Long before anglers skimmed across the grass beds in their flats skiffs and cruised offshore in their triple-engine, deep-vee powerboats, fishermen worked the coast in tiny, wind-powered craft most folks would be afraid to use as dinghies.
These itinerant fishermen of the late 1700s established a series of "Fishing Ranchos" along the Gulf Coast where they processed their catch. Today, those fishermen are long gone but their legacy lives on in place names such as Maximo Point and Bunces Pass at the mouth of Tampa Bay.
One hundred years before Florida became a state in 1845, Cuban fishermen made regular trips to the mouth of Tampa Bay to catch mullet, pompano, mackerel, drum and sea turtles. These men established seasonal camps where they would salt, dry or smoke their catch, which would then be shipped to Cuba and exchanged for a variety of consumer goods they could trade to the settlers and Indians.
By the late 1780s, the fishermen and their families began staying year-round in these fish camps, which consisted primarily of simple, palm-thatched huts, often situated near an existing Indian mound. It was a hard life, but the fishing was good, and as a result, the camps attracted a wide variety of workers, including Native Americans and escaped slaves.
By the late 1820s, American fishermen began to crowd out the Cubans. Some went home, others stayed and assimilated. With the start of the Second Seminole War in 1835, the age of the classic Fishing Rancho was over. But these new fishermen from the United States brought their own culture and unique styles of watercraft, some of which are still around today.
Around the same time these fishermen were cooking their catch at the Pass of the Grillers, due south of present-day St. Pete Beach, fur-clad mountain men thousands of miles to the west met annually at "rendezvous" to trade beaver pelts, buffalo horns and anything else of value.
These informal gatherings were as much about social interaction as they were trade. This concept has not been lost on the spiritual descendants of the Fishing Rancheros. Members of the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the Traditional Small Craft Association, meet regularly to discuss and "mess about" in handmade wooden boats. The sloop-rigged sailboats, typically 12 to 14 feet long, had built-in live wells and were capable of making long, open-water crossings.
It's hard to imagine what Florida's early fishermen went through, but you will begin to appreciate the hardships they endured if you stop by the Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez. The museum, located west of downtown Bradenton at 4415 119th St. W in a building that once housed the 1912 Cortez Rural Graded School, is a must-see for all fishermen and boaters.