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Lords of the flies and baitfish

Commercial boaters -- gatherers of bait and makers of chum -- live a solitary life of late nights, early mornings and messy boats.

By MIKE SCARANTINO

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2000


On the waterfront there exist boaters who dance to a different drummer. They don't go out for fun, nor do they wear pretty bathing suits or have fancy vessels.

They are the commercial operators -- gatherers of fish and crabs, the makers of chum.

White rubber boots are the Reeboks of their trade. They live in a world of late nights, early mornings, messy boats -- their only onboard companions the flies that follow them from trap to trap.

It is a solitary life they lead, never seeming to follow the mainstream tide. Shrimpers leave the dock as recreational boaters are heading in for the afternoon. Their world is one of many stars and moons, of soft afternoon breezes and stormy nights. When others are asleep, they are hard at work.

Crabbers move about the shallows in the cool of the morning, hauling and baiting their traps. Days begin early, often at first light. Most conversation is whispered prayers to the gods of the sea. They laugh at the pelicans and watch for porpoises, then wonder at the mysteries of each new day.

It isn't the money that inspires them, though some profit well from a life at sea. For others, the life becomes one of subsistence. Many find other streams of income to support their addiction to the water.

It is a life one must love, like a mistress spoiled and always in need. The commitment is one of hard times and strenuous work.

They live constantly with old boats in a makeshift world of fussing and fixing when something goes wrong. Living day to day, some never have enough money to do it any other way. Old rusty wrenches and scraps of this and that make up their toolboxes. Always borrowing and bartering to get the job done, yet they are masters of their own destinies, captains of their industry.

Jim Burns is a seven-year crabber, cast off from the citrus and cattle industry after a back injury. When he turned 40, his son dropped out, his wife left him, his hair fell out, and his mother moved in. He is a survivor.

Burns offered his son a start in the crabbing business, and yes, he did try, but the work proved too much.

After back surgery and a stern warning from the doctor not to go pulling traps, Jim Burns lay around the house and felt terrible for a few months. It was then he decided to go pulling anyway. Two months later his back felt great.

Whatever magnetic pull the sea has on a person, it is a strong one. There are different motivations for all who venture onto the water for their living. Burns described it this way:

"What keeps me going happened one night just before sunset. A bunch of roughneck watermen were sitting around swilling beer and being nasty. As the sun finally set, all those ruffians fell silent from its beauty."

Rob Coykendall is another who draws his existence from the waterfront. He sells baitfish, mostly pinfish, to those headed for the grouper boats in Port Richey. The rest of his catch he sells to bait shops.

He has been many things on the water, from equipment manufacturer to first mate on a boat, never failing yet never hitting it big. Still, he is drawn to the life.

Thankfully, riches come in many forms, and those who draw from the sea consider themselves the wealthiest of all. They value their freedom most, and the beauty of their days next. Coykendall is no exception.

The day we went out, a quiet country song played on the radio as we left the Pithlachascotee River headed for his traps. It was a beautiful day, and the incoming tide was running strong. Coykendall thought out loud: "Maybe the tide will bring more big cobia in."

These are the signs and secrets he knows.

His days begin between 5 and 6 in the morning. Grouper diggers love horse-sized pinfish (a colloquialism for large fish). They would be a rough handful if he were late.

At night he grinds the cast-off carcasses from the boats into chum to fill his traps. It is a never-ending cycle, the relationship a symbiotic one between him and the grouper boats.

Coykendall checks his traps daily and places the fish in a livewell. If the spot has been productive, the traps remain; if not, they are relocated.

After the traps are baited and reset, there are times he will fish, drifting through the freshly made chum slick, of course. Live bait is no problem.

These are his favorite times -- the sun on his face, the cooling breeze, the feeling of being master of his own little ship. Anything less would still be okay, anything more would be excess.

These are the lords of the flies. They work behind the scenes and they work hard.

-- Capt. Mike Scarantino can be reached at (352) 683-4868.

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