Sands of Time
Those who have lived on Fort Myers Beach since the 1930s, like island native Fran Santini, recall a raw tropical wilderness with no city water (residents relied on artesian wells and rain barrels) but plenty of mosquitoes. Land was cheap for those who could tolerate the primitive conditions and isolation. They didn’t have to spend much on shoe leather; island kids were barefoot most of the time.
The area provided plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Said Fran: “It was all mangroves then. We’d go duck hunting and fishing, and sometimes we caught little tarpon. We’d cook steaks on sticks over the fire and just enjoy being back in the bush.”
Fish houses that stored the week’s catch on ice dotted Estero Bay. Netting mullet provided a livelihood for many early families, some of whom lived on the mangrove islands of Coon Key, Dog Key and Mound Key.
A weekly “catch boat” came down from Punta Gorda, where fish were processed, to bring ice and groceries and collect the catch. In Jean Gottlieb’s book Coconuts and Coquinas, early settler Red Russell recalled: “There were so many [mullet] that with a cast net you could get half a dozen or so with every cast.” Some islanders complained they were “kept awake at night by the noise of mullet jumping and flapping in the water.”
Other fish were abundant too. Said Florida native David Green in Coconuts and Coquinas: “I’ve caught as many as 1,000 pounds of snook and reds in one day… It’s a shame to catch that many. I didn’t realize what we were doing, y’know – I thought there was plenty of fish for everybody.”
By the 1950s and ‘60s, families such as the Gottliebs (this author’s parents, from Chicago) found a natural paradise on Fort Myers Beach, although the well water had a nasty, sulphurous taste and odor. The island was covered in jungle-like growth south of what’s now The Outrigger Motel (previously on that site was the Spanish Mission-style Rancho del Mar Motel).
One of the only buildings south of the motel was Rod & Reel, a pink-painted restaurant and bait shop at the island’s southern tip. Estero Island was a dead end. When boaters crossed the waters to undeveloped Lovers’ Key for a picnic, they often passed sawfish lying in the shallows.
Before the Sanibel Causeway (1963) and San Carlos Pass Bridge off Estero Island’s south end (1965) were built, the waters of Estero Bay were crystal clear with abundant sea-grass beds. Fish teemed around mangroves, along the shoreline, on sand flats and by oyster bars.
On their first fishing trip in a rented rowboat from Sanders’ Boat Yard (later Mid-Island Marina, now Snook Bight), Jean and Harry Gottlieb saw fish leaping out of the water all around them, and frantically cast their lines to no avail. Later they learned that the acrobatic fish were mullet – vegetarians that rarely strike at lures but can’t evade nets.
With no high-rise buildings as visual signposts, it was easy for a boater to get lost amid the mangrove islands of the Back Bay.
Leaving out of Sanders’ Boat Yard, a trip on The Pels, owned by guide Clarence Trowbridge and his wife Nan, cost $35 per person for a day of fishing; bait, tackle and lunch included. Said Jean Gottlieb: “They gave us a guarantee that if we left by 8 or 9 in the morning, we’d catch enough fish to feed everyone for lunch. It might be trout, redfish, flounder or even pompano. Never failed. We anchored, and Nan usually cooked aboard. One time we caught a big king mackerel, beached the boat at New Pass, and Nan cooked the fish ashore in a pit that Clarence dug. Was that ever delicious!”
Clarence Trowbridge carried a rusty old rifle that he used to dispatch any sharks or large manta rays the group caught. In those days the concept of catch and release had not taken hold, and species such as sharks and rays were regarded as unwanted, disposable creatures.
A newspaper clipping from 1963 tells of a Gottlieb family fishing trip to celebrate the 7th birthday of Alan, the 5th of six children. Fifty-seven fish were landed that day aboard The Pels, a sufficient number to be newsworthy.
At the end of the fishing day, returning boats hung their catches on marina display boards for all to see and for photo opportunities.
“We used to catch everything off the south tip of the island,” recalled the late Harry Gottlieb, “including tarpon. My biggest battle was a 17-pound snook that took me all the way around the point and tried to head out into the Gulf.”
In the late 1950s row upon row of wooden pilings from old piers stretched down the beach. Those pilings, and rock groins installed perpendicular to shore (now buried under the sand), attracted fish. More than one 16-pound snook was caught by casting from shore or off the rock groins in front of the Gottlieb house at Beach Access #14.
Coconuts and Coquinas reports: “by the ‘70s and ‘80s, catches of many species were dwindling in both size and number of fish. Many fishing enthusiasts, guides included, were encouraging anglers to release fish, especially inedible game fish like the tarpon, in an effort to stop the steep drop in fish populations.”
Sadly, the increase in turbidity of our Gulf and bay waters, and the decline in fish catches, continues. Whether due to massive releases of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee, increased fertilizer runoff, pollution in area canals – or all of the above – sea grasses and recreational fish populations continue to dwindle as the water grows murkier.
Remnants of the old days still stand sentry in a few island locations. Support posts from a huge old fishing pier march into the Gulf just south of the Wyndham Hotel on “Little Estero,” marking the location of what was known as Santini’s Pier. Over the years sand has alternately buried and exposed these posts. Santini’s Pier is a graphic reminder of how the contours of this barrier island keep shifting.
In the ’50s and early ‘60s, live shells of every description were abundant at low tide on the beach and on sand bars. Live “angel wings” inhabited the mud flats that still exist behind Little Estero, along with massive conch shells and dozens of varieties of crabs.
A swim off Estero Island at high tide often meant an encounter with seahorses, puffer fish, sea robins or needlefish. The nighttime waters glowed with the phosphorescence of thousands of tiny creatures that illuminated after-dark swims.
Then as now, the beauty and abundance of nature on a tidal beach created an ideal playground and classroom for families.
Developers cast hungry eyes on the mangrove islands around Estero Bay and the patch of undeveloped land behind the Fort Myers Beach Public School, now known as Matanzas Pass Preserve. The pristine tranquility of these areas was threatened by greed. Local people had to fight long and hard, and raise significant money, to protect these spaces from development. Read about the old Florida that is still preserved for us at www.floridastateparks.org/park/estero-bay and www.friendsofmatanzaspasspreserve.org
Preservation requires vigilance and an appreciation of history. To get a taste for the old Estero Island area and see historic photos and artifacts firsthand, visit the Estero Island Historic Society’s cottage at 161 Bay Road (free admission) – due east of the Fort Myers Beach Public Library, on Wednesdays or Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon.
The March 24 issue of Sands of Time will examine the storms and hurricanes that reconfigured Estero Island and, several times, changed its destiny.