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subfield code a F70-000012 USFLDC DOI0 245 Billy Baird oral history interviewh [electronic resource] /c interviewed by Mr. Terry Lee Howard.500 Full cataloging of this resource is underway and will replace this temporary record when complete.1 600 Baird, Billy7 655 Oral history.localOnline audio.local700 Howard, Terry Lee710 University of South Florida.b Library.Digital Scholarship Services - Digital Collections.Oral History Program.773 t Florida Fishing Captains Oral History Project4 856 u https://digital.lib.usf.edu/?f70.1
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text Terry Howard (TH): Today is October 4th, 2018. Weâ€™re sitting here at 473 Chamberlain Boulevard. My name is Terry L. Howard, and Iâ€™m here with Captain Billy Baird. And this is for the Florida Fishing Captains Oral History Project. And, with that, would you please state your full name?
Billy Baird (BB): Billy Baird.
TH: Okay, and do I have your permission to use this interview for publication, books, articles, et cetera, personally?
BB: Yes, you do. Yes.
TH: And, two, do I have your permission to archive this interview at the University of South Florida Tampa Library digital archives?
TH: Okay, thank you. When and where were you born?
BB: Â I was born in Kentucky. Little place called Creek Moore, which no longer exists.
TH: Creek Moore?
BB: Creek Moore is just a post office.
BB: And my parentsâ€“
TH: What year?
BB: That was 1943.
TH: Okay. So what was your birthday?
BB: February 18th, 1943.
TH : Okay. Now, brief biography of yourself and when you grew up. What were you doing as a kid? Did you go to high school? Did you graduate from high school? Did you go to college? Or did you just work on farms? And then, what brought you to Florida?
BB: Â I grew up on a farm in Southern Indiana. A little town called Pekin.
BB: Yes. And I went to school there all 12 years, except a brief time here in Florida, and graduated at Pekin High School. I came down here in that fall of â€™61, started working at a packing house.
TH: Oranges, citrus?
BB: Oranges, yes. Nevinâ€™s Ideal, right there on the river.
TH: Where on the river?
BB: That was there close to the gulf dock, right next to the gulf dock.
TH: Right down the Santa Mariaâ€“by the turning basin, Fort Pierce turning basin?
BB: Yes. Worked down there for several months, saved up enough money, got my first car, â€™57 Oldsmobile, and went back. I got laid off and went back home for a few weeks.
TH: Back home to Indiana?
BB: Back up to Indiana. Went with my brother, Donald, to New York, worked there off and on for a couple of years in Syracuse, New York.
TH: How many brothers did you have?
BB: I had four.
TH: Four brothers?
BB: Four brothers. All of us was fishing, early â€™70s. There were five of us fishing, so that was pretty unique.
TH: Later on, that might be down here in Florida. All five of you were fishing here?
TH: So you might be the onesÂâ€“thatâ€™s why they call it the Hoosier Rock.
BB: (laughs) But we all fished on it probably at one time or another.
TH: Bottom fishing forâ€“?
BB: Red snapper.
TH: Red snapper.
BB: And weâ€™d catch grouper, but it was known for the red snapper, known as south snapper.
TH: Okay. Well, letâ€™s go back to your biography. So, you went up to New Yorkâ€”
BB: Worked up at GE for a couple years. And then I got drafted. I was getting drafted in the army. So in 1964, I joined the Indiana National Guard. I didnâ€™tâ€”I was looking at options. And, anyway, that was what I decided on. So I was up there for six years in the Indiana National Guard.
TH: Okay, did you everâ€”were you ever shipped overseas or anything?
BB: I never was. No.
TH: Okay. So that was what years?
BB: Sixty-four to 1970.
TH: Sixty-four to â€™70.
BB: I think got out in February of â€™70.
TH: But you were just part time in the National Guard.
BB: Yeah, itâ€™s not full duty. You know, you got your once-a-month detail.
TH: Okay. And then, thatâ€™s when you came to Florida, in 1970?
BB: May of 1970. And my brother Ronnie had a 36-foot T-craft. So I started fishing with him, learning the ropes, how to catch kingfish.
TH: And was he kingfishing [sic] at the time? Or mackerel fishing and kingâ€“I mean, or bottom fishing and he kingfishingâ€”
BB: We didnâ€™t get into bottom fishing until a few months later. We had the bandit reels, which you are familiar with, but we didnâ€™t have motors on them. So we hand-cranked out of 300 feet, if you can imagine that. That was some work, but we were younger and a lot tougher.
TH: Okay. But you started out with kingfishing. Now, tell me about kingfishing, and what was it like back then? And how did you fish?
BB: Lots of fish. No limits and no quota back then. And that was in 1970.
TH: What was an average catch?
BB: We probably averaged, probably 1,000 pounds.
TH: Per day?
BB: Probably. I never really figured it out. But, you know, we had a lot of times 1500, 1800, and our biggest catch was off of Sebastian. We had 3100 pounds, one day.
TH: Oh my.
BB: And we came at two oâ€™clock. So I mean, we loaded the boat and came on in.
TH: So you were just solid pulling fish.
BB: Spoons, yeah.
TH: With spoons. You didnâ€™t use bait. You just used silver spoons.
BB: We had three spoons on there. Two outriggers down one end [and] one in the middle and, of course, one line to the other.
TH: Just going back and forth pulling fish.
BB: I mean, they would jump andÂâ€”you donâ€™t see that these days, but they wereâ€“youâ€™d throw the spoon over, and those fish be coming out of the water and grabbing at it. We never triedâ€”we just stayed in one circle. We just put in a circle, and weâ€™d drift wherever we were going. And it was like the school was following us, or the bait.
TH: Were there a lot of other boats at the time?
BB: Lots of boats. But, at that particular time, the boats were in the vicinity, but they werenâ€™t that close. One boat came around us, you know, seeing us baling [fish] and he caught some, but we had him won.
TH: Were all the boats in the area catching fish like that, pretty much?
BB: Oh, yeah. A lot of them. I donâ€™t know what the habit was at that particular time, but we ran from Sebastian down to Charlieâ€™s Seafood right there.
TH: In Fort Pierce.
BB: In Fort Pierce.
TH: That would have been right on where North Beach isâ€“I mean, the North [Causeway] Bridge is today.
TH: So that was 1970. And so, you had average, you know, 1000-pound days. And what did they pay for kingfish at the time?
BB: When we first started, they were probably 18 or 20 cents.
TH: A pound.
BB: And, later on, we agreed for 25 cents a pound, and that wasÂâ€“that went on for quite a while. And, eventually, it increased later on. We fish for quarter a pound quite often. And, back in those days, once in a while, the freezers would get full. And I donâ€™t know how many times, but, once a while, the fish house said, We canâ€™t use any more fish. So we were actually shut down for a bit because you could only hold so many. And that was before the freezers came along.
TH: So your first experience with boating was here in Florida.
TH: You didnâ€™t fish much in Indiana?
BB: Just lakes, rivers, ponds. Yeah.
TH: Okay. And so, you moved to Florida in 1970, worked with your brother Ronnie. And you first targeted kingfish.
TH: And, first, you didnâ€™t use any bait at all. You just used silver spoons.
BB: We used some mullet. You know, there was times.
TH: How would how would you use the mullet?
BB: We would strip them out, you know, put them on a Sea Witch and back thenâ€”
TH: Four baits to a mullet?
BB: Â And we didnâ€™t use long lines, like we do today. I mean, we only used maybe 40 feet without a planer.
TH: So you hadâ€”describe your equipment. You went from the boat to aâ€“what went to the planer?
BB: We fished a little bit of mono [monofilament fishing line], maybe 3 feet of mono and wire; thatâ€™s all we ever used.
TH: How long a wire?
BB: Probably 40, 45 feet.
TH: Behind the paravane?
TH: And then, from the paravane to the boat, what did you use?
BB: The cable.
TH: Cable, okay.
BB: The 1/16 [inch] cable.
TH: Okay. And then about how long were your cables?
BB: The best I remember, we didnâ€™t have long ones, maybe 15, 20 feet.
TH: Like they use for mackerel here today.
BB: Yeah. I donâ€™t remember ever stretching out the cable.
TH: And, say, what depth of water were you?
BB: Just anywhereâ€“mostly on offshore bar.
TH: Eighty feet?
BB: Yeah, 80 to 90 feet. You know, we did some fishing up at Bethel Shoal. Sometimes those fish would follow you in there, of course, like they do today. But mainly, out in the offshore bar, it was the best fishing. And north of 12, north of 12 was very good. It seemed like the bigger fishâ€“
TH: When you say north of 12, can you be more specific?
BB: Thatâ€™s a 55, 60 feet of water.
TH: The 12A Buoy? Or the 12 Buoy?
BB: Just the 12 Buoy. The 12A was there in the early â€™70s. Eventually, the wreck that was south of thereâ€“wherever it was, I donâ€™t really know the history on that. But, eventually, it sunk down so low, it wasnâ€™tâ€”it didnâ€™t matter that the ships ran through there. It wasnâ€™t a hazard.
TH: It was deep downâ€“
BB: It wasnâ€™t a hazard to the bigger ships.
TH: The navigation.
TH: So the 12A Buoy is approximately where from the Fort Pierce inlets, is what I guess Iâ€™m getting at?
BB: Â I would say the 12A was probably 12 miles. It was right on the south end ofâ€”the best I remember, it was right on the south end of the bar.
TH: Okay. And the 12 Buoy today is aboutâ€“?
BB: I would say, what, eight miles?
TH: Thatâ€™s what I would guess, but I donâ€™t want to jinx it.
BB: Iâ€™d say about eight miles.
TH: Southeast of the inlet?
TH: And itâ€™s in about 55 feet of water?
TH: Okay. Bycatch with your kingfish. Like, when you were catching kingfish 1,000 pounds at a time, there probably werenâ€™t many other kinds of fish in with them?
BB: Many times, I donâ€™t remember catching any bonitos with them. You know, it was about 100 percent kingfish.
TH: Okay. And so, where did you mostly fish, in general? Sebastian, northeast groundsâ€“?
BB: I would say northeast grounds. That was probablyâ€”
BB: The most, yes.
TH: Thatâ€™s northeast. Thatâ€™s about 10 to 15 miles northeast of the Fort Pierce Inlet?
BB: Yeah. Iâ€™d say, you know, 12 toâ€”and if you get about to get on the north end there, youâ€™re going to be two or three miles further.
TH: I want you to describe thisâ€”or I can describeâ€”(both speaking at same time; inaudible)
BB: Yeah, 12 or 14â€”
TH: I want you to describe for meâ€”
BB: Iâ€™d say 12 or 14 miles.
TH: Okay. And then, so the other fishing grounds off Fort Pierce is just east of the inlet and aboutâ€”?
BB: Eighty, 85 feet.
TH: Okay. Describe the procedures, methods. Okay, you talked about the cable, and you used to use the bandit reels by hand before you hooked them up withâ€”made them electric.
TH: Now, your catches over the years. How have they changed?
BB: Well, when we were unlimited, there was lots of fish out there. And we had the old Simrad recorder. And mark it on paper. And you didnâ€™t have all the technology with the LORANs. Youâ€™ve got the TDs now, where, back then, you justâ€”when youâ€™re on your number, wellâ€”
TH: You didnâ€™t have numbers back then.
BB: Youâ€™d have to line up little mounds. Line them up, and so you could figure out which way you were drifting once you walked up there, where the LORAN is. That was a LORAN-A, I believe, itâ€™s called. So itâ€™s very inaccurate to what we have today.
TH: But you were fishing before you ever had a LORAN.
BB: Actually, the best I remember, the A-LORAN [sic] came out, and thatâ€™s where you had the lines, and you could take a knotâ€“make a little mound here. Then you had another one, and youâ€™d place that where they would line up, the two mounds there. And this is hand; you have to work with your handsâ€“
TH: Adjust the dials?
BB: Adjust the dials to getâ€”so thatâ€™s the way we got our numbers. And then, when the C [LORAN-C] came outâ€”
TH: C-LORAN [sic].
BB: The C-LORAN came out, we coordinated those numbers with the sea. So that kept us in the vicinity.
TH: Okay, but did you fish before that?
BB: I cannot remember. Well, yeah. We had to throw buoys out. Thatâ€™s right. When we got on good mark of the fish, we threw the buoy. It might be a gallon jug, maybe it was painted red, so it would show up.
TH: And youâ€™d fish next to that buoy.
BB: Yeah, you could fish either one side. You could circle it, but if youâ€™re circling it and youâ€™re not watching real close, you hang into it, and then youâ€™re fouled up. Â Lots of times youâ€™d have a guy south of it, and somebodyâ€™d be north of it. You can take different directions to fishing around that buoy.
TH: And what would cause you to throw the buoy?
BB: A good mark of fish.
TH: A good mark of fish on the recorder.
TH: Or maybe two bites at once, or two or three bites at once.
BB: Usually, yeah. If all of your lines come up, that was a good sign of course.
TH: So then you got the LORANs. You got more sophisticated navigation, which would tell you where you are in the ocean. That was in the, what, mid â€™70s, early-mid â€™70s?
BB: I think it was probably around â€™73 or so, maybe â€™72 when the A-LORAN came out.
TH: Okay. So letâ€™s go back to your catches. How have your catches changed over the years?
BB: Well, of course, weâ€™ve been on quotas. So we started down, I think, at 1,000 pounds back in the â€™80s. I canâ€™t tell what exact year, but that really kind of backfired on the fleet. Because when we had that good year, weâ€™d get shut down because we met the quota. So if you didnâ€™t have anything else to fall back on, you might have several weeks that you would be off. So you would have to have an alternative to bring in a paycheck. So we did that by going to Key Largo, and weâ€™d bottom fish in Key Largo there, several years in a row.
TH: Alright. But I mean, like, today you canâ€™t go out and catch 1,000 pounds.
BB: No, so weâ€™re, like, summertime weâ€™re allowed 75 fish. As of November the first of every year, weâ€™re cut to 50. So weâ€™ve got November, December, January, and thenâ€”letâ€™s see. I think February first, if we havenâ€™t met three quarters of the quota, we can go to 75.
TH: Just head of fish?
BB: Yeah, 75 head of fish.
TH: Well, I guess what Iâ€™m asking is, if you didnâ€™t have any quota at all, could you still catch 1,000 pounds a day?
BB: Not every day. Just a few days you could, if you stayed out there all day. There would be a few times you could, yeah.
TH: I guess what Iâ€™m asking is, has the fish populations changed?
BB: Itâ€™s changed. It seems like itâ€™s gottenâ€”and even in the past couple of years [it] seems like the fish have gotten a little better because ofâ€”in particular, this year, I heard that there were some limits up at the cape. We were catching good fish out here. And Hobe Sound in Jupiter area, they were doing good. So that told me that there was [sic] quite a few fish, you know, along the coast.
TH: Has it been like it was when you first started, is what Iâ€™m asking.
BB: Oh, no, no.
TH: And thatâ€™sâ€”I guess what Iâ€™m asking is, why has it changed so much? What do you attribute that to? I mean, you canâ€™t go out there and just have them jumping on the spoons as you hang them over the edge.
BB: Well, back in the late â€™70s, we had a fleet of boats that were allowed to catch a lot of fish. And they were circle net boats. So, to me, that depleted a lot of the stock.
TH: Have you ever seen the marks on the bottom, on your recorder, like you did when you had those old machines that showed them, the paper machines?
BB: Once in a while, weâ€™d get where we can circle around, and weâ€™d get the mark complete. But thatâ€™sâ€”
TH: In your entire circle.
BB: Yeah. But thatâ€™s not very often. I donâ€™t think I did that this year. But a few times I did. But that would be when they, in February usually, when they group up real tight.
TH: You stillâ€”itâ€™s not like in the old days, youâ€™d get the whole circle would be full of black marks.
BB: Lots, yeah. And I remember in the Sebastian, there was boats five miles long. Everybody catching fish for five miles.
TH: Solid fish.
BB: Solid fish, yeah. So those days are over. Youâ€™ve got toâ€”you can get catches of fish today, but if youâ€™re not on that mark, you might come home with less than 100 pounds, while somebody else got maybe 500 pounds, and they met their quota. But lots of times, not everybody catches their limit.
TH: But back in the dayâ€”
BB: Back in the day, everybody was going to come in with a good load of fish.
TH: Okay. And you, again, go back toâ€”you think that the net boats, and the circle nets, and the airplanes. You didnâ€™t even talk about the airplanes. Can you describe that a little bit, what went on there?
BB: My recollection is there was a lot of big boats that came up from Key West even, and they used to do it at Naples, from what I heard. You know, they would net fish over there. But then they began to get a bigger fleet. And like you said, the airplanes, they could see those fish from the air, of courseâ€”
TH: Big schools of fish.
BB: Yeah, and they could place theâ€”theyâ€™d be talking to the captain, and they would circle up the net fish. Â I was down to Key West one time, and there was [sic] five or six airplanes in the air at one time, spotting kingfish. But anyway, they had the freezer over on St. Petersburg, so they had the big semis [semi-trailer trucks] where they could truck them over and quick-freeze them. But those days are over. Adverselyâ€”it lasted a few years, where they were catching up into the millions of pounds. I donâ€™t really know what it was yearly, but it must have been two or three million pounds.
TH: And you havenâ€™t seen the fish like that since?
TH: Okay, thatâ€™s interesting. Okay, so you think that the specific cause for the lower catches was, if you had to put your finger on one thing or a couple of things. Was pollution a problem?
BB: I donâ€™t think that pollution had anything to with it back in the â€™70s. It was the late â€™70s when that was taking place.
TH: You think it was the nets.
BB: They had a lot to do with it because of the amount of fish they were taking.
TH: And the schools havenâ€™t gotten back to that size again.
TH: I recall out here, Fort Pierce, after the circle nets, they used drift nets.
BB: Yes, they used drift nets. And that was another thing thatâ€”they kind of put themselves out of business because it catches a lot of other fish. I mean, theyâ€™ll catch cobia, the bonitos, lots of barracudas.
TH: I saw some sailfish floating in the water afterâ€”
BB: Yeah. And they even caught, you know, mangrove snapper and (TH clears throat). I know they caught some even, because the mangrove, they come up off the bottom there at night, feeding.
TH: Okay. So then explain these nets. They would set them at night?
BB: Yeah. They would probably set at first dark and pick them up early morning.
TH: How long would they be?
BB: It got to where they would have two or three miles. I think it started out as just a few hundred yards. But, you know, peopleâ€”bigger makes bigger catches. So it got pretty bad because weâ€™d have to talk back and forth, going out early, to keep from running over their nets. And it was a hazard to sailboats. And Iâ€™m sure that there was [sic] times they had to try to redirect the bigger boats.
TH: Bigger ships.
BB: Yeah, the tugboats, thatâ€™s what I was trying to think of.
TH: Okay, so, what environmental and man-made factor do you see as the greatest threat to sustainable fish population in Florida waters today? Soâ€”
BB: Runoff would be a lot. Of course, the St. Lucie River in the Stuart area, itâ€™s been on the national news and how bad the algae outbreak is there. And, just recently, I donâ€™t know how bad itâ€™s going to get, but weâ€™ve had our first series of red tide. Of course, the good thing, you know, weâ€™ve got the Gulf Stream that might be able to clear it out a lot quicker and everything, if it ever got bad.
TH: Yeah, itâ€™s not as bad as on the west coast [of Florida].
BB: No. You know, last night, I actually saw a few dead fish. Whether it was from red tide, I donâ€™t know. But somebody found a few dead fish down in Palm Beach, or between there and Stuart.
TH: Okay. Theyâ€™ve had huge fish kills on the west coast, on the beach, because of the red tide.
TH: Okay. Have fishing methods changed during your time on the water, in general? For you, personally, methods of fishing, how have we changed our fishing since when you were catching them?
BB: Yeah, well, weâ€™ve had to stretch our lines out. You need 80, maybe up to 100 feet of line behind (inaudible). So youâ€™ll get more bites that way, and the fish are not as plentiful, so you need to get back there, closer to where they are.
TH: Okay. I always thought it was to get further away from the boat.
BB: Yeah, well, that too, yeah.
TH: Do you use wire still? Or do you still useâ€”
BB: I only use wire on the jerk line, the jerk bug.
TH: Okay, describe the jerk bug.
BB: I use like 70 turns. Thatâ€™s what I usually start out, around 70 turns. Thatâ€™s a little over 200 feet.
TH: Of what kind of wire?
BB: A number eight wire is what I use. Some people use number nine. I like the eight.
TH: Okay. Why?
BB: Itâ€™s easier to jerk. A little bit easier. A little less resistance in the water.
TH: Okay. And that goes right to an electric reel?
TH: You have the switch?
BB: A switch.
TH: Can you describe that?
BB: Yeah. I use about 20 feet of mono. Got to swivel there on the end of mono, to where it wonâ€™t tangle. Wrap it around your hand. Start jerkinâ€™. (both laugh)
TH: What do you use for bait? Can you describe it?
BB: We like to use Bonita strips.
BB: Itâ€™s no secret.
TH: Bonita strip on what?
BB: On the bug. What we call a bug.
TH: Describe that.
BB: Itâ€™s a number three hook, I believe, most have. And itâ€™s got the big eye where you can put the hair in it. You put that inside and wrap it down with mono wire, use super glue, use a little grout or the end of a hook, and put it in there before the wire can go through it when it seals up. So you make your own. Â Most everybody does.
TH: And thatâ€™s what you jerk on the jerk bug, right?
TH: And so really, the only change today, in your operation, is you donâ€™t use wire on your outriggers.
BB: Yeah, where we used to use all wire back in the day.
TH: You use all monofilament.
BB: Easier to pull.
TH: Okay. All monofilament line behind the paravane. What pound [or] test monofilament?
BB: Well, anywhere from 100 to 200.
TH: Okay. So basically, the main change is longer lines.
BB: Thatâ€™s one big change, yeah. If you donâ€™t use a longer line, you wonâ€™t get the bites as often, unless youâ€™re on aâ€”you know, if youâ€™re marking them real good, you can shorten up, if you wanted to.
TH: Okay. Have larger, commercial fishing corporations or operations impacted our fishery or your fishery? I mean, corporate boats, corporate fishing, corporate operations, have they impactedâ€”?
TH: Youâ€™re basically a commercial kingfisherman.
BB: Right now. Yes.
BB: I donâ€™t think so. Back in the day, when they bottom fished, I know there was, like, a corporation up at the cape, and they long-lined tilefished. Â And that had a big impact because they were catching so many tilefish.
TH: When you first started, there werenâ€™t that many rules, as far as how many fish you could catch.
BB: No rules that I can remember.
TH: Yeah, for many years.
BB: Size limits and things like that, you know, that came on later on.
TH: All right. Anything else about the method of fishing thatâ€™s changed over the years that youâ€™d like to add?
BB: I canâ€™t think of any.
TH: Okay. Now weâ€™re getting into theâ€”a little bit different here. Discuss and describe, in detail, major weather occurrences youâ€™ve experienced on the water: storms, lightning, high wind, seas, water spouts. Think of something that stands out in your mind, some big storms, and see if you can describe them to me, what it was like.
BB: I was struck one time. And I was off of Bethel, and it was blowing a good 40 miles an hour, lightning striking everywhere. Well, they hit my antenna. So I lost thatâ€”
TH: So you were like 20 miles northeast of Fort Pierce, in the ocean?
BB: Right. Yeah. That one stands out to me because I did have a radio knocked out, and I checked out, and it was burnt up. But I was very fortunate because they could have knocked out a lot of other electronics. And my first realâ€”
TH: Describe being hit by lightning. (BB laughs) Describe the whole storm.
BB: It mightâ€™ve only been a partial hit by not doing as much damage because I canâ€™t really say, exactly. The lightning bolt did strike because it was hitting around me so much. And you can kind of smell the phosphorus, if youâ€™re ever in a real bad one where that lightning is hitting close to you.
TH: The lightning was hitting all around you.
BB: Yeah. The first storm I rememberâ€”
TH: Were you running? Or were you fishing?
BB: Just kind of staying into it. You know, just keeping the bow into the wind. Thatâ€™s what you want to do.
TH: Forty miles an hour.
BB: Yeah. You want to keep your bow, and you donâ€™t want to get sideways and get slapped around.
TH: And lightning was everywhere.
BB: Yeah, it was everywhere.
TH: And you could smell it.
BB: Yeah. If you getâ€”if it strikes the water, or possibly the boat, it does put off an odor.
BB: Like a phosphorus smell. Now, I donâ€™t know if thatâ€™s what it is, but it definitely can do that.
TH: Burning smell.
BB: Yeah, um-hm.
TH: And it hit your antenna, you believe?
BB: Yeah. It stripped by antenna; it was black. Well, once I found out what happened, when I got in, and soâ€”
TH: Was it a summer squall?
BB: Yeah, it was in the summer. We were bottom fishing. And weâ€”I canâ€™t remember if we were coming in or what. It mightâ€™ve been when I was heading back in. But the one outstanding storm that I was in, we were on Ronnieâ€™s boat, my brother Ronnie. Had my cousin with me. And we got in one that, it washed the rope around. We had rope at the bow, where we could throw the rope, you knowâ€”
TH: Your anchor?
BB: Yeah, the anchor. But they washedâ€”the seas were coming over the top, and then weâ€™d have a walkaround. Thatâ€™s like the T-craft 36[-foot] walkaround. But it washed all that rope back towards the stern. It threw off the cover of one of our reels to never be seen again. It was short in duration, but the seas were some of the biggest Iâ€™ve ever been in. I mean, it justâ€”coming over, and it was all Ronnie could do, it seems like, just keep the bow into it.
TH: So you were anchored?
BB: No, we were not anchored. We were just keeping a headwind.
TH: You had the engine running.
TH: So what were the lines that came back from the bow?
BB: Oh, that was just the rope. That was justâ€”see, we had aâ€”we could throw the bowâ€”we could throw the anchor off the bow and then just tie it off on the samson post. But it was just piled in a pile. Â But the seas were so much, the water coming in, it washed that rope back there toward the stern, a lot of it.
TH: You couldnâ€™t go up and pull theâ€”?
BB: You didnâ€™t want to go up into that. We estimated those winds as being 70 miles an hour, maybe even more. It was one of those types.
TH: They were breaking right over the top, almost?
BB: Oh, it wasâ€”yeah. I wouldâ€™ve liked to have had a video, and it wouldâ€™ve been some scene. That was probably one of the scariest times. It was so bad, we had our lifejackets on. Like that was going to help in any way. (BB laughs) It was a scary storm. Thatâ€™s for sure.
TH: Weâ€™re still talking about this storm that Billy was in, and you wereâ€”you werenâ€™t anchored.
BB: No, we were, like, in 40 fathoms. You know, we were out in the deep water. And it was just pitch black. The cloudsâ€”
TH: This is nighttime?
BB: No, itâ€™s daytime. But the clouds, I mean, it was black. We could see it coming. So we knew it was going to be fierce. So anyway, it was. The seas were so high and short at the same time; it was just throwing stuff around, and we had that anchor up in the bow, the walk-around, so it just washed it back towards the stern.
TH: You had to be careful not to get it in the wheel?
BB: Yeah well, fortunately, it didnâ€™t go overboard. It stayed in. And anyway, thatâ€™s just a little scenario of what can happen in a bad storm.
TH: So tell me about how much it lifted the bow.
BB: Iâ€™d saw we went up, probably 45 degrees or so. I mean, it was so bad that we were worried that it could flip us backwards. It was that fierce.
TH: Flip you over andâ€”
BB: Yeah. And this is a 36-foot boat. So anythingâ€”a smaller boat, if youâ€™d had a smaller boat, I donâ€™t think youâ€™d have made it through.
TH: Just wouldâ€™ve swallowed you up.
TH: Swallowed you.
BB: Yeah. Flipped you or whatever.
TH: So, you said they were not only big, but they were short intervals. Can you describe what you were talking about there?
BB: Yeah. I mean, it was just one wave after the other coming through. So just solid water on the windshield, of courseâ€”
BB: So it made it hard to see the surroundings.
TH: Okay. You just watched the compass?
BB: Yeah. Ronnie was captain. Of course, Iâ€™m just standing there with my cousin. Weâ€™re pretty dry-mouthed (TH laughs) from how bad it was.
TH: And you put your life jackets on?
BB: We put our life jackets on.
TH: Did you tie any safety lines on or anything?
BB: No. The only good thing, it lasted a short duration. I mean, it seemed like an hour. But it was probably only 15 or 20 minutes.
TH: A summer squall.
BB: It was just a real bad summer squall.
TH: Okay. And then, you talked about getting hit by lightning. That was a different time. Any water spouts, ever?
BB: One time we were out there we saw, like, five water spouts. Nothing close but still a little nerve-wracking. We were in some kind of system to see that many in that one day.
TH: Five of them at one day.
BB: Um-hm. At least five. It mightâ€™ve been six or seven, but at least five.
TH: All right. Memorable big fish and big catch stories. I think youâ€”I donâ€™t know if we had the recorder on when you told me about your thirtyâ€”thirty-two-poundÂâ€”thirty-two-hundred poundâ€”. How many? Your big catch of kingfish.
BB: Yeah, it was like thirty-two-hundred pounds. And I was off of Sebastian.
TH: One day.
BB: One day.
TH: Tell me about the day. I mean, how did it go?
BB: We just got on the fish. And, about two oâ€™clock, weâ€™re ready to come in because all of our boxes are full.
TH: You had no place to put the fish.
BB: No, no place. And we really needed a bigger fish box to accommodate more fish.
TH: Okay. And how about the biggest fish? one fish?
BB: We had Warsaw grouper when we first started fishing there on the (inaudible) Bay. It wasnâ€™t called that back then. We just called them steeples because they would raise up several feet. But we caught one, I would presume, at about 400 pounds, a Warsaw grouper.
TH: Thatâ€™s big.
BB: Yeah. And we caught severalâ€“
TH: And that was on yourâ€”you hand-cranked it up?
BB: Yeah. Well, later on we got reels. But in the early days, we had hand cranks. And they would blow up once they got, say, 70 or 80 feet down below the boat. They just float up on their own because of all of the air intake.
TH: So how deep were you fishing?
BB: We were fishing 300, maybe 350.
TH: Three hundred feet?
BB: Three hundred feet, yeah.
TH: Okay. Any strange occurrences youâ€™ve experienced on the water? Odd lights, empty boats, rafts, rogue waves?
BB: The only thing Iâ€™ve found was a Cuban inner tube. Â But that was, then, off of Key Largo. So it wasnâ€™t really unusual because that was when they were coming over here during the Carter Administration.
TH: And rafts were out there?
BB: The rafts were out there, and, of course, the Coast Guard. They were out looking for different people.
TH: Okay. Well, tell me about your brotherâ€™s experience up off the cape. (BB laughing) I want to hear it. Thatâ€™s in one of my books.
BB: Oh, yeah.
TH: But itâ€™s probably the most interesting story I think Iâ€™ve ever heard. And get all the details from the beginning to the end, to the fellow that came up on the dock afterwards.
BB: Yeah. Well, Ronnie could tell it. Of course, heâ€™s not here to tell it.
TH: This is your brother.
BB: This is my brother.
TH: And heâ€™s an older brother?
BB: He was about a year and a half younger than I was.
TH: And heâ€™s deceased.
BB: Yeah. He died in 2000. I mean, heâ€™s been gone that long: 18 years. But anyway, he could tell the story a lot better than what I could because, you know, an eyewitness is much better than somebody just hearsay.
BB: The storyâ€™s secondhand. But what little bit that I remember, they were seeing some kind of huge birds, like seagulls or something. And theâ€”
TH: Set the setting. Where were they? What were they doing?
BB: They were anchored up, anchored up at night, off the cape.
TH: Cape Canaveral.
BB: Cape Canaveral. That was with my brother, David. Thatâ€™s my younger brother. And, anyway, they were seeing some strange things happen. Right now, Iâ€™d have to refresh my memory on that. But he didâ€”I remember, he did see somebody. And it was like he saw what was happening out there.
TH: That was afterwards.
BB: That was afterwards.
TH: But tell meâ€”tell me about the birds. Start from the start, back to the start of it. That was later.
BB: Well, I remember they had strange helmets on.
BB: The birds.
TH: Had helmets on?
BB: (laughs) But Iâ€”you know, I thinkâ€”
TH: Thatâ€™s the first Iâ€™ve heard that.
BB: Was it?
TH: Iâ€™ve heardâ€”
BB: Ronnie said something about, like, they had helmets on their heads. And thatâ€™s strange.
TH: I think you told meâ€”somebody told me they were strange birds that theyâ€™d never seen before. That was the first Iâ€™ve heard about helmets on their heads.
BB: Heâ€™d have to be here to explain better than what I can come up with.
TH: Go with what you know. And he wasnâ€™t joking?
BB: Wasnâ€™t drinking. He told me that, you know, it was on the up-and-up, that what he was seeing was very strange.
TH: And it was calm at the begiâ€”?
BB: Very calm, from what I remember.
TH: Birds with helmets, or they looked like they had helmets.
BB: Yeah, yeah.
TH: So then what happened? Was this at the beginning of the evening? Was this daylight?
BB: I canâ€™t verify what time it was. I just know it was sometime during the night.
TH: Oh, during the night. Okay. And then, were there anyÂâ€”the lights.
BB: I remember there were some lights, some bright lights. But Iâ€™m sorryâ€”I canâ€™t give you very much detail because I havenâ€™t heard the story for so long.
TH: Steve Lowe told me this story, and thatâ€”he said there were lotsâ€”the whole ocean lit up, like, blue.
TH: So they got through the night, nothing happened.
BB: And theyâ€“I guess, they were off-loading their fish, and this guy comes up to them, starts talking. And it appeared that he must have been out there to see it, somehow.
TH: He asked them questions?
BB: Yeah. And, like I said, weâ€™re going to have to go over thisâ€”what happened. Becauseâ€”(laughs) yeah.
TH: Itâ€™s strange.
BB: Itâ€™s strange.
TH: Itâ€™s the strangest story Iâ€™ve ever heard on the ocean. And Iâ€™m sorry your brotherâ€™s not here. I wouldâ€”
BB: Yeah. That would be a lot of fun. He can tell a whole lot better than me, of course, being there.
TH: And thereâ€™sâ€”your other brother was with him.
TH: Is heâ€”?
BB: Heâ€™s deceased, also.
TH: Oh, man. Thatâ€™s too bad.
BB: Yeah, he died about six years ago.
TH: Well, any strangeâ€”okay, you found a Cuban raft. Anything else? Strange occurrences? Weather occurrences? Odd lights? Empty boats? Rafts? Rogue waves? George told me about a rogue wave. One time, when they were fishing out there, this one wave came out of the blue.
BB: Yeah. Fortunately, I donâ€™t remember any rogue waves.
TH: Okay. Rescues? Sinkings? Near-sinkings? Inlet tragedies? Collisions? We talked about that before we turned the computerâ€”the recorder on. Other calamities that you know about and have experienced, about rescues? Found anybody floating out there?
BB: Never found anybody floating.
TH: Boats broke down? Youâ€™ve towed some boats in, I bet.
BB: Yeah, just with minor issues. Yeah, weâ€™ve all been there, where we have to throw a rope or tie a rope off the stern.
TH: Any near-sinkings, where you almost sunk a boat?
BB: One time, I washed up. The hose came off.
TH: It filled the boat right now.
BB: It was filling the boat, and Woodrow Smith, heâ€™s with me. And heâ€™s standing over beside me.
BB: Beside me. Woody.
TH: Woody Smith.
BB: Woody. And, anyway, I start to see some water coming in the scupper, and I knew thatâ€”and it was flat out there. And so, I hollered to Woody. I said, â€œWoody, weâ€™re sinking.â€ And Iâ€™d had that problem once before, where it came off. But, anyway, I shut the water off immediately, and the water was up just before it got to the starter. I mean, it was a lot of water. Â And I was just glad to be able to pump outâ€”get in. Woody [says],â€”they [the fish] were biting a little bitâ€”â€œLetâ€™s fish some more.â€ I said, â€œWoody, weâ€™ve got to go in and get this taken care of.â€ But thatâ€™s probably the mishap that I could haveâ€”you know, if you werenâ€™t watching, you start coming in the stern, there, and especially if it had been rougher when it happened. But, anyway, Iâ€™ve got it fixed up, where it shouldnâ€™t happen again.
TH: It wouldâ€™ve been down fast if itâ€”
BB: Itâ€™s one-inch water coming in, you know, itâ€™s a one-inch pipe coming in.
TH: Yeah, I mean, once it gets to that certain point, itâ€™ll sink in a hurry.
BB: Oh, yeah. Well, we were next to that point.
BB: And thatâ€™s only been, like, four years ago.
TH: Inlet tragedies? I was out there when, who was it? A. J. Brown went into the inlet. There was a line of boats heading out. I was there for that.
BB: Well, Tommy McHale, he had to be rescued.
TH: Oh, that was it. It was Tommy McHale.
BB: Ronnie Caruso actually pulled him in. Yeah. He turned too quick and hit the North Jetty. And I was out ahead of that, so Iâ€™m hearing this on the radio, you know. Heâ€™s almost screaming, you know, â€œIâ€™ve hit the rocks.â€ And fortunately, Ronnie was there to bring him in. And he was able to go to Cracker Boys or wherever to get dry dock[ed] and fix it. But that was very near tragedy, if he had not gotten rescued real quick.
TH: Okay. Drugs, alcohol, people-smuggling stories. Have you heard or experienced? No names.
BB: Iâ€™ve only heard of a few stories, but itâ€™s kind of hearsay. So I wonâ€™t try to get into that. And, fortunately, I was never approached by any drug dealer, who wanted to say, Well, if youâ€™ll go out there and meet this bigger boat, itâ€™s got all this pot on, Iâ€™ll give you a 100,000 [dollars]. You know, thankfully, Iâ€”of course, I would have said no, anyway. But, anyway, there was people who was approached, I know that.
TH: Okay. I, one time at the Hudgins(??)â€”I think itâ€™s in one of my booksâ€”there were a group of people there that werenâ€™t from around here, that were sitting there, waiting for somebody to pick them up at the fish house early morning. Anyway, humorous, funny stories that youâ€™ve heard or experienced on the water that come to mind?
BB: One story. We were out there, on the bottom, fishing.
TH: Bottom fishing?
BB: Bottom fishing. And Billy Steward(??)â€“I donâ€™t know if you know Billy.
BB: Heâ€™s been out of the fishing business for quite some time. But heâ€™s on a boat, and he invited us to come over, and weâ€™d fry up some fish and have dinner with him. So we had Jerry Harris, and this is young Jerry, he was fishing with us. So thereâ€™s three of us on the boat. So we just jumped over, you know. Jerry pulled the boat over. For some reason, he wanted to stay on the boat. But, anyway, we go over there and eat. And so Jerry goes in there. What happened, the seas kicked up. The seas picked up so big that we did not want to take a chance on jumping from the stern onto the bow of the boat. You know, now thatâ€™s convenient. And itâ€™s nighttime. Anyway, he goes inshore. And Ronnie tells him, he says, â€œWhy just go in there a little ways and throw the anchor, and weâ€™ll get things going in the morning.â€ Well, the next morning, Jerryâ€™s nowhere to be seen. The boat, you knowâ€”weâ€™re out there in the the Gulf Stream. Sometimes, itâ€™ll run three knots, you know. So youâ€™ve got to have a lot of rope and a big anchor to hang up out there.
TH: How deep is it?
BB: And this isâ€”300 feet. We were out there, like, what we call the 40-fathom bar, 45 fathoms. And, anyway, we knew what happened: the anchor had broken loose. So, anyway, we got on the radio, and I donâ€™t know if he got on theâ€”with the A LORAN. That was back there on the A LORAN. And we figured out, he was about 10 miles north of us. (laughs) Heâ€™s resting several miles to the north. And we pull anchor and do our best to get to him. But that was kind of an odd situation.
TH: So his anchor dragged?
BB: It drug. Yeah. Because, if youâ€™re not on a rock bottom, if you just throw it out there on the sand, and, you know, youâ€”and you donâ€™t have a lot of rope, and that currentâ€™s going, like I said, itâ€™s going like three, four miles an hour. Thatâ€™s how you can drift a long ways, even with an anchor thatâ€™s dragging in the sand.
TH: So he was right next to you, when you went toâ€”
BB: Just inshore of us, a ways.
TH: And you went to sleep, and thenâ€”
BB: Yeah, went to sleep. We all went to sleep, and when we woke up, the boatâ€”whereâ€™s Jerry at?
TH: And he was 10 miles downstream.
BB: Yeah, up to the north. Yeah. So thatâ€™s one of those funny situations.
TH: Now, you have some stuff written down here. Tell me about these stories.
BB: Okay. I wasnâ€™t with Ronnie at this time.
TH: Thatâ€™s your brother.
BB: Yeah. And, anyway, Steve Lowe, theyâ€™re out there, offshore, bottom fishing. And I donâ€™t know what this situation was. But Steve, he starts trolling offshore more. And Ronnie, for some reason, he says, â€œI want to follow Steve to see where heâ€™s going.â€ Well, itâ€™s like heâ€™s leading him to nowhere. Unless he would know of a wreck or something out there. But, anyway, he dropped his line down there. And this is like 600 feet of water.
TH: Thatâ€™s deep.
BB: Well, what happens? Bam, bam, bam. Heâ€™s getting a bite of the fish, and he brings it up. You know what it was? He got a golden tilefish. And no bait. And even tried to fish that deep of water because, you know, youâ€™ve got to have a lot of wire and line.
TH: Six hundred feet.
BB: But, anyway, he brings it in, and he finds out itâ€™s a golden tilefish and finds out that, up in New Jersey, they catch tilefish up there and, I guess, around in Massachusetts and places. Â But, anyway, that was the beginning of us starting to tilefish.
TH: The long-line tilefish.
BB: With bandits. Well, we started out with bandits.
TH: Bandit reels.
BB: Yeah. So weâ€™d be out there. Youâ€™re out there in the Gulf Stream, so we kind of head southeast because the current dropped down. Weâ€™d have the boat in gear a lot, you know, to keep from drifting so far. But, a lot of times, weâ€™d drift 15, 20 miles, through the day. Weâ€™d be out there, northeast of Vero [Beach].
TH: When youâ€™re done, at the end of the day.
BB: At the end of the day. But weâ€™d catch a thousand, 12 [hundred], 14 hundred pounds of fish because weâ€™d fish three circle hooks. Thatâ€™s what weâ€™d fish with.
TH: Per line?
BB: Per line, yeah. Weâ€™d have a swivel, three-way swivel. Thatâ€™d be the top. I guess we fished, you know, it would be two three-ways and then one hook on the bow.
TH: Two three-way swivels.
TH: Describe what youâ€™re talking about.
BB: With a short leader, maybe a leader a foot long.
BB: Weâ€™d drop it down, hit bottom, and then youâ€™re continuously having to be on the crank, you know, to make sure that youâ€™re keeping the wireâ€”the weight on the bottom. Weâ€™ve got, like, a 10-pound lead weight to keep it down.
TH: On the bottom of the line.
BB: Yeah. But, anyway, you wouldnâ€™t have to stay down there long when youâ€™re on the fish. Youâ€™d feel them: boom, boom, boom andâ€”
TH: Put baits on the hooks?
BB: Yeah. I donâ€™t think we used squid back then. Iâ€™m trying to think. But we used mackerel. I think we used mackerel, you know, dinner-cut. Theyâ€™d like that.
TH: Okay. Cut mackerel, cut chunks of mackerel on the hooks.
BB: Um-hm. Then, later on, you know, then the long lines, they started, uhâ€”
TH: Now, describe a long line, what youâ€™re talking about.
BB: Well, theyâ€™d use cable. And theyâ€™d drop it down and fish, probably, 50 or 100 hooks. I donâ€™t reallyâ€”I never did do it. So I onlyâ€”what little bit I saw when theyâ€™d come in. Â But anyway, theyâ€™d drop it down, and have probably a 15-pound weight, or something, to hold it down one end. And then, theyâ€™d go to the north. So theyâ€™d have to be very careful not to run out of cable when they made their turn. You know, because theyâ€™re fishing there [with] maybe several large yards of line. And then, they bring it in against the tide because you have to fish it against the tide to bring in your fish.
TH: So theyâ€™d back against the tide; back the boat inâ€”
BB: No, theyâ€™d turn the boat around it, being the bow. So theyâ€™d have the cable over here, on the side. And so, they could see the fish coming up.
TH: Theyâ€™d have a pulley on the side of the boat?
BB: Yeah. They have a pulley. Yeah, you know, keep it up to where it wouldnâ€™t tangle up.
TH: All right.
BB: But, yeah, they had toâ€”you know, just like they did with a swordfish, they had the big rigs where they could justâ€”
TH: Big reel.
BB: Yeah, the big reel where they could drop down.
TH: So you didnâ€™t know anything about this, so you saw Steve Lowe going out east.
TH: And you didnâ€™t know where he was going.
BB: Yeah. And, for some reason, Ronnie said, â€œIâ€™m going to drop down the line here.â€ And he brings a big tilefish in.
TH: This golden tile.
BB: Golden tile.
TH: Very good to eat.
BB: And it was, like, virgin territory, then. So you could catchâ€”I saw, like, a 25, 30 pound tilefish.
TH: Iâ€™ve never seen anything like that.
BB: No, but they were full grown. But when they started hitting, you know, catching lots of fish, they get smaller because youâ€™re catching grandpa and grandma. (laughs)
TH: Do they still catch big ones, or are they pretty much fished out?
BB: I donâ€™t think they catchâ€”very seldom catch any of those 30 pounders, like they did back then.
TH: Iâ€™ve never seen it, but Iâ€™ve seen the little ones.
BB: Yeah, well, most them, theyâ€™re like 5, 10 pounds, and a few 15s. But, back in that day, yeah, they were full grown.
TH: Itâ€™s almost like a virgin lumber. You know, once you clean out the big ones, they never quite get back.
BB: Thatâ€™s why this is.
TH: Anything else you wish to share about life as a fishing captain in Florida?
BB: Well, Lordâ€™s been good to me. Iâ€™ve been fishing these 48 years, and I still enjoy it.
TH: Youâ€™ve done it for 48 years?
BB: Yeah. Â I still enjoy going out there. If I donâ€™t enjoy it, Iâ€™d probably just hang it up. But I still enjoy going out there and feeling that tug on the jerk bug or whatever (laughs). And I know you do, too.
TH: Yeah. I canâ€™t think of anything else. Anything else you want to add? Do you have anything else on your notes?
BB: Not at this moment. Iâ€™ll scan this just a little bit.
TH: Some of the characters youâ€™ve known over the years.
BB: Oh, Pappy Hayes. He was a character. That was Geneâ€™s father. I knew him.
TH: He was a net fisherman.
BB: Yeah, but he did do some kingfishing.
TH: I didnâ€™t know that.
BB: Yeah. Iâ€™m trying to think of one of the guys that fished with him. Brian Golf. Brian Golf, fished with him as a young man.
BB: Yeah. A lot of the old-timers. BC Davis. You remember BC? He retired out of the Navy; he got into fishing.
TH: Was this Davis Fish House?
BB: Yeah. He was at Taylor Creek back in their early days.
TH: I remember that.
BB: Yeah. Thatâ€™sâ€“
TH: I didnâ€™t know the fella. I didnâ€™t know anybody.
BB: Yeah. He was in with a doctor, and they were able to lease, or they bought it. They resold it, or whateverâ€”the property there. But I never did fish for them, so I donâ€™t know much about what went on there.
TH: Okay. Well, weâ€™ll wrap it up.
TH: Thank you very much.
BB: Yes, sir.