It’s Thanksgiving and time to remember and be thankful for our heritage. I had a meeting last week in the old fishing village of Cortez. This time it was the Organized Fisherman of Florida, a commercial fishermen’s group. OFF is more than 50 years old and works to manage and lobby for fishermen’s livelihoods.
It’s educational to learn about the varied fishing interest from our members working all over Florida. These days it’s mostly crabbers and lobstermen because we have so few opportunities for making a living harvesting finfish. We deal with rules, regulations and management. Some of you feel commercial fishermen only take, but most of our meeting was about anything we can do to help preserve our waters to be able to fish. We enjoyed breaking bread together and swapping salty old fish tales too.
I got involved with them back in the ‘70s when I survived by net fishing. We fished gillnets for mullet and mackerel, then trammel nets for assorted bottom fish. It was hard work, but it allowed me to spend my days and many nights on the water. Maybe it’s the last of the hunter-gatherers. There was a lot to learn and I lacked the equipment to be really successful, but I survived and ate well. Those years, fishing mostly Tampa Bay areas, taught me a lot about fish, their habits and patterns. When I see fish, I can instantly distinguish species by silhouettes because it was critical to my paycheck.
I also learned to manage the places I fished. If you beat a school up for several days, they are gone. If you catch a mess and leave some, you can come back in two weeks and do it again. In the mid ‘70s I started guide fishing. I knew exactly where the fish lived, at what tide phase, what they were eating and when. Life was great. I fished the same fish different ways on different days. Don’t be greedy and eat well. It was great to know I was getting paid instead of depending on my catch.
I was always motivated to catch fish — in fact, too much so. If you told me you wanted to catch a bunch of fish, that’s what we did. I’d make you work to take advantage of every bite and catch till your arms hurt. I’ve since learned fun is important too. I do apologize to any of these wonderful folks I may have overworked. Be careful what you ask, I took it literally. Boy, did we catch a lot of fish.
When your paycheck depends on you catching fish, you become much more aware and dedicated. No catch, no paycheck, no food. So the transition from meat fishing to sport fishing was challenging for me. In my later years I mastered the “let’s have fun” part; better late than never, I guess.
To the older generations before me — Buck Cole, Mitchel Keen, Bo Smith, Dicky Coleman, Bobby Buswell, Tater Spinks, several Futches, Barnhills, Joiners and others — who lived on the waters and helped me learn, thank you. They really lived fishing. Understand that it was just 60 or so years ago we got these newfangled outboard motors. Pole skiffs and sailboats did not allow fishermen to make it home every night. They spent most of their lives on the water. Family time was rare and special. Their unique understanding of our waters, habitats and ecosystems was acquired firsthand in the school of hard knocks.
What I learned from the masters, I’ve always tried to share any time I can. They know what they are talking about. The are the bible of our fishing heritage. They lived the life and hold the knowledge. Fortunately, they shared some with their families and a few of us they trusted. Sadly, much of it is lost already, because the new “experts” aren’t smart enough to listen and learn.
At the OFF meeting, we had fresh fish dinners served by Star Seafood, an outdoor restaurant attached to Bell Fish House in Cortez. They have a couple fish houses that manage to survive by catching baitfish now and feeding visitors. They do get some grouper and such, but fish houses had to get smarter or shut down. We lost our fish houses locally after the 1995 gillnet ban. They couldn’t get enough fresh fish to stay afloat.
It was special to sit out at the fisherman’s dock and eat our fresh fish while discussing fishery issues, swapping tall tales and sharing memorable stories about fishermen and Old Florida. Several of the guys were fourth-generation fisherman — the last of their families to live from the sea. David talked of starting out at ten, deckhanding for Bubba and others. Larry and David are cousins; they’ve fished all over since they were kids. They caught boatloads of mullet, mackerel and everything available.
We all desire to save what we can of our heritage and protect our waters. Our industry is graying and I’m not sure it can continue. I’m almost done myself. Those of us who have spent our lives out here are scared about the current condition of our waters and habitats. We all are committed to working together on improving our contributions to these problems, and also educating others willing to listen.
People are a big part of these issues. All the people and development is contributing to nutrient pollution. Growth impacts the environment. We need growth, but sustainability is crucial for survival.
Happy Thanksgiving to all our readers! God bless us all, and remember that you can’t catch fish if you don’t go fishin’, so let’s go fishin’ soon.
Capt. Van Hubbard is a highly respected outdoor writer and fishing guide. He has been a professional USCG-licensed year-round guide since 1976, and has been fishing the Southwest Florida coast since 1981. Contact him at 941-468-4017 or VanHubbard@CaptVan.com.