Commercial fishing was legal within the park then, and a number of hardy souls made a living from the waters in Florida Bay. They would be on the water until they either filled their ice holds with fish, or until the ice was melting down enough that the fish they had might spoil. That could be from two days to a week in some cases.
Their boats were old, slow, live-aboard, inboards, about 30 feet long, and they usually had two fishermen on them. They towed a couple of 16 foot, flat bottom, wooden skiffs behind them as they put-putted their way around the cuts and flats of Florida Bay. They would anchor the big boat, climb into the skiffs, and row their way up-current and onto the grass flats. As they drifted, they used their long, Calcutta bamboo poles with one of two baits.
On one pole was tied enough line so that the hook and line would come ¾ of the way down the pole. Above the hook was a popping float. When they lifted the pole, the hook and bait would come right to the man’s hand. And the pole was stout enough that when they pulled a fish up to the boat, all but the very biggest trout could be swung over the side.
It was a real treat to watch them in action. The gunnels of the little skiffs were low enough that a soft-mouthed trout could be brought over the side in one quick motion.
The second pole had about the same amount of line, but it had a topwater lure tied to the end. In almost every instance that I was around these guys, that lure was a wooden Dalton Special. It was either red and white or yellow and white.
The reason they had that second pole was to conserve bait. Their best bait was a live pinfish, and they had pinfish traps scattered over Florida Bay. They had small live boxes in the skiffs to hold the pinfish – the kind that have holes drilled through the bottom of the boat. But, once they got into a school of trout, they would conserve their valuable live bait and break out the topwater. Often they remove the treble hooks from the Dalton Special and replace them with single hooks. That made removing the fish a lot easier.
The term “splatter pole” was derived from the way they handled the poles and fished with them. Whether with live bait and a popping cork or with the topwater lure, they would swing the bait out the side of the boat, shake the end of the pole violently so that it splashed and “splattered” on top of the water, and then pop the cork or lure once or twice. If a trout was in the area, he was hooked in short order.
That splattering actually called the fish. The trout would hear the commotion on the surface and head to the noise, thinking another fish had found a meal. And there they would find either the live pinfish waiting for them or the Dalton Special. To this day when I am trout fishing, I stick the end of my rod in the water and shake it like mad – calling the trout. And, yes – I do believe it works!
It was a special time. These were generally rough and tumble men. But, they knew their trout; and, they taught us a lot about where to find fish on any given tide or day. Some of them would wave at us; some would not. Those that waved usually were in need of something. And that need was usually beer and/or cigarettes.
We did not allow alcohol on our boat for safety reasons, in fact, we didn’t drink at all. But we did smoke back then, and my dad would always buy a six-pack of beer and a few packages of cigarettes any time we planned to fish the middle of Florida Bay where the splatter polers would be.
If they waved, we would ease over to them and more often than not get a bucket full of live pinfish for a pack of cigarettes. For the beer, we got more fresh fish than we ever would need, and we would use that fish to give away to relatives and neighbors at home. Back then, trout were “give away” fish. It was gray snapper that my father was after – but that’s another story.
Commercial fishing was closed many, many years ago in the park. Even pinfish traps are banned – in fact traps of any kind are banned. You can ride the edge of the park boundary on the west side of Florida Bay. It’s easy to follow. Just look for the traps. To the east in the park there are none. To the west, there are acres and acres of stone crab traps – as far as you can see.
Sadly, the splatter polers are long gone now. But the sun-beaten, wrinkled, bearded and often toothless faces of those hard core fishermen are still etched on my memory.