Banquet Presentation: 4th Biennial Mosquito Lagoon Conference
February 15-17, 2005
Life along the Indian River Lagoon in Titusville during the 1950's, 60's & 70's
Hi. For those of you who don't know me, I'm Laurilee Thompson and I'd like to welcome you to my family's restaurant. I hope you're having a great time at the conference! I wish it wasn't happening during the busiest time of the year for us - I'd sure like to attend the sessions!
I was surprised when Marc asked me to be your speaker. I was in a quandary trying to figure out what to talk about. So many of you have helped me out anytime I asked -- what could I possibly say that you would find beneficial? So, since you guys are estuary people, and most of you are probably a lot younger than I am, and more than likely you weren't around this estuary in the 1950's and 60's like I was, I decided that my gift to you will be to relate some of my memories of what it was like to grow up on my beloved Indian River Lagoon.
I'm a fifth generation Floridian. My great great grandfather wandered up the St Johns River before the Civil War and settled in the area that is now known as Blue Spring State Park. Our family's ancestral home still stands in the park today.
Before the Space Race really got going, Titusville was a small town of about 5,000 people - it was the kind of community where no one ever locked their doors. The house where I spent my early childhood is right down the street - on the north side of the Titusville causeway - that green concrete block building that the Coast Guard Auxiliary is in now.
It was a fantastic place to live - it was right on the shore of the Indian River lagoon. My dad had a small boat and motor dealership on the ground floor and our family crammed into the small apartment on top. I had a little sister and twin brothers. The four of us, along with various cousins and friends that were actually allowed to play with us, evolved into the Pier Gang. That's because my grandfather operated the Titusville Pier and that's where we hung out.
The Pier Gang ruled because we had a distinct advantage in advanced weaponry - my granddad always gave us the tip ends that he cut off of cane poles before he sold them. I don't know if you've ever been whacked across the back with the skinny end of a cane pole, but believe me - it stings. It's like getting hit with a whip.
The Titusville Pier looked different then. It was actually part of the original wooden bridge that crossed the river. You see ... after the Army Corp of Engineers built the new cement bridge and causeway, they tore down the old wooden bridge. My granddad convinced the Titusville City Council to request that a portion of the western span remain. The Army Corps gave it to the city. He leased it, built a baithouse out over the water and created what was billed as the World's Longest Free Fishing Pier.
Fishing was THE major tourist activity in Titusville as it was in many coastal communities. A lot of towns and private entrepreneurs operated fishing piers and they collected a fee for people using them. My granddad didn't charge people to go on the Titusville Pier. He figured he'd make a good enough living off of renting poles and nets and lights. He installed power lines with plug-ins under the railings, which was another thing that made our pier unique. You could use electric lights instead of messing around with temperamental gas lanterns. I wish my granddad was still alive so that he could see the elaborate set ups shrimpers use on the bridge today. It takes them two hours to get set up.
My dad built an L-shaped addition onto the Pier that went all the way to our house. So we kids could actually go from our house out to the baithouse without ever going out on the main highway, which we weren't allowed to get near anyway. The Pier was a big part of Titusville's social life, especially during shrimping season. Springtime shrimp runs were a huge event - on a good run, you could fill up 2 or 3 40-gallon garbage cans with shrimp in a very short time. Locals kept big freezers just so they could fill them up with shrimp. You could never tell when the shrimp would run - usually it was really early in the morning and sometimes they only ran for just a few minutes.
When the shrimp started running, my granddad would call 2 or 3 people on the phone and they'd call the rest of the people in town. Within minutes, the pier would be covered with people, many of whom were still in their pajamas and bedroom shoes - they wouldn't even take the time to get dressed. Dad would have to get out of bed and go out to the baithouse to help my granddad rent shrimp nets and lights. Our job was to race up and down the pier jumping over people's net poles. Any misstep would send a patron's carefully arranged nets and fishing poles flying. We spent a lot of time running from irate grownups in flapping bathrobes. They hated to hear us come thundering down the Pier.
There was a small boat basin with a boat ramp at the west end on the north side of our house. Dad built a finger dock right by the boat ramp where people could tie their boats after they put them in the water. When the wind blew out of the east, big mats of seagrass drifted in, -- then the manatees would come - only we called them sea cows. We could sit on the finger dock and put our feet on the backs of grazing manatees. They did seem to mind. Sometimes they'd nuzzle our bare feet with their soft whiskery faces. The manatees still come into that little basin now when the wind blows the seagrass in.
Dad gave me a small rowboat with restrictions - I was not allowed to go past the entrance to the boat basin. My arms weren't long enough to row the conventional way. I improvised, perched on the bow using one oar, paddling endlessly up and down the boat basin. There were all kinds of things to discover in my small world - sea squirts, barnacles and oysters grew on all of the seawall and pilings.
All kinds of interesting creatures could be found just by turning over rocks. One of our favorite pastimes was collecting what we called bloodworms. There were so many of them in the sand that you could fill up a paper cup in just minutes. We had contests to see who could fill up their cup with bloodworms the fastest. The challenge was to pull the bloodworms from out of the wet sand without breaking them. I found out later when I went to college that the bloodworms were actually polychaetes. My mom was a really good sport because she was always gracious when presented with paper cups full of bloodworms.
In the summer, different kinds of jellyfish showed up. There were times when there would be so many moon jellies that it seemed like you could walk on them - all different sizes - you could see them all the way from the bottom of the river to the surface. Moon jellies were everywhere - and they'd be that thick all up and down the river. Dad showed us how to pick up the moon jellies without getting stung by putting our hands on top of them and forcing them down in the water while flipping them over. We had some spectacular battles using moon jellies as projectiles.
Clouds of comb jellies often floated in to the boat basin. We called them pocketbook jellies because they looked like pocketbooks. You all might not know what a pocketbook is. That's what southern ladies called purses - All southern ladies had a collection of pocketbooks - my grandmother was buried with her favorite pocketbook clutched in her hands. We'd never heard of pocketbooks being called purses until all of the northerners started moving down because of the Space Center.
Pocketbook jellies were special because you could pick them up without getting stung. You could hold them in your hand and see all the colors of the rainbow as fluid moved through them. They were all different sizes - there were comb jellies so small you could barely see them all the way up to jellies the size of my hand. The tiny ones were wonderful to put in jars with river water. When you held them up to the sunlight, it was like holding a container full of prisms.
You could catch all kinds of fish right off of the pier when I was little -- seatrout, redfish, sheephead, black drum, snook, spots, croakers, bluefish, pompano, jacks, ladyfish and my favorite - mangrove snapper. Sometimes if you were lucky, you could even catch a grouper. Back then, the water was much clearer. Sometimes, the water would get so clear, you could go all the way out to the end of the pier and see the bottom. It was over 15 feet deep out there. You could see the fish swimming right up to your bait.
And you can't believe how many blowfish there were. There were so many blowfish, you couldn't get your bait through them to reach the fish you wanted to catch. Frustrated anglers would leave them on the pier to die, hoping to thin them out. The pier was always covered with dead blowfish. Some of them puffed up before they expired and remained so after their demise. We liked to run up and down the pier and kick them back in the water. You had to be careful not to kick the blowfish in the mouth with your bare toe. They have razor sharp teeth that can inflict a painful injury - even when they're dead.
There must have always been a lot of blowfish. My uncle told me that when he was fishing on the old wooden bridge in the middle of the night, he could tell when a car was coming long before he could see the headlights. He said it sounded like a gun battle coming towards him as the car ran over all of the dead blowfish.
A good method for catching sheephead was to take a straightened out hoe and scrape barnacles off the side of a piling. You could see the barnacles sparkling as they sank in the water - then the sheepheads would blast in. You could toss down a line with a fiddler crab in the middle of the school and catch sheepheads as fast as you could get your fiddler crab down. As soon as the barnacles floated to the bottom, the sheepheads would disappear. You'd have to scrape the piling again to get them to come back.
Back then, you could walk along any shoreline of the river and there would be fiddler crabs as far as you could see. The big ones would all be outside of their burrows waving their claws trying to attract a lady fiddler. As you walked along the shore, they'd run toward their burrows - the motion of all those fiddler crabs looked like waves parting.
Bottle-nosed dolphins fed out side the entrance of the boat basin every evening. Mullet were concentrated there because they were funneled by the relief bridge in the causeway. We could stand on the pier and watch the dolphins tossing mullet in the air and leaping after them. It didn't take long before temptation got the best of me - I had to paddle out with dolphins. I'd spend hours out in my little boat, right in the middle of the feeding dolphins. It was better than Marineland because the dolphins were in the wild in their home in the river.
I got a little older and my dad gave me a little 3 HP kicker for my rowboat. Suddenly my world expanded. I could motor up to the Titusville Marina -- only back then we called it the yacht basin. It didn't have an official name. It took awhile, but I could now reach the closest spoil islands and go all the way over to the east shore of the Indian River. I began my career as a tour guide, taking my friends out on the water, always eager to show them my beloved Indian River.
The following summer, my dad announced that it was time for me to start working. My grandpa needed live bait shrimp to sell at the pier. I must have been about 10 or 11 years old. Dad helped me expand the live well in my rowboat and built me a push net so I could catch bait shrimp for the pier. Do you all know what a pushnet is?
It's hard work, even for a grown-up. I must have looked pretty funny pushing that big net around - but I was in hog heaven
Every morning we'd load the rowboat into the back of Dad's pickup truck and take it up to Haulover Canal where he'd dump me and the boat off. I'd spend the day doing whatever I wanted to do. Of course I had to push the net and catch a few shrimp to justify the trip up to the canal. But I mostly spent my time exploring.
There were beautiful yellow soft corals and colorful seaweeds growing on the rocks in Haulover Canal and the water was so clear you could see sheepheads picking barnacles off the rocks 15 feet down. Dolphins were always present and every once in a while I'd even see a big sea turtle cruising through the canal. The best place to look for shrimp was in the lush seagrass beds along the west sides of a string of spoil islands that ran north from Haulover Canal. My dad and all of the locals called them the Clinkers.
I loved seeing all of the things that I caught in my pushnet. I'd catch pipefish, sea horses, spider crabs, conchs, little tiny blowfish and porcupine fish and a lot of other kinds of fish. I also caught a lot of shrimp. Sometimes I'd bump my net up against a sting ray that was so big it would knock the handle of the net out of my hands as it leapt off the bottom and flapped away. Dad came back in the afternoon and we'd put the shrimp in a garbage can with an aireator, and we'd load the boat into the back of the truck and head back to town to sell the shrimp at the pier. It truly was a wonderful summer.
The next summer, I got a bigger boat and a 20 HP motor. I could now get to Haulover Canal under my own power. We built some pigfish traps and I added pigfish income to my shrimp money. Surely you all know what a pigfish is. They are the BEST bait for seatrout. I'd run my pigfish traps in the morning. The little pigfish were so thick, sometimes the traps would be half full of them when I pulled them out of the water. Then I'd go in behind the clinkers and push the net around for bait shrimp for a while then go back out to the slough - check the pigfish traps again - then head back to the pier.
The following summer, one of the commercial fishermen asked me why I was selling my pigfish for bait. He said I could make a lot more money if I used them to catch fish. He taught me how to splatterpole for big seatrout. The term splatterpoling comes from what you do with the end of the pole. Every once in a while, you put the end of the pole in the water and thrash it around - it sounds like a school of fish feeding on top of the water.
You hook the pigfish like this - right above its bottom fin.....toss it out and drift in the wind right at the edge of the seagrass where it starts breaking up and getting spotty - that's where the big trout are. You have to keep the line tight... then you kind of bump the bottom of your cane pole and it tumps the pigfish upside down and it grunts and that attracts the trout. It was easy to catch 100 pounds of big trout in a morning of fishing. That old fisherman was right. I made a lot more money using the pigfish for bait. But I always saved some for my granddad to sell at the pier.
Splatterpoling was exciting fishing. Sometimes I'd hook a redfish that was so big, I couldn't snatch it in the boat. The only thing I could do was to throw the fishing pole in the water and chase the fish until it got tired enough to get it in the boat. Even if the fish dragged the pole all the way under, it would eventually pop up somewhere nearby. I spent the next couple of summers content with trapping pigfish and fishing for trout.
Eventually greed set in and I got a bigger boat, a 23-foot crab boat with a 75 HP Evinrude motor. I built 150 crab traps. Every afternoon after school, I'd run my crab traps, spending countless hours on the lagoon, studying its moods. I could now range as far north as New Smyrna, where I discovered a world of beautiful mangrove lined waterways that ran all the way beyond Ponce Inlet.
The following summer, I got my first bank loan and financed enough money to buy 500 yards of gill net, a bigger motor and a bow runner mullet boat. I was 15. I started spending entire nights out on the lagoon, doing my homework under the dim glow of a 15 watt DC light bulb that I hooked up to the battery I used to start my motor. One of my favorite places to fish was Banana Creek. It was eerie, listening to workers on the Vehicle Assembly Building, especially when it was foggy. You could hear their hammers ringing and their voices carried so well in the fog, it sounded like they were right next to me in the boat.
There were a lot of huge alligators in Banana Creek - when I'd shine my spotlight down the shoreline, it seemed like hundreds of big red eyes shone back at me. Sometimes one would swim right up to my net and grab a fish. When it wouldn't come out, the gator would swim down to the next trout. Oh yeah, they were picky - they didn't go for mullet - the gators definitely preferred trout. The gator would work its way down the net punching holes in the trout - with me madly poling my boat after it. It must have been a pretty comical sight - a 15 year old girl out on the river in the middle of the night -- whacking a 10 foot gator on the head trying to get it to let go of my fish. My poor mother would have had a heart attack if she really knew what I was doing out on the river.
I loved being by myself out on the river at night. On summer nights the bioluminescence was spectacular. Mullet would streak off from the bow showering meteor trails of green light. It was like fireworks underwater. Dolphins made much bigger and more brilliant streaks and manatees burst into huge explosions of ghostly green light deeper down. You could drag your hand through the water and it would sparkle with green specks when you took it out. You could stand on the causeway and look out over a river that was alive with bright green whitecaps.
When the mullet started bunching up later in the fall, I ranged further south, fishing for roe mullet between Eau Gallie and Sebastian Inlet. I kept my boat at a fish house in Melbourne. It was common to see school after school of mullet moving south - huge schools of traveling mullet - acres of mullet -- with their lips out of the water and some would be jumping, but they all jumped in the same direction - south. Pelicans and cormorants would be diving in the schools with dolphins attacking the edges. When I heard a school of roe mullet going by in the dark of night, it sounded like water going over a waterfall.
I'd have to work fast to circle part of the school because the mullet were moving so fast. And I could only cut off a tiny part of the school with just a little bit of net because there were so many fish, my boat couldn't possibly hold them all. It was impossible to clear the net out on the water. I'd have to rope the net on and back the boat up to the shore to clear the net. It was easy to catch 2,000 pounds of roe mullet in one set. Roe mullet fishing was the most exciting fishing I did in the river.
Spring brought on some major challenges to fishing in the lagoon. Spring was horseshoe crab and catfish mating season. It was unbelievable how many horseshoe crabs were in the river back then. They would crawl up on the shore to lay their eggs. The whole shoreline would be covered with horseshoe crabs. Many more would be waiting out in the water. You knew they were there because you could see their tails waving in the air above the surface.
It was truly aggravating when a bunch of horseshoe crabs got into my net. They would hit the lead line and just keep crawling right up into the webbing. They'd sink the corkline and the mullet would escape over the void. Their feet and tails would tangle and they'd just keep crawling. They'd eventually roll the entire net up. I'd have to rope the net onboard and go to shore where it would take hours to clear it out. I couldn't leave it in the water to clear it - the longer it sat, the more horseshoe crabs piled in.
Catfish too were a major pain. They congregate in the spring worse than any other time of the year. Catfish are extremely difficult to get out of a gill net. They can lock their spines when they open them out. You have to either carefully push their spines back down or break them off so you can push the catfish on through the webbing. Meanwhile, more catfish are hitting the net. Catfish carry their eggs in their mouths. They look like grapes. They'd spit the eggs out when they were dragged into the boat. It was hard to keep your footing as more and more catfish eggs hit the deck and got squashed, turning the deck into a slippery mess.
I graduated from high school in 1971. Determined to stall my efforts to become a full-time commercial fisherman, my parents sent me off to Florida Tech, only back then it was known as Florida Institute of Technology. I studied Oceanographic Technology. I hauled a smaller mullet boat down to Jensen Beach with me and continued my practice of doing homework at night while my nets soaked in the Lagoon.
I discovered that the southern end of the Indian River Lagoon is really quite different than it is up on this end. There were tropical fish - the same colorful fish you see in salt-water aquariums - and banded coral shrimp and arrow crabs and different kinds of seagrass. I caught barracudas in my nets -- I never caught a barracuda up here. I thought catfish had been problem, but they were nothing compared to an angry snapping barracuda with its mouthful of razor sharp teeth!
After college, I set out full-bore on my goal to become a real commercial fisherman. My parents were not happy, but I persisted. They finally caved in, but they told me I could not just hang out at the Port and drink beer with the other fishermen....I had to work. I beat the docks every day, begging for a site. None of the captains would hire me because they knew my parents didn't want me to be a commercial fisherman. They were afraid that my dad wouldn't help them with their boat repairs at his boat plant if they gave me a job.
Speaking of boat repairs -- I did every kind of nasty job they could dream up. I rebuilt most of the fishing boats at the Port while I was scrounging for a job. I scraped bottoms, rebuilt fuel tanks, made new fish boxes and ate more grinding dust than I ever had while working at my dad's boat plant. It took me six months, but I finally got a site on a swordfish longline boat. The meanest captain at the Port took a chance and gave me a job. This guy was so awful no one would work for him. With nothing to lose, he approached my parents, assured them he'd watch out for me and off I went.
Finally I was fishing on the ocean! A whole new universe opened up for me - the Gulfstream became my new playground. I witnessed northern right whales and humpback whales breaching right off of Cape Canaveral with the launch towers in the background. Where else in the world can you see such a sight?
I spent hours on the bow when we were steaming offshore, thrilled to see new species of dolphins riding in my bow waves. I didn't know it then, but I found out later that 27 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises - and even 2 species of seals - are found in the waters off of Florida.
I saw sunfish and huge jellyfish and learned about wide ranging ocean fish - tuna, swordfish, marlin, sailfish and monster sharks. There were new strange looking species of birds -- pelagic birds -- birds that spend their entire lives at sea and only come to land to nest. Birders now spend hundreds of dollars for the opportunity to go out on fishing boats in order to add pelagic species to their life lists - how I wish I'd been a birder then.
It wasn't too long before I started running boats. I finally ended up on a 65-foot longliner that I named the Mary Jean, after my Mom. It's good luck you know to name a boat after your mom - worked for me - I caught a lot of fish -- I was a highliner. I spent 10 years on the ocean, fishing from Cape Hateras, NC to the Texas/Mexican border. In all of my travels on this country's southern oceans and estuaries, I never encountered an area that matched the diversity of habitats and variety of wildlife found right here.
After 10 years of living on the high seas, I was pretty well beaten-up, both mentally and physically. I was looking forward to coming home and working with my family in the restaurant business and I couldn't wait to get back out on my beloved Indian River. When I finally did have an opportunity to get out on the Lagoon, I was appalled at what I found. You couldn't see 6 inches into the water. The beautiful soft corals that grew on the rocks at Haulover Canal were gone - those rocks which had previously had such interesting stuff growing on them were covered with slime. I couldn't find a single blowfish and I had to look really hard to find a horseshoe crab. The beautiful nighttime phosphorus was gone!
I couldn't believe this had happened in such a short time. Geez - I was only gone for 10 years. The bad things that happened to the lagoon were probably already going on when I was a child - I just didn't know it. I realize now that I am one of the lucky ones. I got to see at least a little bit of what the Indian River was like before the development that's happened in our area took its toll. My grandfather always said that as soon as they started building causeways, the river started going downhill.
One way to measure the character of a community is to look at what it protects -- we protect what we value. For several generations my family and many others have depended on a healthy environment to make our living. The economic value of natural lands and unpolluted water through the creation of jobs in the fishing, tourism, recreation and other industries is well documented. Corporations consistently rank quality of life as a key consideration when relocating. It was Florida's natural areas and warm climate that sustained wildlife and brought vacationers long before there were theme parks and sprawling metroplexes. When viewed merely as an economic asset, natural lands clearly pay their way.
Nine years ago, a small group of volunteers sat right here in this restaurant and began the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival. It has grown to become the nation's third largest birding festival, with attendees last year coming from 36 states and 4 foreign countries. The use of science and technology to benefit wildlife has emerged as the festival's central theme.
The list of worthwhile projects featured at our past festivals is long and the collection of presenters and field trip leaders is a virtual who's who within the environmental community. Many of them return every year, volunteering their time because they are passionate about their work and its impact on the future. They understand the value of education and its ability to introduce change.
I am humbly grateful to each and every one of them. The birding festival would not have achieved its status as one of the nation's top environmental events without them. A lot of our past presenters and field trip leaders are participating in the conference you are now attending. I looked through your conference agenda and picked out the names of those who have helped with our festival. I want to recognize you, so if you would, please stand up when I call your names...
Anne Birch, Dave Breininger, Bob Day, Gretchen Ehlinger, Marc Epstein, Ron Hight, Ross Hinkle, Donna Oddy, Jane Provancha, Paul Schmalzer, Rebecca Smith, John Stiner, Eric Stolen, D. Scott Taylor, Blair Witherington and Kim Zarillo
I know that there are probably others here who have helped with the festival who are not presenting at this conference. If there's anyone else in the room who has lent a hand, can you please stand up?
You guys are my heroes! I am so indebted to all of you!
When you all go back to your homes, keep in mind that there's other people out there like me who struggle every year to put together vital educational programs aimed at the general public. Education is the only way we'll be able to save anything. People can't possibly value what they don't know anything about.
So, when you get a call from some groveling program director, if you don't mind dealing with the public, help them out. You'll have a great time. It's very rewarding to see your hard work being appreciated. And I'm always looking for more ideas, speakers and trip leaders for our own event. We don't pay, but you'll get a nice motel room, free festival registration for two and you get to eat at Dixie Crossroads every night. It's like a vacation.
Thank you for coming this evening!