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October 12, 2001

Renaissance Man

For nearly 40 years, Capt. Ron Hamlin has fished and lived right on the edge.

He's not a perfect human being and would be less of a man if he were. He's not the most educated man you'll ever meet and probably not the most refined. He's fallen to the temptations of drugs, women and money, and over his lifetime he's suffered greatly over the abundance of the former and scarcity of the latter.

He's sat on top of his chosen profession and plummeted to the deepest, darkest hole of addiction, eventually overcoming his demons to rise back once again to the top of the offshore fishing game. He's traveled the world's oceans, exploring undisturbed waters in search of the best big-game fishing and found it time and again, catching grander blacks, blues and bluefin tuna from Australia to Bimini. He possesses an innate curiosity and sixth sense concerning all things that have to do with the sea and its inhabitants, which more than makes up for any lack of formal education. The oceans have been his schoolroom, his teachers the wily game fish he pursues.

Hell, he's even been a pro bowler, author and taxidermist.

In short, Capt. Ron Hamlin has packed several lifetimes of experiences into his short 55 years and become one of our sport's living legends at a relatively young age in the process.

I first met Hamlin just last year as an observer in the 1998 Boy Scout Tournament in St. Thomas and was immediately struck by his genuine, friendly demeanor - a refreshing change from the hot-headed, quick-tempered captains that I've run across from time to time. His cartoonish features and quick smile make Hamlin easy to approach, and after just a few minutes I realized that I was talking to someone with an endless number of stories to tell - and I wanted to hear them all.

Humble Beginnings
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1944, Hamlin grew up in Lantana, Florida. A bout with polio as an infant left Hamlin with limited use of his right arm, but he never let the disability slow him down - it also was the source of his nickname, Capt. Hook.

Once he got through junior high school, Hamlin's trademark restlessness kicked in and he quit school to take a job washing boats. It was just a short hop and a swim for Hamlin to go from washing boats to fishing them.

"I was working as a boat washer for a private boat and we had taken it out to the Gulf Stream to ride around for a bit. Capt. Kenny Lyman was out on the Lucky Penny that day, and they had hooked up a blue marlin. They didn't have enough mates on board, so I jumped off our boat and swam over to the Lucky Penny to help them bring aboard the fish. It was the first blue marlin I ever saw. That was 1959, and I was 15 years old," says Hamlin.

Lyman hired Hamlin on the spot and went about the business of breaking in the new mate. "Lyman was the hardest fishing man I have ever met, and he made me the fisherman I am today," says Hamlin.

A year later, Hamlin found himself smack dab in the middle of the South Florida sailfish scene, working with Capt. Frank Ardine on the Sail Ahoy, the first Rybovich sport fisherman ever built. Hamlin tagged his first sailfish with Ardine in 1960 and was making trips to Bimini each summer, cutting his big-game teeth on the giant bluefin tuna that made the area famous. "I caught my first giant bluefin with Ardine in 1963 fishing out of Bimini and that became the high point of my career as a mate."

Innovation and Dedication
Those finicky tuna probably accounted for Hamlin's willingness to experiment and try new things later in his fishing career - a trait that serves him well to this day.

Hamlin found that the wary giant bluefin required a perfect presentation every time. "Tuna fishing is so much different than marlin fishing - if there is one weak link in the chain, you're not going to catch a giant tuna," says Hamlin. "We fished one rod, one bait and two of us rode in the tower and looked for the tuna. When we saw them we would bait the school, trying to get the lead fish.

"Bluefin are very frustrating because they would either bite or they wouldn't - you couldn't speed up or slow down, change the bait or whatever to make them bite. You'd bait 20 schools and not get a bite and then bait another school and catch three. No one knew why one bunch would bite and the other bunch wouldn't, but you'd try anything to get a bite," says Hamlin.

"There aren't too many people in this day and age that are as innovative as Ron Hamlin," says Capt. Ron Schatman of Miami, Florida. "He is a true fisherman because he's not afraid to try something different. Some people just read magazines and then go out and try whatever they read, but that just doesn't work consistently. You have to push the BS away and have an insight into the fishery, and that's what Ron does."

Capt. Ross "Flash" Clarke worked two years as mate for Hamlin during the early 1980s in St. Thomas, Venezuela and in the Bimini tuna frenzy. "He was constantly thinking about how to fish and came up with some incredible innovations like wind-on leaders spliced with Dacron and monofilament handcuffs for tag lines. I'd been a mate for 12 years before I went to work for him, and I felt like I knew nothing. I read stuff now in magazine tip sections that Ronnie was doing 15 or 20 years ago," says Clarke.

"Ronnie is just the greatest. I've never fished with anybody like him. He's the hardest-charging, saltiest captain you will ever find. Everything had to be done perfectly, and a lot of his mates couldn't handle it - he washed quite a few of them out. It's weird when someone works you so hard and you still come away with admiration for the man. I have to attribute a lot of my fishing accomplishments to him. His training is still with me today," says Clarke.

Hamlin took his first trip to Cozumel, Mexico, with owner Jerry Boss on the Big Blue in 1972, with only a Loran A as a navigation aid. The long journey stoked a fire in Hamlin, and he became obsessed with finding new and better fishing grounds.

Signing on as the captain of the legendary Prowess, owned by Joe Lopez, became Hamlin's ticket to explore the world. With mates Frank Branch and Wink Doersbacher, the Prowess became the first boat to make the Bahamas/ Cozumel/St. Thomas circuit. "We were going to Cozumel before it was the 'in' thing to do," Hamlin says. "We would start the season in March in Cozumel, stay 50 days and catch 270 to 290 sails. Then we'd head to Cat Cay and fish the bluefin tuna for 30 days straight and wind up the season blue marling fishing for 50 days in St.Thomas."

It was in these fertile waters that Hamlin's natural talents began to shine, giving him the opportunity to try different techniques in order to adapt to the new fisheries he was experiencing. "We were on the ground floor of the high-speed trolling for blues in St. Thomas and the use of formaldehyde to keep our mackerels together. We were going through 50 to 60 mackerel a day because I was trying to go as fast as I could without pulling the baits out of the water. We were even sewing the plastic bags that the baits came in to the sides of the mackerel to try to make them last longer," says Hamlin.

Capt. Jack Whiticar, founder of Whiticar Boatworks in Stuart, Florida, told Hamlin that he was soaking his mackerel in formaldehyde to toughen them up, so Hamlin decided to give it a try. And the technique worked well for the team. "In 1974 we had 68 blues in 43 days, and in '75 we caught 75 in 53 days. At that time that was the most blue marlin caught in St.Thomas in one year," says Hamlin.
Never content to rest on his laurels, Hamlin started to try to catch a blue marlin on fly in 1975 as well. "It took five days before we could get one to bite. We thought you had to stop the boat completely before you could present the fly to the fish, so we started trying to tease the blues right up to the transom with teasers and then throw them the fly. That's what gave me the idea for the bait-and-switch technique. I thought if we could tease them up here for the fly, then we could do the same thing and just throw them a bait instead," says Hamlin. Hamlin perfected the technique with Clarke in the early '80s.

Just two months prior to that record year in St. Thomas, while the boat was still on the sailfish bite in Cozumel, Hamlin heard rumors of the great billfish action down off the South American coast. So Hamlin and his crew decided to do some exploring off Venezuela, and the Prowess turned toward the La Guaira Bank.
Hamlin and his crew were the first Americans to fish the bank and were taken aback by the numbers of billfish in the area. "We were awed," Hamlin recalls. "Our initiation to Venezuela was catching 199 whites in just 19 days. We were the only boat out during the week, and we didn't have a clue as to where we were or where the fish were supposed to be. Sometimes we wouldn't find the fish until 3 o'clock, and we'd still catch 17 or 18. If we had known what we were doing, we could have really caught some fish."

The Dark Side
It was during the frequent trips down to Venezuela in the early '80s that Hamlin began a downward slide in his career, and more important, in his life. "Back in the early days, we looked up to the hard fighters and big drinkers. It was just a part of fishing. And I got involved with the wild life, the night life, following in the footsteps of the other fishermen," says Hamlin.

This wild side of Hamlin can be seen in his book, Tournament, written in 1978 and reprinted recently.

It was South America's readily available supply of cheap cocaine that eventually took its toll on Hamlin. "I was the cocaine addict personified," says Hamlin. "I went from being on top of the game to being the lowest of the low. I caught a lot of fish while I was messed up, but I want people to know that it is a short trip from the top to the bottom, but it's a long way back up. I've been climbing back up for a long time just to get my self-respect back," says Hamlin. "Tim Choate (owner of Artmarina Inc.) got me into rehab, and I don't know where I would be now if he hadn't."

"He's definitely a reformed wild man," says Choate, who has been both a friend and crew member for Hamlin on and off for the last 25 years. "I worked for him back in the late '70s to the early '80s. We won the Palm Beach Gold Cup in 1980 on a stripped-down Striker that could really move out and get to the fish," he said.
As far as cutting Hamlin any slack, Choate will have none of it. "He's only successful because he hasn't died - and that's a miracle. He has definitely made as many enemies as he has friends, and that's what keeps him on his toes. And thank God he's a lot more intelligent than he looks; otherwise he'd be back in the Stone Age," says Choate in a seemingly well-rehearsed tirade about his good friend.

The good-natured ribbing about his wild past aside, Hamlin wants to make sure that young people don't follow in his footsteps. "I really want to make it clear to new captains and mates how embarrassed I am to have sunk so low," Hamlin says. "You don't have to be the best drinker or the biggest drug taker to catch a fish. The guys to look up to are the clean-cut captains like Mike Lemon and David Noling who live a good life and still catch more fish than anybody else. I'm just thankful that I have had the chance to recover - to have the chance to play the game again."

A Second Chance
And playing the game he is. Since joining Wag Charters in 1996 down in Iztapa, Guatemala, Hamlin has been tearing up the record books. In 1998, Hamlin tagged 446 sails in the AFTCO Tag/Flag contest, smashing all previous records for the species. And just this past December, anglers on Hamlin's Capt. Hook released 71 sails in just one day - a single-day billfish record for a boat trolling dead baits.
The sails down in Guatemala have also been cooperative on the fly for Hamlin's anglers, and in March of this year a group of fly fishing enthusiasts released 18 sails in one day on the Capt. Hook, setting a new record for that category. (His former mate, Capt. Heron Valdez, broke the record the next day with 22 on the Magic.)

Concerned about the many gut-hooked fish he was seeing down in Guatemala, Hamlin made the pledge at last year's IGFA auction and banquet to fish only with circle hooks, and he has stuck to his word with tremendous results. So far this year (late April), Hamlin has already released 1,817 billfish on 2,867 strikes - all on circle hooks. And he has tagged over 1,100 sails as well.

"I've been tagging billfish all my life," Hamlin says. "I tagged half the blue marlin in the Atlantic in '74 and '75, and in the mid-'80s I was always in the second, third or fifth position in tagging. There were no awards; we just did it because it was the right thing to do. I've always been concerned about the conservation part of our sport. And we can't just concentrate on billfish - every fish that you catch with intent to release you should catch on a circle hook. I don't care if you are black bass fishing with a plastic worm," he says.

Even with all of his fishing accomplishments, it's not his skills at the helm that endear him to the people he fishes with. "I'd rank him number one in entertaining and impressing his clients and certainly in the top 10 among the all-time best captains I've fished with," says Choate. "But it is his personality that really makes a day with Ron - no matter what the fishing is like, he'll always have you smiling."
It hasn't been an easy journey for Hamlin. He wears battle scars, both mental and physical, that show he has clawed and fought his way through life, turning it into an incredible adventure: sometimes down but never out. More important, however, is the fact that Hamlin has already left his mark on the world he has lived in - a boast that most of us can only hope to make someday. And if you ask me, this guy is just now getting ready to throw his best punch.