Hooked on Death

When clueless tourist meets shameless skipper, it's a good bet there'll be blood on the docks

The Therapy IV does bring in a lot of fish. But, adds Saffan, "We don't go out just to kill fish. We release most of the big fish we catch."

Those fish which are brought in are killed at the request of customers who want a mount. "If they are paying for it, and they want to bring it in, then, yes, we bring it in," says Saffan.

On his Web page (www.therapy4.com), Saffan bills himself as "the world's most famous fishing captain," but the single incident for which he is most famous took place in 1979, when he was still a mate aboard the Therapy IV. That year, working for Capt. Jack Wiggins out of the Castaways dock, Saffan was nabbed sneaking a dead, seven-foot sailfish onto the line of an unsuspecting tourist and then urging the angler to have the fish mounted after she pulled it in. The scam was uncovered and photographed by the Miami Herald in an undercover investigation prompted by reports of fishing flimflams aimed at tourists.

Capt. Joe Turner of the Top Dog (above), a rising star among local charter-boat skippers, insists his clients are told dead fish are not needed for mounts
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Capt. Joe Turner of the Top Dog (above), a rising star among local charter-boat skippers, insists his clients are told dead fish are not needed for mounts
Wily veteran Stan Saffan has been hooking fish and customers for more than three decades
Steve Satterwhite
Wily veteran Stan Saffan has been hooking fish and customers for more than three decades

In the air over Haulover there is still a whiff of the old Castaways, home of the Wreck Bar, a wild late-night party scene, and about 25 charter boats, some notorious for their hard-living crews, lazy fishing methods, and gouging of tourists. But these days tricks with dead fish are harder to pull off. Customers are more wary and more knowledgeable about fishing, according to captains and mates. And in Miami-Dade County, the saltwater fraternity is small, with no more than 30 or 40 captains working full-time. There is no formal association, but everyone knows everyone else.

"This dock has had a bad reputation," admits Jack Ellak, a strapping 36-year-old who for years eked out a living as a commercial fisherman. "You hear stories about how boats would go out, quickly catch a barracuda, and tell the tourist it was the best fish they had seen in months. And then they would come in and sell a mount. We are changing that by using solid angling techniques, catching plenty of live bait, and working hard to catch good fish for our customers."

Compared with Haulover, the walk-up trade for the ten boats at Crandon Park Marina on Key Biscayne, and the handful working out of Coconut Grove, is minimal. There the anglers often come from business conventions, repeat vacationers, and locals.

Styles differ. Joan Dudas, whose husband and sons have been fishing out of Crandon since 1978, says her family informs clients right up front about the cost of taxidermy, about catch-and-release, that the mate expects a tip, and that half of all the edible catch stays with the boat for retail sale at the dock.

Commissions from taxidermists are generous -- sometimes half the cost of the mount -- and constitute a major source of income for almost all skippers and their mates. And Gray assiduously courts local charter-boat captains and crews to act as their agents, lavishing them with free insignia caps, "Gray Mounting Team" T-shirts, even loans for fishing equipment, to make sure that taxidermy contracts keep coming in.

But some captains insist they emphasize to clients the cost of taxidermy early in the trip, knowing it could cost them income. "Before we put the fish in the boat, I make them well aware that it can be over $1100," says Frank Godwin, at Crandon for 27 years. "I can lose a mount that way, but we make [the bulk of our] money on the cost of the charter. And I want to get them back for another trip."

Adds Ray Rosher, who charters out of Coconut Grove: "This practice of killing fish to create mounts, of high-pressure sales -- I would not be upset to see more policing of that. It is counterproductive. Customers are not stupid."

Dowling of Gray Taxidermy concedes that a dead fish is an incentive to buy a mount. With a carcass in the boat, the angler has a tough time changing his mind about paying for an expensive plastic replica, a mass-produced model that won't make use of even the bill, fins, or teeth of the fish he caught. And many charter-boat mates, who rely on commissions from taxidermists as a major part of their income, are as practiced at baiting balky clients as they are at baiting hooks. Very few tourists have a good answer to a question like this: "What should we do now with this fish you asked us to kill?"

Dowling insists, however, that Gray promotes catch-and-release, and that his business would do well even without the implied pressure of a slain fish. "A dead fish can be mounted only once," he says, "but a live fish can be caught and mounted several times."

Godwin says as the catch-and-release ethic spreads, he and other veteran captains have begun to consider a no-kill policy for all big-game fish, especially sailfish. "We need to do it eventually -- just not kill anymore and leave it at that," he believes. "Sailfish numbers have gone way up since people started releasing fish."

No one does a better job of chumming for clients, or shows more contempt for the ethic of catch-and-release, than the self-styled bad boy of Miami charter-boat fishing, Mark "the Shark" Quartiano. Seated behind his hand-carved Thai teak desk in his wood-paneled, dockside office at Plaza Venetia, next to the Biscayne Bay Marriott just north of downtown Miami, Quartiano comes across as personable, candid, and proudly egotistical. Now more than 50 years old (he won't volunteer his exact age), Quartiano says he actually hates the water, can't swim, and never eats fish. Still, he boasts, he is the highest-paid charter captain in the world for one reason: "I kill fish.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Bob Dowling the same BD who was under investigation Colombia for Arms to FARC & his girlfriend a Colombian recently expelled from her own country

Miami Concert Tickets