Exploring The History, Legacy Of The Stuart Sailfish Club As It Celebrates 75 Years
The year was 1941. Veronica Lake, Ingrid Bergman and Betty Grable were all the rage, the New York Yankees were the team to root for, and Humphrey Bogart and “The Maltese Falcon” were taking theaters by storm. But on the coast of Florida, the rage was an enormous run of sailfish during the first three months of the year. Tens of thousands of the beautiful billfish, known for their blue and gray coloring and their magnificently upright dorsal fin, chose to swim and frolic in the warm waters off the coast of Florida near the City of Stuart.
With their appearance came hundreds of chartered and private boats filled with anglers who wanted a chance to catch the glorious and majestic sailfish. In fact, so many sailfish were caught and slaughtered during that three month period that a group of wise locals who were members of the Stuart Jaycees club met to devise a way to encourage the sudden and wonderful boom in tourism without annihilating the very thing that had created it. In a brilliant marketing move, the men decided to host a tournament that would both lure sport fishermen and also reward them for releasing their oceanographic bounty.
Among those visionaries was Capt. Curt Whiticar, a boat builder and avid fisherman whose family had called Stuart home since 1917. He suggested a special prize for anglers who caught and released their sailfish, allowing it to live and swim on to grow even larger and procreate. He even designed a golden release pin in the shape of a leaping sailfish, which became highly prized and coveted by fishermen as proof of not only their fishing prowess but also their dedication to the conservation of a species. This became the mission of the newly formed Stuart Sailfish Club, established and incorporated in 1941 and celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
While Jan. 16 is the official date of the club's incorporation, members of the Stuart Sailfish Club will commemorate the momentous occasion and mission by celebrating its diamond anniversary throughout the year. The events celebrating the Stuart Sailfish Club's diamond jubilee are attuned to the mission of respecting and honoring the breathtaking beauty and importance of the sailfish. One of the oldest sport fishing clubs in the U.S., the Stuart Sailfish Club is also one of the most prolific, hosting no less than four tournaments each year.
“Each tournament truly does have its own personality, and all of our club's events, management and activities rely heavily on volunteers from our 450 members,” says Tom Dyer, the club's president.
The tournaments hosted by the club include the Light Tackle Tournament, the Small Boat Tournament, the Junior Angler Tournament, the Florida Sailfish Amateur Championship and the Salt Water Sisters Lady Angler Tournament. Additionally this year, the club is sending a flotilla of its members to participate in the invitation-only Hemingway Billfish Tournament at Marina Hemingway in Havana, Cuba.
The Hemingway Billfish Tournament, a new endeavor for the group, will take advantage of the relaxed tourism and travel restrictions, and allow participants who are members of the Stuart Sailfish Club to travel by private vessel to the island, for the four-day tournament. In addition to the fierce invitation-only competition of the tournament itself, this particular event will allow a never-before offered window into a country, lifestyle and culture that has been shuttered up for decades because of political and diplomatic differences. Hemingway Billfish
Tournament participants have the opportunity to tour Old Havana, enjoy the history at the Museo de la Revolucion, and enjoy the tastes, sights and sounds of the largest Caribbean island, all of which have been forbidden until now.
“This tournament is especially exciting to anyone who has wanted to go to Cuba or fish in Cuba,” Dyer says. “With the doors of Cuba open again, this is the perfect way to test the waters, and according to everything I have heard, billfishing off Cuba is fantastic. [It's] the chance of a lifetime for members of the Stuart Sailfish Club.” Stuart Sailfish Club promoter Jeannette Weiss says participating in the Havana-based tournament has helped the club stay current and relevant to its newest members and new generations of anglers and sports fishermen. “We've accepted 20 new members in the last few weeks because of the Hemingway Billfish Tournament,” Weiss says.
The Junior Angler Tournament also offers great exposure and brings in new members, Weiss says. “[It] helps to expose our at-risk youth and members' children to the fun and conservation of our sport,” she says. Every Junior Angler Tournament features “a series of educational teachings where participants are broken into groups and given the chance to learn the etiquette of sport fishing and the importance of conservation to the perpetuation of the sport. It helps get them excited about our sport in their future.”
The conservation and the promotion of tourism and game-fishing are the backbone, or one might say dorsal fin, of the mission, but the club's reach extends far beyond the waters of the Atlantic, Weiss says. The Stuart Sailfish Club also supports the local breast cancer organization, Friends in Pink, with its Lady Angler Saltwater Sisters Tournament. The Club also supports the Martin County Reef Association and the Florida Sheriff's Youth Ranch Program through its Junior Angler Tournament, and supports the Billfish Foundation and the International Game and Fish Association, too.
Additionally, every year the Stuart Sailfish Club sponsors competitions at each Martin County high school in which seniors committed to studying the marine sciences compose essays explaining why they are best-suited to be selected for a Stuart Sailfish Club Scholarship. A committee of Club members reviews the applications and selects one or two from each school, providing a $1,500 scholarship to deserving seniors.
But this year's focus is truly on celebrating 75 years of Stuart being known as the “Sailfish Capital of the World,” and the real celebration will take place in March, as the Club hosts its inaugural Family Fun Day on March 19 at Flagler Park in downtown Stuart. There will be activities for children, teens and adults, as well as demonstrations related to fishing, water sports, and a special Diamond Anniversary Gala on Friday, March 18. The gala will feature music, food and entertainment from the 1940s, when the club was first founded.
“We really want to honor our founders and celebrate our history of conservation,” Dyer says. “As one of the oldest clubs in the country, we have a lot to be proud of.” Plus, it's not necessary to be an angler to become a member of the Stuart Sailfish Club. “Our club is a family club,” Dyer says. “Not only do you not have to fish to become a member, you don't have to own a boat.”
For Dyer and the members of the Stuart Sailfish Club, it's important to celebrate the past and the accomplishments of that rugged and dedicated group of individuals who came before, but it's also critical to ensure that the club is strong and active moving into the future as the 21st century progresses. “Plans are underway to ensure our club's longevity, with fundraising and membership drives at the top of our list of priorities,” Dyer says. “We're a strong club, but we have to take measures now to make sure we're here another 75 years. We want younger people to recognize the value of our club. There's a great sense of camaraderie and kinship; we're all dedicated to conservation and protecting our waters and sailfish, while having fun at the same time.”
The magnificent sailfish, a member of the marlin family best known for its grace and speed, combines those two important elements into a beautiful creation, which is breathtaking to view, exhilarating to pursue and an accomplishment to catch. Clocked at speeds of nearly 70 miles per hour when leaping out of the water, the sailfish, which averages 6 to 8 feet, but has been known to grow to a monstrous 10 feet in length, has an average life span of five to seven years. There is no question why the spectacular sailfish has become the mascot and icon for the entire City of Stuart, or why the community takes such pride in being known as the “Sailfish Capital of the World.”
There is also no question why the Stuart Sailfish Club is so proud to have grown from a small group of individuals dedicated to preserving and honoring this splendid creature to a mighty force of conservation and community during the past 75 years. Like the closing line delivered by Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon,” the 1941 classic movie popular as the Stuart Sailfish Club was forming, the Stuart sailfish with its strength, majesty and the freedom it represents truly is “the stuff that dreams are made of.”