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Past perfect

An artful look at South Florida as the sportfishing mecca was coming of age

Photos from the Edwin O. Swift Jr. collection

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In the summer of 1965, Sports Illustrated touted the “new” Florida pictured here as a wonderland of sportfishing, boating and beaches. Looking at these black-and-white photos from that time, Old Florida looks wonderfully nostalgic.

It all started with the Keys Highway, which opened in 1938. The two-lane road, with its spectacular scenery and Seven Mile Bridge, basically created a 112-mile-long fishing pier that was unique. Where else could you find the combination of fish — 764 identifiable species — year-round near-perfect weather, and so many places to wet a line? There were bonefish, the “gray ghosts of the flats,” in the bayside back country; tarpon “danced on their tails” around the highway bridges; and the “glory fish” — marlin and sailfish — swam offshore.

An artful look at South Florida as the sportfishing mecca was coming of ageAnglers came from around the globe to a state with barely 3 million inhabitants; what they required were boats, bait and tackle, a place to stay, groceries, ice, a restaurant or two, and a friendly bar. Hundreds of mom-and-pop businesses answered the call, and Old Florida took shape.

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The Tarpon Lodge in Marathon offered an alternative to the old fishing camp with its little cabins. Counter-and-stool eateries like the Drop Ankr in Marathon opened up, serving early breakfast to expectant anglers, along with such local fare as conch chowder and Key lime pie.

Bait-and-tackle shops? They were everywhere. Johnny Brantner’s Ye Ole Feshin’ Hole in Marathon had it all, including gas, cold soda — and taxidermy. And while the shrimpers still fished out of Marathon, the sportfishing boats and private yachts congregated at new marinas, including Davis Docks in Marathon or at nearby Thompson’s. This was where Elmo Capo and some of the other Keys charter skippers kept their boats.

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The photos here are from the Edwin O. Swift Jr. Collection belonging to the Monroe County (Fla.) Public Library (, search: Edwin Swift Jr.). Swift, shown standing on the Sandra Gale with his wife, Helen, and son, Edwin III (previous page), was a war veteran who moved to Marathon in the 1950s and opened a camera shop. In the following years, he documented the people and daily life against the landscapes and seascapes of the Florida Keys.

April 2013 issue