Noisy cliques of waterbirds known as gallinules swim, hunt and peck among the reeds, weeds and aquatic grasses that ring Round Lake, a small pond just west of 4th Street near downtown St. Petersburg. There are ducks here, too, and turtles, and the occasional visiting heron on the prowl for an easy meal.
Beneath the water’s surface, in some deep, dark hole, does Big Ben still lurk, wary of worms dangling from pointy hooks?
Big Ben was a five-pound black bass “from a north Florida lake,” snagged, tagged and introduced to the warm waters of Round Lake in 1948. He was to be the prize catch at the city’s first Fishathon, a contest for children sponsored by the Evening Independent newspaper and the state Game and Freshwater Fish Commission.
Seventy-five years later, the Fishathon is still an annual community engagement event. A lot has changed, from the location to the sponsors to the prizes, but the essence of the event is the same: In true Huck Finn fashion, kids are given cane poles (no complicated rods and reels here), and bait, and whoever catches the biggest fish wins. Most fish weigh in at just a few ounces.
It might seem anachronistic in these fast-moving times, but youngsters – and older folks too – enjoy it today just as much as they did in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and beyond. So believes Jim Belcher, five-time president of St. Petersburg Civitan, which has been a primary Fishathon sponsor since the LBJ administration.
Belcher, a realtor with Coldwell Banker, worked his first Fishathon in 1999. “That first year, my mother brings one of her neighbor’s children,” he says. “He’s being raised by a single mother. He’s never fished before. And he catches a pretty good-sized fish, the biggest fish of the day. It was maybe half a pound. And he’s squealing with delight.
“I look down, and instantly that inner child comes out – I remember what it was like to catch a fish on a cane pole, as a child. The Fishathon is about introducing children to that thrill of catching fish.”
Civitan and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department will partner up on the 2023 Fishathon Saturday, Aug. 19 at Lake Jorgensen, behind the closed-for-repairs President Barack Obama Library.
That primal thrill of the catch, believes Belcher, transcends time, and progress … and other, less tangible things.
“I wouldn’t say it’s for underprivileged kids,” he says. “It’s for ‘not privileged’ kids. The kids that are out deep sea fishing with Mom and Dad are not going to Fishathon.”
Then there are the repeat customers. “I’ve had a great-grandmother who was there with her daughter, her granddaughter and her great-granddaughter. Four generations, and they had all fished at Fishathon. And that let me know what it meant to them.”
In 1948, when 4th Street was the city’s main north-south thoroughfare, it made perfect sense for the Independent – St. Pete’s afternoon paper – to cast its debut Fishathon at Round Lake.
The lake was pre-stocked with bream, bass and catfish that had been “seined from lakes south of here, where lack of rain has lowered the water of ponds and streams,” the newspaper explained. The fish were described as “hook-sized.”
After the Miami Herald published a story about the event, a worm farmer from Dade County donated 2,000 of the wiggly creatures and had them flown into Albert Whitted Airport, then trucked to Round Lake.
Charles Turner, owner of St. Pete’s Sunken Gardens, explained that his place had plenty of earthworms, and if kids came around, he’d be happy to show them where to dig.
Nearly 1,000 children, ages 3 to 13, many accompanied by parents and other family members, “tried their luck” during the event’s two-day debut.
Prizes were awarded, including toys, watches, baseball mitts, a camera and a bicycle.
Big Ben, meanwhile, was never caught, and so the grand prize – a three-night, all-expenses-paid trip to a Homosassa Springs motel, with a buddy and a chaperone – went unclaimed.
A tagged 11-pound bass, the Independent reported, was introduced to Round Lake in 1950. They called him Big Bill.
Bill, too, did not succumb to the lure of the worm.
And so it went, every summer until 1955, when the Fishathon moved west to much larger Lake Pasadena.
In the 1960s – when the Police Pistol Club was one of the community sponsors – the St. Petersburg Times, which had purchased the competing Independent, began offering free round-trip rides on public buses to and from Lake Pasadena on Fishathon days.
Some 5,000 kids ringed the lake for the 21st annual event in 1969, competing for games, guitars, swimming masks and fins, a crystal radio and the requisite bicycle.
“This year, for the first time, moms will be given six minutes to land the biggest fish for $5 gift certificates,” the Times crowed.
Free hot dogs, sodas and popsicles were always part of the package. Some years, there was ice cream.
Because of a fish kill last weekend at Lake Pasadena, the traditional site of the Fishathon, the event will be held this year from 9:30 to 11 a.m. at Jorgenson (sic) Lake.
St. Petersburg Times/August 14, 1975
The Fishathon never returned to Lake Pasadena. Although there was no event in 2020 or ’21 (thank you, pandemic), Civitan and the City resumed their partnership last year. The contest is now officially known as the Dennis Crenshaw Memorial Fishathon, named for a local high school teacher and Parks and Recreation employee who worked tirelessly on the Fishathon.
Dennis Burns has worked for the City of St. Petersburg – and been part of the Fishathon crew – for 32 years. Dennis Crenshaw was his first team supervisor.
There’s no pre-registration, Burns says. Just walk up by 9 a.m. on Aug. 19 and they’ll sign you up and hand over a fishing setup.
These days, he explains, “it’s open to all ages. We get little kids, we get teenagers, we get adults and we also get groups from the senior homes.” Fishing takes place in timed periods; small prizes are presented for different age groups (no more bikes, Homosassa trips or crystal radios).
“We have people who come year after year, no matter what,” says Burns. “We see people who used to come out when they were kids, and now they’re bringing their own kids.”
Although the descendants of Big Ben and Big Bill are likely still swimming freely in the depths of Round Lake, the sponsors no longer pre-stock Lake Jorgensen. The heftiest fish Burns remembers seeing, during his three decades at the lake, weighed in at 2 and ½ pounds.
Things may have scaled down considerably over 75 years, but the Fishathon’s core community mission has never changed: That squeal of delight.
“It’s part of the city – as something that started so long ago, it’s just a part of it,” Burns says. “Even though the numbers have fallen off over the years, I think if you can make some people happy for a morning, then it’s worth doing.”