The man was dying. He had stage-four cancer and it wasn’t going to get better, so he checked himself out of the hospital, got his girlfriend, and chartered Bouncer Smith for a three-day fishing trip to Bimini. He was in bad shape. He couldn’t keep any food down and had tumors on his feet. Still, he was having fun, and at the end of the third day, he threw Bouncer some cash and asked to extend the trip a little longer. Bouncer agreed.
The next day the man wanted to go snorkeling, and so they did. Bouncer put them over a beautiful coral bottom in about 20 feet of water, and the man went in and swam for a bit. Then Bouncer looked behind the boat and saw the man holding something that looked heavy.
“What you got there?” Bouncer asked.
The man ignored him, exhaled, and sunk below the surface, where he died. He never said it out loud or made his plans clear, but Bouncer knows the man took his own life, decided that the beauty beneath that water was better than the reality waiting for him on land.
It’s sad, of course, but Bouncer was also happy for him. The man was dying. At least he chose to do it there, in that beautiful place.
There are so many stories like this — most of them happy and a few of them sad — in Bouncer Smith’s new book, The Bouncer Smith Chronicles. He finally decided it was time to write them all down instead of just telling them over and over again on his boat. Smith is South Florida’s most famous angler and fishing guide, and has been casting hooks into our waters since he moved here in 1956 at the age of 7. He’s an absolute legend in the marine community, known for his inextinguishable passion for fish and encyclopedic knowledge of where and how to catch them in South Florida.
Smith is 71 now, and still running charters with his first mate Abie Raymond five days a week from his 33-foot Dusky, which floats in the Miami Beach Marina next to yachts and weekend warriors heading out for a booze cruise. He’ll leave the house around 5am and get back a little after 5pm. He loves the city most in those hours when it’s still asleep.
“It’s a peace and quiet that just cannot be appreciated in our overly electronic world today,” he says. “You get out there before the city wakes up and there’s no traffic jams, no hassles. You can just be at peace with the sun coming up over the horizon.”
Smith has watched South Florida transform from a sleepy beach region to whatever you want to call it today — but he’s also watched a similar transformation happen in our ocean over the decades. That’s the one he’s spent most of his life trying to get people to notice, and it’s why Smith starts his book not with a story of, say, a mako shark taking a leaping bite out of a sailfish (that’s on Page 5), but with a mission statement on conservation.
“In this book I describe the catching and killing of many wonderful, beautiful fish,” he writes. “Many years ago, there was little information about fish stocks and stressed out fisheries. Most stocks of fish were in such great abundance that such matters were not a concern. But all that has changed.”
Smith goes on to describe the devastating effects of commercial fishing and foreign abusers, but he also places blame on the industry he’s ruled for the last half-century. “You can’t tell me 50,000 registered pleasure boats in the South Florida area, with such a large percentage of those boats dragging hooks through the water, are not having an effect on fish stocks.”
Smith’s been beating this drum longer than most. “Hell, when I was 12 years old, I would have a fish in a bucket and if it died I’d be devastated,” he says. He can still vividly remember a day around 1970, when he was working at the old Castaways resort in Sunny Isles.
“There was a guy named Joe who came back from Vietnam, and he came down one afternoon with a pile of papers and started sticking them to all the dead fish.” Smith picked one up and it read: “When will the destruction of America’s wildlife end?”
“Joe opened my eyes to what a terrible thing we were doing with our resources,” Smith says. “It really kicked me off in the right direction.”
Since then, Smith has been a full-throated advocate for fishing conservation, fighting hard to denounce the needless killing of fish, promoting marine reserves, and fighting hard to convince local fishing tournaments to switch to circle hooks, which greatly increase a fish’s chance of survival after release. Spending seven days a week on the water for the better part of the last 50 years has given him a crucial perspective. He’s seen the good times and the bad ones in our ocean. He remembers when billfish were practically jumping into the boat, but he also remembers – after years of irresponsible overfishing – how they seemed to all but disappear from the water.
“I have watched so many fisheries decline so bad over the years, and it’s heartbreaking,” Smith says. “I tell my mate from time to time that in five years we’re going to run charters to target bait fish, because there won’t be anything else to fish for.”
But one huge reason Smith fights so hard for conservation is because he’s also seen what the results of effective conservation look like.
“But by the same token, we’ve seen some great recoveries and it’s very gratifying to know that there are some successes going on and they point to a brighter future. And the only way we’re going to have a brighter future is if old farts like myself keep promoting good conservation, and get the young fishermen involved in the same things,” Smith says. “That’s my driving force every day.”
George Poveromo was 16 when he accidentally met Bouncer Smith. This was sometime in the mid-’70s, and Poveromo could not, for the life of him, figure out how to tie a Bimini twist knot. “I got so frustrated that I took a rod and reel and drove to the Castaways dock,” Poveromo remembers. He had $10 in his pocket and was going to give it to the first person he could find that could show him how. The first person he found was Bouncer Smith.
“He wouldn’t even take the money from me,” Poveromo says.
Today, Poveromo is a wildly accomplished angler himself, and the host of George Poveromo’s World of Saltwater Fishing on NBC Sports. He and Smith are good friends too – and Smith isn’t quite done teaching him a lesson when necessary.
“He gave me a spanking about a month ago,” Poveromo says. “I ran a picture on my Facebook page of a white marlin we caught and released in the Bahamas.”
Poveromo, admittedly, got too excited in this picture, and hoisted the fish out of the water, which you are not supposed to do if you plan on releasing it, as it decreases the fish’s likelihood of survival. Shortly after, he got an email from Bouncer. Poveromo apologized, admitted he was wrong, and never did it again.
“I’m his friend,” he says, “and he still took the paddle to me.”
Smith has never been afraid of speaking his mind when it comes to conservation, and even before Poveromo found himself on the receiving end of that mind, he knew this to be true. Poveromo and Smith worked together to convert the Miami Billfish Tournament into a release tournament, which had a domino effect on the Fort Lauderdale Billfish Tournament and the Pompano Beach Fishing Rodeo, the three biggest billfish tournaments in Florida. It was a huge win for conservation and public awareness but, Poveromo notes, “not a popular thing to do.”
“There was a big black market for sailfish back then,” he says. “What these captains would do is talk their clients into mounting the sailfish, which they’d get a commission on, and then they’d illegally sell the meat. There were some big-name charter captains back in the day that made an incredible living killing sailfish.”
Smith was better than all of them, of course, and could have joined in on the profit himself — even if he wanted to do so legally. “A lot of charter boats have permits to sell their fish and they make money,” says Abie Raymond, who’s been Smith’s first mate for most of the last decade. “Bouncer is an excellent fisherman, and he could have made hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of his lifetime selling these fish. But he chose not to.”
Raymond, 31, is part of that younger generation of anglers Smith wants so badly to win over. He was working on the same dock as Smith when he was 15, a young kid obsessed with fishing and anything that had to do with the ocean. He knew well who Smith was, and had seen him on TV growing up. “I always idolized the guy but couldn’t muster up enough courage to go speak to him,” he says.
Then, one day, he got up the nerve and did it. He walked up to Smith and said, “My name’s Abie Raymond, and I’d love to work hard for you if you give me a chance.”
Smith cut him off before he could finish and said, “What are you doing right now?”
They caught a 220-pound swordfish that day and Raymond’s been learning from Smith ever since. Even now he’s as sharp a guide as ever, which is a job that requires an intense amount of mental organization and adaptability — and sometimes has nothing to do with fishing at all.
Asked what makes Bouncer such a great guide, Raymond laughs.
“He tells the best freaking stories, man,” he says. “That guy can hold court.
“But while he’s telling these great stories all day long, he has four plans in his head at any given time. A little kid might have mentioned that he really wanted to catch snapper, and the dad might’ve said he wants a dolphin. And the mom might’ve said, ‘Well, I just like nature.’
“So Bouncer pulls up to a sea turtle to show the mom, and then has a mate cast a bait at it to hook a dolphin for the dad, and then lets the boat drift up to a wreck where he can drop on a snapper — all in one shot.”
It’s really stunning to watch, all those decades of knowledge and experience working in harmony effortlessly. It’s true mastery.
“He has the ability to make everybody’s dream come true in one fell swoop,” Raymond says.
A life on the water wrestling monsters takes its toll, and as much joy as fishing has brought Bouncer, it’s also brought him pain.
“Every morning, I wake up and my back hurts and my knees hurt and I have tinnitus, so there’s ringing in my ears, and when I go to bed at night — every time I roll over quickly — I get vertigo, and my shoulder blades hurt when I’m laying in bed and both of my shoulders hurt all day, every day, and when I get up in the morning, I struggle to get dressed.”
It’s hard for Smith to walk the hundred feet from his condo to the elevator. “God does this hurt,” he thinks to himself as he fights for each step. Even his knuckles — knuckles! — those hurt too.
But then, something miraculous happens: “I’m on my boat, and I don’t have an issue the rest of the day,” Smith says. “I’m in nirvana all day long. Rough, calm, hot, cold, raining, fish, no fish — I am still in paradise. Then, I go to walk back up the ramp at the dock to go home and my back hurts, my knees hurt, and I’m short of breath.”
Smith likes to joke that he’ll retire when they pry the steering wheel from his cold, dead hands. It scares the crap out of poor Abie, but he’s mostly joking. Still, there’s a layer of truth to that statement. Bouncer Smith will fish until he can physically no longer fish. Because, to Smith, a life without fishing is literally more painful than he can bear. Because when you find something you love this much, you do it every day until you’ve run out of days.
Smith considers himself just the luckiest to have found such a thing — even though his life hasn’t always been lucky. His son died unexpectedly when a misrouted blood vessel shut off the blood supply to his heart. He writes about it in his book, in a chapter called “My Worst Days.” They held a memorial at Miami Beach Rod and Reel Club, and hundreds — hundreds — of people came. Smith felt like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, his favorite movie.
He hopes he’ll get a similar crowd on his way out. Maybe George Poveromo will be there, telling his Bimini twist story. Abie Raymond will have no shortage of material too. There will be tears, laughter, and rum — but there won’t be any questions. Bouncer Smith has spent his life telling enough stories to make sure of that.
“There’s a lot of great fishermen that take all their secrets to the grave with them,” he says. “When my days are up, all of my young friends will know all of my secrets. There’ll be no secret spots, no secret methods. They’ll all have been shared with these people.”