A year ago, towards the end of October, I heard a rumor that lots of whiting were being caught up at Matanzas Inlet. Something like that may not bother the average person, but to a fish-a-holic like myself it was an idea hard to shake.
Those who know me or read my fishing column have learned I am a hopeless insomniac, so when my eyes came open at 3 a.m. I was doomed. Trying to get back to sleep with the thought of tasty whiting in my head was not going to happen. Sure enough by 3:30 I was out the door and driving the 20 miles north to the little inlet.
Matanzas is the most remote inlet on Florida's East Coast and when I pulled off the highway on the north side of the bridge, only a few dim lights broke the darkness. Gathering up my gear I walked under the bridge in the damp and salty air. On the inshore side I set up to fish on the wide sandy beach. Within minutes a thick fog rolled in off the Atlantic Ocean, shrouding the bridge lights like those on a Christmas tree covered in spun angel hair. No matter, I went about my business of baiting the shrimp and casting out into the Matanzas River.
Just then the silence was broken by an eerie shrieking noise that was a bit unsettling. It took me a moment to identify a flight of migratory geese overhead that must have been confused in the fog. At least that's all I could come up with. A stiff breeze came from out of nowhere and unexpectedly pushed the fog away. Odd I thought how quickly the fog had appeared and then moved out, but as I looked up the beach to the north I could see that pockets of fog had separated and lingered. As I watched, I thought I detected movement. A sort of swaying, swirling motion. Laying my rod down, I took a few steps in that direction. "Hey, who's there?" I shouted. No answer. By then the cries of the geese were in the distance. I have to admit I was just a bit spooked.
As I pondered that, it came to me just where I stood. Matanzas Inlet was the site of one of the bloodiest moments in Florida history. Back in 1565, Florida had been claimed for Spain, but a colony of French refugees had sprung up on this very spot. The French protestants had come to the New World to escape religious persecution, but when they were discovered, the Spanish King ordered them removed.
When the Spanish soldiers descended on the peaceful encampment, the French knew they were hopelessly outnumbered and offered a truce. The Spanish told them that if they surrendered, they would be cared for. But once the French laid down their arms, they were methodically murdered. According to history books, a number nearing 200 people were slaughtered where I stood.
On this night, that memory, or the wispy fog combined with the geese calls, made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Obviously those poor tortured souls came to a horrible end. After all of these years were they still seeking justice? I decided the whiting were not as important as I thought. My trip back to the truck took about half the time it did arriving and the sound of the engine was never more welcome.
Now on this Halloween I wonder if there are insomniacs among you who would venture to Matanzas Inlet in the wee hours? Will you hear noises of wind, waves and birds? Perhaps. Will you see shrouds of white and gray walking the beach? Tell yourself it's only fog and if you try hard enough, you may be convinced. As for me I don't plan to ever fish there at night alone again. But you go ahead. Don't be afraid.
Oh, did I mention the word Matanzas is Spanish for MASSACRE?
Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Ormond Beach Historical Society and The Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, "The World's Greatest Beach" and "I Swear the Snook Drowned." Email questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (386) 441-7793.