Once a high-flying private captain whose world revolved around catching blue marlin in exotic locales, Capt. Brad Simonds has gone back to his roots. He now lives in the lower Keys and owns a 43-foot Torres, Southpaw, which he has been chartering out of Stock Island for the past 16 years. While fishing throughout the Caribbean during the heyday of the sport might sound dreamy, the long stretches away from home slowly started to grate on the nerves. As many who start their own businesses will attest, Simonds grew tired of answering to someone else. So he bailed on a life of ultra-complicated yachts, bottomless-budget operations and a travel schedule that many would kill for to enjoy the simple pleasures of running his own rig for hire in the Florida Keys and sleeping in his own bed each night.
Your back story is a little atypical in the sense that fishing wasn’t really in the plan when you were growing up, right?
I did a lot of freshwater fishing growing up. A little saltwater stuff. My grandparents had a house on the water in Massachusetts, and back then my fish of choice was tautog. That and bluefish.
How did you go from bluefish to blue marlin?
A big part of that was meeting Frank Mather. Frank was a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution whose research led to the first conservation measures for Atlantic bluefin tuna in the United States. I was in high school and needed a summer job. Frank had a home in Massachusetts on the Cape, and one in Key Biscayne. That gave me the opportunity to fish both locations. Most of our fishing was up north, in a 28-foot Bertram. That job opened me up to bluewater fishing.
How did that relationship come about?
I had a family friend who introduced us. Somebody mentioned to him that I was looking for a fishing job that I could do for the summer, and the rest is history.
As a private boat captain, which boats did you run?
My first boat was a 57-foot Billy Holton called Keowee. Then a 54 Bertram, Miss Guided; Blank Check, which was a 53-foot Hatteras; Key Venture, which was also a 53 Hatteras; Final Fantasy, a 54 Bertram; and briefly, a 60-foot Hatteras called HZO. We went all the way from Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, to Venezuela. We also fished the Florida Keys, St. Thomas, Turks and Caicos, Cozumel and Isla Mujeres.
What was your best year?
Well, once the dust settled, we caught 248 blue marlin in one season in 1996, which in reality was more like six months of fishing. The marlin bite was good in Venezuela very early the year before, and we got there around the first of April thinking it was going to be good again, and it was a bust. Green water, and it was cold — all of us were wearing fleece jackets marlin fishing. So we gave that up and headed to St. Thomas in June. The fishing was already good by the time we got there, and we only had 15 releases for the year. But from mid-June until September, we caught 88 blue marlin, and then went back to Venezuela for the regular fall season there. Catching five or six marlin in a day back then was damn good fishing. The numbers are kind of skewed now with the FADs, but it was really good that year.
Where did you catch your first blue marlin?
With Frank Mather, actually, at Walker’s Cay in the Bahamas in 1977. I was working as Frank’s mate, fishing on his 28-foot Bertram, Ahi. I think his wife, Natalie, was with us, but that was it. We were pulling mullet, ballyhoo and bonefish in the spread, which was customary at the time — obviously things are different now. We rigged everything on No. 12 or 15 wire. We had a long rigger bite from a nice fish that we missed. A few hours later, we had a bite on the mullet, and we caught that marlin. That one kind of solidified the notion of, Yeah, I really want to do this for a living.
A lot of people associate Mather with tuna conservation. Did you guys do a lot of tagging while fishing together?
We did tag a lot of fish together. Frank developed the Cooperative Game Fish Tagging Program while he was at Woods Hole. All with the spaghetti tags, though. PSATs did not, until many years after, become something people did. When TBF came out with the new nylon tags, we did comparison tagging, where our tag pole had two tags. We were suspicious that the aluminum darts on the older tags were corroding and falling out. And that’s exactly what we found. Any fish we had recovered, if the fish was missing a tag, it was always the older one.
How did you end up in the Keys?
I was living in Key Biscayne with a guy who knew Richard Stanczyk — who had just purchased Bud n’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada — so he called Richard and said, “I got this guy who’s all eager to fish,” to which Richard replied, “Send him down; we’ll put him to work.” I started fishing out of Bud n’ Mary’s not long after that.
How did the mate-to-captain transformation occur for you?
The captain who I was working for got fired, and I got hired to run the boat. Simple as that. I already knew about running the boat and everything else, so that was fine with me.
Then you got into the private boat scene.
Well, if you wanted to hire me as the captain, I needed to be able to run the boat for charter in the downtime, when the owner wasn’t fishing with us, or I wasn’t going to work for you. Because I didn’t want to sit around like so many guys did, waiting on the owner to show up and polishing aluminum in the meantime. So I actually got to fish a lot. But most of the owners were not all that keen on me chartering the boat when they were not there.
At what point did you decide you wanted to be your own boss?
I just got tired of the revolving door of owners and boats. There are those examples of captains who have long runs with a single owner, but that’s the exception, not the rule. It seemed like every couple of years you would hear an owner say, “Oh, well, the boat’s for sale — see ya.” The part I disliked most was the upstairs-downstairs dynamic that occurred frequently. The feeling that you are the hired help drove me crazy.
What is one secret to your fishing success?
I’d find out when the boat next to me was leaving the dock, and I’d leave an hour earlier. You have to put in the time on the water to be successful. That was something I learned very early in my fishing career.
What is one change you have seen for the worse over the years?
The boats are too big and too complicated nowadays. I don’t want to take my condo fishing.
I’m a pug fancier. My wife and I are parents to four pugs.
What are the best and worst parts about working for yourself?
Running your own boat and making your own rules is the best part. The downside is that you don’t get to fish all of the exciting places anymore. You have to find a good spot and call that “home.”