PBS series focuses on Cortez Fishing Village

'Diamonds Along the Highway' series focuses on Cortez people, history

mclear@bradenton.comFebruary 11, 2014 

It's called "Cortez time," which refers to the clock and the milieu.

The work days starts at 4:30 a.m. and ends at 11:30 p.m.

The benign, modern-day equivalent of a company store gives the residents credit that the banks and mortgage companies won't.

The people are holding on, happily and defiantly, to an anachronistic lifestyle.

The people who live their lives on Cortez time, the residents of Cortez Fishing Village, have names like Soupy, Red Dog and Blue.

They and their neighbors are featured in "Gone Fishing for Old Florida: Voices of Cortez." The half-hour documentary will air on WEDU at 8:30 p.m. Thursday. It's part of a PBS series called "Diamonds Along the Highway" that features fascinating and often little-known aspects of Florida culture.

"It's one of the last old fishing villages anywhere," said Gus Mollasis, show narrator and co-writer. "Once they banned (gill) net fishing it really had an impact on Cortez, but there are still people going out fishing every day."

The net ban, which took effect in 1995, changed life forever in Cortez. One shot in the documentary shows a sign, sort of a makeshift headstone, that reads "Cortez 1890-1995."

But still, Mollasis said, he and co-writer Mark Reese found the spirit of old Cortez lives on in the dwindling number of stalwart fishermen who revel in the area and its lifestyle.

"They're really independent," said Karen Bell, owner of A.P. Bell Fish Co. in Cortez, in the documentary. "Their personality lends itself to doing what they want, when they want. The only thing that's really controlling them is the weather, and maybe their wife, if she's lucky."

Mollasis and Reese filmed the documentary over a few months last fall. It's affectionate and even sentimental, but it's mostly a tribute to a community and the colorful people who have found a way to revel, if not thrive, in their anachronistic lifestyle.

"Every day's a holiday and every meal's a feast," said a 30-year Cortex resident named Red Dog who rides a Harley and wears a T-shirt that says "Fish or Die!"

"I was back home and sittin' on a river bank and somebody told me I could make a livin' fishin'," Red Dog tells Mollasis in the film. "I was here a week later and I've been fishin' ever since."

Mollasis, who lives in Sarasota, and Reese, who lives part of the year in Venice, met a few years back at the Sarasota Film Festival. Reese was there with his award-winning documentary, "The Boys in Winter: The Toughest Season," which deals with the last year in the life of his father, baseball legend Pee Wee Reese, and with other baseball legends.

Mollasis loved the film and introduced himself to Reese, and they became instant friends. A few years later, Reese phoned Mollasis with the idea to produce a documentary series about Florida. Mollasis loved the concept and they got to work immediately. It's now in its second season. It airs on the second Thursday of each month.

The film that provided the impetus and the inspiration for the series, Reese's "The Boys in Winter," will air as a segment of "Diamonds Along the Highway" in April, during a WEDU pledge drive. It will be the television premiere of the film, which earned critical praise from the Washington Post and the New York Times.

In May, "Diamonds Along the Highway" will feature "Embracing Our Differences," the annual Sarasota art exhibit that celebrates diversity.

This week's show is a celebration of the golden age of Cortez, but it doesn't glamorize it. It's about people working hard to make a modest living.

Thomas "Blue" Fulford, a patriarch of the community who lost his leg in a fishing accident years ago, talks about what it takes to become a great mullet fisherman

"Being hungry," he says. "You want something to put in your belly to eat. You go out and get it, and that puts the mullet in jeopardy."

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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