Quest For The Big Catch

Jeff Anderson doesn’t have much time. There’s a 100-foot, $4 million Hatteras waiting for him in Key Largo and a boss who’s anxious to get out on the Caribbean to fish. But something about being back here, on the deck of Pisces Rising with Lake Dora stretched out before him, has stirred up old memories.

Thirty years ago, Jeff had a little apartment just down the way. Thirty years ago, he was back from his stint in the Army and studying at Lake-Sumter Community College on the G.I. Bill. At night, he waited tables at the now-shuttered Lamp Post restaurant just up the road. He owned a Ford Fiesta without any brakes, a rusted-through ’64 Chevy pick-up, and not much else. The restaurant pay wasn’t great, but somehow he managed.

Then one night at work, an old buddy from Tavares High School approached Jeff with a proposition few restless 25-year-olds could resist.

“He had a boat company down in Fort Lauderdale, and he asked me how much money I was making,” the captain says. “I told him and he said, ‘I can almost double that if you come down to South Florida and help me build boats.’”

Jeff mulled over the offer for the next two weeks. He certainly knew the water even if he had never built a boat. He grew up fishing in Kentucky and in Lake County, where he moved with his family at 14. Why not? Jeff figured. He needed the money and he could always come back to Mount Dora if things didn’t work out. So he called up his friend and accepted the job. He packed a few things into his Chevy, swapped the battery out of his Fiesta and put it in the truck, and drove all the way to Fort Lauderdale that night.

That single decision, Jeff says, changed everything. He orders a half a pound of peel-and-eat shrimp from the waiter, takes a pack of Kool cigarettes out of his pocket, and begins. Key Largo will have to wait.

Little Fish In A Big Pond

Within a year of waiting tables, Jeff was running boats. What started out simply as delivering newly built boats to clients as part of his day job soon led to driving some of those vessels on the weekends.

“I had guys giving me $400 to take them out fishing, driving their boat, burning their gas,” says a still-incredulous Jeff. “It kind of all fell into place.”

He earned his 100-ton master offshore license from the SeaSchool in Fort Lauderdale and landed a plum job after graduation skippering the Howard Johnson hotel chain’s corporate yacht and fishing boat. For three years, he traversed the Bahamas, some 500 miles and 400 islands and cays from the top of the Grand Bahama Bank to the Cay Sal Bank near Cuba, gaining confidence by the day. When he finally returned to Florida, Jeff settled into a quieter job running a charter boat out of Palm Beach.

Then Africa came calling.

The captain in Ghana with his crew aboard the Harmatan, Ghanese for “the wind”

“A man visiting Florida chartered the boat one day, and he was very interested in my fishing techniques,” he recalls. “He ran a fishing resort in Kenya and due to their remoteness, they were behind in the newer techniques developing all the time in big game fishing.”

The owner needed an experienced fisherman, and Jeff fit the bill. The place was Hemingways Resort in Watamu, Kenya, where the warm equatorial waters rolling onto the coast are teeming with big fish.

The King And I

As a captain for Hemingways, Jeff lost little time exploring Kenya’s fishing grounds with the resort’s guests, which regularly included celebrities and politicians. He once fished actors David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, although much to his chagrin, the latter wasn’t sporting her signature red swimsuit for the ride. He took Kenya’s then-president Daniel arap Moi out as well as King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden and his family.

Before long, another story—this one about the king and his Swedish intelligencia—takes shape. Jeff recalls the exchange:

“Your guys can’t touch the king,” the bodyguards said.

“These kids are clean as a whistle,” I replied.

“It’s a request we want honored—and that includes you.”

“I can’t shake his hand?”


Jeff quickly broached the subject of his crew when the king came aboard. He explained the importance of allowing experienced mates to quickly and correctly strap him into the chair when a big fish came on the line. If someone makes a mistake in the process, he stressed, you could be injured or even pulled out of the boat. The process, he assured the king, would have to involve some skin-on-skin contact. Would he rather just have his bodyguards strap him in when the time came? The king conferred with his security detail and agreed the crew should handle the fishing.

“I got him a 400-pound black marlin, and when we got that fish on the boat, he was hugging all those boys,” Jeff says. “All inhibitions had gone away.”

The Brazilian Beat

After five years in Kenya, Jeff returned home and ventured back into the Bahamas, captaining the private yacht of Charles Krasne of Krasdale Foods on Chub Cay for five years and rubbing elbows with such stars as Dale Earnhardt, Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus, and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

“It seems that everybody who was anybody at that time,” Jeff says, “kept a fishing boat on that little island.”

Before long, though, another all-too-tempting offer landed at his feet. A wealthy heir wanted to hire a captain to fish the South Atlantic coast of Brazil. Jeff’s task would be to find the greatest concentration of blue marlin between Rio de Janeiro and the mouth of the Amazon River and set up a camp there to start fishing high-end clients.

Jeff did just that.

Captain Jeff (left) and first mate Evon (second from right) pose with guests after reeling in a 660-pound blue marlin in Brazil. The captain developed closed relationships with his local crewmates and is still in touch with several of them. He calls Evon “the nicest human being God ever made.”

In 10 short months, he had caught and released 140 blue marlins and learned to speak Portuguese. He set up a camp in a small village south of Salvador da Bahia, and his employer began flying clients in for fishing. In the first year alone, Jeff says, they released 162 blue marlins with the largest at 912 pounds. Over the next four years, he released 400 more, including two granders (1,000 pounds or more), and caught the attention of ESPN and all the major sportfishing magazines.

“I caught two blue marlin over 1,000 pounds, which was to be the 19th and 21st largest fish ever caught on reel and rod,” Jeff says. “It’s the record blue marlin for the state of Bahia.”

The captain takes a drink of his sweet tea and dashes salt over his shrimp. He says he can’t quite put into words the mystique of the blue marlin, even though he knows it well.

Cobalt blue and silver white with large, sea-colored eyes and a long, powerful bill, the blue marlin has enraptured fishermen for generations. Unlike some other bill fish—the black marlin, for example, will sometimes plow its bill into the mud when hooked—the blue marlin fights ferociously when it’s caught and usually for hours, famously leaping out of the water during the battle, its iridescent scales flashing in the sun.

“There’s nothing like it. Every time you catch one, it’s just like the first time,” Jeff explains. “You get just as excited. If we were doing it today, I’d yell just as loud and as much as everybody else.”

Make no mistake about it, Jeff stresses, catching these fish is hard work. A fisherman in the chair can easily spend hours leaning back and reeling in the marlin, straining his legs and back against the muscular fish and the pull of the water. Sometimes the ordeal slows to one turn on the reel at a time. Jeff learned to size up guests pretty quickly to anticipate who would be able to go the distance and who would need someone to take over the chair after a while. He calls these replacements “babysitters,” and by the look on his face when he says the word, this is no way to fish.

“You never want to do that. It breaks your heart to have someone else do something you couldn’t do yourself,” he says while acknowledging that even 10 minutes in the chair can feel like an eternity. “Generally, after a marlin is over 500 pounds, they’re going to come when they want to come anyhow. You’re not going to muscle them.”

Jungle Fever

Jeff jokes that he got into sportfishing at just the right time. Of course he’s right. Only two regions in the world remained largely untouched by big game fishermen when he got started—the central coast of Brazil and the west coast of Africa, including the waters off Ghana. And after five years in Brazil’s tropical heat and a couple months of rest in Mount Dora, he was headed directly for the sub-Saharan country.

“Two German industrialists from Dresden read about what I was doing down in Brazil and wanted to put a boat in Ghana,” Jeff recalls. “There, you are so vulnerable. There’s no Coast Guard. There are no channel markers. It’s as raw as raw can get.”

As in Brazil before, the captain relied heavily on locals for insider information and guidance. He navigated the perilous mouth of the Volta River with the help of local mates on his boat, and the captain quickly grew close to his young crew. Whenever he traveled to the U.S., he’d buy them gifts—shoes, clothes, even an umbrella once, a status symbol in Ghana.

The fishing on the Ghanese coast was extraordinary, Jeff says, but a serious bout of malaria two years into his stay changed everything. When his crew discovered him barely conscious in his jungle hut, they quickly loaded him into a car and drove toward the nearest town, some 100 kilometers away. Fortunately, they encountered a small German missionary camp halfway to the hospital, and Jeff was able to receive a quinine treatment from the doctor there.

“When you wake up and you’ve got two quinine bottles going in you, you know they’re either going to kill that germ in your bloodstream or they’ll kill you,” Jeff says. “If we would have bypassed that little hut, I probably would have died.”

His young guide, nicknamed Ranger, slept on the floor by his bed until he regained consciousness, and it took a full month for the captain to recover enough to go back to work. The incident heralded the end of his stint in Ghana, however. Having already endured dengue fever and hepatitis in Brazil, he felt he was pressing his luck. Plus, Jeff was already at the pinnacle of his power fishing career by then with over 650 blue marlins to his credit.

Parting from his Ghanese crew was still difficult, though.

“I know I made an impact in their lives,” Jeff says, clearly speaking about himself, too. “But I could tell that it was really bothering Ranger. I teased him more than the others, so when I left, I asked if he was going to cry.”

“No,” Jeff recalls him saying. “I cry after you leave.”

The Road Less Traveled

A boat captain’s life is far from glamorous. Being out of the country for years at a time has a way of wrecking a personal life. Married once and divorced, Jeff has no children, and while he’s a fit 56 years old, the blood-borne diseases he’s picked up during his travels have taken a toll on his liver.

“I paid a price,” he says matter-of-factly. “Two things I sacrificed for this—my health and my love life. But then, all this wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I wasn’t meant to get half of what I got. I was probably meant to live here and work at Home Depot, have a bunch of kids and a house in Umatilla. I just took those choices when they came to me and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that.’ Sometimes I winged it, but if you don’t do that, you’re never going to live a life.”

Jeff’s longtime friend Steve Heinrich, owner of Steve’s Fresh Seafood at Renninger’s in Mount Dora, attests to his sacrifice.

“He never has his own place for long, but he doesn’t seem to mind,” Steve says. “He likes to see different things, and he’s had a lot of good adventures. He’s not through with them yet, I’m sure.”

Adventure certainly has a way of finding Jeff. Today, he’s the private captain for the owner of that 100-foot Hatteras out of Key Largo, and while the pace is slower now and his risk of death by malaria has dropped dramatically, he still gets a thrill putting bait on the line. This is, after all, a man who remembers vividly putting a piece of cheese on a little bent pin, tying it to some thread and a little stick, and fishing for minnows as a child with his mother.

“Just recently, we were out on a lake outside of Mount Dora, catching little pan fish,” Steve recalls. “He caught a little bluegill, and he was just hooting and hollering and carrying on. Here’s a guy who holds a marlin record in South America and he’s catching this little bluegill the size of your shoe, yelling, ‘Look at him go!’”

“I went from bluegill to blue marlin and back again,” Jeff says with a laugh, pushing his empty glass back and forth between his fingers. “I can’t get any luckier.”

The sun is casting long shadows across the restaurant’s deck now, and Jeff apologizes but he has to get going. He’s got a boat and a sea full of fish waiting.

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