Boats of the Pass


There is a long and rich history that is associated with our local tarpon sport fishing industry, and the boats used to catch them are a significant part of that history.

Among Boca Grande’s Pass tarpon guides, there is likely no other aspect of their lives – with the exception of family – that brings them as much pride as the vessels on which they ply their trade. Over the years, many of the boats you see drifting Boca Grande Pass during tarpon season have probably become as familiar to the fish as they have to the rest of us. But as much as some might seem to be carbon copies of one another, each is as unique as the captain aboard and the name on the stern.

Knight Brothers boats:

Boat building has been a Knight family tradition for more than 100 years. Capt. Johns Knight Jr. said he has read in local history books that his forefathers’ boats were being used in Charlotte Harbor as far back as the 1880s.

In 1946, Knight’s father, Johns Sr., along with brothers Harold and Francis, continued the family tradition by building custom tarpon boats for the local anglers.

Moonraker and Moonraker II, two of the island’s more famous traditional Pass fishing boats, are still owned by the Knight family. Casuarina and Faithful II, another two recognizable Knght Brothers built boats also still work the Pass and are operated by Capt. Dickie Coleman, Capt. Charlie Coleman and Capt. Matt Coleman.

“The name Moonraker has nothing to do with the James Bond movie as many people think,” he said. According to Knight, the client who financed the building of the boat in 1965 was reading about salvage efforts in the Keys at the time of construction. Since most groundings take place at night by the light of the moon, the salvagers became known as moonrakers. The financier asked that the boat be named Moonraker.

The Morgan fleet:

One of the more popular tarpon boats used in the pass are the Morgans. Many of the hulls were created in Naples, then outfitted there and elsewhere to suit the needs of the initial buyer.

The “Boca Blue” is a 24-foot Morgan that was brought to Boca Grande by former island deputy Rich Caccavale. He and wife Toni gave the boat its current name “because we liked the way it sounded,” Rich said.

The Caccavales eventually sold the “Boca Blue” to islander Mark Spurgeon, who then sold it to Capt. Billy Hathcock who, about 18 years ago, sold the boat to Capt. Sandy Melvin, its current owner.

“Over time it’s proven to be one of the best boats you can have for the Pass,” said Melvin. “It’s maneuverable, lays well in rough water and it’s economical. It’s just a very fishable boat.”

Another 24-foot Morgan with a long history in the Pass is “Native”, currently owned and operated by Capt. Frank Davis. The first owners were again, Capt. Billy Hathcock (aka “Capt. Dad”) and Elsie Bracken. They named the boat the “Bonnie & Clyde”. Capt. Dad ran it a few seasons before selling it to vertically a challenged Zephyrhills Chevy dealer, Buddy Foster, who then re-named it “Little Car Man”.

Foster later sold the boat to islander Tom Harrington, who renamed it again after his wife Laura before selling it to Davis. Once again it was re-named when Capt. Frank, with some help from islander Danny Campo, came up with the name “Native”. Why? Capt. Davis refuses to elaborate. “Let’s just say it’s an inside joke and leave it at that” he says.

A family with a history of owning 24-foot Morgan boats are the Joiners. The “Contrary Mary”, was originally a Key West crab boat and was brought to the island by the late Capt. Donald Joiner for his son Wayne to run as a tarpon boat. The boat had a distinctive fly bridge that kept the captain forward above the spray. After a couple of seasons, Wayne re-named the boat, “Lil Effie” after his daughter Effie, who was named after her grandma Joiner. Wayne’s cousin, Capt. Willie Mills, a former professional baseball player in the Chicago White Sox organization bought the ”Lil Effie” from Wayne, removed the original fly bridge and re-fitted the interior and once again the name changed, this time to the “Tracy Lynn”, in his wife’s honor.

Wayne currently now operates another 24-foot Morgan that has become a familiar sight in Boca Grande Pass, the “Hey, Moma!”. “The name sort of came from Donald,” according to Isabelle Joiner. “When Wayne would take his daughters down to the Keys to visit their grandfather, he would always take the girls downtown for some ice cream. To entertain them, whenever he saw a pretty girl walking down the street, he’d shout out ‘Hey, Moma!’ My daughters would then squeal in delight and go back and tattle on grandpa.”

Among other 24-foot Morgans you’ll see in the Pass are Mark Nagle’s “Had’em”, operated by the forever young Capt. Buster Herzog, infamous for his refusal to wear shoes except on the most formal of occasions, and the “Sally J”, owned by Capt. Cappy Joiner and named after his wife Sally. Others include: Capt. Waylon Mills’ “Blaze”,Capt. Jackie Bylaska’s “Spellbound” and Capt. Shane Sovan’s “Haywire”, which he recently purchased from retired Capt. Kevin Kelly.

Capt. Nat Italiano, known far and wide as the host of the annual end-of-season Tarpon Gone Bad Party, as well as his finely tuned ability to eat chicken and talk on the radio while fighting a fish, now operates a 31-foot Morgan named “Spook”. The original Spook was a 36-foot wooden Chris Craft named after the old-time wooden fishing lure, the Zara Spook. Spook begat “Little Spook”, a 24-foot Morgan operated for many years by Capt. Rocky Russ, which begat “Spooked Again”, another 24 foot Morgan owned by Capt. Steve Ahlers. Nat’s son Michael, now has his own 24-foot Morgan. It has yet to be named but you can be sure it will be seen often in the pass in the future.

Noted Island angler Peggy Denby owns the 31 foot Morgan, “Sundown”, operated by Capt. Timmy Smith. The “Sundown” name has a long history in the Pass. The original was a 28 foot Enterprise named by Capt. Smith after the Gordan Lightfoot 70’s song of the same name and was a familiar sight in the Pass for two decades. In 1990 Capt. Smith sold the original “Sundown” to islander Bob Melvin. The ”Sundown” name was kept and the boat was operated for several years by Capt. Sandy Melvin before he purchased the “Boca Blue”. The boat along with the name “Sundown” was then retired. When Peggy Denby sold her Knight Brothers built boat, “Snafu” to acquire a new 31 Morgan, Timmy and Peggy resurrected the name and dubbed the new boat “Sundown” as well, keeping one of the most recognizeable names in the Pass alive.

Islander Paul Eckel owns another 31-foot Morgan, ”Magic”, captained by Robbie Hehenberger, that is often seen in the Pass.

More behind the names:

Capt. Fred Scott, skipper of the “No Prat”, a Francis Knight-built boat, said he wanted a name that was just a little different. By the way, No Prat spelled backwards is …

Capt. Scott also owns “Prae Dawn”, a 34-foot Crusader. He chose the name because of its poetic sound. And, “as a night fisherman, I am usually on the water as the sun rises, so I thought it was appropriate.”

Capt. Babe Darna has been operating the “Seahawk”, a 26-foot Daniels, in Boca Grande Pass for more than 35 years. Its sister boat, the “Searene”, was brought here by Cappy Joiner, then went to Capt. Lamar Joiner Sr. These two wooden boats are among the oldest still fishing the pass. Lamar Sr. now currently owns the “Miss Sarah”, a 31-foot Morgan named for his daughter. The original Searene is now in the hands of Capt. Lamar Joiner Jr and still catching lots of Tarpon.

Another well known Dainels built Pass boat is Capt. Bill Miller’s 26′ foot “Lucky Strike”. According to Bill, when Johnny Morgan from Naples decided to build a fiberglass version of a Daniels, he spent a whole day measuring, photographing and studying the “Lucky Strike”. He then went on to create the popular 24 foot Morgan. “The reason it wasn’t 26 foot like mine”, Bill explained “was that he wanted the boat to be trailerable, and 24 foot was the longest you could put on a trailer at the time”.

The “Teal”, now owned by Capt. Mark Lieberman, was built in 1969 by Sarasota boat builder George Luzier for Bill Spencer, another Sarasotan who often fished Boca Grande Pass. The boat was skippered by several local guides during the 70s, including Capt. Freddy Futch and Capt. Billy Hathcock.

Lieberman, who remembered fishing aboard the vessel as a child, bought the boat when it was for sale several years later. The name Teal comes from Spencer’s wife’s name, Mateal.

Keep an eye out for the “Gringo”, a 31-foot Bertram that is owned by islander Herb Sodel, which is often seen fishing the pass as well as the beaches. As is another 31- foot Bertram, “Runaway”, owned by islander Capt. Billy Caldwell.

Partners Capt. Gary Peoples and Capt. Mike Reark own the “Salty Cracker”. The 26-foot Shamrock is usually in the Pass after sunset.

Capt. Mark Futch, owner and operator of “Sitarah”, which translates to “Star of the East,” explains that the vessel he operates today is the second vessel of that name.

“The old Sitarah was built in 1944,” recalls Futch. The original boat, a Lee Hickcock design, was run by Capt. Billy Wheeler prior to its sale to Futch. “I ran that boat for about 10 years until I got tired of maintaining a wooden boat. So I had the boat I have now that was built down in Key West by Blue Marlin boat builders.”

Capt. Freddy Futch, another long-time island guide now retired, operated the original “Miss Priss”, a Knight Brothers built boat, for several years. It was later owned by the Gasparilla Inn and eventually purchased by Capt. Richard Coleman who renamed the vessel the “Casuarina”. It is now owned by Capt. Dickie Coleman. The original Casuarina, a Hickcock design that Richard also operated, was owned by island benefactor Louise Crowninshield.

Capt. Freddy Futch designed and commissioned the building of a new “Miss Priss” and guided from it for 22 years. He then sold it to his nephew Capt. Steve Futch who renamed it the “Lil Priss”. The 28-foot boat was custom built by Wilber Storter Jr.

“She ain’t very fast, but she sure is solid,” said Steve.

The “Chris Rip”, owned by islander Dixie Hollins, is another boat seen frequently in the pass. The boat, a 31-foot Bertram, was named after his parents, the late Rip and Christine Hollins, avid tarpon anglers. Christine was known as a talented angler who took first place in a Ladies Day Tarpon Tournament when she was in her 80s.

Other notable pass boats include Capt. Tater Spinks’ Anejo, a 35-foot Bruno Stillman design that was built in New Hampshire. And, of course, there’s the 34-foot Crusader the “Julie Jean”, owned and operated by Capt. Jimmy Roberston. The boat is named after his daughter who often serves as first mate.

“Triple Trouble” is a 31-foot Rampage owned by Capt. Ned Van Deree. The boat is named after his three sons. No explanation necessary …

Capt. Jon Zorian’s “Viper II” is a 24-foot Joe Pocklington design built in Ft. Myers. The name is a carryover from a previous boat.

The Chico, owned and operated by Capt. William “Dumplin” Wheeler, is a 1944 Hickcock design. The 36-footer is one of the more distinctive boats in the pass, notable for its round transom. It was designed and built for Capt. Sam Whidden, who used it as a commercial mackerel net boat as well as a tarpon guide boat. The unusual round transom is there for a reason, it made it easier to bring the nets on board. “He did a little bit of everything on it,” recalls daughter Isabelle Joiner.

Capt. Sam, the founder of Whidden’s Marina, later sold the boat to Capt. Billy Wheeler, Dumplin’s father. The boat was named after Sam’s pet monkey Chico, that was once part of the traditional assortment of pets still found at the historic marina.

There are, of course, many, many more stories behind the boats that frequent Boca Grande Pass. Obviously, although we tried, we can’t get to all of them this time. But there are more tarpon seasons to come.

-Capt. Sandy Melvin

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