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Buzzed Books #59 by Henry Hughes

A Pioneer Son at Sea: Fishing Tales of Old Florida

Gilbert Voss was born into a Florida pioneer family in 1918, back when panthers still roamed swampy jungles. He had a colorful career in commercial and charter fishing, and in the US Coast Guard, eventually becoming an eminent marine scientist who led major deep sea expeditions. In 1960, he also helped secure the nation’s first undersea park, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, on Key Largo.

But he wanted to be a writer.

He son, Robert Voss, tells us that after World War II and a failed get-rich quick mullet fishing scheme, Gil explored a number of options, including bouncing at a Hypoluxo casino, “exposing him to colorful personalities at night and freeing his afternoons for creative composition—but accumulating rejection notices from magazines were not encouraging.”

A Pioneer Son at Sea

Gilbert Voss’ struggles as a creative writer may, in part, be vindicated by this posthumous collection of lively nonfiction. The voice is that of a very likeable, sharp-eyed, but nonjudgmental young man plying the waters of southeast Florida in the 1930s and 40s. Voss recalls outlaw adventures of rum-running and poaching, evading prohibition officers and Isaak Walton League fish wardens who “were scorned by nearly everyone.”

Although Voss and his brothers engaged in some illegal and conservationally questionable activities, he eventually became one of the more progressive charter boat captains of his time, encouraging catch-and-release angling for sailfish as early as the 1930s.  In the chapter “Tight Lines,” Voss describes a winter fishing trip in 1940 where 18 sailfish were landed and released, and he praised anglers who were “sportsmen, not killers, and needed no pictures of dead fish hung on the fish racks at the dock.”  After the war, Voss would lead a successful sailfish tagging-research program for the University of Miami’s Marine Laboratory.

For readers interested in the natural history of subtropical Florida, these vignettes teem with sharks, bluefish, pompano, mackerel and mullets by the millions. Oysters, turtles and birds abound in nature and on dinner plates—consider the prospect of sinfully delicious turtle egg pancakes and scrawk perloo made with fledgling herons shaken from their nests. One appreciates the honesty of Voss’ accounts, and he adds that “two [scrawk] would make a good mess, and that was all we ever took at a time.” In contrast, he recalls a game warden’s report about tourists from Miami who were “running around the islands shooting birds as they rise” only to “leave the place a bloody mess.”

Voss’ measured disregard for authority and formality made him an unusual and effective Coast Guard commander patrolling Florida’s waterways during World War II. The handsome 25-year-old Voss boarded Cuban fishing vessels “barefoot, wearing faded dungarees, a white skivvy shirt, and a straw hat,” always happy to share a cup or three of rum with the captain. These sketches of ethnic fishermen—Cubans working the viveros, live-well grouper and snapper smacks;  Conchs or Bahamians docked at Riviera Beach; and Greek sponge divers out of Tarpon Springs—are free from the prejudice, stereotyping and patronizing we find so often in those times and places.

Down in the cabin of a Greek sponge vessel, Voss is surprised to see a man having his erect penis carefully measured by the ship’s engineer.

“’What in hell is going on?’ I asked. There was a round of laughter.” The engineer-artisan was commissioned to carve exact replicas of the men’s phalluses, scrotum and all. One sponge diver explains, “We’re gone to sea for five months. I give it to my wife who misses me, and she thinks only of me every time she looks at it. Good idea, ne?”

Although the style is not dazzling, Voss’s writing is pleasurable to read and totally believable.  In a genre full of twisted fish yarns, we trust Voss’ clear accounts and can appreciate the scientist who would become the first to describe several new species of octopi and squid, write the popular Seashore Life of Florida and the Caribbean, and even have a swimming crab named after him before his death in 1989. A Pioneer Son at Sea offers uniquely memorable stories about fishing and Old Florida, and a fine addition to the library of any literary angler.

Henry Hughes

Henry Hughes (Episode 217272) grew up on Long Island, New York, and now lives in Oregon.   He is the author of four collections of poetry and the memoir, Back Seat with Fish: A Man’s Adventures in Angling and Romance.  An active angler, naturalist, and literary critic, he edited two Everyman’s Library anthologies on fishing, and his reviews appear regularly in Harvard Review. He teaches at Western Oregon University.