In A Pioneer Son at Sea: Fishing Tales of Old Florida, edited by Robert S. Voss, celebrated marine biologist Gilbert Voss recounts his early days of fishing on both coasts of the state during the Great Depression and World War II. We are excited to be publishing this book today!
“An outstanding piece of Florida fishing history by one of the most famous marine biologists in Florida.”—Gene Shinn, author of Bootstrap Geologist: My Life in Science
“A perfect blend of history, science, and adventure. Allowing his natural storytelling talent to shine through, Voss tells of the waters, inlets, coves, and colorful characters that comprised South Florida in the early twentieth century.”—Janet DeVries, author of Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier
“A vivid picture of Voss’s early years as a fisherman and outdoorsman prior to his illustrious career as a marine scientist and educator, who passed along volumes of knowledge about the marine environment and its inhabitants to the scientific community.”—Tommy Thompson, author of The Saltwater Angler’s Guide to Tampa Bay and Southwest Florida
“A priceless memoir and a spectacular adventure.”—Terry Howard, author of High Seas Wranglers: The Lives of Atlantic Fishing Captains
Long before tourism dominated Florida’s coastline, the state was home to dozens of commercial fisheries and ethnically diverse communities of rugged individuals who made their living from the sea.
Here are vanished scenes from old Florida, almost unimaginable to modern residents of the state: gill-netting for mackerel off Jupiter, the early days of charterboat fishing for sailfish out of Stuart and Boynton, the snapper fleet at Carrabelle, sponge-diving at Tarpon Springs, the oyster fishery at Crystal River, and mullet fishing from airboats at Flamingo.
Oversized personalities inhabit these pages, including Voss’s brothers, who were themselves seminal figures in the early days of Florida big-game fishing. Voss’s anecdotes feature Crackers, rum runners, murderers, Conchs, wealthy industrialists, now-legendary charterboatmen, Greek spongers, and Cuban vivero captains. These stories are not just spirited portraits of fishermen from a bygone era, they are also remarkable tales of the formative years in the life of a scientist and conservationist who later worked tirelessly to preserve our dwindling marine resources.
Below, in an excerpt from the book, read about some of the lost artists of old Florida fishing: cast-netters.
Excerpt from Chapter 4, “The Cast-Netters”
Cast net fishing in Florida is rapidly becoming a lost art. Cast nets are still used, principally by bait fishermen, but those are mostly small nets, hardly the diameter of your dining room table, and fine-meshed. It takes about half the skill of a pizza maker to twirl those little nets out over the water, and no selfrespecting fish would wait around for it to fall.
Gone almost to extinction are the big cast nets, 10 to 12 feet long, with a 20-foot spread. And few net makers are around anymore who could make one. Above all, there is hardly anyone who could throw one, opening its full circumference to take mullet, sand perch, lookdowns, moonfish, and even permit and pompano.
A good cast-netter, in the 1920s through the war years, could make a living with his net catching fish for the market or bait for the sportsfishermen. Cast-netting took little capital, because most cast net fishermen made their own nets, and the majority waded the lake. Others used a flat-bottomed skiff, poling it along while standing in the bow with net ready to hand.
One of the best I knew was Buddy Rogers, a backwoods cracker who cast-netted during the day and spent most of his nights frog-leg hunting. Buddy’s feet were tougher than shoe leather, and he could wade across oyster beds barefoot with never a care or a cut. Buddy was a market cast-netter, mainly after black or striped mullet, at the catching of which he was an expert. He used a nine-foot net and threw it flat across the water, just skimming the surface, to the exact point where he wanted it to land, or rather sink. And he had an eye for just where the fish were. He seldom made a dry haul.
Lake Worth was a cast-netter’s paradise. Big eating mullet (this was in the days when the lake was not polluted) could be caught from the bridges and docks. Using a large-mesh net, a single cast in the lagoon between Hypoluxo Island and the beach ridge in Lantana could always be depended upon to capture enough lookdowns—beautiful, flat, silvery fish with roman noses—or a net full of sand perch for dinner. At Boynton Inlet, silversides came in so thick that a single cast would catch a bucketful. And at night shrimp could be caught with a bait net.