A moored fishing exploration of the village of Cortez
SRQ Review | december 2021
NATHAN MESCHELLE WAKES UP TO THE SUN FOR A DAILY CAPTURE. PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN
The fishermen of Cortez aren’t afraid of hard work, they never have been. And Nathan Meschelle, a local commercial fisherman, born and raised in Cortez, is no exception. Like the fisherman from Cortez a hundred years before him, he’s ready to wake up at 3 a.m. if that’s when the fish bite. And after a long, hot day of training in the sun, he’s ready to come back ashore and work a little more, clean up and get ready for the next day. âBeing a professional fisherman is definitely not a job. It’s a way of life, âhe says. âBefore going to bed, I anticipate my day, the different variables with the weather, the equipment that might need to be fixed or repaired, there is a lot of thought and meditation attached to it. But when that moment comes, when I wake up in the morning, I’m excited, I’m ready to go to work. And when my boat is loaded with my boxes full, coming home to the dock is probably the best feeling in the world. “
Cortez, Florida is one of the newest small coastal fishing villages. Unlike many areas of Florida that have been turned into overcrowded tourist destinations, it has managed to retain much of its old-fashioned charm. There are no waterfront condos or luxury homes. Instead, you’ll find weathered white bungalows, shipyards, and restaurants featuring some of Florida’s freshest and tastiest fish. It can be a colorful community with so many people and places to see, or, the most relaxing and laid back place in the world where you can enjoy the simple pleasures of modern life that is very similar to what it is. was over a century since.
A historian who sees herself more as an anthropologist studying humans hundreds and thousands of years ago, as well as people today, Tori Chasey, supervisor of the Florida Maritime Museum, strives to make people appreciate and understand the heritage of the village. âThe Cortezians are the kind of people who are salt of the earth,â says Chasey. âThey have always been very hard workers. Originally occupied by a thriving Native American population, Cortez has provided for its residents for many generations. âThe Cortezians have always lived off the coast, as we know from the fishbones and other artifacts found in the mounds left behind,â says Chasey. The Cuban Ranchos came next and they were the first seasonal residents. Cortez’s first permanent residents were mostly residents of Cateret County, North Carolina, who migrated south in hopes of a new way of life. They were already fishermen in search of a bountiful coastline, and as the waters of the region provided them well, they ended up settling there and becoming prosperous. Many residents of today are in fact descendants of those original inhabitants of North Carolina.
The common link between the early settlers and the inhabitants of today appears to be marine life, especially a species of jumping fish called a mullet. With an abundance of red mullet and crustaceans, the Cortezians have long been able to earn a living and feed their families, while enjoying the simplicity of residing in a picturesque village where everyone knows their name. Karen Bell grew up in this fishing village and is actually a descendant of the original inhabitants of North Carolina. His grandfather, Aaron Parks, founded the AP Bell Fish Company in 1920. His father took over it in 1963, and when he died in 2012, Karen started running it. He tried to discourage her from going into the business, but she was determined. “It’s a man’s world with a lot of regulations, it’s hard work,” he said. But Cortez was her home, where her family was, and she wanted to continue the legacy. So she followed her father for over 20 years, learned all the ins and outs of the business, and now runs a very successful seafood dealer. âI think the most unique thing about this business is the people,â she says. âCommercial fishermen are very independent and their jobs are difficult. Being a woman telling a bunch of guys what to do isn’t your norm, but it works well because I have a lot of respect for them, and in return, they respect me. We work well together and we sell our product all over the world. I am super proud of the fishermen of Cortez. This small community feeds the world.
Bobby Woodson, co-owner of Tide Tables restaurant and the marina, totally agrees. âCortez is the largest fishing community on the West Coast of Florida,â he says. âWe can actually see the group of boats go by in the morning and go to Karen’s place in AP Bell where they unload. And we go there every day and get whole fish, bring it back here, and cut it right off the dock behind the tide tables. So every day we get freshly caught local fish, and it’s something you can’t find anywhere else. It makes a big difference when it’s that cool. Woodson has lived and worked in the village for over 60 years. He knows that a tight-knit, hard-working community is what it takes to keep a fishing village alive and functioning well. âI’ve been buying fish from the Bells for 45 years now. So we go back a long way. I know everyone who lives here, they know me. It is a very special place. There aren’t many places in the world that are like this anymore, âhe says.
Visiting Cortez almost every day since starting his business in 1984, Brian Bochan, owner of Captain Brian’s Seafood Market and Restaurant, has relied on the thriving fish market for his produce. Brian attributes his 37-year success to his connection to the community. It gets its supplies directly from fishermen, where other markets and restaurants have to rely on distributors. âBeing in the fishing industry for so long, I know all the fishermen in Cortez, all the bait, and I am able to get all the fresh fish I want. And the fish Brian mainly wants is the mullet. âThe mullet is Florida’s staple fish. It is an easily available, sustainable and healthy fish because it is a vegetarian fish. Right now they’re big and fat and really delicious. Brian thinks Cortez and the waters of Florida’s Gulf Coast are special for several reasons. âWe have such a long continental shelf that there are therefore many fishing grounds. In addition, the temperature of our water makes it a very rich fish. Our clean waters provide the mullet with plenty of nutrients. As grouper and snapper have grown in popularity over the years, Brian wishes more people would try mullet. âIt’s a great local fish and it’s a shame more people haven’t discovered it,â he says. In his restaurant, we cook red mullet in different ways: smoked, grilled, fried and in sauce. He encourages everyone to visit and give it a try. “If you haven’t fallen in love with the mule yet, head over to Captain Brian and give it a try.” We will cook it the way you like it. Whether it’s the mule, the people or the simplicity of the village, Cortez is certainly a charming destination. Tori Chasey enjoys watching visitors walk through the museum’s doors and learn all about the authentic old Florida fishing village of Florida then and now. âWelcome to Cortez,â she said. âIf you stay long enough, we’ll consider you a local. “