(This is an updated version of a story from 2008 with details about Bouncer Smith’s new book published in 2019.)
By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
The most beloved sportsman in South Florida faces the South Beach morning with the squinty-eyed look of someone emerging from one of the nearby clubs.
With a name like Bouncer Smith and a larger-than-life presence, he’d seem to fit well in that world. For more than five decades he’s dealt with plenty of tough customers and subdued countless brutish characters.
Along the way he’s earned raves from a crowd big enough to fill Hard Rock Stadium which has fished with him. That doesn’t include thousands more who have benefited from his seminars, writings and videos. If there were rafters in his arena, his jersey would hang high.
Wait, now, Bouncer Smith, most beloved? The legendary captain is just another Smith outside fishing circles.
You could ask Jimmy Hoffa. Well, maybe not. But the notorious Teamsters boss, who disappeared in 1975, had two memorable fishing trips with Smith.
“I did bring him back,” Smith says without missing a beat. More on Hoffa later.
Going strong after five decades
Consider that Dan Marino, who was 6 when Smith got his captain’s license in March 1968, has to answer to having never won the big one. Even Dwyane Wade has faced criticism despite multiple championships. Ditto, Pat Riley.
Smith is still adding to a winning legacy after 52 years as a fishing guide in South Florida.
Think of the stories he has to tell, and he has finally compiled some of the best in a long-awaited book, “The Bouncer Smith Chronicles: A Lifetime of Fishing.” (Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions).
In the book, which Smith collaborated on with author Patrick Mansell, he documents some of the memorable catches and unusual adventures. It must have been a challenge to decide what to put in, what to leave out.
He’s been involved with about 70 world-record catches, including a 111-pound halibut he caught on fly tackle during a busman’s holiday in Alaska (the record was since beaten but is notable as the first halibut over 100 pounds caught on fly).
“I’ve got the greatest gig in the world,” he says. “I don’t go to work. I go fishing every day.”
No bananas on this boat
It’s a weekday morning and much of South Florida is battling rush-hour traffic and Smith is busy not going to work on Bouncer’s Dusky 33 at Miami Beach Marina. He’s about to slip on his wraparound shades and fire up the twin outboards when something disturbing catches his eye.
One of his guests is applying sunscreen.
“Hey, get that off the boat!”
“That sunscreen, get it off the boat. I’m not kidding, throw it on the dock. Look what it says on the tube. It’s bad luck. Can’t have it on the boat.”
What it says on the tube is Banana Boat. It takes a moment to register: Bananas are considered bad luck on boats. Very bad luck.
Prevailing theories on the origin of the superstition date to the old wooden sailing ships stopping at tropical islands and taking on crates of bananas laden with snakes, spiders and other nasties, which would emerge to wreak havoc on the crew. In some instances rotting bananas in the hold produced deadly methane gas. Boaters have been wary of the yellow fruit ever since.
As with everything he does, Smith relates the banana ban to his own fishing fortunes, and he rattles off numerous instances when bananas, or the suggestion of bananas, influenced catching or not catching fish. There is a story circulating on the Internet about Smith hurling a customer’s banana muffin overboard. He recalls doing the same with Capt. Sam Crutchfield’s No Bananas cassette tape.
“Hated to do it, but every time we brought it on board we didn’t catch fish. Bananas are very bad for fishing.”
Don’t even think about humming the Banana Boat Song. Day-o! And you’d better not be wearing anything from Banana Republic. He had the same woman return a Banana Republic blouse to shore on two occasions, and both times, Smith says, it proved the turning point in the successful pursuit of tarpon.
He attributes a victory in the Miami Billfish Tournament to his angler changing out of Fruit of the Loom underwear before coming on board — and there are no bananas on the famous logo.
A serious fisherman takes no chances with piscatorial karma, and Smith has been a serious fisherman since about the time he caught his first bluegill as a tyke in Michigan and without question since he rigged a double-hooked ballyhoo and caught his first sailfish when he was 8 after the family moved to Miami.
How he became Bouncer
It was clear that Randy Smith’s future wasn’t in a ball sport the day in sixth grade that he chased an errant shot off the volleyball court and awkwardly attempted to dribble the ball back. As he recalls, classmate Tom Hobbs shouted something like, “Hey, Bouncer, you’re holding up the game.”
Smith would have become a notable figure in sport fishing even without a distinctive nickname. He started working at the Sunny Isles fishing pier at 13 and on a drift boat at 15. By the time he was 19 he was a licensed captain running a 40-foot charter boat out of the Castaways dock in North Miami.
It was during that period that one of his repeat customers was Hoffa, who Smith recalls as “very pleasant, very businesslike.” On one outing, Hoffa showed his tenacity by fighting a huge shark for several hours on light tackle.
Betting on Hoffa
Hoffa’s preference was for bottom fishing, but with a unique competitive twist. Instead of the standard rig employing two baited hooks above a sinker, he wanted five hooks affixed to the line of everyone in his party. Before lowering their lines in the water, Hoffa and his three companions would toss 50 cents into a coffee can.
Whoever reeled up the best poker hand won the pot. For instance, three grunts beat two blue runners and two snappers. In a scene worthy of a Soprano’s episode, Hoffa and cohorts would yuck it up, puff their cigars and ante up again. For the leader of a labor union on holiday, it sure beat pulling on a stubborn shark for five hours.
That sentiment was likely shared by guitarist Steve Cropper, known for churning out distinctive bass lines with the likes of Booker T & the MGs and the Blues Brothers Band. When Cropper fished with Smith, he found himself playing the bluefin blues in a marathon battle with a tuna. Everyone was so engrossed in trying to catch the fish that no one noticed the boat’s bilge pumps had failed until the engine compartment was awash with seawater. The tuna was ultimately lost, but Smith managed to save the boat.
Smith has taken Barry Switzer tarpon fishing and during one Super Bowl week had a trip with announcers Bob Trumpy and Don Criqui. But most of his clients can’t be found on any Who’s Who list outside of fishing circles.
The best angler he’s guided was Dr. Martin Arostegui, holder of numerous world records who caught the first swordfish on a fly rod in the Atlantic on a trip with Smith in 2002. But to Smith, that was no more special than helping visitors from landlocked states catch their first ocean fish or the dreams he’s helped fulfill for kids with life-threatening illnesses through charities such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“He’s been a top guide for decades, and he really works hard. Whoever steps on his boat, he makes sure they catch fish,” says George Poveromo, who hosts a popular fishing show on The NBC Sports Network and produced a tarpon fishing video with Smith.
Emphasis on conservation
When Smith turned 60 in April 2008, his sister threw him a party. To add to the ambience, she displayed dozens of photographs dating to his early days as a captain. It wasn’t his youthful appearance in the older photos that gave him pause, it was the presence of all the dead fish. In those days trucks would be waiting at the docks every afternoon to haul away piles of sailfish and other game fish after the charter boats returned.
Smith makes it clear he wasn’t the messiah of the catch-and-release movement, but along the way he became a disciple and ultimately a crusader for preserving the fishery for the future of the sport. His frequent talks and seminars instruct fishermen not only how to catch fish but how to ensure those that are released survive. He’s been a leading proponent of using circle hooks, which tend to hook a fish in the corner of the mouth, unlike the common J-shaped hooks that fish are more likely to swallow. Due in part to his efforts, many tournaments now require circle hooks.
Can it be that the scourge of the fish population is really an ally, that Smith’s legacy is not as much about the fish he’s caught as the fish he’s saved?
To him, it’s more about people. It’s the dreams he’s helped fulfill and smiles facilitated that have elevated Bouncer to single-name status in the saltwater fishing community.
In the introduction to his book he writes, “Every bait I let out is done with the same care and precision I would use if I were in a tournament.”
Former classmate Hobbs, who went on to become a judge in Justin, Texas, takes delight in the staying power of the nickname he bestowed, though he recalls it stemming from watching Smith run to first in a softball game. Hobbs has made several trips to South Florida and rounded up mutual friends from their days in the Miami Norland schools for outings on Smith’s boat.
“I enjoy fishing with him. He’s always been a guy who can take a joke and make a joke; he takes as well as he gives,” Hobbs says. “And every time I’ve been with him, dad-gum, we catch fish.”
Even a legend gets stumped once in a while. After one morning that produced but one tarpon strike, Smith is quick with a cryptic assessment.
“That must have been some potent Banana Boat sunscreen.”
Fish with Capt. Bouncer
For information about fishing trips with Bouncer Smith, visit www.captbouncer.com.
Bouncer Smith catches all sorts of saltwater game fish from snook to swordfish. Here are his favorites:
- Tarpon: “The diversity of methods to catch them and the sizes available.”
- Sailfish: “Terrific aerial acrobatics.”
- Big dolphin: “The fight and their colors.”
- Tunas: Their fight and taste.”
- Permit: “They’re cagey and strong.