Saladino: It’s all about the fish on these islands

There was a time in the Keys when the tarpon were so plentiful that you could throw a hook off a dock and catch all you wanted. Mackerel teemed in Keys waters and commercial fishing boats would catch so many that they would nearly sink under the weight of their catch. Shrimp boats came to the docks in Marathon laden with Key West pinks.

Fishing guide Joe Saladino remembers those times well because he experienced them. In fact, asked why he came to the Keys, he has a one word answer: “Fish.”

Born in Miami, Saladino first arrived in the Keys in 1948, settling in a small house on the east end of the Lower Keys’ Bahia Honda, which didn’t become a park until 1961. He came to harvest the fertile waters of the Keys and, eventually, to help others do the same.

The Keys are in his blood. His step-grandfather was a lighthouse keeper in the Tortugas and lived in Key West. His wife, Cathy, also has deep roots here. Her father collected the tolls at the west end of the Old Seven Mile Bridge.

The Saladinos, who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in a couple of years, met in the Keys. She was 15 and he was 19. She’d gone swimming with some friends in Bahia Honda and saw Joe — strong, deeply tanned, and handsome. They began dating.

“I’d walk three miles to see her,” Saladino remembers. “I’d be sure to take a rag with me because the mosquitoes were so bad that I had to swat them constantly.” During that walk, he’d see only five or six cars driving past. It was certainly a different time.

Saladino’s fishing career took an odd turn shortly thereafter. Enlisting in the U.S. Air Force in 1952, he was stationed at Patrick Air Force base at Cape Canaveral, where he enrolled in classes to become, of all things, a dental hygienist.

“One day I was working on the teeth of a tech sergeant and he discovered that I was a fisherman,” Saladino said. “He said, ‘I can use you’ and marched me off to see the base general. From then on, I was assigned to take the general fishing on a regular basis. I always tell people I was in the Air Force Navy, as a result.”

Saladino, finished with his hitch in the military and without any thoughts of a career in dentistry, returned to the Keys in 1954 and began working as a commercial fisherman. He and Cathy had gotten married while he was still in the Air Force, and now they moved into a trailer on two lots on 74th Street. Her mother and father lived on the same street.

Early on, Saladino’s career took another turn. The time he spent on the water in the Keys taught him about where the fish were, their habits, their patterns. Since his commercial fishing consisted primarily of bringing in lobster, he had time during the off-season for other pursuits. He became a guide.

Of course, very few people lived in the Middle Keys in the 1950s. Marathon had a permanent population of around 500. So Saladino’s customers came from elsewhere. Asked to describe his clientele, he gave his typically terse reply. “Rich people,” he said.

He remembers taking the president of Brunswick Corp., the president of Playskool (now owned by Hasbro), and many others out into the waters of the Keys looking for bonefish, permit and other fish on the flats. Saladino became so well known among guides that he was featured on an episode of ABC Television’s “The American Sportsman.” On that show, he helped Anita Bryant — former Miss America and spokewoman for Florida orange juice — fish in the waters of the Bahamas.

In those days, he’d take someone out in his boat all day for $25 — a trip that would cost $450 today. When he pulled up his lobster traps, pulling as many as 150 a day by hand, he’d get bugs that weighed two or three pounds but could only sell them for 25 cents apiece.

In the 1970s Saladino got more and more customers for his guiding business. As tourists discovered the Keys and, when U.S. 1 was built, it became easier to get here, and his business prospered. Now, however, things have changed. The competition for guiding became stiff as many more anglers, many of whom Saladino considers unqualified, joined the ranks of those taking visitors out to find ever more elusive prey.

Now, Saladino, in his 70s, continues to guide but it’s not the same as when he arrived. There are fewer fish and more restrictions. Will he quit?

“I’ll stop guiding when my toes are pointing up,” Saladino said. And that doesn’t look to be any time soon.