Arts + Culture

Going Places: Last of the Great Fishing Villages

See the charm of historic Cortez, Florida, before it’s overtaken by tourists and commercial interests.

BY September 29, 2016


There was a time when tiny fishing villages ran up and down the coast of Florida. In these secluded outposts beside the water, fishermen made their livelihood from catching mullet, redfish, trout, pompano and mackerel. In my memory of these villages—though they were already disappearing when I was a child—brightly colored houses lined the streets, hibiscus bushes filled the yards and mangy cats stared out from front porches. The air carried the weight and feel of the sea.

For the most part these places have vanished, casualties of the commercial net ban in the 1990s and the relentless gentrification that is changing the face of Florida today. But a few small fishing towns still exist.

The historic village of Cortez, west of Bradenton before you reach Anna Maria Island, is one of them. Set alongside the intracoastal waterway, Cortez still has a commercial fishing fleet, and many of its founding families continue to live in the village. The town has preserved much of its original charm, managing to hold out against commercial development and rampant tourism. There’s no telling how long that will last, and I decided to visit before this historic outpost disappears.

Fishing boats on the docks in Cortez.

I started my tour with a stroll through the maritime museum, set in the one-time Cortez schoolhouse. The museum itself is small, but it offers a permanent exhibit on the history of the village—how the first settlers came from Carteret County, North Carolina, and brought with them the dual trades of ship building and fishing. I scanned the photos of the original settlers, those hard-faced men who captained early fleets, and admired the determination etched into their features. In another part of the exhibit, I read about the effects of the 1995 gill net ban when many commercial fishermen were forced out of the industry, unable to make the switch to more costly and less efficient seine netting or hook and line fishing. Even with these challenges, Cortez managed to preserve its small fishing village identity.

From the museum, it’s a short drive to the working waterfront, where what remains of the commercial fishing fleet is moored. Along the way I drove past brightly painted wood-frame houses with hibiscus bushes in the yards and scruffy cats on the porches. This was exactly the kind of village I remembered from growing up along the Gulfshore. At the waterfront itself, I saw boats tied to the docks and men operating forklifts in front of warehouses where workers processed the catch. If I had any doubts about Cortez’s credibility as a fishing town, they disappeared.

I found a fish market, the Starfish Company, where they sold Cedar Key clams and fresh fillets of grouper and snapper. I would have loved to take some home, but I had an hour-and-a-half drive in front of me. Instead, I walked around the building to the restaurant attached to the seafood market, a small outdoor place where you order at the counter and fight for a seat where you can get it. I got one at the bar.

The man sitting next to me was about as salty as they come. He drank beer from a plastic cup and asked if I was from around there.

“Fort Myers,” I told him.

He nodded and gestured to the people packing the tables in the restaurant, all of them in their best vacation wear.

“Tourists, tourists and more tourists,” he said. “Used to be you would come here in the middle of the afternoon, get something to eat and a beer, and there wouldn’t be anyone here. That’s all changed.”

I glanced around at the vacationers filling the joint. Cortez’s time as a secluded fishing village, I suspect, is limited. But for now the place offers a genuine take on the kind of seaside town that first settled the state of Florida. Go see for yourself before it’s too late.

If You Go

Begin your visit by stopping in at the Florida Maritime Museum for an overview of the history of Cortez. Pay special attention to the exhibits on the net ban and the way it affected village life. If you have time, spend a while perusing the museum’s collection of books on local maritime history. 4415 119th St. W., (941) 708-6120

For lunch or dinner, the Star Fish Company offers fresh seafood in a casual outdoor setting. Be prepared to wait. The seafood is made-to-order and can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to arrive at your table. 12306 46th Ave. W., (941) 794-1243

While you’re in Cortez, be sure to visit the Sea Hagg, a sprawling indoor/outdoor market filled with marine salvage and art. Especially noteworthy? Anchor chains with links as big as your head, old wooden ship wheels and rolls of antique nautical charts. 12304 Cortez Road W., (941) 795-5756