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

September 4, 2020
By Olivia Cameron

Part I of this series ran in the August 21 edition of the Boca Beacon. You can find it online at bocabeacon.com, or on our Facebook page with the same name.
SUBMITTED BY THE BGHS- Boca Grande’s early fishing guides prepared the way for their sons, grandsons and even later descendants both by teaching them the waters and by setting the standards for treating customers. The late Capt. James  “Cappy” Joiner, longtime fishing guide and president of the Guides Association, pointed out that “they must master boating and navigation skills, possess specialized knowledge of weather, the environment, fish identification and their individual peculiarities, likes and dislikes, be able to read the water by the swim patterns on the surface, know about the tackle, seasonal behavior and natural habitats of the fish.” As others have said, if it was easy, it would be called “catching” not “fishing.” Cappy Joiner was born in 1937 at Gasparilla Village and died in 2019.
Donald Joiner was born in Gasparilla Village at the north end of Gasparilla
Island in 1936.  According to Charles Dana Gibson’s book, “Boca Grande: A Series of Historical Essays,” the Joiners first lived at Peacon’s Cove fishing rancho before moving to Gasparilla Village. Donald Joiner was reputed to be a jokester who played pranks on his clients. For example, when fishing was slow, he would “surreptitiously put a bucket on the end of the line,” and the clients, “not knowing what was there, would fight it for ever and ever.”  Joiner guided in Boca Grande for about 20 years before moving to Marathon to lobster.  He died in 1999.
Sam Whidden was born in Grove City in 1900. After serving in France during World War I, he moved to Boca Grande in the early 1920s, about the time the island was becoming a destination for world-class tarpon fishing. At first he captained for various members of the Pelican Club, a fishing fraternity of The Gasparilla Inn. In the offseason he ran a pool hall.  
In 1925, he met Louise and Frank Crowninshield. Frank was both an avid tarpon fisherman and a quail hunter. Whidden’s knowledge of the region’s land and water made him the perfect hunting and fishing guide. He guided for the Crowninshields exclusively in 1925. In the same year, he sold the pool hall and bought the Red Gill Fish House (now known as Whidden’s) from Kingsmore Johnson and Sug Futch.  From that point on, Whidden guided for the Crowninshields, always dressed in a crisp white shirt and bow tie, and ran his fish house. In addition, he maintained the Crowninshield’s boat and boathouse and often cooked lunch for them after fishing.  
After 1960 he spent his time at Whidden’s, “selling goods and services to the local boaters and fishermen, drinking beer with his friends out on the dock, feeding his ducks and watching his daughters (Barbara Whidden Chatham and Isabelle Whidden Joiner) come of age.” Whidden died in 1978 of a heart attack on “the same docks where he had worked for over 50 years.”
Capt. Bill Hunter was born in Live Oak, Florida in 1907. He was remembered by the late John VanItallie, who lived on Damficare Street, and spent time with Hunter at the boathouse there. Hunter taught him a lot about fishing the waters around the island. Then he taught VanItallie how to prepare the fish, because “he was the best cook on the island for preparing fish, meat, greens, etc. that were available locally.”  Hunter was also a great storyteller, entertaining VanItallie with “stories of his youth and of his experiences with legends of early Boca Grande residents.” Bill Hunter died in 1999.  
Capt. Fred Futch was born in 1933 and grew up at Gasparilla Village. In an oral history, he described what it takes to be a fishing guide. A guide should have “worked with a commercial fisherman, and run over all the waters where he is going to be a guide, so as to learn the water, where the sand bars are, learn the tides, and learn to read the water… The other thing about being a fishing guide is learning that the moon controls the tide, and your fish bite with certain times on a certain tide, and other times they do not. I learned early in life about the moon from my dad, who was a commercial fisherman.”
Futch said he learned the holes in the Pass from his uncles Nat and Lonnie. “There used to be two large phosphate storage buildings in the south end of the island, and my two uncles went out with a sounding lead in the Pass and sounded these holes out. They painted one of the windows in one of the buildings red, and there was a water tank behind the buildings with a light on it. They lined up the red window and the water tank, and that was the eastern edge of the big fishing hole in Boca Grande Pass.”  He continued, saying that Nat and Lonnie sounded the whole Pass out based on the relationship of the red window to the water tank. “That was our fathometer,” he concluded. Futch died in 2018.
This article is based on oral histories and “Legendary Fishing Guides: Cameo Portraits” by Robert F. Edic, published in the Historical Society’s “Connections.”  
To learn more about the history of Boca Grande and Gasparilla Island, visit the History Center website <https: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.
Photos courtesy of BGHS, Boca Beacon Archives and the Gasparilla Island Maritime Museum