointing the way to Middleton Fish Camp Park off State Road 60 west of Vero Beach, they slow down, open their windows and take a moment just to listen.
Nowhere in Indian River County is the sound of Old Florida more prevalent than on the road to Blue Cypress Lake — crickets, birds, the steady hum of cicadas and the soft sound of wild grasses blowing in the wind harkens to an earlier time. Many families and diehard fishermen have traversed this path over the last 50 years but what they no longer see at the end of the journey is the man who the county renamed the park after last year — Joe Middleton.
Anyone who has ever taken the drive to Middleton’s will tell you that going there feels like finding hidden treasure. Joe knew how special it was and managed the county-owned haven like it was his child.
Joe first bought the little bait shop, which he leased from the county, 51 years ago and ran it faithfully until he died on Oct. 18, 2014. It wasn’t much to look at — just a small wooden building with some live bait tanks, ice machine, fishing tackle, and a little front porch where he jawed with anyone who came by. He was bigger-than-life, a real rascal (former sheriffs and wildlife wardens will attest to that) but he was beloved to those who listened to his stories of fish caught and gators that got too close.
His wife, Jeanne, and approximately 100 friends and family scattered Joe’s ashes at the site of a beautiful cypress tree in the lake where there is a driftwood cross marking his life. They wanted him to rest in a place that he loved the most.
“It was such a loss to all of us who knew Joe Middleton all our lives and to Blue Cypress Lake,” country singer/songwriter Scotty Emerick said.
Joe was also a man who was generous with his guidance and skill to the kids who wanted to learn how to fish the back trails and find the biggest fish. In his day, his ability to find record-sized bass was legendary. He passed the love of the lake and his knowledge on to many but only one, Roy Bass, took on Joe’s dedication as his own. His business, Outback Airboat Adventures, is a direct result of the training Joe gave to Bass.
Bass has been guiding airboats since Joe took him out and taught him to navigate the waters of Blue Cypress Lake when he was just 13 years old.
“Joe was a mentor to me because he took me under his wing and pointed me in the right direction at a time when I most needed it,” Bass said. “My parents were divorced and I moved in with him and his wife at the time and he took care of me. They sent me to school and Joe showed me how to guide and drive an airboat and I haven’t stopped since.”
One of the most important things Middleton taught him was a reverence for the lake and its challenges in navigating in any kind of weather. Blue Cypress can be as sleek and black as granite one minute and a pitching white-capped devil the next.
“Every day is not like the day before and when you take people out on an airboat everything has to be perfect because if they didn’t enjoy it, they’re not coming back,” Bass said. “I take the safety of my passengers as equally important as how many fish they catch.”
His reputation as a skilled fishing guide has garnered him a varied clientele including Nashville country music stars and top international financiers. Anyone who has gone on one of his tours talks about him with unequivocal devotion.
Some people go their whole life fishing and never catch the big one — not so with Bass. It is a touch ironic that his name is the same as the fish he finds so frequently. It is almost as if he has a deal with 10-pounders that if they bite his lines, he’ll release them so they may go forth and multiply.
Scotty Emerick says he thinks Bass is the best airboat captain out there. “He can find his way in the middle of the night with no lights if he had to,” he said.
Emerick also grew up fishing on Blue Cypress Lake and takes friends such as country singer Jake Owen, Riverside Café owner David Lane and songwriter Dean Dillon out fishing with him from sunrise to sunset. Dillon also likes cruising with Bass just to hear him talk about the lake’s beauty as he points out roseate spoonbills, American bald eagles and plentiful alligators.
“For the last 30 years, Roy has been out there every day and he really knows what he is doing,” Emerick said. “I have given his name and pictures of bass I caught with him to all kinds of people from Blake Shelton to Luke Bryan. Everybody who goes out with him has the same reaction — he’s great to listen to and you can learn a lot from him.”
Referrals from Emerick and Owen to their Nashville buddies have enhanced his reputation in the country music world. Dillon, who has written more than 50 songs for George Strait, loves to fish with Bass and he has booked trips with members of Strait’s crew. “Roy knows this area like the back of his hand. He can go places no one else can,” Dillon said.
Dale Sorensen Jr. of Dale Sorensen Real Estate sends Bass his exclusive barrier island clients as well. Sorensen has been fishing with his father Dale Sr. all over the world and knows Bass is not an airboat cowboy. He is comfortable sending his high-end clients, from the CEO of an international bank to the company’s prospective multimillion dollar buyer, knowing they will be safe and there will be no daredevil antics.
“Roy just isn’t an airboat tour guide, he knows every single bass hole in the county and catches more double digit bass than anyone I have ever seen,” Sorensen said. “In addition to fishing, he knows the waters so well he can take you from Blue Cypress Lake to Orlando in an airboat. This is invaluable because we often have customers who want to have a variety of experiences — from taking the grandkids fishing, wildlife photography, checking out big gators, and exploring remote areas that are off the normal tourist tours. I really like having the flexibility to offer a variety of options to my clients.”
THRILL OF BLUE CYPRESS
There are several options to take an airboat tour in Indian River County: Stick Marsh in Fellsmere just east of the former Elephant Sanctuary; Blue Cypress Lake Recreation Area (known to locals as Garcia’s after the former owners) and Middleton Fish Camp Park.
Bass, who prefers Blue Cypress, is one of the only professional guides who regularly launches air boats from there. He thinks many other guides are wary of the lake and the added expense of traversing its wide expanse. He feels it is the most unique and unspoiled location of them all, so he launches there whenever possible.
What really thrills Bass more than having a boat full of bass? Seeing people appreciate the beauty of the lake and its trails as they wonder at its wild beauty. Of course, his clients love the big bass they catch.
“On my very first trip, my first catch was a 10-pounder and I have been hooked ever since,” said David Lane, who has a second home at the lake with his wife, Ellen.
Bass said there is no better bonding experience than spending the day on the lake with spouses, friends or children.
“You have to experience it for an hour to know why people keep coming back here year after year. I have taken people out with their kids and now those grown children are returning for trips with their children. They want to share that same experience that they had with their parents.”
Although the basic look at the lake has not altered radically since Jeanne married Joe in 1994, there have been noticeable changes. Before the dedication to Joe, you might have passed right by the small conservation park. Now, there is a big sign, erected by the county, pointing the way. Although someone has scraped all the speed signs to read “0” miles per hour, a few break the limit while driving golf carts.
“You wait, David will come screaming up in his golf cart any minute,” Jeanne said jokingly about Lane, who is one of the new breed of homeowners at the lake.
Sure enough, within minutes Lane careens around the corner in his monogrammed golf cart with his buddies looking to take a trip with Bass. Occasionally, his wife brings her friends and the inevitable fishing contest between the men and women ensues.
Jeanne enjoys them all. As long as they respect the park, she has no problem with anyone. Since Joe died she has been wrestling with the idea of selling. But it is the hundreds of people who stop by her porch where she holds court that make her pause. For now, employees like Roxy Anderson, who is like family, and a circle of friends like Bass, keep her there. Now that Joe is gone, Bass is the only one she lets take her out on the lake.
“What Roy does is nothing like those people on 512,” she said. “They have a certain route that they take but with Roy he’ll take you out, jump the dikes and take you places you would not ordinarily go to. Plus he always makes people feel safe.”
Jeanne is at the bait and tackle shop every day except Monday to welcome visitors, to sell them some bait or an ice cream from the cooler and to take a moment or two to reminisce with each one who stops. Bass is one of the regulars on her porch, either waiting for clients, checking the fishing or getting ready to go out on the lake.
“I’m very blessed and don’t think I don’t know it,” Bass said. “I was really fortunate that Joe taught me a lot and told me what to look for and what to do depending on the time of the year. Fish move around as the water fluctuates, big bass look for structures like dead trees in the water or a bunch of brush — they like cover and not open water and that changes constantly. Joe taught me all that.”