HISTORY MYSTERY: A glimpse into the connection between the Destin Fishing Rodeo and WWII

H. C. "Hank" Klein | Destin Historian

Many locals and visitors alike took part in the 73rd Annual Destin Fishing Rodeo last month. Our readers might be interested to know what fishing was like in the 1940s, before the Rodeo.

The Destin Fishing Rodeo began in 1948. Before World War II pretty much all the fishing out of Destin was commercial fishing. The local men took their boats out in the Gulf of Mexico, often as far as Bayou La Batre, Ala., and fished for days using hand lines and nets. They sold their fish at one of the three or four fish markets in Pensacola.

The Martha Gene, first deep sea and sport fishing vessel on the Northwest Florida coast.

Coleman Kelly was Destin’s first large-scale businessman adding a restaurant, grocery store, and cottages to the area where the Emerald Grande stands today. He had Destin's first "head boat," the 55 foot Martha Gene, which was licensed by the Destin Turpentine Company headed by Coleman Kelly. The boat was skippered by Captain Lee Chambless.

On Aug. 18, 1939, the Martha Gene headed into the Gulf, with paying passengers for the first time. The event marked a new era — deep sea sport fishing — the first in the entire northwest gulf waters, where tourists began paying the local captains to take them fishing.

With World War II going on in Europe and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the deep-sea boats were kept at their moorings while waiting for the war to end. Boats were forbidden entry into the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico during the war.

The first spurt of deep-sea sport fishing had experienced a healthy birth as the idea had caught on. An era had opened, then closed for a few short years, and then with many participants, returned in all its glory after World War II. There were many boats in the Kelly Boat Services that came in at the Kelly Boat Docks by the time the first Destin Fishing Rodeo began in 1948.

Americans took the war effort seriously helping wherever and whenever they could. Rationing of food, fuel, and other commodities was common throughout the United States during World War II. Finding fishermen and deckhands to work in commercial fishing during World War II was very difficult. Most of the able-bodied men in Destin had joined the US Navy, US Army, or the US Coast Guard. Many also worked at Eglin Army Air Field, including the author’s father-in-law, Clarence Lee Marler.

Boat Section Crew – Clarence Lee Marler, 2nd from Left, Front Row

During the war, Clarence Lee Marler, worked at Army Air Force Proving Ground Command at Eglin Field as a deckhand in the Boat Section. He worked at Eglin Field from Dec. 1, 1942 to March 5, 1944, when he resigned.

On the War Department form, he stated “I want to leave to go fishing, as I am going into partnership with Herbert Woodward. I feel that by furnishing fish to the market I can be of better service to the war effort.”

One can see that the war effort meant everything to not only the military, but also the civilians whether they worked on a military base, in a factory, or even when they decided to go back to fishing for a living. They saw it as service to the war effort.

History

H. C. “Hank” Klein is a Destin historian, author, and speaker on local history. He lives in Bob Hope Village in Shalimar with his wife, formerly Muriel Marler of Destin. Klein recently published two Destin history books - DESTIN Pioneer Settlers...A Land History of Destin, Florida from 1819-1940 and DESTIN’S Founding Father…The Untold Story of Leonard Destin. Klein can be contacted directly at klein@aristotle.net.