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On the Road: Gulfport Dragway, Immokalee Regional Raceway, and Florida Everglades Fishing

Life is great when things go as planned…and when they don’t, well, sometimes it’s even better! I experienced that exact thing recently when news reached me that my planned race weekend in South Carolina had been cancelled due to an unfavorable forecast, and I was literally minutes away from walking out the door.

Suddenly, the possibilities were endless, but since it was already Friday afternoon, the timing was rather difficult. So, without a minute to spare I dashed out the door, realizing I was gonna have to pull a near all-night driving session in order to arrive at Gulfport Dragway more than 10 hours away.

[Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared in DI #173, the #Trending Issue, in December of 2021.]

Driving to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast wasn’t an ideal backup plan at the absolute last minute, but this region is definitely among my favorites late in the year. Nearby Long Beach is beautiful and sparsely populated nearing winter, and it just so happened that the King of the Coast series was racing at Gulfport.

Founded by recent Drag Illustrated cover star Gaylon Rolison Jr., you’d be hard-pressed to find a more laid-back group of sportsman racers anywhere. These folks love grilling steaks, boiling shrimp and racing hard down in the Bayou country. Among them is Stephen Hughes, who’s roasting the tires of the vibrant, red Duster pictured. No race season is complete without a trip to Gulfport…even if it’s last minute!

Just before leaving Mississippi, I realized that Florida’s Immokalee Regional Raceway was right in the middle of their winter series, so I took the enjoyable drive along the Mississippi coast, followed by the panhandle route across Florida until I reached I-75 south. I first visited this unique Florida town a decade ago, and it was from returning to Immokalee Regional Raceway in the years that followed that I discovered my most favorite fishing hole on earth, located just down the road in Everglades City.

To the rugged people who settled here, carved out a living and endured mosquito-infested summers before air conditioning, I salute you! This region is what some people refer to as “The Real Florida,” and believe me when I say this place is far removed from Disney World! Everglades City may sound like a thriving, well-populated metropolis, but the truth is it’s home to just 352 residents.

During my wintertime racing treks to the Sunshine State, I always pencil in a few days to escape to the Everglades to see what I can pull out of the water. Last year I met this cool guy named “Captain Brandon,” who owns the local bait shop in town. When we met, he was in the process of restoring the local marina, which was hurricane-damaged and had been sitting vacant for a few years. During the winter months of 2020, Brandon, his wife Alana and sons Austin and Kalab would labor away in their quest of reopening the marina.

Brandon graciously allowed me to hang out there and fish from the docks, so I got a firsthand look at his family’s dedication, as they transformed an abandoned building into a thriving business.

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My role in the project was providing comic relief, as Brandon seemed genuinely amused at my excitement for catching saltwater catfish, which many anglers scoff at. I was so dedicated in my pursuit that I became known as the “Catfish Killer,” a humorous name hung on me by another neat guy named Cy, who works at the marina. It was Cy, in fact, who suggested I try frozen mullet for bait, and it promptly yielded the catfish pictured!

Oh sure, there’s much more sophisticated fishing to be done in the Everglades than what I’m doing, but after a long weekend at the dragstrip, it’s quite relaxing to just sit on the docks at the marina, throw out a line and see what nibbles.

So, with my original race in South Carolina disrupted, followed by a successful backup plan that took me to Gulfport and Immokalee, I found myself right back at the marina with fishing rod in hand. It was a stark reminder that even when things don’t go as planned, life goes on, often in splendid fashion if you don’t mind catfish!

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