I was thumbing through some of mom’s old scrapbooks and came across this photo from 1976. It shows a younger and much thinner version of myself before my hairline headed south. I’m not sure what caused that really serious frown, unless perhaps it was a result of being asked to stop unloading grouper and pose for a picture. I was a teenager then and posing for pictures was definitely not cool.
In those days, Dad and I did some small scale commercial hook-and-line fishing for grouper. Back then, there weren’t many regulations on that fishery. I believe that the only permit we needed was an SPL (saltwater products license) and that there were no size or bag limits or closed seasons on grouper for recreational or commercial fishermen. Those were simpler times indeed.
Our trips were out and back on the same day. We’d pre-dawn trailer Dad’s 23-foot Mako from PGI to Placida and launch at Gasparilla Marina (I’m not sure that was the name back then. Does anyone remember?), duck under one of the bridges on the Boca Grande causeway and head out through nearby Gasparilla Pass. We’d run out to 60 or 70 feet of water, slow the boat down until it was plowing along about half on plane and stare at the paper graph depthsounder as that little stylus went round and round burning black marks on the slowly scrolling paper.
Those old paper machines were a pain. It seemed like the paper would run out and need changing at the worst time, and changing the paper in any kind of weather was dicey because you did not want water anywhere near the paper or the innards of the machine. The fine black powder they created was a lot like fingerprint powder that police use, and it got on everything.
But those analog machines were very good, and a skilled operator could read a lot from them. When they were replaced by newer, fancier digital machines, some of us hung onto the old units as long as we could because it took years for electronic readouts to progress to the point where they were really as good as the old paper units.
Eventually that whirring paper machine would show us a patch of harder bottom. This would be our cue to quickly toss a marker jug overboard, then circle around and try a few drifts around the marker. A hasty drop of the marker jug was essential, since we had no position-finding device aboard. LORAN C was just coming online, but LORAN units were the size of today’s microwave ovens and very, very pricey. Like, about the same cost as an outboard motor. And if you could tune those dials and get a position locked in less than a few minutes, you were doing good. Given the cost and questionable performance we just didn’t see the point in dealing with LORAN when our depthsounder-and-jug scheme worked pretty good.
We never knew for sure exactly where we were, but that didn’t really matter since we were looking for fish, not fishing spots. By the way, this is a fine point that some of today’s GPS-using offshore anglers should think about. We couldn’t have burned out our fishing spots even if we’d been so inclined because we couldn’t find those same spots again. So we’d marker-drop on a spot, then fish it. If we caught fish, we’d stay. If not, we’d pull the marker and go looking for a fresh spot.
We caught primarily red grouper, which is not surprising given where we were fishing and the bait and tackle we were using. Our rods were poolcue-stiff boat rods with 60 pound line. We fished large J-hooks, like a Mustad 3407 in about a 7/0, and we pretty much always used chunks of cutbait. On most trips, the only bait we carried offshore was three or four mullet from which we’d cut chunks.
If the mullet ran low, we’d fish for squirrelfish. We’d chunk a large squirrel fish into several baits. The heads were prized because we could usually catch several fish on a squirrelfish head before it finally came apart and fell off the hook.
This sounds pretty primitive, but it was effective. We didn’t care much about grunts or snappers or anything else. We were there to catch grouper that we could sell. And we caught a lot. Our benchmark was a 200-pound trip. Less than that was considered a slim day. Anything approaching 300 pounds or more was pretty good for us.
All but the smallest grouper would immediately go on ice, then at day’s end we’d put the boat back on the trailer and pull the rig into Jimmy’s Seafood on Harborview Road in Port Charlotte. I think it was somewhere between today’s Whidden Industrial Park and the Charlotte Sun office, but it is long gone now. We’d back the boat up to their front dock and they’d give us fish baskets to fill.
There were two grades to the fish: Over three pounds and under three pounds. We were paid based on “live weight” — no gutting or filleting needed, just fill those baskets. I’m not sure why I remember this so vividly, but we were getting 45 cents per pound for fish over three pounds and 25 cents per pound for the smaller fish. We’d get a 12- or 15-pounder once in a while, but we caught far more smaller fish. Most days, the two piles of fish would have about the same total weight. So an average trip for us was worth about $70.
Things have sure changed in 42 years. Did you notice the last entry on the sign in the background of the photo? They were still selling turtle steaks (or at least they still had the sign up on the building) in 1976. I don’t recall what type of turtles or where they came from. We were never in the turtle business, but we sold other fish besides grouper there — mostly redfish, mullet and sheepshead that we’d gig at night. Yes, redfish were a market fish at that time.
One winter night we were gigging sheepshead and mullet around the Placida trestle when dad stuck his gig in a jewfish that ended up weighing 53 pounds. I’m not sure why he stuck that fish, because you’d expect a critter of that size to thrash around and get off the gig. But he hit it at the base of the skull and it never even quivered, and it ended up at Jimmy’s Seafood the next morning.
Now before anybody gets all excited about us killing a jewfish, this occurred almost 15 years before they became a protected species. Back then, they were considered by most people to be just another grouper. Yes, those were simpler times.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Call him at 941-639-2628 or email Captain@KingFishFleet.com.