A Brief History of Fishing in Florida

From Ponce de Leon to Ernest Hemmingway, Florida is unique. Just look at a map.

You could spend a lifetime exploring the state, but the lower third of the peninsula is amazing—especially if you like water. It’s the only part of the continental U.S. with a tropical climate and there’s miles of coastline that’s bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, the Straits of Bahama, and the Gulf of Mexico.  Plus there are hundreds, if not thousands, streams, rivers, lakes and inlets. This famous peninsula includes Miami, the Everglades, the Florida Keys, Palm Beach, as well as the trio of “Treasure Coast” counties of Indian River, St. Lucie, and Martin.

In South Florida, ethnic cuisine is arguably more abundant than American faire. Music is king in this part of the state, with warm starry nights filled with Latin beats and country twang. With Cuba only 90 miles from Key West, the Caribbean influence is palpable.

Dress is casual, but sunblock is mandatory.

Florida has long been the home to indigenous cultures, farmers, and fishermen. It’s also attracted travelers from around the world, many of them drawn by the fantastic fishing. In the early 1500’s, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, who’d been a member of Columbus’ second voyage to the New World, landed on the Florida coast.

He’s reputed to be the first explorer to land on Pine Island, which is still a paradise for people who love the water (Ponce was sent running by the Calusa Indians and subsequently died from a spear wound—at the ripe old age of 61 in what is now Cuba). The surrounding keys and islands are still tropical paradises for adventurers and fishermen alike, but the region’s a lot more hospitable.

Back then, this part of the peninsula was a dense jungle, swarming with crocs, pumas, snakes, bear, and alligator. And, the waters were thick with fish. The jungle has been tamed, but the wild seas and dense mangrove forests still are home for a wide variety of fish and sea life. And modern explorers seem more interested in searching for great salt water sport fishing—perhaps their own Fountain of Youth.

Sport fishing really got its start in the area in the early 1900s, when Henry Flagler, an industrialist and oilman, who was responsible for pushing the railroad across the peninsula. Sportsmen and women, writers, artists and wealthy travelers from all over North America and Europe started making pilgrimages to the area in pursuit if its legendary salt water offerings: bonefish, tarpon, mahi-mahi, and Spanish mackerel. There’s no mystery why this area quickly developed into the playground of choice for some of the world’s greatest fishermen and women.

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One of the first American’s to popularize the Florida Keys is Zane Grey, an American author who penned more than a hundred novels and articles; most Westerns, but many books that romanticized the sport of fishing. Born in 1872, by 1930, Grey was making more than $500,000 a year from writing. In later life, he is rumored to have fished more than 300 days a year, with Southern Florida being one of his favorite places.

His haunts were Duck, Long and Grassy Key’s, and in 1910, he started frequenting the upscale Long Key Fishing Club built by Flagler (who is credited for building Miami). In later years, presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover visited the club (both were avid fishermen), as did the industrialist/banker, Andrew Mellon and publisher and father of yellow journalism, William Randolph Hearst.

Perhaps the biggest boon to the Southern Florida fishing scene (and lifestyle) was American writer, Ernest Hemingway. He lived in Key West from 1931 through 1939, and left an indelible mark on the area.  His passions during that period were writing, catching sailfish and drinking, although not necessarily in that order. He used his fishing experience and knowledge of nearby Cuba to write his Pulitzer Prize-winning Old Man and the Sea.

And after awarding Hemmingway the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, Sweden designed a stamp in the writer’s honor, complete with a sailfish.  The novel “To Have or Have Not,” was set in Key West; not only did Hemmingway write many of his classics from the southern Florida town, he once broke the record for catching marlin in the area—54 in 115 days!