“I’m just another Bozo on the bus,” is what James ‘Wyre’ Lee told me when I asked him what his title was at Cortez Bait & Seafood. He actually runs the place. He has since 2007 when, just prior to this August, it was a little wood shack tucked in between Cortez Kitchen and Swordfish Grill.
But after spending some time with him, I got it. He’s not into titles. No pomp and circumstance for him. I didn’t even get the fish stories about ‘the one that got away.” He’s a straight-forward, down-to-earth island man, with light blue, dreamy eyes that have seen their days of being filled with sea salt.
“I don’t fish anymore,” he says, and he was an avid commercial fisherman most of his life. It was the net bans in ‘95 that left a really bad taste in his mouth.
“It was a political land grab,” he says about the net ban, that forced him and many others out of the business of catching bait or whatever else the nets were producing back in the day. He’s still bitter about it after all these years.
He’s never lived “600 meters away from the water,” he says, except when he went to college in North Carolina to become an American History teacher.
“That didn’t work,” he said about his teacher dream.
He grew up in Virginia Beach and moved to Florida in the 70s, first going down to the Keys and ending up in Sarasota in ‘73, then Anna Maria Island. Just as Cortez Fishing Village is one of the most colorful, historic, truly functional fishing villages in Florida, the life of a commercial fisherman seems to have a rainbow of hues to prompt some thought.
While Wyre wouldn’t tell me many details about some of his ‘adventures,’ he did share a few fish stories that I believe to be true.
The first boat he worked on was ‘Gloria Jean’ where he found himself broke, but happily net fishing. He talked of her with a sly grin and a distant look, as if she was his first high school sweetheart. He’s caught Mackerel in Marathon. Mullet on a 27-foot no name mullet skiff. But his favorite is fishing for Pompano – “by the fire of the water.” Which refers to the bright neon phosphorus dancing over the fish in the night waters.
He and his buddies even started a bar – The Stumble Inn – and ran it from ’74 – ’78.
“We used to close it up, go to the roach coach to have some breakfast, then break back in and start the party all over again…it was fun.”
But I guess after awhile, ‘that didn’t work’ either.
After the net bans he was out of work so went to work for his buddy at a local marina since he didn’t have much of a true ‘job’ history. Then he helped John Banyas open the Cortez Marina in 2004, which led to Wyre running the Cortez Bait & Seafood market. Nine years and going. He opens at 8 a.m. Closes at 6 or so. And goes home to take a siesta in the afternoon sometimes. Seven days a week.
It strikes me that change for Cortez folks doesn’t come easy, or for any devout fisherman type. However, the new location of the market – right on Cortez Road – seems to be a hook-line-and-sinker hit for Wyre, who says,
“This is a no-brainer. I have a sign now.”
He had a sign. But not on the road. And the new, sparkling clean, almost all-white-walled fish market is “different as night and day.”
While it may lack the character of the dark and fishy Cortez Bait & Seafood of the past, its crew, and a few historic pictures to boot, provide plenty of character.
It was closing time and Wyre’s right hand man Donnie (who he ‘stole’ from Star Fish Co.), said, “We reached goal.”
“What’s goal?” I ask. “To not jump off the Skyway Bridge,” Donnie said.
Seriously, Wyre. “At least $1,000 a day, but I’m gonna have to bump up my goal, now that I have a sign.”
At least 100 customers a day is normal business for the Cortez market. A record 220 one day. And Wyre says, “I don’t like to boast, but I believe it will grow exponentially.”
Be sure to stop in to see Wyre (who got his name from being thin as a wire, and also won a Keith Richards look-alike contest at a Stones concert) at the newly opened Cortez Bait & Seafood market to buy some of the freshest seafood in the area.
“It’s the freshest fish at fair prices,” Donnie said matter of factly.
He’ll be bringing in wine (no beer) in the near future and perhaps some more produce from the local markets. And he does have t-shirts, but refuses to “sell the tacky tourist stuff, like suntan lotion.” And you’re able to get the best frozen bait in the state – they named it “Killer Bait.” But for the rest you’ll be sent to Annie’s Bait and Tackle.
It’s straight-up good fresh fish in many varieties. Smoked salmon (a best seller) and mullet. Frozen crab, Caribbean spring lobster and shrimp (shrimp always comes in frozen everywhere, by the way). And the deep sea grouper – like snowy or black grouper – is the best.
“I know what to look for and who to buy from,” Wyer says.
“Most of the grouper you get around here is red grouper, and it’s full of worms…it takes a lot to get ‘em right.” Now that’s a fish story I hadn’t known.
“It’s not the same as it used to be,” Wyer said, referring to the life of a fisherman, the carefree days of rock and roll, concerts, and fishing.
So ‘what’s different?’ I asked.
“I grew up.”
Cortez Bait and Seafood is located at 12110 Cortez Road West in the beautiful fishing village of Cortez. Whether you live in Sarasota or out east in Bradenton, it’s well worth the drive to buy some seafood from this guy Wyre who truly knows his fish. Sande Caplin & Associates is building them a killer website. You can find them on Facebook for the latest specials.
But for now, just do as the old Cortezians do. Stop in. Tell some fish stories. Or call if you need to. (941) 794-1547.
Photos by Patti Pearson