High School Sports

Part Four: Braden River a sportsman's paradise

Fourth of a five-part series

EAST MANATEE - The snook would come off the fishermen’s boats in bunches. After all, the Braden River was legendary for snook.

And there would be 10-year-old Steve Marshall, waiting with fillet knife in hand to gather them from the men and clean their linesiders, redfish or whatever they happened to want to take home and fry.

This was almost 60 years ago, when the Braden River was deeper, and loaded with young snook that would spend winters in the warm, protected waters.

Steve was the young son of Ernie, owner of Marshall’s Braden River Mobile Home Park and the bar recognized by many snook fishermen as Marshall’s Landing.

Today, Steve Marshall still lives by the river, now on a bayou just west of the dam that divides Lake Evers from the brackish portion of the river. Today, he’s content to boat the river and absorb all of its majestic attributes that lured his father, who boxed for money during the Great Depression, from the north.

“My dad said, ‘We’re in Florida now, so we can’t freeze to death, and there’s lots of fish in the river, so we won’t starve,’ ” Steve recalls.

The 21-mile river flows to the north, emptying into the Manatee River inside the Bradenton city limits. From bird-watching, to fishing and boating, it offers a rich variety of recreational opportunities.

There are about five fingers of the headwaters of the Braden River east of Lorraine Road and just west of County Road 675. All but one of the fingers, which come together to form the river, are north of State Road 70.

In the dry season, the headwaters are often bone dry. There may be a series of puddles, and eventually a small, flowing stream. But even miles downstream at Linger Lodge, in the dry season, many portions of the Braden River are too shallow to paddle.

But most of the river offers a front-row seat on wildlife. It’s a wetlands habitat for a wide range of birds, fish and insects, as well as the occasional coyote, otter, manatee, turtle, porpoise and alligator.

Fishermen’s haven

Black light turns to pink, and pops and boils pepper the water surface. The pinkish tint that signals dawn is a well-known time to fish any water, anywhere, and Braden River is no different.

The river has long been a destination for snook lovers, as it’s a nursery for the linesiders. Ernie Marshall was a master snook fisherman here. His favorite lures were MirrOlures and Zara Spooks, and he preferred fishing during the first two months of cool weather when snook were schooled up and competitive. Ernie was convinced some 60 years ago that the change of the tide means a possible onslaught of bites.

His theory: When the tide changes, the grasses on the river’s bottom fold the opposite direction, thus spilling the critters that take shelter in the grasses. Snook are ambush feeders and will line up into the tide, waiting for the food to come whipping down the tide.

On the northern section of the river, the mix of saltwater and brackish water is home to tarpon, snook and redfish all the way to the Evers Reservoir dam, a half-mile south of State Road 70.

When Steve Marshall was a kid, he would take the bus from his home on the river 2 1/2 miles to Oneco Elementary, crossing a rickety old wooden bridge that was the S.R. 70 bridge on the way. At the beginning of the bridge, the bus would stop and let out the kids to ensure they’d be safe if the weight of the bus crumbled the shaky bridge. The bus would cross, and the kids would re-join the bus at the bridge’s end.

The bridge also was a fraternity of sorts for “swish” fishermen, who on the darkest nights would cling on the side of the bridge and lower a wooden plug from a long cane pole into the river, where monster snook were waiting. And, at times, so were swarms gators, their red eyes glowing below.

Steve was one of the frat boys, swishing his plug in circles or figure-eights, the phosphorus producing swirls of light on the surface, until a snook crashed with the sound of a fired .22 pistol.

“My dad was scared that I’d fall into the river,” Steve recalls.

The rest of the river, however, is mostly harmless. Blue crabs run through the river, picking at the worms that anglers have run onto hooks. Many times, a fisherman will mistakenly think a blue gill has just nibbled their bait.

Mangrove snapper bunch off the long mangrove shorelines. Anglers putting thumbnail-size pieces of uncooked saltwater shrimp on a small hook can cast close to the mangroves for these gray snapper.

The Braden River picks up again on the eastern side of Evers Reservoir, which is a freshwater habitat for bass, blue gill, speckled perch, catfish, garfish, stumpknocker and more. Even saltwater species such as snook and tarpon have been spotted roaming the lake.

From Evers Reservoir, the Braden River winds its way southeast toward Linger Lodge, maybe 20 yards wide, and shallow. The area is ideal for plucking bass off their beds or hooking whatever Braden River fish is biting.

An ultra-light or light spinning outfit with 8-pound test line, a 15-20-pound fluorocarbon leader and a 3-inch gold Rapala, preferably of a gold color, works well in the lead-colored, tannic waters. Deeper diving crank baits in June bug colors also are known to be effective. In calm conditions, white chuggers or anything suitable that makes noise work best.

All boats in the Braden River are required to stay at idle speed.

Paddling, bird watching

Before paddling the Braden River, you should understand where the river leads and get a feel for the river’s makeup. Going online and finding an aerial view is suggested.

The tidal river in its northern section, from the S.R. 64 Bridge to the Evers dam, is six miles. Paddling on a high tide helps boaters avoid grounding, because this section is mangrove-ridden.

Bring binoculars for bird-watching. The possible species of birds is staggering: ibis, great gray herons, white herons, night herons, terns, spoonbills, bald eagles, egrets and Florida mallards, to name a few. A small island, known to locals as “Bird Island” near the Evers spillway, is a rookery that holds a dozen species in its layout of oaks and bay trees.

“I myself love watching the birds,” Steve Marshall says. “I just love getting in my boat with my wife and enjoying the river.”

From the east side of Evers Reservoir to Linger Lodge, the paddle is of average difficulty and free of most obstacles.

The paddle from Linger Lodge eastward is not. Recent drought conditions left water levels so low that carrying canoes was required to continue. That said, golf balls that were sliced off the River Run Golf Course abound in the river bed. One trip in this section of the river can deliver used golf balls for a lifetime.

From there, the canoeing is gradually more of a challenge, as paddlers may find themselves pulling a canoe over a log or carrying the canoe while sinking into the mushy bottom.

The walls of the river narrow and steepen, and trees shoot horizontally to clutter the river.

At its snarled end point in eastern Manatee County, this is where most human navigation stops, when the canoeist can paddle no more.

“It’s still a beautiful river,” Marshall says. “This river will be here long after you and I are gone. It’s eternal.”

Nick Walter, Herald outdoor writer, can be contacted at 745-7913.

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