THE ORIGINS OF A SPORTSFISHING “MECCA”‘- KEY WEST’S LEGENDARY “CHARTER BOAT ROW”
BY EDWARD J. LITTLE, JR., PRESIDENT, KEY WEST MARITIME HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Some of the “fightingest” fish in the world swim in the waters surrounding Key West. To catch
them, sportsmen often make the wise choice of chartering a fishing vessel run by an
experienced, professional, captain. Many such “charter boats” are based along “Charter boat Row” just off Roosevelt Boulevard at Garrison Bight. Here there is a long row of seaworthy craft, idle until till they set out again in search of sportsfishing action. The type of craft here that are the most imposing, by virtue of their soaring outriggers, and “tuna towers”, are the deep sea “battle-wagons”. They are typically 40-50 feet in length. They range offshore, out to the Gulf Stream, in pursuit of sailfish, marlin, dolphin, and other large ocean-going fish species. These charter vessels and their crews often take center stage when the talk turns to fishing legends. And, it is with them that this “capsule history” is chiefly concerned.
IN THE BEGINNING
Charter boat Row was not always a mecca for sports fishers. Its story begins early in the 19th century. Key West was merely an isolated settlement then. Yet, diaries from that time often mention fishing parties that were composed of many of the town’s most prominent citizens. From the downtown waterfront they sailed out in swift sloops and schooners for a day’s sport. The crewmen aboard were probably paid “hands”, not unlike the charter boat crews of today. More to the point, by 1876 at least one owner of a Key West based sloop was offering his vessel for fishing trips at the price of $4.00 per day of charter..Charter boat Row was not always a mecca for sports fishers. Its story begins early in the 19thcentury. Key West was
We know little else about the first initiatives to establish charter boats at Key West and the Keys. But, after the turn of the century, the industry began to gather momentum. Tourists were coming to Florida in greater numbers. In part, they were lured by tales of the thrills of fishing in bountiful waters. That a number of first class hotels had opened in the “Sunshine State” didn’t hurt. For example, the Long Key Fishing Camp was completed in 1908. Soon it hosted wealthy anglers seeking to hire the guides and boats based there. Similarly, when the Casa Marina Hotel opened in 1920, Key West’s fine fishing was touted as a prime reason for tourists to stay there. By 1923, at least three charter boats were available for hire on the island. The honor of being the first captain to regularly take out charters is harder to determine. Key West residents Begly Filer, Luther Pinder, and Eddie “Bra” Saunders have all been set down in various period sources as being the “first”.
The Charter boat Row of today was “born” in the 1920’s among the docks and piers of the downtown
Key West waterfront. In those days, several charter boats were available at the foot of Duval St. (the Porter Docks). Boats could also be hired at the Thompson Fish docks (the Foot of Margaret St.) and at the nearby Gulf Oil Dock. As the “roaring twenties” drew to a close, the charter crews looked forward to a new decade of giving anglers top notch fishing action. They were in for a disappointment
The 1929 Stock Market crash spawned a national economic depression that hit Key West especially hard. By the early 1930’s, tourism to the island was almost nil. Other setbacks and natural disasters followed. After 1938, business conditions at Key West improved a little. Tourism picked up. Many charter boats found an additional location to work out of. These were the Craig Docks. They were where the docks of the P&O steamship line at Trumbo Point joined the eastern shoreline of Key West Bight. But, with the onset of WW II, sportsfishing was on hold for “the duration”. Some charter crews turned to commercial fishing to make ends meet. Others joined the war effort. As the post-war era (and the subsequent economic boom) unfolded however, the charter boats of the Keys were again being sought out by the angling public. The crews at Key West Bight were eager to oblige, but they had some handicaps.
The Bight left a lot to be desired for the docking of charter boats. It was open on the northwest side to the strong storms of winter. These often played havoc among the craft sheltered there. Then too, the character of the waterfront was changing. For example, the old Gulf Oil dock was being turned into a bulk terminal for Standard Oil products. Huge oil storage tanks would soon occupy much of the property. More importantly, the Bight was “off the beaten path” of the increased numbers of tourists coming to Key West via the Overseas Highway.
GARRISON BIGHT: CHARTER BOAT ROW EVOLVES
There was an alternative location to base the Key West charter fleet: Garrison
Bight. During much of the nineteenth century, the Army had a garrison post near there. Thus, the name took root. When Henry Flager’s railroad was extended to Key West, a long, narrow finger of fill was constructed across northern margin of the Bight. This created an enclosed, sheltered basin to the south of the fill. It was a perfect anchorage for small craft. A gap in the fill, spanned by a swing type railroad bridge, allowed navigation from the basin to outside waters. Although the bridge was long gone by the mid-1940s, Garrison Bight was far from forgotten. Many in Key West saw its potential as a marina and yacht basin. In 1947 the City of Key West bought most of the submerged lands of Garrison Bight from the State of Florida for the sum of $913.00.
This was not lost on the charter captains of Key West. If they moved their boats to the seawall that ran along southern margin of the Bight, and which fronted on North Roosevelt Boulevard, they were sure to be noticed by tourists driving into Key West. That was a good way to increase business. So, in January 1949, the captains (who, had first banded together in 1938 as the Key West Charter Boatman’s Association) had the City lease to the Association that portion of the seawall that ran from First Street westwards. Soon, many of the charter boats that had been at the Craig Docks, the Standard Oil dock, and elsewhere, were operating from the seawall. In time, crowds of tourists and locals were coming to this” charter boat row” almost every afternoon. The main attraction was the diversity and size of the day’s catch. Each skipper displayed his catch on a rack near his boat’s dock. It helped attract anglers. Eventually, this grew to be too much of a good thing.
By the late 1960’s, traffic congestion near the charter docks bordered on being a public safety hazard. The causeway across Garrison Bight had been completed in 1965. In the early 1970’s it was modified to serve as the City’s Municipal Marina. The southern seawall there was available to dock boats. In 1974 the bulk of the charter fleet was prompted to move to that location at the urging of the City. Some captains had misgivings about this relocation. However, these were mostly put aside as the years passed, and “Charter boat Row” flourished anew. It still draws sportsmen from the world over. And so, the legendary status of Key West as “mecca” for those seeking angling thrills continues.