Tag Archives: presidents that visited the St Lucie River Region

The Long Deteriorating “Fishing Ground of Presidents,” St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

Harold R Johns, posing with a large tarpon, early 19920s, Stuart, St Lucie River. (Photo from Stuart on the St Lucie by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)
Harold R. Johns, posing with a large tarpon, early 1920s, Stuart, Florida, St Lucie River. (Photo from Stuart on the St Lucie by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)

When the pioneers permanently opened the St Lucie Inlet in 1892, it killed the freshwater grasses that filled the waterways creating a brackish estuary that due to the convergence of tropical and temperate zones, and the nearby warmth of the Gulf Stream, became “the most diverse estuary in North America.” (Gilmore)

After a short period of time, sportfishing thrived in the area, and fishing guides called Stuart the “fishing grounds of presidents” as US president, Grover Cleveland, vacationed and fished the area in 1900 and years after.

In spite of long standing issues with the health of the estuary,  as late as the 1970/80s Dr Grant Gilmore of Harbor Branch documented over 800 species of fish living and breeding in the then healthy seagrasses around Sailfish and Sewall’s Point at the convergence of the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon. This was a larger variety of species in one place than any other area in United States. (Gilmore)

"Goliath Grouper" called "Jew Fish" at the time, Stuart. ca. 1920s. (Thurlow Collection)

“Goliath Grouper” called “Jew Fish” at the time, Stuart. ca. 1920s. (Thurlow Collection)

Going back to the the 1930s, the 1938 Blue Book, a popular annual fishing publication of the time, lauds fishing throughout the entire Stuart area:

“The City of Stuart located approximately 20 miles south of Fort Pierce is world renowned for its fishing. Located as it is…it offers a variety of fishing similar to Fort Pierce but somewhat more pronounced, particularly with regards to the tarpon, sea trout, snook, channel bass, bluefish, crevasse jack, pompano and ladyfish. It’s fresh water fishing is particularly good far into the back county among the Sloughs with their tributary and drainage canals to Lake Okeechobee and the many drainage canals through this territory. These Sloughs and Canals offer splendid fishing for black bass, as well as for the larger game fish from the salt water, such as  th snook and tarpon, that make their way into Stuart Harbor and on up into the both and south branches of the St Lucie River. –Particularly good fishing for these species can be had at the St Lucie Locks about 12 miles inland south of Stuart…”

All photos from Stuart on the St Lucie, Sportfishing chapter, by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.
All photos from Stuart on the St Lucie, Sportfishing chapter, by Sandra Henderson Thurlow.

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It is interesting to note that although the Blue Book piece, written in 1938, celebrates Stuart’s fishing, one can find evidence of tension regarding the releases from Lake Okeechobee in the literature of the day as early as 1925.

Fearing the onslaught of development in the booming twenties and the changes brought on by the connection and building of the C-44 canal from Lake Okeechobee to the South Fork of the St Lucie River, beginning in 1923, the South Florida Developer’s, November 10th, 1925 headline reads:

Article 1925, South Florida Developer. (Thurlow collection.)
Article 1925, South Florida Developer. (Thurlow collection.)

“Fish Will Leave the River As City Grows, Fisherman Assert, Sewage and Oil Sure Death to a Favored Sport is Verdict.”

The article quotes commercial fishermen who know that  the over abundance of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee will chase away the salt water fish and that the oil on the water from development, perhaps from cars and road runoff,  if excessive, won’t allow the fish to sufficiently breathe.

Fishing guide Phil O’Brian is quoted as saying: “I know the ways of the sea fish. They can’t stand fresh water; and they won’t stand sewer water. We have the fresh water now mixin’ in from Lake Okeechobee and we’ll soon have the sewer water.”

These pioneers are probably rolling over in their graves should they have learned about the story of the St Lucie/Indian River Lagoon most recently.

The St Lucie River was labeled “impaired” by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in 2002 mostly due to pesticides and heavy metals from agriculture and urban pollution runoff accumulating in the sediment from all area canals, especially C-44 and Lake Okeechobee. In a way, just like the 1920s fisherman foresaw…

The fight against the area canals and Lake Okeechobee continues today, and if by the grace of God we can undo some of the hands of history, the St Lucie and Indian River Lagoon will surely heal herself and we once again could be the ” Fishing Grounds of Presidents…”

…but then we might have to get rid of that green and sprawling golf course at the Floridian.

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FDEP Impairment St Lucie River: (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/southeast/ecosum/ecosums/SLE_Impairment_Narrative_ver_3.7.pdf) 

The Coral Strand’s Fishing Riches; Today’s Sailfish Point, Along the Indian River Lagoon

1950 map by Ben McCoy of the "Coral Strand" and its riches,  today known as Sailfish Point.
1950s map of Hutchinson Island’s “Coral Strand.” Today, known as “Sailfish Point.” (Map, Ben McCoy, courtesy historic archives of Sandra Henderson Thurlow.)

How romantic, the “Coral Strand…” Like a string of pearls the riches of Hutchinson Island’s coast strung along the blue waters of the Atlantic and Indian River Lagoon. The crowing jewel, today,  known as Sailfish Point.

The above promotional map by Ben McCoy, brother, of the infamous rum runner, Captain Bill McCoy, highlights some of our area’s best features, most interesting history, and even an excerpt from a novel by Faith Baldwin:

” It was a long jut of land running into the water, upon one side was the ocean, upon the other, an inlet forming a small quiet bay. It was colored like a lithograph, strong blinding colors. The beach was so white that it dazzled, water and sky so blue they seemed unreal…”

If one looks closely at the map, fish of the area are listed around the point: Blue Fish; Sheepshead; Bass; Snapper; Pompano; Spanish Mackerel; and Tarpon everywhere…the Indian River is not noted just as the” Indian River” but the “Famous Indian River,” for fishing of course!

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The publication notes that five presidents, Arthur, Cleveland, Roosevelt, Taft, and Harding,  as well as Joe Jefferson, beloved  disciple of Izaak Walton, fished these waters as “who indeed among fisherman has not heard of the famous St Lucie Region, rendezvous for more than half a century for anglers  from all over the world!”

Believe it or not, according to The History of Martin County, the McCoy’s land, today’s Sailfish Point, was listed for $25,000.

It is fun to visit the dream like past, but soon or later, reality always sets in. In the 1950s the Coral Strand was sold to eccentric entrepreneur and Florida Oceanographic Society founder, James Rand, for its limited development the name was marketed as “Seminole Shores.” Later in the 1960s, the the Hutchinson Island property was sold by Harvard University to a group of Boston investors and eventually to Mobil Oil who legally tore the mangroves from the land, scared off the mosquitoes and filled it. Eventually, in the 80s the land was developed as exclusive “Sailfish Point.”

According to Dr Grant Gilmore, most famous for his long career at Harbor Branch Oceanographic, the waters/seagrasses surrounding Sailfish Point, the old Coral Strand, are truly the most diverse in the North America with over 800 types of fish, often growing baby fish, documented in these waters.

It is a crime that during rainy season, the Army Corp of Engineers often releases water from Lake Okeechobee exacerbating the pollution from our local canals killing the seagrasses in these waters, thus fish habitat destroyed. Last year, in 2013,  according to Mark Perry of Florida Oceanographic, approximately 85% of the seagrasses were destroyed.

Yes, this has happened many times, but one day, it may not come back.

For history, for today, we must fight to protect our “Coral Strand,” and our pearl, our incredibly bio-diverse waters…

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The History of Martin County can be purchased at the Historical Society of Martin County: (http://www.martincountyhistoricalsociety.com)