While Islamorada offshore fishing was becoming popular in the 1920s and anglers like Zane Grey were discovering the thrill of tarpon fishing in the 1930s, it was the late 1940s and 1950s before sight fishing for bonefish and tarpon started gaining popularity.
“There was no one here in those days,” according to Captain Cecil Keith. Captain Dick Williams arrived in 1945, and shared that “Harry Pinder, George Brothers and I supplemented our guiding income by diving for lobster which we sold for 12-14 ¢ per pound.” The guides lived to fish, but had to do whatever it took to make a living.
Not to say they didn’t kill some bonefish and tarpon in the early days. The guides and anglers had no idea that the abundance of fish could ever be exhausted and trophy pictures are what brought anglers and friends back for more.
Some say Islamorada’s early guides and families lived on “grunts and grits,” when actually it was “bonefish and grits.” There was even bragging rights over who could bake the best bonefish with June Knowles and Suze Fowler leading the way according to Captain George Hommell. Captain Roger Martin took exception. “Cathy Williams prepared by far the best bonefish.”
Yet Jimmie Albright never cared for the taste of bonefish. He enjoyed sharing elaborate recipes with novice anglers, then telling them that when the fish was done baking, to dump a full bottle of ketchup over the dish if they wanted to enjoy it.
These pioneer captains also started Islamorada’s leading fishing conservation organization in 1956. It was called the Islamorada Fishing Guides Association, renamed The Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association (FKFGA) in 1979.
Many of the FKFGA founders already had a history of making an impact on fishing conservation as the founding members of the Islamorada Fishing Club.
In 1951, Everglades National Park Superintendent Dan Beard and Florida State Representative Bernie Papy met with local anglers and guides that were members of the Islamorada Fishing Club. The group was asked to write the rules and regulations for the Park. After several working meetings, Captains Jimmie Albright, Buck Starck, Rollie and Hollie Hollenbeck and Martin Dewey presented their recommendations to the Department of Agriculture. They were adopted almost word for word.
A newspaper article written by Allen Coroson stated:
“It is unfair to single out individuals in a meeting like this. That’s because so many people contributed to its success. However, to the Islamorada Fishing Club goes the credit for saving the day. And to Martin Dewey, Hollie and Rollie Hollenbeck goes special mention. It takes real guts to stand up with your bare face hanging out and say things commercial men could resent, particularly if you live in the relatively isolated Keys. Yet when the Deweys, Hollenbecks, Albrights, Starcks, Lynns and other of those Keys folk had finished talking, they left the meeting with new friends.”
The FKFGA’s first order of business in 1956 was to make sure all members had a U.S. Coast Guard Captain’s License. Several of the founding members did not have their license, including Captain Cliff Ambrose who was blind in one eye. Since there was no Coast Guard in the Keys, Jimmie Albright convinced the Miami Commodore to supply them study materials and come to Islamorada to administer the tests. The Coast Guard Commandant personally gave Cliff Ambrose his boat-handling test and finally agreed to give him a Captain’s license with no driving at night restrictions.
The second order of business was to take care of themselves. With no Coast Guard in the Keys and certainly no radio’s or cell phones, they had to be their own Coast Guard. While much of the fishing in the early days was within a mile of the shoreline, each year, the guides fished deeper into the Everglades National Park. The distances required them to keep each other informed. No captain left the dock to go home until everyone was accounted for.
The guides met monthly at Captain Rollie Hollenbeck’s house where they often worked on safety issues, fishing etiquette and of course ironed out a grip or two during meetings. There was bonefish and tarpon everywhere and seldom were there two skiffs on a flat. Things were good.
Very good, if there had just been a few more anglers willing to pay $25 per day to hire a guide. Jimmie Albright was staying busy enough and George Hommell had the good fortune of being a preferred guide to book with Miami Rod and Reel Club members itching to earn a higher badge of accomplishment. Other great captains were not so busy.
Things changed in the 1960’s. The busy season was about to expand beyond February and March. Ted Williams became addicted to fishing and soon the world would know a lot more about bonefish and tarpon fishing in Islamorada.
Ted, Pete and Lynette Siman and Don Hawley worked with FKFGA members, Jake Mueller, George Hommell, Clarence Lowe and Jack Brothers to develop the Islamorada Gold Cup Tarpon Championship. The rules were the start of a catch and release philosophy that is now the core fiber of the FKFGA. Tarpon had to be at least 70 pounds to be brought to the docks and significant points were given for tarpon that were caught and released.
The Gold Cup and the press reporting on Ted Williams’ love for Islamorada fishing expanding the busy season from February to June and again from September to November for bonefish.
In the early 1960’s, other notable Captains joined the FKFGA. They included Jim Brewer, Billy Knowles, Jr., Ralph Knowles, Clarence Lowe, Eddie Wightman, Roger Martin, Bob Reineman, Earl Gentry and Al Lipford. Guide fees had increased to $75 per day.
Along with the good fishing and success perhaps came some complacency within the FKFGA. Everyone was too busy to notice the slow but constant decrease in fish and the constant increase in commercial fishing in the Everglades National Park.
“It should have been noticeable that the fishing was deteriorating,” said Captain Cecil Keith. “In the old days, we never fished for redfish and snook. We use to pass by hundreds of snook near Man O War Key on our way to our tarpon holes. With fewer bonefish and tarpon, we started fishing more and more for redfish and snook.”
In 1976, the FKFGA was revitalized. Hank Brown put his heart and soul into the Association and as the Acting Commodore called a general membership meeting for December 13, 1976. The commercial netting of mullet in the Everglades was killing thousands of redfish and bonefish and the sea grass was disappearing from a decline in fresh water flow. The FKFGA knew they had to become a greater voice in the Everglades National Park and the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission. Without great attention to conservation, the future of shallow-water fishing in Islamorada could cease to exist.
Attending this meeting were Captains Hank Brown, Rick Ruoff, Gary Register, Joe LePree, Steve Huff, Roger Martin, Steve Cole, Dave Wilson, Tom Jones, Eddie Wightman, Earl Gentry, Mike Collins, Forest Haynes, Boots Voight, Jimmie Albright, George Hommell, Cecil Keith, Billy Knowles, Dale Burke, Will Mead and Al Flutie. A new board was elected including Rick Ruoff as FKFGA Commodore and Hank as the Secretary. Things were about to change – there was a fresh sense of energy and focus on conservation.
The FKFGA immediately went to work on the banning of all commercial netting within the Park, supporting the plugging of Buttonwood Canal in order to reduce saltwater intrusion in Coot and White Water Bay, and reducing daily bag limits for backcountry fish.
In 1978, the members further reduced their member bag limits substantially below state laws and most members agreed not to sell fish they caught during charters. Over 200 Associate Members joined the FKFGA giving them more influence as they worked to protect Islamorada’s Inshore Fishing.
In 1979, three busloads of FKFGA members and friends traveled to Naples, FL for a public hearing to express their concerns and recommendations pertaining to commercial netting in the Everglades and bag limits. They all wore red hats to show their unity, and rumor has it they all felt mighty fine when arriving back in Islamorada – not being accustomed to “bus parties.”
More bus loads of FKFGA members and friends attended public hearings in Marathon and different FKFGA directors spoke on behalf of the Association in Homestead, Key Largo and Miami. Members camped out at the Islamorada Post Office and Trading Post to secure signatures on petitions that opposed commercial netting in the Park and recommended reduced bag limits.
In 1980, the National Park Service announced that commercial netting would be phased out of the Everglades National Park over five years and never be allowed again. Additionally, the limited number of permits granted would apply to one boat only, not the infinite number of boats owned by a single permit holder as in the past. More good news came as legal bag limits continued to decrease and personal watercraft along with the harvesting of lobster were banned within the Park. The Guide’s hard work paid off.
The FKFGA brought attention and change to numerous issues in the 1980s. They played a major role in changing the method shrimp could be harvested from bridges which dramatically reduced the by-catch, they worked to stop the stab netters from using Clorox, and the FKFGA never stopped voicing opposition to tarpon killing until it was made illegal without a special and limited number of permits. Many of the guides refused to guide in a tournament that allowed the killing of tarpon over 10 years before this law was enacted.
Boyd Walker, an avid angler, has been fishing in the Keys for 40 years and often teams with Captain John Donnell in tarpon tournaments. Boyd said “Positively, the FKFGA made a huge difference in catch and release attitudes and legislation. I could fish with Donnell for a week, and he might let me harvest one snook, but only if it was small.”
The FKFGA recommendations and their impact on attitudes made a difference. In 1986, the Don Hawley Tarpon Tournament became a catch and release only tournament, followed by the Gold Cup in 1993. It was not until 1995 that all killed tarpon required a permit to be legal.
The FKFGA walked their talk in many ways. They organized several backcountry cleanup days, picking up thousands of pounds of debris and continued to reduce member backcountry bag limits. They even pitched in with the scientific community to gather water and fresh dead-fish samples.
The FKFGA has been strong supporters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, including serving on numerous committees and boards. Members, Captain Eddie Wightman and Mike Collins, originally recommended the non-combustible motor zones, which protect the flats and wild bird habitat.
While primarily being a conservation organization, the FKFGA has always been very community minded. Through numerous fundraisers, the FKFGA has donated over $100,000 to members of the Islamorada community. They have also donated $9,500 to the Wild Bird Center knowing many birds are injured from fishing line.
In 1988, the FKFGA supported Captain Gary and Susan Ellis as they started their fight against cystic fibrosis with the Redbone Tournament Series. For over 15 years, FKFGA members have donated half of their two-day guide fee back to the Redbone.
The now famous FKFGA Swamp Guides Ball was started in 1990. The all-release redfish, bonefish and snook tournament has become one of the most popular in the Florida Keys. From Swamp Guide Ball proceeds, the FKFGA has donated over $300,000 to the Don Hawley Foundation, now called the Guides Trust Foundation.
The guides association has always hosted member and associate member social events. In the old days, they rented movies for dinner/movie events at the Fish Club. Hundreds of locals would attend FKFGA fish fry dinners sometimes netting the Association up to a dollar a plate.
Additionally, the FKFGA has presented a Kids Fishing Day for over 20 years. No matter how busy or exhausted, the Guides always find time for youth anglers. Recently, many members have been wonderful supporters of the Islamorada Fishing Club’s Youth Fishing Program and the World Wide Sportsman’s Kid Fishing Derby.
In recent years, the FKFGA has focused on seagrass protection and restoration and the never-ending work required to ensure the re-plumbing of the Everglades is accomplished. Captains Mike Collins and Mike Ehlers lead this effort on behalf of membership.
Former Commodore, Tad Burke and FKFGA members were actively involved in providing input to the National Park Service as they worked to develop a new 20-year general management plan for the Everglades National Park. The FKFGA teamed up with Park leadership to resolve short-term and long-term issues, including donating money to replace the no-motor-zone buoys marking Little Madeira Bay.
FKFGA members have always served on a variety of Boards and Committees. Captains Tim Klein and Rick Moeller served on the Islamorada Near Shore Water Regulation Citizens Committee, while Captains Ted Wilson and Steve Friedman are current members. Captain Mike Ehlers served on the Monroe County Port Advisory Board, and Captain Mike Collins served on numerous boards, including the Governors Commission for the Everglades and Technical Advisory Committee for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Over 100 members strong, the FKFGA continues to take a leadership role in fishing conservation. They are tomorrow’s legends in the making and the lead protectors of shallow-water fishing in the Florida Keys.