Take a basic instinct to “catch” something and mix it with Bay or Gulf waters, some nets, bait fish, assorted tackle, favorite lures, long rods, short rods, deep sea rods, spinning reels, huge reels and the challenge of actually snagging your dinner: what is the result? Well, for over many un-traceable years (which add to the fishing lore stories) passed down from devoted anglers, Pass-a-Grille has been the hub of the string of barrier islands whose history revolves around fishing.
After the Indians, tales of Spanish pirates that came ashore to grill catches, relax and replenish water and game, seem to be the beginning of fishing on the islands. As snatches of explorers ventured up the Gulf, the Pass-a-Grille area evolved into a small fishing village by the late 1800's and early 1900's. The few mainlanders who could not resist the shallow bay waters and the deeper Gulf waters which held the “really big ones” were usually rewarded with plentiful fish catches. Men like Ken Merry Sr. and Jr., George Lizzote, the Roberts team of George and Horace, Denny Hendricks , Dane McCormick (to name a few) vied to lay claim to being the “best” fishing guide, to know the secret fishing holes and always came back to shore with boats loaded with a variety of the fish population.
Frequent visitors like Keith Neville, John Wanamaker, Warren Webster, and William Straub were all lured to the islands to relax and of course, fish. Back then commercial fishing along the islands hadn’t caught on yet, so catching a good supply was guaranteed!
The silver tarpon and huge blue sailfish were sure to give the anglers a good sporting run but were also an easy hook. Keith Neville, former Governor of Nebraska, even built a brick house in Pass-a-Grille so he could include his family when he came down to snag the tarpon. He kept a record of every day he went out to fish, the weather, how many tarpon were caught and their weight. A five to six hour trip would yield five to eight fish ranging from 50 to over 100 lbs.
Soon tarpon fishing became a huge sport, and county wide tournaments drew hundreds of prospective anglers to cast their lines in hope they would get the top fish and win prizes (sometimes money) and a “title” for their efforts. Of course, all this activity created the fishing frenzy that was good for other island businesses. Hotels sprang up that offered boats, guides and tackle in their weekly packages, and are still included in many motel promotion brochures. Various eateries boasted “shore dinners” for 50 cents.
Fishing along the sea walls, on the shore itself and even in small row boats in the bay became part of the local ambience. Commercial fisheries became more prominent as the mainland area grew and the demand for fresh fish was heard loud and clear. Bell’s Fish House on the Bayside between 20th and 21st Avenues in PAG was a boom to locals who wanted a variety of fresh catches for their dinner tables. Restaurants whose entire menus offered the “freshest catches around” relied on Bell’s boats to dock in time for the menus to live up to their reputation. Fish were prepared fried, broiled and baked. Coleslaw, fries, and hot rolls were all one needed to satisfy their appetite until the next day!
Fishing took a real down spiral in the 1970's, ‘80's and ‘90's when the filling of the bay took away sea grasses etc. that small fish thrived upon. Also commercial boats (small and large) caused an “over-fishing” problem, especially bait fish. These boats with their large nets would come in close to shore after crossing the 3 mile limit, cast their nets and pull up small bait fish with their catch thus depleting the food that the bigger fish followed to nab their dinner. One local guide and boat builder, Gene Turner, succeeded after he fought a 10 plus year legislative battle to get net fishing banned close to shore. Over the last ten years the bays once again becoming cleaner and bait fish more plentiful, but it is a work in progress. Any local angler, who is a regular at dropping his line, will be quick to tell “fishing has improved greatly. We catch good fish off the sea walls and piers.”
The early guides would charge customers a small fee plus a percentage of the total catch or they would join an owner on his private vessel. After WWII as the area began its growth and visitors returned to vacation in the new motels etc., the “head” boat became popular. The boats carry 40 to 80 people, supply all the tackle, help bait lines etc. Some run half day trips and full days depending on the demand and of course, the weather. Costs vary but average was $50.00 per person for the half trip and $70.00 and up for full days. Overnight trips out to the really deep water on a charter boat can be hundreds of dollars but usually yield good results.
But, the strong lure of catching fish of any kind is as strong as ever and it seems to be the one constant that attracts locals and visitors to ply the water daily. If one walks along the Pass-a-Grille seawall anytime in a 24 hour period, someone will be fishing. The big charter boats sit alongside the smaller charter boats whose tall out-riggers offer good fishing for the sport fishing enthusiast. So be it the boats, sea walls or piers: the same scene is created as told in the old folk lore tales! Hungry for fish? Go for it!