If you’re going to fish, you need bait. Enter the cast net, where mastery of casting snags finger mullet and a passport to Florida’s evolving waterfront culture.
For the uninitiated, a cast net is a round net, anywhere from 5 to 12 feet in diameter. Fishermen throw it from dock, deck, or shore, keeping ahold of the hand line. Lead weights make it sink, while small cords attached to the edge pull up through the horn, a ring in the center of the net. Mullet, pogies, or shrimp either escape through the mesh or get bagged.
Bill Hill and his partner Peggy Conner come to San Marco Beach, a bulkhead off River Road. Their stated goal is shrimp, but lawn chairs, a box of Milk Duds, and a sunset sweeten the evening. Hill used to be a roofer but, for the last 25 years he’s been “scrapping,” selling metal and discarded clothes to dealers shipping out to Haiti and Mexico. Conner says of cast netting, “We water scrap.”
Since his mouth cancer, Bill won’t hold the lead-weighted edge in his mouth as casting tradition requires. Instead, he tri-folds the net over his shoulder like a matador’s cape, spins twice precariously on the bulkhead’s edge, and looses a perfect circle.
“You’ve got to let go of everything at once,” Conner says, her hands busy making cat-food bait balls that will sink to the bottom and tempt the shrimp. “I know a woman lost her false teeth casting.”
According to Ben Williams, owner of Fisherman’s Dock fish market, 50 years ago, folks shrimped at night. “Down on Plumber’s Cove,” says Williams, “it was dark but you used to be able to tell if the shrimp were running by hearing the net weights hit the dock. If you heard leads constantly working, you knew the shrimp were running.”
While nets now are made of nylon, Williams remembers his first net, a “little five-foot cotton net that we used to dip and re-dip in copper tox to keep it from rotting.”
Williams’ collection of nets catches memories of changing Florida. Nets from the 70s and 80s were threaded with colorful bands of beach chair webbing to slow the net’s descent. One net was made by William’s mentor, a lifetime commercial fisherman who sorrowfully turned his gill nets into cast nets after the gill net ban of ’94.
With a dozen live mullet costing six dollars, casting’s an economical way to keep fresh bait on hand. But the practice also creates a meditative peace. Neptune Beach fisherman Bill Hawkins explores inlets watching for “the telltale V in the water, like a flock of birds flying” or “the flashes when pogies roll in the sun.”
Come to see the casting and you’ll hear a gumbo of languages on San Marco Beach—Spanish, Vietnamese, Khmer and Southern drawl—but it’s a peaceable kingdom, united by skill and purpose. “The police show up to tell us to leave when it gets dark,” says Hill, “but first they walk up and down to see what everybody’s catching.”