It was six days until the end of the rodeo and my brother, Artie, and I got the news we had been waiting for.
My sister, Dana was bringing my Dad down for the closing day of the 65th annual Destin Fishing Rodeo.
He had not been down from Birmingham, where I grew up, in a couple of years. Our mother passed away and Daddy's health had been up and down; but now, he was coming! My dad and his best friend, Floyd, had been coming to fish the rodeo for almost 56 years. I was fortunate to have been aboard for many of them. We fished on The Big John with Captain Todd Allen whom Daddy and Floyd had known since he was a deckhand on Kelly Windes' boat, The Sunrise. Even though in the past several years they had not been on the boat fishing the rodeo, they would arrive, as usual, for opening day and maybe even make it to closing day too.
My father and Floyd have many awards for the winning fish in some of the categories on the board, usually grouper because they loved deepwater fishing the best — "Where the big boys live," they would say.
They also have T-shirts and hats, and posters that my Dad donated to the fishing museum several years ago.
As luck would have it, I received a call from Robert Reno, one of the men whom we had fished with on several occasions. He invited me on the upcoming trip on The Big John. I had not fished in the last 10 years. I was so excited! And my Dad was coming down! Perhaps, I would catch the big one and place on the board. It was beginning to feel like the "old days."
Thinking back on those "old days," I remember scaling red snapper on the wall by our little concrete block Florida house on Panama City Beach, which my father had built. Floyd and his family had one right down the dirt road which is still there, as well as the cottages, which are still standing 55 years later. Daddy and Floyd started fishing in Destin, because that was where you could get to deepwater fast.
We always fried the fish then. Floyd made a special pan to cook them in at the machine shop where he worked and later owned. My Dad worked hard and often, and fishing was one of the only things he did for fun. Fun I say, even though fishing is hard work. But, if you love it, like they did, you didn't mind a bit. It was the freedom of leaving shore and going out to open waters on an adventure that was thrilling and a way to leave everything else behind you, at least for that day.
And then there were the fish frys with the fisherman who caught the fish, family, friends and neighbors all attending. It was and still is a great community of folks. In fact, I might just add that my brother became a commercial fisherman and had a boat called the Vitamin Sea. He used to say "get your vitamins from the sea."
Of course, there were always fishing stories going around, so many, I can't begin to tell fact from fiction. But, I will end with this true story.
In this year’s rodeo, I didn't catch the "big one," but I caught fish like all the others that day. It was a fine day.
We came into the pass right about sunset to the weigh in-station at AJ's, all proud of our catch. I had my picture taken with Miss Destin for my grouper as a daily. However, later on another angler brought in a bigger one. Oh well, he tasted good anyway.
Looking out over the crowd of spectators there was my brother bringing my Dad down the hill to the dock right where Rodeomaster Bruce Cheves was standing. He introduced my dad as one of the oldest living fishermen who has participated in the rodeo since its beginning. He was history standing right there. His picture was taken and he was given a standing ovation as he boarded The Big John and rode off into the sunset, actually to the boat slip.
My dad had one of those cameras that you buy and turn in to get developed when you finished taking the pictures. My sister says on the way home, every now and then he would pick it up and just look at it like whatever images were inside were precious. I look forward to seeing what he chose to capture as some of his last memories of Destin and the rodeo.
I know I have made some memories that will last a lifetime. Thank you Destin, the luckiest fishing village, my home.
Marsha Lynne Fortner is a longtime Destin resident.