A 1912 photograph of a whale shark caught in Florida
The name Florida conjures images of hot, humid weather, seaside bars, sandy beaches, and, for many people, fishing. Fishing is a popular pastime in this seaside state, and it has been for a long time. People have been living here for over 10,000 years, and once big game like mammoth and bison died out, the diet of humans was supplemented by what they caught from the sea.
Unfortunately, our photographic records don’t go as far back as ten millennia, but we do have some interesting images of 19th- and early 20th-century fishermen and women.
Tarpon, like this 185-pound specimen caught by Mrs. Florida Schultz Heitman (seen here posing with her catch in 1921), were, and still are, a particularly popular game fish in the state. Fortunately for them, their meat is not very tasty, so these days most tarpon, unlike this example, are released once they’re caught.
In this photograph from the turn of the century, men fool around with a goliath grouper they caught off the dock in Panama City. Ice was not readily available to fishermen at this time, so fish like groupers were often kept in boat compartments known as ‘live wells’. These boxy compartments were filled with water to keep the fish alive until they could be sold and eaten. These days, harvesting goliath grouper in Florida is prohibited, and if caught they must be released immediately.
This photograph from the 1920s displays some of the watery acrobatics tarpons are famous for. In fact, it is not unusual for a snagged tarpon to leap out of the air, ejecting both the hook and the bait from its mouth. From the 1800s, fishermen from all over the world came to Florida to try their luck catching the feisty fish. We think it’s nice to know that tarpons sometimes won.
Earnest Hemingway’s passion for hunting and fishing is legendary. Here, the author, who had a home in Florida during the 1930s, poses with a couple of sailfish. Hemingway owned a fishing boat called Pilar and often broke records and won fishing tournaments, sometimes competing against well-known sportsmen. His record haul was 23 sailfish, which were all tagged and released – unlike those in this 1940s photograph.
If you were out in the ocean and came across one of these creatures, you’d probably be quite startled. But, as this specimen proves, most ocean creatures have more reason to fear humans than we do to fear them. This giant manta ray was caught in the 1940s, and today the species is strictly protected. Incidentally, giant manta rays are the largest rays in the world – not hard to believe, looking at this monster.
This photograph from 1895 shows a photographer standing next to a mound of oyster shells in Apalachicola. Harvesting oysters has been a business here for over a century, and these days over 90% of Florida’s oysters come from this port town – which also hosts the annual Florida Seafood Festival. An abundance of phytoplankton, a calm shallow bay, warm water, and a lack of predators makes Apalachicola a perfect environment for these shellfish, as well as those who like to eat them.
These rather well dressed fishermen display their catch aboard a boat in Palm Beach in 1900. “There is perhaps no state in the union whose fishes have attracted more attention than those of Florida,” said Barton W. Evermann, ichthyologist of the US Fish Commission at the turn of the century. “The commercial fishermen, the angler and the ichthyologist share the interest in the fishes of this state. The number of species that are sought because of their commercial value is far greater than in any other section of America."
We’ll forgive you if you’re distracted from the fish in this 1935 photograph by the natty knickerbockers of the anglers. Putting fashion aside, those impressive ‘sails’ on the fish are used to scare off predators. Obviously, this doesn’t work so well with sport fishermen, who consider sailfish one of the most desirable species of game fish.
The gentleman in this picture, taken in the early 1900s, sure looks pleased with his catch. He caught the fish using a technique called ‘surfcasting’, which is a two-handed casting method that sends the lure out much greater distances than normal. In this case, the fishing was done on Daytona Beach, where these days you’d probably be just as likely to see a car racing by as a fish.
This photograph of a goliath grouper was taken around 1910, and according to the records, it weighed between 350 and 360 pounds. That’s a lot of fish!
Jupiter Inlet, where this huge specimen was caught, has the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous inlet in Palm Beach County, with big surf and shallow sandbars. During the summer months, it is also a spawning area for goliath groupers. As mentioned earlier, these fish, described as “gentle giants”, can now swim safely as they are no longer fished here.
This 1920s image shows a fisherman proudly displaying his catch. Florida was known as a fishing hub before the American Civil War, and after the war, many fishing expeditions were made to the state.
The ocean is not the only source of fish in Florida. This 1920s photograph shows a crew of anglers with a grouper caught in the Halifax River. Goliath groupers normally live in estuaries or mangrove swamps before they reach maturity. Once they become adults, they usually move to shallow ocean reefs, but occasionally they will return to the brackish or freshwater areas from which they came.
Here we have a photograph from 1893, showing a group of people standing around a hammerhead shark caught off Palm Beach. Land fishing – or fishing from the beach – for sharks such as hammerheads became especially popular in the early 1900s, as it didn't require a boat. Don't get any ideas though; these amazing creatures are now protected in Florida.
Two game fish hang in the sun in this image from around 1911 – a bonito shark (or shortfin mako) and a sawfish. The bonito shark is the fastest shark in the world and is recognized as dangerous to humans. The scarier looking sawfish, on the other hand, poses no threat, unless, maybe, you were to frighten or try to capture one. Sadly, both of these species are now threatened.
A WWII bomber crew enjoys a bit of R&R in this picture, which shows them posing with a row of sailfish in West Palm Beach. Despite being the least populated southern state in America until 1940, Florida played a vital part in both the lead up to and the commencement of the Second World War. An important Army Air Corps airfield was located in Apalachicola, and over 3,000 Floridians lost their lives during the war – although the state did nevertheless show a 46% growth in its population by 1950.
Here’s another massive manta ray, this time held up by a couple in 1938. This ray was caught by Forrest Walker, who was a Florida cracker (descendant of a pioneer) and fishing guide. During the 1930s, manta rays were given a fearsome reputation by two popular movies: The Sea Bat and The Sea Fiend. These days, we know that reputation was completely undeserved.
Fishing has played a part in Florida’s economy and culture for almost two centuries. Whether for the Native Americans, or the Spaniards, or the modern commercial and sporting fishing industry, the waters here have been a veritable fishing paradise.
These days, sadly, some species are not as abundant as they used to be, and many of the fish shown in these pictures can no longer be caught legally. There are also many people who see game fishing as cruel. Whatever your opinion, these photographs have, we hope, given you an interesting insight into one of the great pastimes of the early 20th century.