History in the Making

The West Palm Beach Fishing Club: 75 Years Young

Mike Rivkin October 12, 2009

There are fishing clubs, and then there are fishing clubs. Unfortunately, most of both have dissolved over the years as anglers now find it easier to troll online for buddies and information.

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A parade of boats make their way towards the Palm Beach Inlet during the Silver Sailfish Derby.

However, this wasn’t always the case. At one time, fishing clubs dotted the eastern seaboard from Nova Scotia to Key West. Some were little more than shacks while others had extravagant clubhouses. Each was supported by a community of anglers united in their enthusiasm for the sport and eager to share it with others. Alas, the vast majority are now gone, unfortunate victims of the changing times. Still, a handful remain and among the very best remains the historic West Palm Beach Fishing Club.

The year was 1934, and Palm Beach was neck-deep in depression. The northeastern “swells” that used to train south during the winter weren’t coming like before. The situation was critical, and city elders tried everything to attract visitors: boat races, civic festivals, open air concerts, shuffleboard contests, even a traditional Sun Dance performed by Seminole Indians in full regalia. To everyone’s surprise, about the only thing that worked was a fishing tournament thrown together at the last minute.

With the first West Palm Beach Fishing Contest a surprising success; a new thought was soon hatched to form a fishing club that could perpetuate the event. Chamber of Commerce president Stanley Peeler, police chief Bob Milburn, and city commissioner Arthur Black all worked to bring it about. Palm Beach already had its Sailfish Club and Miami Beach its Rod & Reel Club, but those were sporting clubs that functioned for the benefit of their respective members. This was to be a civic club, run for the benefit of the community and its steadily increasing number of visitors. “A group of businessmen who happened to love fishing decided a fishing club was just what the city needed to make it grow during the Depression.” – Cecil “Zeke” Cornelius, founder and first president of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club.

As the winter season approached, Zeke and his friends made their move. The first meeting of the WPBFC was held on October 15, 1934, a month in which the St. Louis Cardinals took the World Series in seven games and Federal agents mowed down Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd on a farm in Ohio. Back in Florida, the Club’s inaugural gathering was held at the American Legion Arena, and despite the largely housekeeping nature of that first meeting, the atmosphere was electric. Among other noteworthy items recorded in the original meeting was the decision to install collection boxes at the inlet and city docks as depositories for excess fish. The Salvation Army and other groups could always put fresh seafood to good use, and Milburn immediately offered to underwrite a trophy in honor of the boat contributing the most. Thus was a long tradition of civic responsibility established, a club-wide ethic that continues to this day.

Soon, Cornelius and Milburn were at it again, this time as organizers of the first annual Silver Sailfish Derby. The two-week contest ran from February 10-23, 1935 and proved an unqualified success. Daily prizes consisted of beautiful sterling silver cigarette boxes adorned with miniature sailfish. A magnificent $1,000 silver and marble trophy underwritten by Mr. Henry Rea in honor of his wife became the defining symbol of the event, prompting the historic name now so familiar to many anglers. Today, the Silver Sailfish Derby is the longest continually operating billfish tournament in the world, an exceptional legacy that still continues each January.

A year later, WPBFC officers turned their formidable marketing skills to the creation of a booklet called Let’s Go Fishin’. Produced in concert with West Palm Beach publicity director Art Keil, the slender booklet with a leaping sailfish on the cover enjoyed an ambitious first printing of 10,000 copies. The city kept about half for promotional purposes while the rest were sent to outdoor writers and used as giveaways at the New York Sportsman’s Show. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested that a copy be delivered to the White House. The booklet included articles by prominent outdoor writers, a list of club members, and Derby details.

Within a few years, sailfishing had become so popular off the Palm Beaches that far too many were being removed from the sea. Quick to recognize this trend, the WPBFC was among the first to take action. By 1938, a new club mandate required that a notice be placed on all member boats reading “If your sailfish is not a prize fish or not wanted for a trophy or any special purpose, be a sportsman and release it!”

Furthermore, the club’s new conservation committee yielded another idea – the red release pennant. The tradition of flying flags to celebrate the day’s catch dated back to the earliest years of the Tuna Club of Santa Catalina Island. In Florida, charter boats adopted the practice as an effective means of trumpeting their success. Now each released sailfish would entitle the boat to raise a triangular red pennant in testament. A day of catch-and-release could now be given its proper due. This was a new and innovative idea, and the media seized on it with vigor. Derby promoters reacted too, aggressively pushing the release concept and soon transforming the red pennant into a universally recognized symbol. It remains so to this day.

Within a few short years of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club’s formation, the question of a clubhouse to accommodate its bulging membership was already being addressed. The board of directors began to seek donations, and a $25 lifetime membership was created as a means of accumulating funds. Before long, a small but suitable lot previously owned by Florida East Coast Railway and now a part of Flagler Park was identified as the ideal location. By the end of the decade, the money was in hand and the doors of the new WPBFC clubhouse were opened on January 6, 1941. More than 300 guests piled into the Fifth and Flagler clubhouse to celebrate. The entertainment was especially memorable, featuring Hollywood variety act Taylor Trout with his troubadour chimpanzees.

Improved and modified over the years, the iconic clubhouse remains a West Palm Beach landmark, its interior adorned with more than 100 fish mounts and a vast pictorial history of Florida angling.

Meanwhile, the results of the first few Derbies had been outstanding, however, the 1942 contest would be the last until the end of WWII. Boat registration was dramatically reduced, but the fishing was exceptional with more than 1,200 sailfish captured and released. By the end of the 1940s, the club had rebuilt its membership from the difficult war years and the Silver Sailfish Derby was back on track. In 1949, a new addition was the Sailfish Conservation Club of the Palm Beaches. Introduced at a special pre-Derby dinner, the SCC devised an innovative release recognition program that increased the incentive for anglers to practice catch-and-release. Beautifully detailed certificates along with inscribed Zippo lighters would now be awarded to anyone catching and releasing a sailfish. The goal was to achieve a 75-percent rate of release for all sailfish captured during the contest, a notable improvement over prior years.

Within a few years, sailfish tagging became the newest trend. Vastly improved striking irons and tags developed by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution were much more user friendly than previous devices. The new procedures also triggered a modification of the original SCC award program. Now anyone releasing their first sailfish would receive a special SCC certificate. However, Zippo lighters would only be presented to anglers upon the successful tag and release of their first spindlebeak. A more ornately inscribed Zippo would be given to those after their 10th tag-and-release.

Momentous as the WPBFC’s first 25-years were, the subsequent half-century has been even more so. Many prominent anglers have passed through its doors, leaving behind countless memories along with a few outlandish stories. The club’s extensive efforts on behalf of angling initiatives span the decades, including support of artificial reef programs and stock assessments studies. Over the years, the club’s officers and directors have been men and women of the highest sort: people like Bounce Anderson, Frances Doucet, and Johnny Rybovich. Today that tradition continues with director Tom Twyford and chairman John Jolley. Its original clubhouse remains open to the public, and annual dues continue at a reasonable $75. Of the all-too-few fishing clubs that still survive today, few can hold a candle to the accomplishments of the West Palm Beach Fishing Club.

Get The Full History

There’s a lot more to this story, and now you can find it all in one convenient place. In honor of its 75th anniversary, the West Palm Beach Fishing Club commissioned IGFA historian Mike Rivkin to write its history, and he has done so with a flourish. The West Palm Beach Fishing Club: A 75-Year History is a compelling story of early Florida angling, its adventurous pioneers, and the historic club that came to personify the very best of sportsmanship. To pick up a copy contact the club at 561.832.6780 or visit www.silverfishpress.com.

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