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March 21, 2013

The Madam & Hooker Story

This Globe-Trotting Operation Developed Crewmen Who Set the Bar

madam and hooker story

Courtesy of Madam & Hooker

Boat owners don’t often throw a party just for their crew, but on March 31, 2012, that’s exactly what Jerry and Deborah Dunaway did to mark the 25th anniversary of the launch of the globe-trolling Madam & Hooker mothership/game-boat operation that set more than 80 world records over more than two decades. The Dunaways, who owned the Hooker operation from 1979 until 1999, held the reunion to “recognize the people that made our success possible,” Jerry Dunaway says. The event took place at the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame, in Dania, Florida, and longtime captains Skip Smith and Trevor Cockle served as its emcees.

Its roster of captains and deckhands read like a who’s who of fishing, with names like Skip Smith, Trevor Cockle, Jeff Fay, Mike Benitez, Randy Baker and Peter Wright, and mates Kent and Scott Levin, Curt Schloderer, Jody Bright, Eric Leech, Ronnie Fields, John and David Cochrane, Mitch Scherfer, Mike “Mikey D.” Deighan, the late Cyndy Smith, and Doug Haigh, just to name a few. One question begs asking: Was Madam & Hooker the most successful big-game fishing team ever assembled? Jerry Dunaway thinks so. “Without question, it was the most recognized and publicized fishing team in the world during the ’80s and ’90s,” Dunaway says. He holds up a thick bound compilation of magazine and newspaper articles covering their exploits, a book presented to each of the 25 or so mates and anglers who attended the gala.


“If you look at what my wife, Deborah, myself and our charter clients accomplished from 1980 until 1999, when we sold the boat, it makes a good case for us being the best,” Dunaway says. The team’s accomplishments include catching an amazing 81 IGFA world records, most of them billfish on light and ultralight tackle. Deborah is the only angler in history with a Royal Slam of world records for all nine billfish species; the Hooker team caught a Pacific quadruple grand slam, as well as the first documented women’s and men’s super grand slams, in 1981 and 1982; they caught 24 swordfish in 10 nights in 1986, with four of those being world records; and Capt. Trevor Cockle and guests, in 1997, caught 20 Atlantic blue marlin in a single day. Not only that, Dunaway says, but the Hooker team helped pioneer big-game fishing in many of the 23 countries it visited.


Equally as impressive, many of the 25-plus mates who started their careers on Hooker went on to become superstars in their own right. Guys like Capt. Ronnie Fields of Big Oh, whose career includes a Captain of the Year title, after working as a mate on Hooker in his early 20s, and Scott Levin, Randy Baker and Curt Schloderer, all of whom are excellent captains now.

 

The Beginning

the hooker boat
Whether Skip Smith or Trevor Cockle was at the helm, Hooker’s line of excellent crewmen — that’s Randy Baker in the stylish pink hat — kept the world records coming. (Courtesy of Madam & Hooker)

The story of the Madam & Hooker team begins in the early ’80s, when Jerry Dunaway, an intense, self-made Houston millionaire, set a goal to become an accomplished angler by traveling to the world’s best fishing spots. He hired a hungry Fort Lauderdale captain by the name of Frank “Skip” Smith, who was 25 when, in 1980, he went to work on Hooker as a mate, his brother Kent “Kunta” Smith having recommended him for the job.


Kent “Kunta” Smith first met Jerry Dunaway in Freeport, Texas, in 1980, where the Dunaways’ 53-foot Hatteras was moored. Kunta Smith was working the deck then for Capt. Eddie Herbert on Laurisa, when Dunaway stopped by to see if someone was available to mate for him on an overnight trip to the oil rigs. Kunta Smith agreed to do it, and for grins, he brought along a stiff-action 8-pound spinning rod. During a lull in the action the first night, the Florida mate dropped down and hooked a 30-pound-class crevalle jack, which he noted was about 1 pound shy of the world record. Dunaway became so intrigued with catching a world record that Kunta Smith offered him the rod. Soon Dunaway had a bigger fish on; it was only about a half pound off the record. “I’m pretty sure that fish gave Dunaway the idea to fish for world records,” Kunta Smith says.


In those days, Dunaway was still very green, having purchased his first big-game boat in 1979, a 53-foot Hatteras owned by REMCO, a nationwide rent-to-own appliance company started by Dunaway and his majority partner, Chuck Sims, in 1968. That Hatteras boat became the first of three fishing yachts called Hooker. Soon after, Dunaway invited Kunta Smith to join the crew of Hooker, working alongside Texans John Cochrane and Jerry’s original captain, Randy Parr, for planned trips to Cuba, the Bahamas and Belize.


After a few months and a tournament or two, Parr, who didn’t always see eye to eye with the boss, left the operation. Dunaway convinced Capt. Jeff Fay, with whom he had caught his first blue marlin in the ’70s, to take a leave of absence from his charter business in Kona, Hawaii, to man Hooker in Belize. “I’d always worked for myself,” Fay says. “Jerry is the only private guy I ever worked for.” Fay says that he agreed to do it because “Dunaway is a straight shooter. He does what he says he’ll do, so I had confidence it would be a great trip.”


To round out the crew, Kunta Smith contacted his brother Skip, who was working in commercial swordfishing off Florida, and he agreed to come aboard and mate. “That was the beginning of my seeing what can be accomplished with a professional fishing crew,” Dunaway says.