I can probably blame it all on my grandfather. I think I was about two years old when he took me fishing for the first time. I had no fear of the water then, and he made me wear a leather harness; the harness was nailed to our old wooden boat so that Grandpop John could reel me if I wandered over the side, which they tell me I often did!
As I grew older we often walked the meadows and fished along the banks of the creeks that fed off the Great Egg Harbor River. Grandpop John was a carpenter, a hunter, and a fisherman – but not a photographer, so we have no pictures of us trekking through the knee-high sharp-edged meadow grass, or sitting on inverted peach baskets at the muddy edge of a creek with cane poles extended and floats bobbing up and down over hooks baited with worms dug out of the chicken yard and used to entice the fat White Perch that frequented these waters.
The next time someone thought to take a picture of me on a fishing trip, I was standing in front of my stepfather’s old gray 1940 Pontiac, holding a string of fish so heavy I could barely lift it .
We (my mother and stepfather and I) had been fishing in the Shark River, out of Flamingo, Florida, and I was around 10 or 11 years old then. About a year later we drove down into the Florida Keys from our home (a shack in “Trash Alley,” next to the Miami Transit Bus Station), and fished from the northwestern shore of the old 7-Mile Bridge in Marathon. That’s me standing at the end of the fish cleaning table; the boy wearing the baseball cap.
In 1951 or ’52 my stepfather’s mother and father took me on wonderful trip to Lake Okeechobee. We camped and fished around the lake, and along Snake Creek (a tributary of Lake Okeechobee indicated on maps as Fisheating Creek; it was called Snake Creek by the locals for obvious reasons)! One picture seems to have survived that trip.
For several more years I fished all around the Miami area; anywhere my bicycle would carry me – all along the 79th Street Causeway, at the fresh water canals out around NW 27th Avenue and 103rd Street and in Hialeah along the banks of the Miami River – I never carried a camera. It was hard enough just to carry my cane pole or my rod and reel and a tackle box on my bike. My stepfather took my mother and I on some more but truly unforgettable fishing trips during this period of my life, too. Like the time we got caught in a hurricane while trying to cross Card Sound in a 16’ wooden boat powered by a 10hp outboard motor (the weather had turned so bad Truman brought the Presidential Yacht out of the ocean and anchored it in Card Sound to protect it), or the time we got stranded in the middle of Blackwater Sound when our rental outboard failed to start and we couldn’t find the entrance to the fishing camp at Jewfish Creek in the dark of night. The mosquitoes were voracious and we had to jump overboard into the murky water in order to retain our sanity; it was like a scene out of the African Queen! But, again, we have no photographic documentation.
Fortunately – at least for me – Mom and I returned to English Creek, New Jersey, and moved in with my Grandpop John again in 1953. I would continue to live in English Creek (now Egg Harbor Township, NJ) for several more years, and I often fished those same waters that my grandfather fished. Sometimes my mother and my great aunt, Aggie, joined me; especially when the Flounder were running.
Although I also enjoyed fishing in the Great Egg Harbor Bay with friends, and by myself from the fishing piers of Brigantine and Ocean City, NJ, I can’t locate any photographs from those fishing trips either.
A marriage in 1960 followed by a stint in the Army that included life in Columbia, South Carolina, then a divorce, job hunting and employment, all combined to keep me from my most enjoyable pastime, fishing, for a long while. However, I did manage to make a few casts from Grand Cayman’s Ironshore while spending one week of my annual vacation there in 1972 .
I was then working at the Holiday Inn of Atlantic City, and I was able to take advantage of a great employee rate program, so I booked two rooms and took my mother on a holiday when the new Holiday Inn of Grand Cayman opened. Then we flew back to Miami, and spent the second week of my annual vacation traveling through the Florida Keys before returning to New Jersey. We had a great time fishing in the Keys; especially when we stayed at the Sugarloaf Inn on Sugarloaf Key. The man who ran the boat rental operation and the bait and tackle shop, gave me a secret map and directions on how to navigate the shallow waters of the backbay leading to the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, 39 years later, that map doesn’t look very secret, and, according to the guy who gave it to us – we never did reach the designated fishing hole. But we caught fish! Although we were never able to accurately describe the channel in which we anchored, we surprised the hell out of a lot of people when we returned to the dock with a nice catch of Mutton Snapper and Grey Grouper!
After spending a few days at the Sugarloaf Inn, we drove on to Key West where we overnighted at another Holiday Inn. My room had a balcony overlooking a bay and I although I could cast a lure without having to go downstairs, I didn’t get a hit (probably just as well)!.
On the way back to the Miami Airport, we stopped briefly at the northeastern edge of the Spanish Harbor Bridge so that I could make a few casts from the seawall before dismantling and storing my fishing tackle for the flight back to New Jersey.
I fell in love with the Florida Keys the first time I saw them, and I considered myself to be extremely fortunate when I landed a job managing the little 56-room Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge in Islamorada in 1975. The job came with a manager’s residence of sorts – an old 2 bedroom trailer in an old but clean and friendly trailer park just north of Snake Creek (no relationship to the Snake Creek mentioned earlier in this article). Much to my delight, the trailer park had a small dock, a fish cleaning table, and a sheltered channel offering direct access to Hawk’s Channel; to the coral reefs that protect the keys, and eventually, to the Atlantic Ocean. Not long after I began my new job, our restaurant manager resigned so that he could move out of the area, and he put up his 15’ Glastron Tri hull for sale. The boat was practically brand new; it came with a nice trailer and it was equipped with a 75hp Johnson outboard motor.
I gave have him the $5,000 that he was asking for the rig without batting an eye. For the next three years I fished all over the middle keys from that little boat. On the Atlantic side, from Islamorada to Marathon, some times going across the reef and as far as 8 to 10 miles offshore; and, on the Gulf side from Marathon back to Islamorada. I usually fished alone, enjoying the solitude; the quietness of the sea, especially when anchored in water so clear I could see the bottom some 60’ or 70’ down, or even father away – or when drifting silently with the current. On rare occasions, I took guests or friends with me. I remember teaching a man and his wife, Ian & Sylvia, – travel agents from Mississauga, Ontario – to fish and Ian was absolutely thrilled when he caught a small Black Grouper in a channel near Lignumvitae Key. The young boy pictured here with a Barracuda almost as long as he is tall was the son of musician, John Harvey, who was traveling through the keys with his family. The ‘Cuda weighed in at 18 lbs.
However, one of my greatest enjoyments came from teaching my daughter, Terri, and my grandchildren, Ellie, Andrea, and Chris, to fish. Terri and I began fishing together in English Creek with cane poles, just as I began fishing with Grandpop John, but some of our most memorable excursions occurred in Islamorada aboard that little 15’ boat. Terri is pictured here with a small Blue Parrot Fish, and a rather large Mutton Snapper.
Sometimes she even out-fished me! We also had at least one scary fishing trip when I took us way off shore one perfectly calm and beautiful day. We must have been somewhere around 10 miles out beyond the reef; we were trolling for Dolphin (the fish, Mahi Mahi or Dorado, not “flipper”) in the Gulf Stream, and the stream was moving us north at about 3 or 4 miles per hour. I did not know in those days that the Gulf Stream was a river of water that flowed northward in the ocean at between 2 and 4 knots per hour as it passed the Florida Keys. When I saw the sky turning a dark, dark, blue on the western horizon I decided that it was time for us to head in. I did not realize that we had drifted about 10 or 12 miles north of our starting point and when I got close enough to shore to be able to see the shoreline I didn’t recognize anything – and then it began to pour. Terri got scared; I remember shouting at her to shut up (hell, I was scared, too). Somehow, I guessed right, and headed us back south along the shoreline – and eventually spotted the 35’ light tower that marks the Hens & Chickens Reef which was just about 2 miles east of the channel leading into the trailer park where I lived.
. . . This is the end of A Fishy Story, Part One. Part Two will follow soon.