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Nonetheless there is still a lot of blood on the docks in Miami-Dade County, and Bouncer Smith, among others, says it is money that fuels most of the killing. "The fish are used for high-pressure sales," says Smith. "When you take a picture of your catch and release it, there's not the same incentive to buy a mount. And each mount means a commission of $400 or $500 to the captain and mates. So there's a lot of pressure."
Indeed in the lingo of the charter-boat trade, customers who climb aboard with the clear intention of reeling in a trophy fish are said to be "live," and they are not likely to get away.
Just ask Grant Robertson and Dan Miller. Within minutes of landing their fish, the men say, they were ushered into the air-conditioned salon of the Top Dogto sign Gray Taxidermy contracts for mounts.
"Normally, I practice catch-and-release," said Miller, 52 years old, who like Robertson was in town for a communications trade show. "Fishing in Canada last summer, we caught 500 walleye. I got one mount and it was a replica. But in this case I think I was caught up in the thrill of catching the fish. They gaffed it, brought it in, showed me this brochure, asked me if I wanted to keep the fish, and I said yes.
"And once it's gaffed and in the boat, there's no question of tossing it back."
Robertson says he's embarrassed by the episode, and suffering from buyer's remorse as well. "You're in a big fight with the fish, reeling it in, and before you know it the guy has gaffed the thing and you're sort of stuck with $1000 to get a fish mounted," he recollects. "I accepted it, but it all happened so fast. These guys framed me."
Top Dogcaptain Joe Turner says he does not remember Miller and Robertson. But he routinely makes sure his customers fully understand the mounting contracts, especially since last October, when Gray Taxidermy signed a settlement agreement to end an investigation into the firm's high-pressure tactics by the Florida attorney general's office and the Broward consumer affairs division. "Sport fishermen, who were often tourists, complained that they were under pressure to sign up for taxidermy services while fish were literally on the hook," Attorney General Bob Butterworth said in announcing the settlement. "Such conditions obviously made it difficult, if not impossible, to make an informed buying decision."
Along with agreeing to pay a fine of $30,000, Gray inserted language into its contracts that explains a dead fish is not necessary for a mount. The contracts also include a place where the customer is to record the time and date of signing, with a notation that the agreement is not to be executed until the boat reaches its dock or mooring.
Exactly what words were spoken March 3 aboard the Top Dogwhen Robertson and Miller were hauling in their fish will never be known for certain. But both are adamant that the term "catch-and-release" was never mentioned, and that they signed their contracts far from the dock. Asked if it is possible that the contract was signed before the Top Dogreached its berth, Turner allows, "It is possible."
Among the six major charter-boat marinas in Miami-Dade, some are known for throwing more dead fish on the dock than others. There are a lot of dead fish at Haulover. Because of its location next to a popular public park and beach, and close to hundreds of hotels, many people stop by around 5:00 p.m. to buy fresh fish or just to see what the fleet brings in. And hanging up big fish or laying them out is naturally a way to chum for live customers.
The Haulover fleet also makes use of a well-greased network of hotel bellmen and concierges who reap commissions for referring tourists who ask about charter fishing. Callers to the concierge at the Fontainebleau Hilton in Miami Beach, for example, get one -- and only one -- recommendation: "Captain Stan of the Therapy IV." Anyone else? "No, I've used them all, and this guy takes good care of my guests," the concierge told a New Timesreporter recently. "Now what is your name, because I get points for this."
Capt. Stan Saffan, a wiry, sun-blasted veteran of the North Miami-Dade charter-boat trade, is the acknowledged kingfish at Haulover, the undisputed dean of the dock. Over a 32-year career Saffan has built up a roster of so many hotels that send him customers other captains in the marina can make a living on his overflow, like remoras, the suckerfish that feed on the leavings of a shark. Younger charter-boat captains, such as Jack Ellak of the New Moon III and the 32-year-old Turner, for example, get several referrals a month because Saffan's two boats, Therapy and Therapy IV, are booked. "Some boats here barely move unless Stan gives them a trip," remarks Turner, who is considered a good fisherman and one of the up-and-comers on the Haulover docks.
Prominent in Saffan's advertising brochures, and in the pictures posted in his dockside display, are references to "monster fishing," a macho appeal to those who want to go mano a mano with a shark. And although Saffan does hook up his clients with sharks, he says it isn't always easy. "We used to be able to catch hammerhead in fifteen minutes," he reports. "We're lucky now if we get one a week. And if you're paying $1000 to get a shark, and we get skunked, you think that customer is going to come back?"