By Amara Nash
The lone net camp off the coast of Cortez harkens to a time not so long ago, and a way of life that still lives on.
The historic fishing village of Cortez was established in the 1880s and quickly became the largest mullet fishery in Florida. Early fishermen took their pole skiffs out into the shallow waters of Sarasota Bay and used large nets to catch these jumping fish. You may have noticed them if you’ve stood on a nearby waterfront for any length of time. People have come up with many possible explanations for this behavior but, after many studies, scientists still have not determined why they jump. Theories have included the fleeing of predators or clearing of gills, but at this point it seems like the mullet might just find it fun.
In addition to jumping, mullet eat the algae and micro fauna that live on sea grasses. Ample food sources in the shallow waters of Cortez ensured an abundance of fish. The fishing nets used to catch mullet were made from cotton or linen, and were thus vulnerable to rot. In order to prolong their usefulness, fishermen treated the large nets with lime (calcium hydroxide) and hung them out to dry. This was no easy task. Due to their size, early Cortezians had to make structures that could accommodate the drying nets. One type of “net spread” was made up of a series of horizontal wooden slats, built on pilings over the water. The other was a large rotating contraption that favored a Ferris wheel in both shape and function.
Early Cortez fishermen also used different kinds of nets, depending on the fishing method being used. Two types of nets that were used are gill nets and seine nets. Gill nets had differing mesh sizes, determined by the type of fish being targeted, and were more selective in the size of fish caught. If the fish were too small they would swim through the net, and if they were too big they would bump into the net and turn around. Fish of the right size would swim into the net and get tangled. Seine nets had very fine mesh, and functioned like moveable walls in the water. The net would be run off the beach into deep water and back to shore in a wide arc. Everything within that arc was captured and hauled onto shore, where fishermen could select what to keep. They threw back, still alive, what they did not want.
Because mullet fishing is seasonal, the limed and dried nets were stored in the off-season. This is where the net camps come into play. These small, simple structures were built on pilings and provided ample space to store nets and other fishing gear. They also housed the occasional visiting fisherman, and if rumors are true, young sweethearts seeking a moment of privacy.
These small structures once dotted the coastline, surrounded by net spreads and serving multiple purposes. However, the face of commercial fishing in Cortez has changed over time. The ice machine was invented. Fishermen started putting motors on their boats. The population of Cortez continued to grow. And in the 1960s monofilament nylon came about. This synthetic material was light and strong. It didn’t require mending as often as natural fibers did and, most importantly, it didn’t require liming and drying. Net spreads were no longer a necessary part of the Cortez landscape.
The coast of Cortez remained dotted with net camps and net spreads until a strong hurricane in 1995 destroyed most of them. The one that still stands was originally built by Joe Capo and Curt Johns, both Cortez fishermen. It was significantly damaged by the storm, but the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage raised the funds and restored the old net camp to its prior glory.