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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Police officer loved the chase - for tarpon
RALPH GELL 1953-2007
By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
Published December 21, 2007
Officer C. H. MillerRalph Gell, a veteran of the St. Petersburg Police Department's marine unit and well-known tarpon angler, died of cancer at 54.
[Courtesy of St. Petersburg Police Department]
ST. PETERSBURG - Tough, fierce, competitive - those words come to mind when area fishermen reminisce about Ralph Gell.
The former St. Petersburg police officer and avid fisherman died Wednesday after a battle with cancer. He was 54. Word spread quickly through the local tarpon fishing community, a tight-knit group of anglers that claimed Gell as one of their own.
"I never felt comfortable weighing in a fish until I knew that Ralph was already back at the dock," said Jay Mastry, a tournament fisherman and longtime friend of Gell's. "It didn't matter how big your fish was, it seemed like Ralphy would always come in at the last minute and beat you."
Mastry recalled one cool November morning when he and Gell left John's Pass searching for king mackerel. The two had stopped to catch bait in 20 feet of water when Gell's cast net got caught on the bottom.
"The water was cold and the wind was howling," Mastry said. "But sure enough old Ralph stripped down to his skivvies and was ready to dive in."
Mastry had another cast net, but Gell didn't want to take the chance that they would be stuck fishing a tournament with just one net.
"That is just the way he was," Mastry said. "He would do whatever it took to win. He had to be one of the toughest guys I have ever met in my life."
Gell, who spent 32 years patrolling the streets of St. Petersburg, spent the last decade on Tampa Bay as a member of the police department's marine unit.
"We tried to do some really innovative things on the water," said his partner of 10 years, Les Miller. "He pursed law enforcement with the same passion that he did fishing."
Gell also left his mark on the local fishing tournament scene. Like his father before him, he competed in the 73-year-old Suncoast Tarpon Roundup since he was old enough to hold a fishing rod. In fact, in 1988, he won a boat, motor and trailer at the tournament's "Finale Day."
Gell was always an imposing figure, with a barrel chest and arms like a linebacker, even when he wore his trademark, tiny, tight fishing shorts. Strong and sturdy, he appeared as if he was bred to wrestle a 180-pound silver king.
But of all Gell's accomplishments, his greatest accomplishment was that of a father. In 1993, he helped his son, Jason, an accomplished angler in his own right, to a Roundup junior record that would stand for a decade.
Jason, Ralph and his father, Gene Gell, were fishing off St. Pete Beach on a choppy June morning when grandpa and dad both hooked up.
"I was clearing the lines when I realized that I had one too," Jason said Wednesday. "The fish jumped across the bow, and I couldn't believe my eyes."
But the Gells cut no slack for juniors. Fifteen-year-old Jason was just another member of the team, and he had to wait for the other fish to play out before he could fight his tarpon. Forty-five minutes later, he landed a 167-pounder.
"That fish not only won the junior division but it also was the biggest fish caught overall that year," Jason recalled.
Ralph Gell kept fishing tournaments right up until the end. Last spring, he fished a Southern Kingfish Association event in Sarasota with Jason and another father-and-son team, Bobby and Brian Hasson.
"Nobody knew he was sick," Jason said. "He just looked a little thinner."
As usual, Gell found a way to win.
"With him it was always about the fishing," Jason said.