<< 2: HUNTING || 4: COWBOYS >>
For some years now, fishing has been the one thing to
keep Mayport alive. Most of the other enterprises have
up their tents and disappeared. Joe Brown tells me that there
are plenty of fish but you have to know where and how to
catch them. After looking at his fishing boat, I could also
add that a sum of money was necessary to equip yourself.
The boats are heavy with great wide sterns and powerful
outboard motors, and the nets are of some synthetic material
that will hardly break. They are a far cry from the old
linen nets which were so costly and easily torn up.
At one time, a good fisherman could go up most any
of the big creeks around Mayport and with a bucket of
shrimp and two or three cane poles make a living by fishing.
When the trout are biting, a man with three poles was one
busy man, but, as the tides changed, the fish finally quit
biting altogether for that period. It sounds easy but really
was no small job to row a heavy boat, sometimes against
the tide, and offer your exposed skin as
tidbits for mosquitoes and deer flies. On a cold day, it was hard to keep
your hands in your pockets and tend your poles at the
There must have been plenty of oysters in and around the
Mayport section for most of the older roads had a base of
shells, and for years dredging oyster shells was a big business.
All of the Indian mounds that I knew in this section consisted mainly of shells, and before we became so scientific
you could find skeletons inside the shell heaps. I don't
know what they find now, but after watching some of the
college professors screening everything that was in a mound,
they couldn't miss much. Sometimes I wonder who ever ate
the first oyster, and, for a long time, my wife wondered "why."
Shrimping has for years been big business at Mayport
First, with small boats (many of which were powered by
second-hand automobile motors), and later with diesel powered boats, until the bottom of the ocean was dragged clean.
Except, of course, where boats had sunk or where unusable
planes had been dumped. It was quite a sight to see barge
loads of scrapped planes heading for deep water during and
immediately after World War II.
If you have never seen a shrimp net, it is quite an ingenious device. The net is really a big funnel woven from heavy
twine and fastened to a powered hoist. On the front of
the net there is fastened a pair of doors made of wood, and
these are dragged along the bottom in front of the open
net so that everything living (sometimes including sharks and
porpoise) are caught. It is awful what a big shark or porpoise
can do to a net, but that is one of the chances of fishing.
When the contents of the net are dropped on the deck, after
an hour or so of trolling, it is amazing at the variety of life
brought up. Crabs running everywhere, shrimp bouncing
around, small fish of every variety, and if you haven't gotten
rid of your shark in the net, you
still have more trouble.
Shrimping crews usually work on shares with a prearranged agreement as to how the proceeds are to be
up. The boat gets a certain percentage, the captain and crew
all on an agreement worked out in advance. There can be
some lean days, but when the boat does get a big catch
everybody is happy. One fourteen year old boy was asked
by his school teacher why he was not in school the day
before. "Miss Agnes, I made $300.00. How much did you
make?" and that is the way it goes. It is so much easier to
remember the good than the bad.
One year, just before Christmas, one of my black friends
came in to see me. When I shook hands with him, I noticed
that his hands were as soft as a baby's behind. I asked him
what he had been doing and was told that he had been running captain on a shrimp trawler out from South America.
Evidently, the captain did not do any work. I like that. My
friend had a check for several thousand dollars and needed
to make some banking connections. This was easily arranged
and the next morning he was back with a big box filled with
"goodies" for me. A huge red snapper, several pounds of
shrimp and lobster tails galore, all frozen. That was some
In 1936, I went out on a small shrimp trawler that had to
be worked by hand, and I can tell you now it was no picnicóbut we did use some of our shrimp to do some fishing off
the Jetties. We caught all of the big red bass that we wanted
and people were complaining about hooking on to drums that
weighed up to seventy-five pounds, which were wormy and
difficult to haul in. Some of our bass were three feet long and
I don't know how much they weighed.
During the 1930's we have seen fishermen shoveling shrimp
off the back of the boat because there was no sale, even at
ten cents per pound. I have a page from the Florida Times Union of 1939 advertising shrimp in the stores at ten cents
There is a pocket of water in the St. Johns near Fulton
where, for some reason, it was against the law for the shrimp
trawlers to fish. There have been many stories told of how
the fishermen outwitted the law, and sometimes failed to
outwit the law only to pay the penalty. It was tough making
even a dishonest living in the earlier days! The old "Mud
Hole", as it was called, was always inviting and tempting.
The shrimp houses were usually built on palmetto pilings
over the river and were never elaborate or too well cared for.
The heading tables were down the center of the house and
were made of heavy lumber covered by heavy galvanized iron
with a trough on each side so that as the heads were pulled
off, they could be raked into the trough and washed into
the river. Water was never a problem at May port with so many
When a trawler would pull up to the dock the shrimp
would be put into wire baskets, weighed and dumped on the
table. Before our society became so affluent, it was almost
a fight to see who was going to head the shrimp. Each header
would get a bucket and as soon as he had headed enough
shrimp to fill the bucket, he went by the paymaster, picked
up his pay and dumped the shrimp into the bin. I have seen
headers who could head with both hands, a shrimp in each
hand, and it seemed almost automatic the way the heads
flipped off. The "small fry" were quite often seen with
candy in one hand and shrimp in the other. I suppose shrimp
and candy mix very well, specially if a northeaster has been
blowing for a week or so and you have been on short rations.
It has always amazed me how a shrimp with a brain the size
of a pea can tell more about the weather and what it is going
to do than can a meteorologist who might wear a size 73/8 hat!
Nature is wonderful but it does play awful rough sometimes.
When the shrimp are ready for shipping they are put into
boxes, well iced down, and prior to 1932, were sent out
on the train to Jacksonville, or wherever else they might
have orders from. Now that people have found what good
food really is, much of the Mayport catch goes into local
channels. The Mayport boy who became the world's largest
shipper of pan-ready shrimp now operates out of TampaóBooty Singleton of Singleton Shrimp Company. I knew him
when - - -
We were raised in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and all of life we had
been taught that it was wrong to
go fishing on Sunday. We came to Florida in December of
1926 just as the whole country was heading for a depression,
or recession as they call them now. Many people worked
six days a week and I was one of the fortunate ones, but it
did cut down on my fishing.
We found that Captain Leon Canova was taking the Mollie
and Me out to the snapper banks on Saturday night, so we
planned to make that trip. We waited on the dock until
almost dark while the boat discharged its daytime fishermen, refueled and prepared for another trip to the banks.
It was my first deep sea fishing trip and I did not want to
miss anything. I didn't, even to getting sea sick. It was quite a
thrill crossing the bar, albeit a little unsettling to your
We headed east out past the old lightship, and after a
few words with the boys on the ship. Captain Canova threw
the throttle in the corner and we headed for the wide open
spaces. It was the night of the full moon and there was not
a cloud in the sky to obscure our view of the moon. It came
up out of that ocean like a barn on fire. One of the most
beautiful sights I have ever seen and one I will never forget.
Sometime later we saw a light on the ocean and wondered
what it was. Captain Canova had hung a lantern out there.
He had taken a fishing pole, tied a lighted lantern on top of
that, put some cork floats around the middle of the pole,
put some weights on the bottom, and anchored this over the
place where they had caught fish that afternoon. I thought
at first it might be like the fisherman who marked the spot
where he had caught fish on the bottom of his boat.
We used hand lines for fishing and the fishing was good;
snappers, sea bass and an occasional shark. When we had
enough fish to start cooking, the crew began cleaning and
soon we had some of the finest food anyone ever ate. This
was truly fresh fish.
The continual rolling of the boat began to cause the fishermen (and ladies) to start turning green around the gills. As
the night wore on, an occasional person was seen to "try
for distance" at the rail. People were getting tired, sleepy
and sick. The Captain, sensing this, did the best thing that
he could to liven up the party. He took a fresh fish and bit
into it with full force and blood flew all over his face. That
did it! Everybody made a dash for the rail and nearly
capsized the boat!!! We were back in Mayport about daylight with plenty of fish and all it took was some steady land
to cure the sea sickness. You sure get well in a hurry.
Mayport has raised many rugged individuals. One of them
that always intrigued me was "Holy Joe." He usually fished
by himself and I was told that the name was given him because of his singing religious songs. Don't believe that I ever
saw him, but often you could see his small fishing boat bobbing in the distance.
One rugged old gentleman was called Brother Marlowe,
eighty years old, still fishing and building boats. This was
some years ago; but at that time he would come to our store,
order his lumber, and if we could not make immediate delivery, walk the eight miles back to Mayport. He had been
accustomed to rowing his boat on his fishing expeditions until someone talked him into rigging up a sail. He did
right until one day he made a mistake in
sail and wound up on the end of the north Jetties. When he
was picked up his rescuer asked him if he was scared.
I ain't got long to live nohow."
I believe that the best weatherman in Mayport, and that
may include other parts of the country too, was Captain
Otto Hahn. I also believe that Otto was the only fisherman
I ever saw who would not drink coffee. He learned better
in Germany during the First World War. Otto was raised on
the river and he knew both the river, its moods, and how to
forecast the weather. Captain Hahn had his own fishing boat,
the Seal and no one ever brought back more satisfied
fishermen then he did. Among his other accomplishments
was a knack for being a good story teller. I know that fishermen have a reputation for telling stories,
but Otto was different. He had caught and watched his parties catch so many
fish until it would have been difficult for him to tell an untruth about his fishing exploits. Otto was my friend, and
I'm glad to have had the pleasure of his company from time
Captain Charlie Drew and Captain Charles Daniels did a
lot of party boat fishing in small, skip-jacks powered with
one-cylinder Lathrop motors. The story is told that Captain
Drew used his motor so long that it became an antique and
was replaced free of charge. I'll never forget watching a
skip-jack afire at sea, as I stood on the beach. It was a long
swim to shore. Maybe it would be well to describe a skip-jack as it was described by an expert:
This boat was made with a V bottom, powered by a one cylinder,
heavy duty gasoline engine equipped with a make and break
ignition system rather than the present type known as the jump
spark system. The engines were of five to eight horsepower and
weighed as much as the current one hundred to one hundred fifty
horse power jobs. The boats were from eighteen to twenty feet
long and were very seaworthy. Now you have it.
We were out fishing with Hilton Floyd in his boat Hard Times and after a not so successful morning, headed up
river toward home. We caught up to the ferry on the north bank of the St. Johns and as we nosed in to the ferry to give
one of the boys a mess of fish, it was interesting to watch the gang of tourists on board come to the rail and read the name
of our boat, Hard Times. Only trouble was that our name
was for real!
The bait for sheephead fish was usually fiddlers, a small crab that frequented the shores and beaches or marshes. They
have enormous claws for their size, which is about as big as your thumbnail, and will give a tender hand a good bite.
We have always just picked them up, but they tell me that the best way is to bury a bucket or tub until the rim is even
with the top of the earth, and then drive them into that so
that they will fall into the container and then they cannot
get out. Willie Brazeale had the biggest bunch of fiddlers
that I have ever seen. He had a large room with the floor
completely covered by fiddlers. Sold them by the quart. It
made my back hurt just to think how much bending and
stretching it took to catch that many crabs. Catching blue
crabs has been an industry around Mayport as long as
remember, and anyone who has ever eaten any fresh crab
meat can tell you that it is good eating. Saw one big burley
fisherman stick his forearm down among some crabs and let
them bite him just to show how tough he was. The crabs
brought blood from his arm, but I don't believe they could
have found any blood in his head, for it must have been solid
At one time, there were people walking the streets with a
market basket in their hand selling deviled crabs at ten cents
each. They were filled with crab meat and well worth the
dime it took from your $12.00 per week pay envelope. There
have been crab picking plants in Jacksonville, Fulton and Mayport, and picking the meat out certainly takes skill and
perseverance. The plant at Mayport, for a while, was just picking out the white meat and throwing the claws away. I've
gone by the plant and picked up boxes of claws that had been
thrown away already cooked. Had a box in my car one night
and asked Haskins Stormes if he wanted some claws. "Sure
do", he said, and I asked him how many he wanted. "Take
all of them to fill up them ten youngins I have at home." Haskins was a good fisherman and I had eaten fish he had caught
from the pier, so turn about was fair play.
We went out for dinner at a sea food restaurant last week
and very foolishly ordered some deviled crabs. The cook was
probably frustrated and forgot to put his sprinkling of crab
meat into the patties. Having eaten some real food, you do
miss it when it comes up short.
The shad is one of the finest fishes that we have, if you
have the patience to get out the bones. They are beautiful fish
and seem to relish rough weather, and cold weather seems to
help too. To catch shad, you have to be tough and then, so
often when they are caught, you will find where the crabs
have mutilated them while they are in the nets, making them
no good for the market. That is where I came in, for then the
shad are only good for smoking, and smoked shad are, in my
opinion, the very best of sea food. Carl Stein, out on the Mayport road, usually has some every season and I know of no
one, (unless it is his wife), who can do a better job of smoking
them. We like to take the roe and mix it with eggs for breakfast. Mullet roe is just about as good fixed this way but it has
a tendency to be dry when cooked by itself. My friend, Joe
Keller, had a method of keeping his breakfast from being dry;
sprinkle it liberally with cut up datil peppers. Any one who
can eat datil peppers for breakfast has to have a cast iron
stomach and Joe does, or did. I haven't seen him lately.
The green turtle was a delightful bit of sea food, but they got so scarce until the catching of them was outlawed for a
while. I'm not sure if it is legal even now. The only time I ever
ate any was when Mrs. Josie Hulbert of Mayport fed me some.
She knew how to cook anything. One day Jesse Brazeale gave
me a mess of sea turtle and my wife cooked it for us. It looked
good, but I can't say that I relish any part of it.
There have been two pogie or menhaden plants in Mayport.
One burned down and the other one was torn down to make
way for progress, for it seems that everything is being torn
down or burned down and not being replaced. The pogie is
a small, oily fish found in schools of millions off-shore our
beaches and as far up as North Carolina. One old timer told
me that they don't even eat fish like that in the old country.
The pogie boats have a tall mast with a crow's nest and one
lonely man scanning the seas for a school of fish. The boat
rolls in the swells so much until it seems that the lookout's
pockets could be filled with water. It's no place for a man with
any inclination to be sea sick. As soon as a school is sighted,
the word is given and a boat it put over, usually with one man
in it, to surround the fish with a net. After the net is set right,
the hauling in begins. Sometimes it takes the whole crew to
get it in when loaded with fish. When the men are pulling, it
is to a chant, sometimes rather bawdy, but it does accomplish
its purpose. If they have taken on too many fish, they are in
trouble. They could sink the boat, and if they drop part of the
catch, many of them already dead, they will pollute the
beaches. Even back in the old days, people had a hard time
liking that kind of pollution. It is up to the captain as to how
many fish he thinks he can get home with, and I have seen the
stern almost awash as they come in. Every man a board got
paid according to the catch and with dazzling Saturday nights
to look forward to, no one wanted to miss one penny that he
might have had.
Some people reported that a few trips on a pogie boat would cure asthma. One man tried it and I'm not sure about
the asthma, but it drove him to drink. I can't imagine a man
sitting on a pile of overripe fish eating his lunch, but it happened. Those people were well paid but I'll bet you could not
find one five dollar bill in the whole crew Monday morning.
The pogies were processed by cooking and then grinding them
up, getting the oil out in the meantime. Fish meal was used
in poultry feeds, fertilizers, and what have you.
Many professional fishermen augment their income by
seining the surf. It is hard on your legs to back up the beach
pulling a long seine after you, but sometimes it really paid off,
especially when you hit a school of mullet or a bunch of trout.
It gets scary out in the breakers when you begin seeing shark
fins cutting the water around you. One man netted ten thousand pounds of mullet and had to call for help.
Howard Mickler tells of seeing great balls of shrimp, tangled
into each others feelers, along the edge of the ocean. The sea
gulls were having a field day helping them get untangled, one
at a time. Donax were there by the millions and anyone who
cared to, could get all they wanted in a short time. Donax soup
is somewhat like oyster stew and in my opinion just as good. I
don't know why they are called donax while alive and coquina
shell afterwards, but much of the old concrete around here was
poured with coquina and sand. The old Neptune and Jacksonville Beaches bulkhead was poured from coquina and sand.
There was no shortage of fish or game in this land but when
you look at all the work done in digging canals, clearing land,
building homes and planting crops, you know that our ancestors had to be a tough bunch of
people or they would have perished. It is no wonder to me that General McIntosh
Gwinnett quarreled after an unsuccessful attempt to capture
St. Augustine, thus making Gwinnett to be the first of the signers of the Declaration of Independence to die.
<< 2: HUNTING || 4: COWBOYS >>