Gibsonton, Florida: The Greatest Show on Earth

Grady Stiles – stage named Lobster Boy, personifying every historically accurate, culturally-exaggerated, American Horror Story ‘carnie-ism’ on the laundry list of what it takes to be the most famous freak in the traveling show, never fancied spending his free time in metropolitan Tampa, Florida. That’s because he preferred the secluded mangroves of Gibsonton. As does kayak fishing guide Derick Burgos of Phatfish Kayak Charters.

One of them was drawn to the Gibsonton – where various self-proclaimed carnival and circus entertainers spend the offseason – by the vicinity to their former employer, Ringling Brothers’, winter operation in Tampa and Sarasota. The other was drawn to the plentiful fishery. One of them used the seclusion to hide his lobster hand disability (ectrodactyly), alcoholism, and eventual murder of a family member while the other uses the deep channel pockets to land big redfish on his client’s small plastic boats.

Both have logged countless hours wandering Alfia River.

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Weird Place: Gibsonton. Weirder Place: The Internet.

The story of my kayak fishing trip with Derick Burgos (DB) aptly begins at a closed, run-down bait shop next to some trashed carnival exhibits in Gibsonton. I met Heath Panganiban – owner of Yak Tribe – forty-five minutes south in Sarasota (after a nine-hour drive and only two hours of sleep), we hit carnie-town just before low tide, and we walked up to a refreshing DB, who welcomed us with a bro-hug, a fleet of FeelFree kayaks, and a boatload of assurance that the fish were out there today.

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Gibsonton was a weird place – the beat up trailers lining the banks, the remnants of a once-prolific carnival scene, and the salvaged boat walls blocking channels to form highly illegal private lakes. But the internet is a really, really weird place. Here I am loading up, rigging down, and joking like old friends with two cyber buddies – cyber buddies I can confidently call friends through our internet-based work relationships over the last four years, cyber buddies that you could hardly argue that I had met in person besides a single, casual pass at a kayak fishing industry convention. We’re complete strangers except for the internet; yet, here we were – kicking it like the carnie old-timers just across the river from us.

Plentiful Fisheries and Family Trees

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DB was right. With a little patience, we were on the fish. We weren’t just on fish; we were jumping from species to species: speckled trout, snook, cobia, redfish, and back again. While the two local guys we’re used to greater Tampa’s plentiful fisheries, I was not.

A cobia in less than four feet of water? We’re not in Texas anymore, Dorothy.

We jumped between working the mangroves on high tide, paddling into the brackish channels for snook adventures, and keeping our eyes cautiously peeled for the Lobster Boy footprints of Stiles’ two ectrodactylyic children.

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Gibsonton made for one hell of a show. We left with no lobster sightings to confirm the local folklore, a full day’s worth of released fish under our belt, and two valuable lessons learned: 1) due to unique circus zoning laws in Gibsonton, residents were once allowed keep elephants and circus trailers on their front lawns and 2) based on the full-branched nature of the Stiles’ family tree, ladies love lobster dudes.

Again, hosting a wanderer that lives out of his car with a cat is not a conventional mid-week plan for most families. I want to thank everyone that made my stay in the Tampa/Sarasota area a blast:

  • Marion Pines Trailer Park: Ocala – I tried to make it nine hours from Birmingham, AL to Sarasota, FL starting at 5 pm. I fell a couple of hours short. You don’t know this, but Cammi and I camped out back. Thanks for not calling the cops on us.
  • Heath and Shannan Panganiban – Hospitality overload! Not only do I appreciate the comfy couch, warm showers, and nonstop cartoons on the TV, I also want to thank you for all the support developing and operating this site. The documentation of this trip wouldn’t be the same without you two.
  • Ryland Panganiban – Hi. Keep being nice and screaming for your fork – it’s adorable. Can’t wait to see you on that sweet new Viking Reload in a couple years.
  • Vera Wang Panganiban – You’re one of the only cats I’ve ever seen Cammi share space with peacefully. While she loves people, grasshoppers, and long walks on the beach (her perpetual litter box), she’s never been a cat’s cat. Thanks for being cool.
  • Derick Burgos – If you can get me on fish, you’ve really got it figured out. I appreciate all the gear, tips, and technique advice. We will have to do that again soon, man. Ps – Sorry about the Okuma snap.
    • **Editor’s Note – I somehow broke another rod. I hope this isn’t a reoccurring thing. Any rod sponsors out there want to hook a dude up? You won’t get your money back on serious endorsements – because they’ll all eventually snap the way I’m headed – but if this rod breaking streak keeps up, the publicity could be larger than Cal Ripken Jr’s 2,632 consecutive games over more than 16 years, Ken Jennings’ 74 straight Jeopardy wins, or Leonardo DiCaprio’s seemingly-lifetime streak without winning an Oscar.
  • Starbucks Dude – When I can afford it, I’ll hire you as my PR guy. Thanks for telling every customer you had about my crazy trip after you found out. While I’m sure none of them will end up on the site, it was a hilarious couple of hours for me.
  • Eric Henson – Next time, amigo. Next time. I’ve never claimed to be much of a morning person. Hopefully, I can catch you on my way back up north.


editorial, fishing, kayak fishing, kayaking, road trip, trip reports

Mark Vlaskamp

After four years as Marketing Director for Yak Gear, Mark now partners with creative outdoor brands and pursues the gray area between freelancing and (f)unemployment. Currently, he is floating between Austin and Houston, TX - still searching for new water, cool people, and cheap beer.

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