Voices of the Bay
“When you’ve seen a million beautiful sunsets or sunrises, how do you pick one out?”
Voices of the Florida Bay Project: Captain Eddie Wightman, fishing guide
Interview by Emma Haydocy
When it comes to telling the story of an endangered waterway, who better to call upon than those who have spent their lives upon its waters?
That’s how Captain Eddie Wightman came to sit down with Emma Haydocy, executive director of Florida Bay Forever Save Our Waters, to recount some 70-plus years of his memories of the Bay, including 53 years as a fishing guide.
The captain took part in Florida Bay Forever’s Voices of Florida Bay oral history project, funded in part by a grant from Florida Humanities. The project is meant to capture the life of the Bay and the people whose lives are entwined with it — in the years before it became endangered by environmental threats, and as work has proceeded to save it.
The estuary, beloved of birdwatchers and fisherfolk alike, covers a third of Everglades National Park, and at its southern edge, the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary.
Below is an edited excerpt from Captain Eddie Wightman’s interview with Emma Haydocy, recorded by videographer Doug Finger. For more information on Florida Bay Forever and Voices of the Bay, and to view the videos, visit floridabayforever.org.
Did you learn to fish with family members or friends?
That’s funny. My parents owned beauty shops. They wanted me to take over the beauty shop chain and I go, “There is absolutely no way I am going to be in the beauty shop.”
When was the first time you fished Florida Bay or the backcountry in the Florida Keys?
When we were little kids, that’s all we had. We only had the water and boats to play with. Probably when I was 12 or 13, but can I remember the day? Absolutely not. It’s been 75 years. 70 years ago.
What was it like?
It was pristine. Back in those days, algae blooms didn’t exist. We didn’t know what they were. And, the water from here, you didn’t run into any dirty water until you got over to Flamingo. It’s not polluted, it’s not algae, it’s just muddy. In the early days from here, back through Twin Keys, back through Rabbit Key, was crystal clear. And loaded with Thalassia or turtle grass. Huge, big meadows of it.
Why did you start guiding?
My first love, and still is today, was fishing and I always liked light tackle fishing. I didn’t gravitate to the ocean. So, it’s just kinda in your blood. I went through Hurricane Donna in 1960 and my parents lost their home and all their money and I happened to be going to the University of Florida at that time. So I bought a little secondhand skiff that I made-up, built myself, and I started guiding.
What was the guide community like when you first started out?
It was small and very close-knit. When you first started in, even though I grew up here, you know, if the good fishing was down here, I would go like, “Timmy, where should I go today?’’ and he would go that way, he would send me in the opposite direction. We were very close-knit, there probably wasn’t more than a dozen total instead of the hundreds there are today.
Did you ever have another career that you considered?
My wife claims that I didn’t find guiding; guiding and fishing found me. I didn’t go looking for it. It just latched onto me because that was in my DNA. She claims I think like a bonefish. Because bonefish became my forte and I got pretty darn good at it.
Were you involved in conservation efforts for Florida Bay and for the Everglades?
Initially, back in the early ’60s and ’70s, you didn’t have to be, there was no real need for it in those days. It really started up later, and one of the things when they started, when the seagrass dies off and the algae blooms started, I was very active in coastal conservation which became Florida Conservation.
Can you talk a little bit more about some of those conservation efforts?
The guides knew every square inch back there and we went to the park service and told our concerns, that we thought seagrass was dying off, and they kind of blew us off until it became so apparent that they had to send biologists off to study the very areas that we told them were disappearing.
And then it just kinda got bigger and bigger. It started probably with the big recorded (seagrass die-off) in ’87 or ’85. Actually, it started a good while before that, and we started seeing these algae blooms. At first, it was just localized in Rankin, and then got larger and larger and at its apex the algae blooms came clear up to Islamorada’s shoreline and went through the bridges and went down as far as, as far as I know, went down to Big Pine Key.
I’m not a scientist, I’m just a fishing guide. All I can do is see, OK, that used to be thick turtle grass and now it’s not anymore; it’s mud. I think like a fish, not like a piece of grass. So, my job and my avocation, was to know where the fish go and why. And then I found out when the algae blooms started and grasses started dying off, the fish left. They were gone.
What was Florida Bay like after those die-offs?
The whole bay used to be pristine. I could go anywhere and fish. Then, after the die-offs and algae blooms, everybody was piled into the few little places that still had a few fish. The reason my boat’s name is “The Loner,” the reason I got named “The Loner,” was because some of the guides in those days could never find me. I’d see them, but they would never know where I was. But I never believed that all the fish in the Bay were where all the fisherman were. As years went on before I quit guiding it just got too crowded. I have to be by myself fishing. I don’t like fishing near people. I was on 53 years of guiding nonstop.
What about a scary situation?
It was in the wintertime and we were all out fishing and this storm came in, it blew in 75 miles an hour and it blew so hard that you couldn’t have stayed out in the open. I took my skiff and I was out near Rabbit Key, and I drove it as hard as I could at full throttle right up into the mangroves and tied it off on the downwind side and I rode out that 75 mile an hour wind with my clients in the boat. That was pretty scary.
What about your most gratifying experience out on Florida Bay?
When you’ve seen a million beautiful sunsets or sunrises, how do you pick one out? Most of my clients have died now, I’ve still got one client that’s still alive, he’s 92, and I fished with him for probably 45 years, every year. I always liked challenges and I quit doing all kinds of fishing except fly fishing. Taking the guy, from giving him his first lesson to turning him into an accomplished tarpon fisherman, that was pretty gratifying. You find your niche.
Emma Haydocy, Executive Director of Florida Bay Forever Save Our Waters
This article originally appeared in the Spril 2021 Issue of FORUM Magazine. Visit our collection at the USFSP Digital Archive by clicking here.
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