I have fished with a lot of guys in my lifetime, but never a more skilled captain than “Captain Jim. “One day I was at our orthopedic office and I noticed one of the technicians displaying pictures one after another, of giant tarpon caught in Boca Grande. I and several of the surgeons were intrigued by the seemingly endless tarpon catches. The technician said he had fished with his father-in-law, who was a guide, down in Boca Grande, Florida. I immediately went to work that afternoon booking a trip for the four of us.
On the day of our charter, I arrived at the docks. A stealthy nearby figure waved to me saying, “hey buddy, come here,” he said. I walked over to the edge of the docks where he stood and he said “are you fishing with Captain Jim?” And I said, “yes, of course.” He said, “I’ll give you $50 if you can steal one of his jigs for me.” I was concerned about the “ethics” of this and declined, not sure what ramifications or benefits were in it for me. That day, we boated 17 tarpon between the 4 of us within three hours, and I was “hooked!”
This started a lasting fishing relationship. Every May and June we embarked on the annual tarpon pilgrimage to Boca Grande. The upshot of this was that I began to enter many of the “Miller’s Marina” tarpon tournaments with Captain Jim at the helm. Along with Captain Jim’s expertise in catching tarpon came several eccentricities. This was best delineated one Saturday morning before a Miller’s Marina tarpon tournament. My friend, Bobby, who was a prominent Tampa attorney, had driven down to fish with us. As he was walking on the dock to climb into Captain Jim’s boat at 5:30 a.m., the captain noticed a banana sticking out of Bobby’s bag. He immediately turned to Bobby and said, “you have to leave the boat now.” With a look of consternation and surprise, Bobby replied, “why?” Said the captain: “You have a banana in your bag. You are a jinx. Anyone who would bring a banana on my boat is not welcome.” With surprise and dismay, Bobby was forced to leave the boat and return home without fishing. He then coined the captain’s new nickname, the “Tarpon Nazi.” This was around the same period of time when the Seinfeld Show had an episode called “The Soup Nazi”, where the cook would deny Jerry Seinfeld’s friend, George, soup on a daily basis.
The origin of Captain Jim’s extreme fear of bananas on the boat is deep routed in Florida fishing culture. Its origins appear to have been from Caribbean banana boats arriving in the U.S. and then sailors slipping and falling often overboard on the banana peels and rotten bananas. This old Florida lore is ingrained in most psyches of old Florida cracker fisherman. **
One day, my brother, Eric, who can be a contrarian, decided to press this theory. We were fishing at South Seas Plantation Resort in Captiva with a guide. As we boarded the boat, my nephew, Zack, had a banana with him. The guide had a similar look in his eyes as Captain Jim when he identified the banana on Zack’s person. His approach, however, was less extreme. He said, “you need to toss that banana overboard, right now, or we will catch nothing.” My brother, Eric, looked at the captain in disbelief and said, “Why?” The captain then explained the long folklore history of bananas being bad luck for fishing. My brother was not one to believe much in superstitions and said, “no, we’re going to keep the banana on the boat and Zack will eat it here on the trip.” The captain shrugged his shoulders and looked at me and said, “we’re probably not going to catch anything.” Sure enough, that whole morning passed without a single hit. Zack enjoyed his delicious breakfast with banana, but even after the banana was eaten, still no improvement in the fishing. When the captain returned us to the dock empty handed, he looked at me and said, “it’s not my fault he brought a banana on the boat.” This superstition was further reinforced the very next day when I returned to the same dock for a guided fishing trip with my other three nephews, Chris, Connor, and Scotty. I gave them clear instructions to bring no bananas. We had a wonderful day catching at least 30 large snook almost on every cast. There appears to be some truth to this old Florida tale. on the boat is deep routed in Florida fishing culture. Its origins appear to have been from Caribbean banana boats arriving in the U.S. and then sailors slipping and falling often overboard on the banana peels and rotten bananas. This old Florida lore is ingrained in most psyches of old Florida cracker fisherman. **
The tarpon fishing in Boca Grande was extremely congested with often hundreds of boats docking in position over the main hole in the channel, where hundreds of tarpon were sitting. Captain Jim had an impeccable knowledge of every inch of the water approximately 50 to 100 feet beneath us. Each of his homemade rods and reels were marked in precision with different colors. As we drifted through the pass he would issue commands - “Green at the reel! Yellow at tip! Red at the Rod!”, and all of the people fishing were required to reel up or lower down to that precise marker on the rod. The idea was to give his handmade floating jig as close to the bottom as possible without snagging the bottom. However, frequently, some of my comrades were not focused and would inevitably snag the bottom resulting in a litany of profanity from the captain, as our group would have lines getting tangled up in the middle of hundreds of other drifting boats. Jim had a photographic memory of every time one of his clients snagged bottom over the years. I had a referring orthopedic surgeon who I knew was an excellent fisherman come down to fish with Captain Jim, but repeatedly snagged bottom. A year later, this same surgeon returned to my team for a tournament. As he boarded the boat, Captain Jim said “you’re the guy that always snags bottom.” This surgeon was completely psyched out, and as soon as we arrived in the pass, he, of course, snagged bottom. This resulted in the Tarpon Nazi benching him for the day, as we could not afford to snag bottom during a tournament. At least the penalty was not as severe as was bringing a banana on board.
I had frequently noticed, that if you just moved the line an inch or two deeper than Jim’s command, you were more likely to hook a tarpon. This strategy had resulted in almost three or four times in hookups with my comrades, yet somehow, I never managed to snag bottom. Nothing, got by Captain Jim. He winked at me and said, “you’re cheating, aren’t you?” I mischievously looked at him and said, “ehh perhaps a little.” His color commands were, in fact, primarily for rookies, but veterans like me were allowed to drop the line a little deeper to further tempt the tarpon.
One of the great legends of Boca Grande Pass is that of a 22-foot hammerhead shark named “Old Hitler.” This shark was said to frequent the edges of the pass due to the large number of tarpon and the large number of fishermen. This shark would rely on fisherman to wear out the tarpon and then release it, making an easy meal of the tired 100-pound fish for a 22-foot shark.
One day, one of my referring physicians was fighting a large tarpon for almost two hours. He was exhausted in the heat, but Captain Jim was relentless. “You have to get this tarpon in before Old Hitler gets him”, he said. Just then, I saw a large fin rising near the boat (see photo). Sure enough, Old Hitler or one of his close relatives arrived and promptly attacked the tarpon while it was on the line. After an almost 2-hour fight, the head of the tarpon was reeled in but the remainder of the body was completely decimated. Shark encounters are a frequent event in Boca Grande Pass also adding to the already stressful fishing situation of reeling in a 100-pound fish against the current, amid a clog of boats.
The extreme congestion at Boca Grande Pass during a tournament resulted in even more chaos when a tarpon was actually hooked. One day when we were fishing the million-dollar July tournament, I hooked a large tarpon - maybe the winner. The tarpon careened into a large number of boats and Captain Jim began screaming at the other captains to get out of the way, as we had little control of the fish. One of the other fishermen proceeded to snag our line and wrap his around our motor. He seemed to have no idea what to do. Captain Jim feverishly grabbed a knife like a marauding pirate, leapt from our boat onto the adjacent boat and cut the other fisherman’s line. Meanwhile his daughter, the first mate, manned our boat. He exchanged a few choice expletives with the other captain before jumping back on our boat. Because of Captain Jim’s actions, we were able to land that tarpon and place in the tournament.
In later years, I finally hired him as a guide snook fishing on his air boat. At this point in his life, he was in his early to mid-70s and I was a little nervous to go fishing from the airboat. He had been a dentist in his previous life but really excelled at being a fishing guide. The airboat was based in Pine Island. Once aboard we careened through the flats and lowlands, much like one would go through the Everglades, at a high rate of speed. When we reached the snook area in Charlotte Harbor, Jim informed us that we were going wade fishing. I was fine with that, except I soon learned that my guide was also going to fish. He handed my friend and I a bucket of white bait “minnows”, then jumped into the water with his own rod, bucket and bait and headed in the other direction. So much for a fishing guide - it was every man for himself! At this point that I realized Jim was treated me like one of his fishing buddies rather than a client. Later, he offered to take me duck hunting from the airboat in Lake Okeechobee. However, the details of this trip seemed a bit sketchy. Apparently, Jim would drop you by yourself with your gun and chest waders in Lake Okeechobee at 4 o’clock in the morning, and then take off and drop the next person off, and you had to wait for the sunrise to shoot the ducks, while being surrounded with alligators and water moccasins in chest-deep water in the dark. I decided to pass on this trip! Perhaps the highlight of my tarpon fishing career with Captain Jim was when my teenaged daughter placed third in the Boca Grande women’s fishing tournament. She proudly included this as one of her awards in her application for college to Duke University. In the back of my mind, I felt this kind of contributed to her acceptance. This had even more meaning for me than the fish I had caught at the million-dollar tournament.
Once during the winner’s banquet at Miller’s Marina, we were about to receive our tournament trophy. A younger captain. with the smell of alcohol in his breath, approached Captain Jim. He aggressively accused us of “snagging” our award-winning tarpon. This was the ultimate insult to hurl at a professional tarpon guide. Captain Jim got up in the younger captain guide’s face and said “We did not snag our tarpon,”. This confrontation was about to proceed to blows when the much younger captain’s crew grabbed him by the arm and said “It wasn’t his boat, it was another boat that snagged the tarpon and cooler heads prevailed. Captain Jim would have defended his tarpon-guide reputation with blows, if necessary, even though the other captain was at least 20 years younger. We of course landed our award-winning tarpon by perfectly hooking the lip.
I used to fish the “World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament” in Boca Grande with my friend John who was a starting NFL defense lineman with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 10 years. John was a great athlete and was the only NFL lineman ever to complete the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. For all of his attributes John was an average to below average fisherman. We were out on a practice fishing run before the Million Dollar Tournament and Captain Jim and I decided to play a ruse on John. I had just hooked and landed a tarpon in approximately 10-15 minutes as a skinny guy. The captain’s daughter had also just landed a tarpon in approximately 10 minutes and now it was Big John’s turn. As he sat in the fighting chair to do battle with the silver beast, Captain Jim yelled “Reel! Reel! Reel!” But the real method to fighting a tarpon involved pulling up and reeling down and if you just continuously reel and do not try make gains on the fish, you will go nowhere and make no progress in landing the fish. Despite John’s mass and muscle, after an hour and a half of steady reeling – he had made no gains on the fish. Captain Jim and myself began harassing John on his physical conditioning. “How come a skinny little guy and the captain’s daughter can land a fish in ten minutes and a big muscular football player is taking an hour and a half. After an hour and a half Big John displayed his NFL prowess in Hawaii Ironmen fashion, he began to complain of muscle fatigue and did not know if he could do this anymore. That is when Captain Jim decided to help him out and tell him the true technique for landing a tarpon. It was a rite of passage for John to go through this before he fished the Million Dollar Tournament. Once he learned the proper technique John was boating fish almost as quickly as the rest of us.
The last time I saw Captain Jim was at his granddaughter’s wedding. Years of the hard life of smoking and drinking had finally caught up to him. He was in his 80s, on oxygen, sitting at the wedding, and as usual he guessed what I was thinking. He stood up saying, “Hi, how are you doing, bet you thought I would be dead by now, didn’t you?” What could I say to that? Jim passed several years ago and I heard his ashes had been appropriately scattered at Boca Grande Pass, marking the end of an era and as fate would have it, I have not tarpon fished since.
**The nautical superstition of bananas in a boat is based in the Caribbean around the 1700s. Shipwrecks were often found with multiple bananas scattered in the debris. This was the earliest reported description of a banana being dangerous to boaters. Some people say that the ethene gas coming from ripened bananas is a natural fish repellant. In the 1700s the sailors had discovered the new fruit in the Caribbean and would load it with their other supplies in the hold of the ship. The ethene gas emitted by the bananas would cause the ship’s supplies to rot quickly leaving the crew at risk of starvation. This further contributed to the early superstition about bananas being bad luck for sailing vessels and fishermen. Whether or not you are superstitious when going on a fishing trip with a guide, it is probably more important if the guide is superstitious. If your fishing guide lacks confidence because a banana was brought on the boat, it is best to obey the laws of the captain. A discarded banana results in more optimism for a fishing captain and better fishing results will occur. Whenever we would board Captain Jim’s boat, all normal laws of the land were superseded by the laws of Captain Jim. Foremost is NO BANANAS on the boat.
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