Sea of change engulfing Gulfport fisherman

GULFPORT

Charlie Williams drank a Bud in the tavern called On the Rocks. It was noon. He looked out the window at the haunted old pier whose denizens included the memory of himself as a boy.

He grew up fishing on the old pier. He remembers using live minnows for bait. He always cast his baited hook toward the rocks. In a moving tide the snappers bit hard, pulled hard, tried to swim under the rocks. After an hour he'd have enough snapper to sell to the Aylesworth Brothers who ran the fish house.

Other kids mowed lawns for movie money. Charlie was a commercial fisherman at age 10.

Much water has swept under the pier since then. He is 54 and weather-beaten like his pickup and his odiferous skiff. Every morning he takes the skiff out and tends his crab traps. At night he nets mullet. Fish scales gleam in the back of his truck like brand new dimes.

On windy mornings, with the palms bowing like altar boys during high Mass, and the whitecaps standing tall like frosting on an angel food cake, he curses the weather and stays ashore. Sometimes he delivers fish to his accounts. Sometimes he drinks beer.

He nursed his Bud and said, "I could tell you stories.'' He has stories about massive mullet schools, decent money at the fish house, and, of course, the grizzled commercial fishermen who wore rubber slickers, kept their Pall Malls dry in the rain, watched the moon, waited for the mullet to move.

They're gone or dead. The big schools of fish aren't as plentiful either. The water no longer is gin-and-tonic clear. The shoreline once thick with mangroves is now growing condos.

The sleepy little fishing village that his granddaddy helped establish in Pinellas County no longer is a sleepy little fishing village. It's a hip community, with good restaurants, art galleries, the occasional celebrity. On weekend nights, rich people go there for fun.

Charlie has an idea.

"Let's outlaw air conditioners. Everybody will move away and we'll get Gulfport back the way it was.''

It is a common sentiment among old-time Floridians. Many yearn for the slower pace, bare feet, the front-porch chats with neighbors about the weather, the smell of frying fish on the 6 o'clock breeze.

Florida yearners come from all walks of life. Some are schoolteachers. Some lay pipes or carpet. Others write newspaper columns. Some are doctors and lawyers who own second homes in the mountains. Yet they all yearn for the old Florida of their youth.

Pipe-fitters and lawyers and doctors and journalists still can make a fair living. They don't feel the loss of Florida like a commercial fisherman, whose way of life in modern Florida is mostly gone.

Before Gulfport was Gulfport it was home to the native Tocobaga and then the Spaniards. Later it was Disston City, named after Hamilton Disston, famous for his desire to drain Florida. Then it was Veteran City, a come-on to Civil War fighters who might want to look at the water and eat smoked fish before going on to Eternity. By the time Gulfport became Gulfport, in 1910, Charlie Williams' kinfolk were already fishing here.

His granddaddy, Henry Walter Williams, ran a fishing boat. He was mayor three times. Charlie's uncle fished. His dad fished.

Sometimes Charlie looks at an old, yellow, wrinkled, out-of-focus photograph of his kin. He says with satisfaction, "Not a blankety-blank shoe on any of them.'' Charlie avoids shoes, even when he is hunkered down with a beer in a tavern at noon on a blustery day.

• • •

He quit school after eighth grade to net mullet. Back then there seemed to be enough mullet for everybody. There were stone crabs in the winter and blue crabs in the summer.

The mullet ran best between full moons in November and December. Fat with roe, they waited for a cold front, then swam, en masse, into the Gulf to spawn. Waiting at the river mouths, at the bayous, at the passes between the inshore and the offshore, were the fishermen and their 400-yard nets.

Maybe if Florida had never grown past 2-million folks everything would have been fine. But Florida grew up. Now there are 18-million of us, high-rises on the shore and cloudy water.

The number of fishermen also grew. When Charlie Williams was a boy there were a few dozen commercial netters working the fish. By the time his hair turned gray there were hundreds trying to catch a finite supply in his bay.

In 1995, Florida's citizens voted to put the commercial netters out of business. Perhaps they should have also prohibited coastal development and outlawed air conditioners. But something had to give, and it was easier to get rid of the netters than progress.

• • •

"Hauling in that b----'' — Charlie Williams was talking about a 400-yard net — ''was a helluva job. But I loved it, man.''

Now he uses a net 24 feet across. It's a legal net, but he can't haul it; he has to throw it. Sometimes it hurts his back. He still reads the weather, still reads the moon and tide, still figures out where to position himself. The last of the old-timers, he is still the Fish Whisperer of Gulfport.

He waits for the fish to school up, throws the net, dumps his catch in a bucket. On a good night he catches several hundred pounds. He remembers when he landed a ton.

Sometimes, when the fish stop running, or when he can't find any fish at all, he plays his guitar at the tavern for tips.

"The two worst blankety-blank low-paying jobs on this blankety-blank earth is playin' the guitar and fishin', '' he said. "Ain't I the lucky one?''

He had to talk loudly to be heard above the wind. It would blow another 24 hours before settling. The water would remain dirty for another day — too dirty to throw the net for mullet, but okay for catching crabs.

He finished his beer, ambled to the water, gazed at the Williams Pier — yes, it's named after his kin — and remembered the old days when he caught mangrove snapper, and Old Man Aylesworth bought them for 50 cents a pound, and then sold him a smoked kingfish tail for 15 cents, and he felt like that way of life would last forever.

"You know what my daughter reminded me of the other day?''

He was leaning on his red truck, which smelled of sweat and the sea.

"We Williams folk have been fishing in Gulfport for more than 100 years. A century. Ain't that something?''

Summer Ray Williams, his daughter, will be 16 soon. She enjoys fishing but not enough to be a commercial fisher. An International Baccalaureate student at St. Petersburg High, she has talked about becoming a doctor.

Her dad isn't disappointed.

"I'd kill her if she wanted to be a fisherman. It's too rough a road to hoe nowadays. It's an impossible way of life.''

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

Sea of change engulfing Gulfport fisherman 03/17/08 [Last modified: Thursday, January 23, 2014 12:50pm]

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