Stories of early island fishing guides (Part I of II)

August 21, 2020
By Marcy Shortuse

SUBMITTED BY THE BOCA GRANDE HISTORICAL SOCIETY – Local guides have been taking guests fishing since the late 19th century. Among the early guides was Phalo Padilla, born in 1888, who was a guide at Useppa and took his clients out in his one-cylinder motorboat. He was also a commercial fisherman, catching and selling mullet. 
Padilla told a story of clients who hooked into a large fish and had difficulty bringing it to the boat. When they finally landed it, it was a huge sawfish estimated at 13 feet. According to Padilla, the bill with teeth down both sides was about a third of the length of the fish.  
Padilla died in 1980 but among his fishing guide/commercial fishing descendants were his nephew, Perry Padilla, and the Darnas. Alfonso Darna fished for mullet, pompano and Spanish mackerel commercially and for bait during tarpon season. Later his son, Babe, guided many tarpon fishermen.  
Bo Smith started guiding at 18 years old. Among the stories about Smith is one that tells how he got his boat, a 24-foot Daniels. Smith was fishing with Tom Bird in an open boat on a very rough day.  
When they arrived back at the dock, Mr. Bird asked Smith to stop at the Pink Elephant and bring a bottle of Early Times bourbon to his Gasparilla Inn cottage. Smith expected to be fired so was especially surprised when Mr. Bird offered him a $5,000 check as a down payment on a boat with a cabin.  Smith bought the Daniels for $16,000 on which he guided guests to grouper and other fish as well as tarpon.  
The Daniels boats were built in Fort Myers and were considered the gold standard by many of the guides.  
The late Mark Futch was mate to Billy Wheeler. He remembered him as an accomplished guide as well as a gentleman and a man who knew how to entertain his customers. Billy’s son, William (Dumplin’) Wheeler, carries on the family tradition as a fishing guide who entertains his parties with his many stories of fishing, the island environment and local lore.
Guide Johnny Downing was born in Gasparilla, the fishing village which was at the north end of the island where the railroad tracks joined the land. He loved boats and built his first one out of tin when he was 12 years old. He spent hours playing in it.  
Downing graduated from the Boca Grande School and, with Louise Crowninshield’s support, attended the University of Florida. He was also a U. S. Merchant Marine officer and was a minor league baseball player.  
After a knee injury, he returned to Boca Grande and began fishing. In 1960, he became captain for August Busch on the Miss Budweiser out of St. Petersburg. He fished the Miss Budweiser all over the world until his unexpected death in 1999.  
Tommy Parkinson was born in Charlotte Harbor in 1914. As a boy, he worked with his father fishing and crabbing and sometimes lived in the fish camps in Bull Bay. In the 1930s, he lived in the “Guide House” in Boca Grande. The “House” included rooms, docks and boat slips located across from where the Pink Elephant sits today. In 1939, Parkinson began managing the Boca Grande Fishery.  
In addition to selling fish, the fishery was also where captured tarpon were brought, hung, photographed then sent to one of the four taxidermists on the island to be turned into trophies. Mark Futch estimated that as agent for the taxidermists, Parkinson handled 600 fish every season.   
In a Boca Beacon interview in 1987, Tommy said, “Guides made $15 a day and the stories they told (to their customers) were worth the price of a charter.  Going price today (1987) is $400 and the stories aren’t near as good.”  Tommy Parkinson died in 1994.
Nat Futch was born in what is now Gulfport, Florida and moved to the Charlotte Harbor area about 1900. He fished commercially for mullet with his grandfather. When Useppa was built, Futch and Phalo Padilla were two of the original Useppa fishing guides. 
A steamer towed the guide’s rowboats into Boca Grande or Captiva Pass and the customers would transfer from the steamer to the rowboats in the Pass. Depending on the tide, they fished three or four hours in the morning or three or four hours in the evening.  
If one person fished, the guide got $5. If two fished, they received $6.  Futch was drafted late in World War I and arrived in France the day the war ended. He returned and fished both commercially for mullet and grouper and as a guide out of Useppa as well as Boca Grande. Many members of the Futch family have fished and guided up to present times.  
This article is based on oral histories and “Legendary Fishing Guides: Cameo Portraits” by Robert F. Edic published in the Historical Society’s “Connections.” Portraits of other guides covered by Edic will appear in a future article.
To learn more about the history of Boca Grande and Gasparilla Island, visit the History Center website, bocagrandhistoricalsociety.com, like us on Facebook, or when open visit the History Center at 170 Park Ave. or call 964-1600. 
The History Center welcomes input from all. Please send comments or questions to bocagrandehistoricalsociety@gmail.com. This History Center Archives also invites the community to lend photographs, documents or other materials which it will scan and return to the lender.