Female Fishermen in Early Cortez

Cortez girl on a fishing boat

The early fishermen who settled Cortez used skipjacks, or shallow draft sail boats, to bring in their commercial catch. Their nets were made of natural fibers that were heavy when wet and required treatment and drying between uses. Their work was demanding and sometimes dangerous, but they persevered.

What you may not know is that some of these hard-working fishermen were women.

While many of the oral histories and written documents in the Florida Maritime Museum archives refer to wives and mothers as excellent cooks and talented homemakers, peppered throughout are stories of brave and independent female fishermen. (And yes, they referred to themselves as fishermen, regardless of their gender.)

One of the most widely recognized female fishermen in Cortez was Mada Culbreath, wife of fisherman and fiddle player Julian “Goose” Culbreath. She was known as being strong, smart and brave. She net fished for pompano with her husband for almost a decade, but eventually discovered a passion for trout fishing. They did that together for a while, too, but eventually she branched out on her own.

Mada had her own boat in which Goose fixed a bait box. She crafted another box to put her catch in, one that would hold about 150 pounds of trout. She made her own chum, caught her own bait and could catch trout two at a time.

Soon she was even making her own lures. She carved and painted them herself. When word got out about how good they were, she sold a number of homemade lures to local trout and mackerel fishermen.

Mada didn’t stop there. She also made net needles (used to make and mend nets), and even designed and built a custom saw to get them exactly how she wanted them.

Mildred Mora, Vernon Mora’s wife, was another female fisherman in the early days of Cortez. Like the Culbreaths, she and her husband did some net fishing for pompano, but Mildred preferred fishing with a hook and line and had a special fondness for shrimping. They fashioned a shrimp boat from a commercial fishing vessel and would go out bait fishing together. Vernon credited her with “picking shrimp” faster than he could.

Another Cortez woman, Rita Warden, enjoyed going out deep-sea fishing with her husband, Emerson. They would catch trout, whiting and black grouper. As much as she liked being out on the water, she wasn’t welcome as part of a larger fishing crew because of a superstitious belief that it was bad luck to have women on boats.

A more common activity among women was scalloping. Orie Williams spoke of his mother and two sisters going out in one of his father’s pole skiffs to collect scallops “out on the flats” (the shallow waters off the coast of Cortez).

This was also a fond memory for Sue Maddox. She and her cousin, Marian, would “go scallopin'” in the summer to earn spending money. They would sell the scallops for $8 a quart.

Other industrious women found ways to earn extra money.

Many women from Cortez worked at Ross’, a canning plant in Bradenton where Tropicana is now. Another inventive income stream was referred to as “picking shell.” Women would purchase a bulk mixture of shells and sort them with a watercolor brush, keeping the good ones to sell to shell stores or for arts and crafts projects.

These early women of Cortez set the stage for the strong and independent women who continue working in the commercial fishing industry today. There are now too many to name individually without making important omissions, but tour A.P. Bell fish house or eat lunch at one of the many Cortez restaurants and you’re likely to meet some of them.

Amara C. Nash, supervisor at the Florida Maritime Museum, loves museums, art, history, music and culture, and splits her time between her two favorite villages: Cortez Fishing Village and Village of the Arts.

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