Fishing has been an important part of life in Charlotte Harbor as long as there have been people here. The Calusa fished with nets and spears. Eventually, fishermen from Cuba began to fish the waters of the Harbor. Even after the British took over the state from the Spanish, they continued to travel north to fish.
Havana is almost due south of the island of Cayo Costa (Cuba Map). When the US took control of Florida from the British in 1821, they distrusted the Cubans. When Cubans refused to pay export taxes or import duties, the US sent a Customs officer to the Harbor and set up a checkpoint in Key West. The Cuban fishermen generally just avoided it, which did not help the tension between the fishermen and the Customs officers. The guns and alcohol that made their way into the hands of local tribes didn’t improve the situation. Over time, Customs made it too difficult for the Cubans to continue to fish in the area, and they returned to Cuba, taking the remnants of the Calusa with them (Changing Politics).
In 1843, after the Seminole Wars, some Cubans returned and set up new ranchos. They fished peacefully until the start of the US Civil War. The Union blockade of Florida once again stopped Cuban fishing in the harbor. After the Civil War, Cuban fishermen came to Charlotte Harbor again (The Fishing Tradition Continues).
One of the best known fishing families was the Padilla family, which settled on Cayo Costa in 1870. They lived on the island for decades, and eventually moved to Boca Grande in the 1970s. Descendants of Tariva Padilla still fish in Charlotte Harbor today (A Pioneer Fishing Community).
In 1886 the railroad reached Punta Gorda, and in 1891 Mr. Trabue, who founded the city, built an ice plant. Prior to this, ice was shipped by train from Jacksonville and Atlanta at great expense (Punta Gorda). The local icehouse and railroad opened up the Northeast to the Florida seafood trade, and ended the dependence of the local fishermen on the Cuban market (Rails).
When a ship had a full hold, or was in need of supplies, they would visit one of the ice houses that dotted the harbor. These houses were built on the water, and used to collect fish for pick up by larger cargo ships. The larger ships would transport the fish to the railroad, and it would be shipped north (Rails).
Today, most fishing done in Charlotte Harbor is sport fishing. In 1885, W. H. Wood, of New York, caught a 93 pound tarpon near the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River. The story was reported on in newspapers around the country and the Charlotte Harbor sport fishing tradition began (Tourism).
The original guides and their customers went out into the pass in rowboats. They fished between tides. When a fish bit, the guide would row to shore to the beach in front of the lighthouse. The reels used were called thumb busters because they didn’t have drags. When a fish would bite, the spool would unwind rapidly. When the fisherman tried to stop it, it would often injure their thumbs (Equipment). In 1896, Edward vom Hofe introduced a reel with a drag system. This meant that the fish could be slowed without risk of a thumb injury (vom Hofe).
These days, tarpon guides use sophisticated equipment, but knowledge of local conditions is as important today as it was 120 years ago. Many of the men and women who are guides today are descendants of the fishermen who worked in these waters decades ago (Tarpon Guides).
Changing Politics, Changing Times. 1998. Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum.
“Equipment.” A Century of Tarpon Fishing. 1998. Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum.
The Fishing Tradition Continues. 1998. Port Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum.
Rails and Ice Changed Fishing Industry. 1998. Port Boca Grande Lighthouse Museum.
“A Pioneer Fishing Community.” The Fishing Tradition Continues. 1998. Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum.
“Tarpon Guides.” A Century of Tarpon Fishing. 1998. Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum.
Tarpon Brought Tourism, Industry to Boca Grande. 1998. Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum.
“The vom Hofe Reel.” 27 Sept. 2007. 06 June 2008. http://headwatersbamboo.com/blog/news/the-vom-hofe-reel/ .
“Wall Map of Cuba.” MAPS. 06 June 08. http://www.maps.com/map.aspx?nav=MS&cid=22,56,97,637&pid=8933.
“Punta Gorda Ice Plant.” Historic Punta Gorda. 2008. www.mainstreetpuntagorda.org/historic_punta_gorda.html.
Photo donated by the Boca Grande Historical Society Museum and the Futch Family