"I try to put my clients in the best position to catch fish, and I live vicariously through that rod tip."
1. Give us a little background on yourself. How did you come to be a guide, and what drew you to the area you live and work? How many days are you on the water each year?
My grandfather, "King Charlie", took me under his wing and inspired my love of fishing by taking me fishing since I was three years old. We had a family vacation every year, and my grandparents took me to Grand Lake St. Mary's in Celina, Ohio, for 10 to 14 days of fun fishing. I went from chasing crappie and bluegill to becoming obsessed with bass fishing at 7 years old. Soon after, I was riding my bike to local fishing ponds and lakes nearby, and walked the creeks behind my house. I came from humble beginnings living in an apartment: We didn't have a boat and we fished from shore every chance that we could.
Starting in my late teens, I'd made quite a career as a diamond dealer and jewelry designer in Ohio. For 15 years, my fishing gear took a back seat to my suit and tie, French cuffs, and fancy shoes. I even won the Jewelers of America Design Show in 2001. That was the same year I left the diamond business for Florida to become a fishing guide.
I went to a trade show in Florida and fished with a local guide in Orlando out of Anna Maria Island, Florida. Our guide wore flip flops, shorts, and a t-shirt, and we caught a ton of redfish — we totally jacked them! I paid him $500 at the dock and hopped on a plane, riding a huge high only to return home to snow, sleet, and suit and tie.
I was still fishing as much as I could in Ohio, but the demands of the diamond jewelry business were cramping my style. It was a good business, very lucrative, but incredibly stressful — I couldn't see myself doing that for another 30 years.
Not long after, I returned to Florida under the pretense that I would clear my head. In reality, I went to scout out property, fisheries, and whether I could establish a sustainable guide business. In 2001, I found Charlotte Harbor, it had that small-town feel that I was seeking. Once my wife agreed, we sold off our belongings in Ohio and started a whole new life. The rest is history!
2. Say that again? You left the diamond business to start up a guide business in a fishery you knew nothing about?
I knew nothing about saltwater fishing, the area, or anything about inshore species like redfish or snook. I sure as hell didn't know anything about catching tarpon. When I moved here, and the locals found out I was fixing to set up a guide business, they saw me as a joker. There was a pile of them that hated my guts and wanted to see me fail. I convinced my wife to move to Florida...failure was not an option.
From Ohio, we'd towed our 1979 Ranger bass boat with us, and while it got the job done back home, it had no place in saltwater. I sold that boat to buy a flats boat for $6,000, and I was in business. I got my captain's license, my boat, and knew nothing about saltwater.
I took what I knew about bass fishing and converted it to redfish, and I hammered them on bass baits!
When I first started, no one knew who I was, so I set out to do seminars anywhere I could... just about the basics. It was a big part of getting my name out. I wrote for a local magazine weekly for six years, and it wasn't for the money. I knew the winter residents who saw my articles every week might book charter trips when their family visited.
I went from measuring diamonds from millimeters and applied that precision to my tackle and boat rigging while dissecting Charlotte Harbor's fishery. I fished different tides, weather conditions, and tried to prepare myself for anything I might encounter. I studied that harbor for a year and a half, and made a living once I hit the ground running.
3. So, what does your wife think all these years later?
I out-punted my coverage! I have an incredible wife that believes in what we are trying to accomplish. For 8 years during tarpon season, we kept two kiddie pools in the house with bubblers that each acted as a crab pen for 200 crabs. We had to keep them in our home, in the air conditioning, to keep them alive because they are the main bait that I guide with. When I was out tarpon fishing, she would feed the crabs frozen chicken breasts sliced into strips to keep them alive. Finally, last year I got AC in the garage and moved them there...but people really lost their minds when they heard my wife was taking care of our bait in the house while I was out fishing! On the boat, she's an outstanding angler and has won a lot of lady tarpon tournaments.
4. What drew you to tarpon over all other species?
First thing in the morning, the bite is pretty ridiculous. When you hook a triple-header, it is nothing short of chaos, but you are stalking those fish under the cloque of darkness. Once the sun comes up and more natural light is involved, this increases the margin for error.
It's the difference between stalking your prey versus hunting your prey.
These fish see the boat and know it should not be there, so they become increasingly aware and reticent to biting. In the afternoon, most people are off the water, and my afternoon charters have the lake to themselves.
There's no better feeling than standing in the tower of my Pathfinder boat watching a tarpon slowly snake in from 70 feet to smash that crab rigged up on a circle hook 3 feet beneath that cork bobber.
5. Tell us about your first experience fishing for tarpon and how it changed your life?
I remember it vividly. I still had the bass boat and was fishing under a bridge in Charlotte Harbor with my wife. We'd just put out some bait but we weren't targeting tarpon, much like most people who catch their first.
While setting up another rig, the rod in the holder went off and this gigantic tarpon went airborne. Everyone has seen them on tv, but until you see and hear that fish erupt on the surface and engage in battle, nothing will ever compare. Tarpon will become your obsession.
Almost 20 years later, just talking about tarpon fishing makes the hair on my arms stand up. Everyone should get to experience the massive adrenaline rush that comes from tarpon fishing.
Oh yeah, I lost that first fish as it easily broke off the 20-pound line that I'd outfitted for snook!
From there, I began fishing tournaments up to 22 a year plus guiding. More people want to fish for tarpon than I have legal days to target them. My wife and I have worked for this dream, and it came true.
6. The silver king is a sickness that cannot be described to someone that has never hooked a tarpon. What does this spectacular fish mean to you and your clients that you guide?
There's no doubt in my mind that for a new tarpon angler, once they hook a tarpon and it airs out of the water for the first time, they're in complete awe. The angler can't wrap their head around how a 140-pound fish just launched 6 feet out of the water and they're attached to it.
It's painful when they have a fish on and then we don't land it. There are plenty of scenarios for tarpon to win, and unfortunately losing fish is part of the game.
That said, if you go 3 for 6 or 4 for 7, that's a great 6-hour trip. But I've also gone 11 for 17. People want that photo of the fish boat side to send shots back to their friends. Who doesn't love bragging rights!
7. Everyone has the "one that got away" that keeps us awake at night. Some of us have many. Tell us about yours or your client's.
I had a fish hooked in a tournament that may have out weighed the 200-pounder that my fishing team had landed the previous year. This was back in the years when we could bring them to the beach, they'd put the fish in a sling and weighed them with a digital scale. We won the tourney with the 200-pounder and took home a check for $45,000
That following year, we hooked this giant. I know because I had my hands on the winning 200-pound fish, and this one was easily the most massive tarpon I'd ever seen. Its eyeballs were the size of a drink coaster! We fought it for 47 minutes, and we started to notice that the 50-pound fluorocarbon on the top of our reel had gone through the guides that it was creating friction and causing the line to turn white and fray. We had that fish beside the boat multiple times, but those giants aren't stupid. Inevitably it broke off. I still think about that fish a lot, it’s painful!
I also think about clients who have tarpon fished with me since 2003 when I knew nothing. When they lose a fish, it bothers me even more than the fish in the tournament. When you see they have a giant hooked up, I'm as nervous as them. There is great pride when we finally land it, we break the tape out. But when you lose them at the boat, it's a heartbreaker. The relationships we have and the friendships we develop are way more important than any fish.
8. What about the ones that didn't get away? What's the best fish you've ever brought to hand?
There is one, a 72-year-old man called me and told me that I'd been referred to him in the hopes of catching a tarpon on a fly. It was a trip early in the season in June, and I thought we could achieve that.
He said, "I don't want to put any pressure on you, but I've traveled everywhere to catch a tarpon on a fly... and it hasn't worked out. I'm 72, and I don't know just how long I'll be able to do this."
When he showed up, I couldn't wait to get started that day. We were loaded for bear with a Crosscurrent Pro-1 and NRX Pro-1 in an 11 weight and 12 weight.
We pulled onto the beach it's still dark and the fish aren't rolling yet, but I mark a pod of fish 40 feet to the left on my Humminbird Solix side-imaging. I said to Jim, "you must make a cast, directly 40 feet off the side." Of course, he couldn't see them, but I assured him to trust me. He hooked a 70-pound tarpon 20 feet from the boat on his second cast, and it went ballistic!
It was 6:05 AM, the sky was orange, and the show was on. My client was losing his mind that he had this fish on and pulling on him. The fight lasted 32 minutes. I was giving him water, we got it boatside, and I safe-gripped the fish for a few photos. He was kid-like, I'd never seen a grown man that excited.
That fish still chokes me up. I haven't seen that guy since, and I'm not sure if he's still around, but that was his fish of a lifetime. He caught it on an 11-weight Crosscurrent Pro-1 and did everything he had to do. To this day, it was a surreal experience from beginning to end that made me love fishing even more. I genuinely value the relationships that I've established through a business that I never thought to be possible.
9. How many days are you on the water each year?
I'm on the water roughly 300+ days a year split between a crazy tarpon season and many days spent in the backcountry of Charlotte Harbor. My fishing show, Guidelines, airs on Waypoint TV, and we spend many days on the water making sure we get our shows just right.
When I don't have a charter, I fish because those are the days that I can locate fish, scout new spots, and stay sharp. I never fish during a charter because the client is my only priority. I'm there to ensure their success that day.