Cortez fishing folks are not afraid of hard work, they never have been. And Nathan Meschelle, local commercial fisherman, born and raised in Cortez is no exception. Like the Cortez fisherman that came over one hundred years before him, he’s ready to wake up at 3 am if that’s when the fish are biting. And after a long, hot day working out in the sun, he’s prepared to come back to shore and work some more, cleaning and prepping for the next day. “Being a commercial fisherman is definitely not a job. It’s a way of life,” he says. “Before I go to bed, I’m anticipating my day, the different variables with the weather, what equipment might need to be fixed or repaired—there’s a lot of thought and meditation that goes into it. But when that time comes, when I wake up in the morning, I’m excited, I’m ready to go to work. And when I have my boat loaded with my boxes full, coming home to the dock is probably the best feeling in the world."

Cortez, Florida is one of the very last small coastal fishing villages. Unlike many areas of Florida that have been transformed into crowded tourist destinations, it has managed to retain much of its antiquated charm. There are no waterfront condos or luxury homes. Instead, you will find weathered white bungalows, working boatyards and restaurants offering some of the freshest and tastiest fish in Florida. It can be a colorful community with so many people and places to see, or, the most relaxing, laid-back place in the world where you can enjoy the simple pleasures of a modern life that is very similar to what it was over a century ago.

Cortez Village photography by Wyatt Kostygan


A historian who considers herself more of an anthropologist studying humans from hundreds and thousands of years ago, as well as the people of today, Tori Chasey, supervisor of the Florida Maritime Museum, works to make visitors appreciate and understand the heritage of the village. “Cortezians are the salt-of-the-earth kind of people,” says Chasey. “They’ve always been very hard workers.” Originally occupied by a thriving Native American population, Cortez has provided for its residents for many generations. “Cortezians have always lived off the coast, as we know from the fish bones and other artifacts found in the mounds left behind,” says Chasey. The Cuban Ranchos came next and they were the first seasonal residents. The earliest permanent residents in Cortez were mostly people from Cateret County, North Carolina who migrated south hoping for a new way of life. They were already fishermen looking for a bountiful coast, and since the waters in the area provided well for them, they ended up settling here and becoming  prosperous. Many of  today’s  residents are actually descendants  of  those  original  folks  from North Carolina.

The common bond between the original settlers and today’s residents seems to be the sea life, specifically, a jumping species of fish called mullet. With an abundance of mullet  and shellfish, Cortezians have long been able to earn a living and feed their family, while enjoying the simplicity of residing in a picturesque village where everyone knows their name. Karen Bell grew up in this fishing village and is in fact a descendant of the earliest residents from North Carolina. Her grandfather, Aaron Parks, started AP Bell Fish Company back in 1920. Her father took it over in 1963, and when he passed in 2012, Karen started running it. He tried to discourage her from going into the business, but she was determined. “It’s a man’s world with a lot of regulations—it’s tough work,” he said. But Cortez was her home, where her family was and she wanted to continue the legacy. So she shadowed her dad for over 20 years, learned all the ins and outs of the business, and is now running a very successful seafood dealership. “I think the most unique thing about this business is the people,” she says. “Commercial fishermen are very independent and their work is difficult. Being a woman telling a bunch of guys what to do is not your norm, but it works well because I have a lot of respect for them, and in turn, they respect me. We work well together and we sell our product all over the world. I’m super proud of Cortez fishermen. This little community feeds the world.”

Bobby Woodson, co-owner of Tide Tables Restaurant and Marina couldn’t agree more. “Cortez is the largest fishing community on the west coast of Florida,” he says. “We can actually see the group of boats come by in the morning and go to Karen’s over at AP Bell where they unload. And we go over daily and get whole fish, bring it back here and cut it right on the dock out behind Tide Tables. So every day we’re getting fresh-caught, local fish, and that’s something that you don’t find anywhere else. It makes a big difference when it’s that fresh.” Woodson has been living and working in the village for over 60 years. He knows that a hard-working, tight-knit community is what it takes to keep a fishing village alive and running well. “I’ve been buying fish from the Bells for 45 years now. So we go a long way back. I know everybody that lives here, they know me. It’s a very special place. There aren’t that many places in the world that are like this anymore,” he says.

Brian Bochan takes his fresh-caught mullet off-ice. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan


Visiting Cortez pretty much daily since starting his business in 1984, Brian Bochan, owner of Captain Brian’s Seafood Market and Restaurant depends on the thriving fish market to get his product. Brian credits his success of 37 years to his ties in the community. He gets his fish directly from fishermen, where other markets and restaurants have to rely on distributors. “Being in the fishing industry this long, I know all the fishermen in Cortez, all the bait people, and I’m able to get all the fresh fish I want.” And the fish that Brian primarily wants is mullet. “Mullet is the staple fish of Florida. It’s a readily available, sustainable and healthy fish because it’s a vegetarian fish. Right now, they are big and fat and really delicious.” Brian believes that Cortez and the Florida Gulf Coast waters are special for a few reasons. “We have such a long continental shelf so there are abundant areas to fish. Also, our water temperature makes for a really rich fish. Our clean waters allow the mullets to be packed with nutrients.” While grouper and snapper have gained in popularity over the years, Brian wishes that more folks would try mullet. “It’s a great local fish and it’s a shame that more people haven’t discovered it,” he says. At his restaurant, they cook mullet several different ways: smoked, grilled, fried and in dips. He encourages everyone to visit and give it a go. “If you haven’t fallen in love with mullet already, come on down to Captain Brian’s and try it. We’ll cook it the way you like it.” Whether it’s the mullet, the people or the simplicity of the village, Cortez is certainly a charmed destination. Tori Chasey enjoys watching visitors walk through the doors of the museum and discover everything about the old authentic Florida fishing village, then and now. “Welcome to Cortez,” she says. “If you stay long enough, we’ll consider you a local.”