Fishing on Grayton Beach casts a vibrant history

January 18, 2011

Gene Wesley and his friend Peck Carlton with their pompano catch.
Gene Wesley and his friend Peck Cawthon with their pompano catch. Photo courtesy Gene Wesley

Old friends reminisce about the early days of Grayton Beach fishing

Editors note: This story was originally written in February 2009. With the recent passing of Gene Wesley on Jan. 13, 2011, we are sharing the story with our readers once again. Rest in peace Gene Wesley, you were a lover of the outdoors and a true original.

Locals in Walton County have enjoyed fishing from Grayton Beach for generations. With a panoramic view of the Gulf, gentle breezes, it doesn’t get any better.

Two long-time friends Van Ness Butler, Jr. and Gene Wesley remember the days when Grayton Beach had just a handful of residents.

Van Ness Butler, Jr. grew up in the area and has fond memories of the early days fishing on Grayton Beach.

Butler remembers locals, Herbert and Olin Miller as one of the first to launch a boat from Grayton Beach in the 1940s. A New England style dory, with a Model A engine, was rolled over logs across the sand to get to the Gulf of Mexico.

“Western Lake rarely opened to the Gulf even back then. It was hard work getting that dory in and out of the water,” Butler recalls.

With no waterway access to the Gulf for several miles, rolling the dory across the sand was the only option.

At the young age of 12, Butler worked for the Miller’s catching mullet that was salt barreled and traded up in Vernon for syrup and corn meal. They would also catch a lot of snapper in the Gulf back then as well, and Butler’s was paid his wages in fish.

Butler’s first boat was a 16 ft. juniper, with a 4 HP outboard motor. The boat was rolled out to the water, and along with his father Van Ness, Sr., and sister Janice, they would often come back with the bottom of the boat filled with grouper.

Local Paul Thompson in fron of Gene Wesley's Army surplus Jeep.
Local Paul Thompson in front of Gene Wesley’s Army surplus Jeep. Photo courtesy Gene Wesley

Shortly after WW11, locals started buying Army surplus four-wheel drive Jeeps. Getting your boat into the Gulf suddenly became much easier, and soon there were bigger and better boats launching from the beach.

Butler remembers his good friend Gene Wesley as one of the first to acquire one of the Jeeps, and soon the two were out trolling for Spanish mackerel, snapper and bluefish on Wesley’s 15 ft. runabout christened ‘The Good Ship Lollipop.’

Butler remembers one day in particular, the two were out fishing one of their favorite spots. Something dark appeared in the water, and they quickly ascertained it was a shark circling the tiny boat. They heard a grinding noise and realized the shark had grabbed hold of the propeller.

“I think we need to fish somewhere else,” Butler exclaimed.

Butler’s long-time friend, Gene Wesley has fond memories of the early days in Grayton Beach as well, and remembers having the beaches all to themselves.

Gene Wesley and guest aboard Wesley’s charter The Rebel.
Gene Wesley and guest aboard Wesley’s charter The Rebel. Photo courtesy Gene Wesley

Back in the 1950s Wesley worked as a deck hand for Preston “Speck” Jones, a Point Washington fishing guide, and in 1959, he became one of the original members of the Destin Charter Boat Association. His 36 ft. juniper boat “The Rebel,” was one of the first charters in Destin.

Wesley remembers fishing in what they called the snapper banks. “Back then we would find our fishing spots by triangulating with the houses and trees on shore,” Wesley recalled. “It was what we called our 20/20 Fathometer,” he quipped.

Wesley mentioned that the anglers had unique names for locations along the coastline in South Walton; Seagrove was Russ Hammock; Blue Mountain, Yellow Bluff; and the Coffeen area the Old Woman’s Hill.

Wesley recalled one day he and Butler wished they had chosen a different place to anchor off.

It was in the mid 1950s and a day before an Air Force ammunition demonstration at Eglin. The jets were doing what Wesley called toss bombing practice in the Gulf right over their heads.

“The planes were circling and one went straight up with red and green smoke coming out the back of it. The plane dropped one bomb and it exploded in mid air. Then the second bomb dropped was so close we could hear the shock ring,” Wesley explained.

The two found out later that the Air Force Base didn’t want the pilots to return with the live ammunition on board their aircraft. Wesley was confident the pilots must not of seen the two of them in the water.

The Wesley home on Grayton Beach nicknamed ‘The Rowdy Junction.’ Photo courtesy Gene Wesley
The Wesley home on Grayton Beach nicknamed ‘The Rowdy Junction.’ Photo courtesy Gene Wesley

Gene Wesley, 80, still maintains a crabbing business in South Walton. His two sons, Sam and Jody, carry on the family tradition of fishing from Grayton Beach today. His eldest son David is a Brigadier General in the United States Air Force.

Van Ness Butler, Jr. continues to surf fish on Grayton Beach catching pompano, whiting and redfish in abundance.

“The surf fishing is still great,” Butler said with a smile.

Lori Ceier is the Publisher of Walton Outdoors, an online publication about outdoor life in Walton County. She can be reached at 850-267-2064 or by email at:


Gene Wesley, your local friendly crabman.

    1. Hi i remember the old Miller place very well. Olin miller was my great uncle.his sister Mary (Dee) was my grandmother. As kids we had lots of good memories of the old place, as we called it.Uncle Olin called me Alligator and he was always fun to be around. the old wooden boat they use to fish in was called the Pete Hagen if i remember it right. The lake in fornt of the house use to have 2 or 3 alligators in it, but we always got the nerve to still go swimming. The old store at Grayton was always hoppin with people dancing and the old wooden booths were occupied with young and old folks enjoying themselves.Aunt Bill, my grandmothers sister had a place on the road comming into town. You could drive down on the beach if you wanto to and it was for free. A lot of good memories and plenty of fun was always on tap when we came to grayton. I have some old pictures of the Miller place and the old store to remind me when im thinking of the fun times . I live in pensacola and it still brings out some of the kid still left in me when I return. I think I might just ride down today, Sunday 10/10/2010, and ejoy myself a little bit. Got to go pick them up.See you soon Craig Schultz

    1. My great aunt, Francis Miller Florence (Aunt Frank), lived full time in a small cottage at Grayton Beach after (she was widowed) in the40’s and 50’s. She was an avid fisherwoman, naturalist, and artist. I visited her as a young girl and am trying to ascertain if she lived at the “old Miller place” road that comes off 30-A at the State Park. I have memories and photos of her house but not the surroundings. If anyone has any recollection of her or any other Miller’s associated with that property I would appreciate hearing from you.
      Deborah Hilton
      Deborah Hilton

    1. My name is Olin Gilbert Jr. My great grandmother was Belle Miller and raised at Grayton Beach. My great grandmother married my great grandfather John Gilbert and they lived in Washington County, Florida. I remember going to the Miller homeplace was I a young boy. We were related to the Patterson family, who had property in this area.

      I am 56 years old now and live in Chipley, FL. I never knew how I received my first name other than I was named after my father. …But, I am thinking now he (my dad) was named after Olin Miller. Would you please let Craig Schultz I sent this email and would be very interested in emailing him about the Miller family history.

      Olin Gilbert

    1. Ms Frank Florence did not live at the old Miller place, but on 283, the main road into Grayton (probably 1 – 1.5 miles apart). When I was growing up in the 50’s, my family (the Butlers) and “Miss Florence” were the only two households that were occupied year-round. She lived about a block from the beach. My understanding was that she was a retired teacher. She played the violin, and you could hear the music when you walked by. When I was 11, I visited her fairly often – she’d give me cookies and movie magazines. Mrs. Murray, across the street, fed a lot of cats, but wasn’t there all the time, so Miss Florence would cook grits to feed the cats. She had relatives in DeFuniak and would visit them often. I believe that she moved there when she got older. The house is still there and has been refursished by a member of the Miller family.

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