May/June 2017 GASPARILLA ISLAND 35 The fish have gained an average of about 30 pounds since the late ’70s, early ’80s. We used to kill all the mounts. It's all release mounts now. “We used to kill those fish and bring them to Tommy Parkinson, hang them up and they'd take pictures. Tommy was one agent and we had four taxidermists on the island. He was handling 600 fish each and every season. And now, since the outboards have become so efficient and they've built all those high and dry marinas around here, they don't have to trailer them. On weekends those empty out, everybody goes to Boca Grande Pass and fishes. It's become difficult because of the traffic. A lot of it is to do with the fact that there is so much noise that what you're trying to do is get ahead. “Fish generally swim in the same place during that current. They stay in the same spots, or they used to. Now, when all the boats get on top of them, they leave, so their habits are changing. Now you almost have to be the first boat on that school of fish to drop down and get the fish.” Johnny Downing was born in Gasparilla, Florida and lived in the fishing village at the north end of the island. His niece, Margaret Downing Polk, says he always loved boats and fishing and built a boat when he was just about 12 years old, out of tin. But it did float, and he spent hours playing in it. He graduated from Boca Grande High School, was a very good athlete and helped make the class of 1938 and 1939 South Florida Basketball champions. With the help of Mrs. Louise du Pont Crowninshield he attended the University of Florida in Gainesville and from there he went to the U. S. Merchant Marine and became an officer. After the war he signed up with a minor league, hoping to make the majors in Lakeland. After a knee injury he had to drop out and he moved back to Boca Grande and started his fishing career in 1946. In 1960 Mr. August Busch hired him as captain of the Miss Budweiser and he fished the boat all over the world. Johnny and his wife had moved to St. Petersburg Beach, along with their one son and three s t e p c h i l d r e n . M r. Busch had a retirement party for him at the Don Cezar Hotel on the beach. He and Mr. Busch remained close friends. Johnny had a small boat. He would pick up Mr. Busch in the mornings and they would go out and feed the birds, fish a little, and maybe gather an oyster or two. He loved the water. He passed away in October of 1999. It was a very sudden and unexpected death. His ashes were scattered on Boca Grande Pass. This was the place he dearly loved. Sam Whidden was born in Grove City in 1900. When he was 17 he lied about his age, joined the Army and went off to fight in the First World War, where he served in France. He came to Boca Grande in the early 1920s, with the knowledge most local boys growing up on the southwest coast of Florida have about fishing and boating. It was perfectly timed; Boca Grande had become a destination for hundreds of well-to-do visitors for its world class tarpon fishing and life style. He started out captaining for various members of the Pelican Club, a fraternity of fishing enthusiasts from The Gasparilla Inn. To make money in the off season he opened a pool Billy Wheeler Johnny Downing Sam Whidden on the left.
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