Remembering the way it was in Bonita

Andrea Stetson
Special to Coastal Life

Gary Murphy remembers when he would haul in fish that weighed 400 pounds, and he has the photos to prove it. Those were the days when humongous fish were found in the Imperial River in Bonita Springs.

Don Thomson, Gary Murphy and Frank Liles head up the Growing Up in Bonita talk at the Bonita Springs Rotary Club.

Murphy, Don Thomson and Frank Liles were guest speakers this week at the Bonita Springs Rotary Club, where they reminisced about the past during their talk titled “Growing Up In Bonita.”

“All these men were instrumental in the development of Bonita Springs,” said Roger Brunswick, Rotary Club president, as he introduced the speakers.

Liles was born here. His grandparents came to Bonita in 1886 and 1902, working in the lumber and fruit business.

“That is why there are no great tall pine trees in Bonita, because my grandfather cut down every pine tree in Bonita,” Liles said.

Murphy grew up in Miami, but spent most of his weekends in Bonita Springs, fishing on the river and the back bays.

Old Florida house built on the banks of the Imperial River.

Poling until daybreak

“We would get up at two o’clock in the morning and start poling along until daybreak and then we would seine for bait, mostly by New Pass,” Murphy said. “We fished until 2 o’clock in the afternoon and then we pulled up to the restaurant to get a hamburger and I would be fishing some more off the dock.”

Murphy said refrigeration of the fish wasn’t as easy back then, but the fishermen had a way to make it work.

“There was a rope and I pulled it up and there was a 400-pound jewfish,” he said. “They caught it and they would keep it on the rope and tie it to the dock to keep it cool.”

He also spoke about the big changes along the waterways of Bonita Springs.

“The Imperial River has changed,” Murphy said. “There used to be some big, big fish in the river. Sometimes they were so big you could not get them in. We even caught sawfish.

The Imperial River is a calm river that is easy to kayak.

“One time I was getting ready to dive in the river and I was about 8-9 years old,” Murphy continued. “Just as I was about to dive in the river my step dad grabbed me by my britches because there was a 12-foot gator below. My stepdad got a shotgun and shot at it. A few days later, we saw it belly up. It was almost as long as the boat was.”

Fishing, hunting

Fishing and hunting were combined on the Murphy trips. In one photo there was wooden skiff full of fish and a gun vest with a gun and shotgun shells.

“We would always have a shot gun and we would always have fishing rods and we always had a seine net,” Murphy said. “We would stop by where the condos are now and we would stop and hunt for quail and rabbits.”

Frank Liles also had stories about his time on the Imperial River

“When I was growing up there wasn't much going on around here,” Liles began. “We would get up on the railroad trestle and jump into the river. We would pick up cypress knees and take them to a guy in Bonita who would saw them off and we would get 10 cents each for them.”

Thomson’s family moved to Naples in 1968 and Bonita Springs in 1970.

“My parents decided Naples was growing too fast so we moved to Bonita,” Thomson said.

His family opened a motel that had rooms on both the bay side and the Gulf side.

The Surfside Resort cost guests $80 for one week or $13 a day. The motel also had a small marina and bait shop.

“My dad could never find a container good enough to contain the bait shrimp.” Thomson said. “He kept thinking about it. Then he decided an old funeral casket would be the best way to keep the shrimp.”

Thomson also showed photos of the old boat he and his buddies fixed up and drove to the Florida Keys and photos of some the Miami Dolphins from their undefeated season who stayed at his family’s motel.

Murphy showed photos of him with a dune buggy and a surfboard on Bonita Beach.

Thomson added pictures of his swamp buggy.

Dog track

The men also spoke of their time off the waterways. They talked about the popularity of the dog track and how it was always packed during race time. Murphy spoke about the bar he opened by the dog track called Whale’s Tale. He told the audience about the bed race he entered during the July Fourth celebrations. He said the rules required it to have four wheels so he took a tricycle and added a wheel. But the extra wheel only touched the ground occasionally, making it easy to steer.

“We got to the end of the race and had a beer before anybody else finished,” Murphy said. “They were going all over the place and we were already done.”

Thomson spoke about taking watermelons and pressing them on a jack so when a person came out to crank the jack, the watermelon would explode.

The men also reminisced on how the entire town came out on horseback with guns to search for Harold Lucas after he murdered Jill Piper.

There were also tales about Hurricane Donna

“I could remember snapper swimming under the house and they were stopping and feeding on the grass,” Murphy reminisced.

While many longtime residents complain about the extreme changes to Bonita Springs, these men aren’t cranky about it.

“People are always complaining about all the traffic,” Liles said. “When I was growing up in Bonita Springs when you needed anyone to fix something in Bonita Springs you had to go all the way to Naples. If you needed anything you had to go to Naples. But I am glad all you people are here because I can walk out my door and get anything I want.”