Historical Vignettes tells the story of how Stuart became ‘The Sailfish …


Historical Vignettes is a mini-series showcasing Martin Counties interesting stories and forgotten facts.

Stuart was officially named the “Sailfish Capital of the World” in 1957 through the efforts of the Stuart Chamber of Commerce. Sport fishermen and women too, for decades had been coming to Stuart and surrounding areas to enjoy the mild climate and beautiful waterways teeming with fish.

In the Gulf Stream off the coast of Florida, especially during the winter months, sailfish are plentiful. Sails, with a lifespan of about 4-6 years, are the fastest swimming marine predator, adults averaging 6 to 7 ft, but have been known to reach 9-10 feet and generally weighing from 40-80 lbs., but up to 220. The powerful warriors of the sea, when hooked, fight vigorously, leaping and diving repeatedly and it may take hours to land one. It’s no wonder the sailfish is sought by anglers from all over the world for the thrill of hooking, battling and landing such a beautiful game fish.

The Stuart Sailfishing Club, formed in 1936, promoted Stuart as the prime fishing region in the country. It established record keeping, issued gold, silver and bronze buttons for size caught as well as certificates and also emphasized the release of catches to ensure the survival of the species. By January 1941, the club was fully chartered as a civic organization.

On Jan. 12, 1937, more than 80 sailfish were landed in the Gulf Stream off Stuart by just 30 anglers in six charter craft which, at the time, was believed to be an all time record established for a single day of sport fishing. Veteran charter craft operators stated they had never witnessed nor expected to ever see again such a huge congregation of the big game fish. One winter visitor claimed to see seven sailfish leaping into the air, clear out of the water, all at once.

In the winter months of 1937-38, a weight record, at that time, was set at 92 pounds which was tied by another catch in the winter of 1939-40. In Dec. 1940, a new record for the largest sailfish ever caught in local waters was set at 8 feet and 8 inches, weighing 78 pounds, a record which still stands.

Through the years, there have been some notable and sensational sailfish runs that surely justify Stuart’s motto as the “Sailfish Capital.” Eight momentous fishing days that began Sunday, Dec. 29, 1940 and reached a peak eight days later on Sunday, Jan. 5, 1941, occurred during a fishing tournament. All records were shattered when the largest recorded number of sailfish, at least 1,000, were caught and released off the coast of Martin County.

A new world’s record was established by the “Mako” of Hobe Sound, which listed 26 sailfish caught and released in one day off the coast of Stuart, the prior record being 22. Boats reported catches of 15, 18 and 20 sailfish, many returning to port flying a dozen or more red release flags. Stuart Sailfish Club officials were worn out attempting to establish an accurate count for every fish boated or released.

Ten years later, in late Dec. 1950, during a sailfishing tournament off the St. Lucie Inlet, an estimate of tens of thousands of sailfish circled the charter fleets. In one day some 500 sailfish were caught and released. Capt. C. C. Whiticar reported that he counted some 60 boats from Stuart and Palm Beach trolling through the seemingly endless schools.

Martin County was then a well established mecca for fishing, but to help promote sailfishing in Stuart, Ernst W. Dutton, a film producer who lived in Sewall’s Point, made numerous films on the subject in the 1940s and ’50s. They were often shown and popular with civic clubs and organizations locally and across the country. Stuart had been touting itself as “Sailfish Capital of the World” for years, but in 1957, with an official certificate from the Florida Secretary of State, there was an exclusive right to use the slogan for advertizing. The sailfishing influence was even demonstrated by the Stuart High School yearbook being named, at one time, “The Sailfish” and patches worn by the Stuart Police Department proudly display the leaping, battling beauty.

The Stuart Sailfishing Club, now one of the oldest sportfishing clubs in the United States, no longer awards release pins, but does keep records of individuals and charter boats along with the number of releases of billfish (sailfish, white marlin, blue marlin and swordfish) in a month.

A few celebrities who have experienced and enjoyed the unforgettable thrill of sailfishing off the coast of Martin County include: Lt. General Walter Bedell Smith, (General Eisenhower’s chief of staff); Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.; Herbert Pulitzer; Frances Langford; Ralph Evinrude and numerous notable national sports writers. In earlier years, Stuart proclaimed itself as the fishing grounds of five presidents: Chester Arthur, William H. Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland and Warren G. Harding. All those years later, Stuart, among its many attractive attributes, is still famous for fishing.

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