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For some years now, fishing has been the one thing to keep Mayport alive. Most of the other enterprises have folded 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 same time!

    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 split 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 Christmas present.

    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 picnic—but 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 per pound. 

    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 artesian wells. 

    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 Tampa—Booty 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 stomach.

    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 all right until one day he made a mistake in maneuvering the sail and wound up on the end of the north Jetties. When he was picked up his rescuer asked him if he was scared. "Naw, 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 to 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 I can 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 bone.

    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 and Button 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.

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