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The master among the snappers

After years of hero worship, a lad finally meets the man behind the myth - the outdoors writer who has written definitively on angling in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000


INGLIS -- Ike was president and Florida had about a million people. My friends wanted to be Mickey Mantle when they grew up. I wanted to be Vic Dunaway, write stories about angling exploits and get paid for it.

I'd fight my dad for the sports page of the Miami Herald and devour Vic's column. He'd write about the sailfish he had fooled on fly or tell about the mako he had subdued in the Keys, or maybe explain a new fishing knot he had developed. I'd dutifully practice tying it with my shoelaces.

Vic was an angling high roller, a tuxedo to my dad's brown shoes. My dad could afford no boat or fishing guide. We had to make do with cheap tackle, a bucket of live shrimp for bait and maybe a patch of rocky Biscayne Bay shoreline as our boat. With every cast I dreamed of a whopper that might land my name in Vic's column.

Mostly I caught homely toadfish or humble grunt. When I was lucky, I'd haul in a snapper. You didn't brag about a snapper, but at least you had supper.

After Dunaway left the Herald, he edited Florida Sportsman magazine for three decades. He helped put fishing on the map with his columns and books, including Sport Fish of the Gulf of Mexico.

He was an expert on everything piscatorial, from fish identification, to how to prepare them for the table and even how to hold them properly while eating. ("Now, by biting to the backbone and sliding the meat off with your teeth, you'll get all of the tasty meat. . . .").

He retired as editor from Florida Sportsman in 1996, sold his house in Miami and moved to Levy County, because it was rural and likely would stay that way.

I work up my nerve and telephone Dunaway, who takes my bait and invites me on a fishing trip. As I drive north, through Homosassa and Crystal River, it feels like barracuda are chasing mullet in my stomach.

Meeting your hero can be a dangerous business. What if he turns out to be one of those obnoxious macho anglers who beats his chest like a gorilla about the big fish he has caught and the important people he has known that I will never know? Or what if he turns out to be a big fake, a man who can spin a tale but can't catch a fish? Childhood heroes are a dime a dozen.

Growing up in paradise

Vic Dunaway is 71 now. He watches his skin for cancer and monitors his diet to protect a damaged heart. He looks a little weather-beaten, a little frail, like he might not enjoy tangling with a swordfish or a tarpon any more.

Ospreys call from cypress trees as we launch the boat in late afternoon. The gulf is turbid from a strong wind. Most anglers, fleeing the weather, are calling it a day. Dunaway looks worried.

"We're going to take a beating," he says. He starts the boat engine, which rumbles instead of purrs. Something is wrong.

"I don't think we should go out," he says.

With age comes wisdom. Years ago he was stranded on a deserted beach in the Everglades after his engine conked out. He managed to catch a trout and cook it over a driftwood fire. His full belly hardly made up for the whine of hungry mosquitoes. Dawn was greeted with prayer.

A rescue airplane buzzed the beach. Dunaway's companion rushed with a stick to scrawl an emergency message in the sand.

Excited, he spelled out H-E-P.

"They're not going to help us now," Dunaway muttered. "They're just going to think we think we're cool."

Fortunately, the rangers were hep to the predicament and made the rescue so Dunaway could write again. He has four books in stores, including The Complete Book of Baits, Rigs and Tackle, which has been in print a quarter of a century and sold more than 300,000 copies.

When you have caught everything there is, you no longer have to prove anything. A 3-pound trout at the end of his line pleases him. A bald eagle perched on a cabbage palm makes him pick up his camera. Maybe he can fit the day's events into his work.

At night he writes on a word processor. Show tunes -- think Fred and Ginger -- blast from the stereo. But he also has a taste for country music. "The old hillbilly stuff," he says.

There's a Mel Tillis song he likes. He can't remember the title, but he can quote the lyrics by heart.

We spend our lives pursuing all the things we left behind.

"I'm doing that now," he says.

He grew up in the Panama Canal Zone but spent much of his youth in the Florida Panhandle, where he fished at every opportunity. The year his dad was stationed in Miami meant he could haunt the bridges and causeways and capture snapper on crude hand lines.

After graduation from Florida State he worked on a string of newspapers in Georgia. At least once a week he tried writing about fishing, and his skill earned him a job at the Miami Herald.

It was the perfect time to be an outdoors writer. As South Florida grew, so did interest in angling. Dunaway primed the pump with his stories about big fish.

He and his sons hiked the canal across the Everglades and caught bass dawn to dusk. On weekends they'd camp on the beach at Marco and catch snook until their arms ached. Then they'd roast their catch over a campfire.

"I don't think there was a place more attractive to a fisherman in Florida than Marco," he says of the Collier County island. "Now it's all hotels and condos."

Vic Dunaway doesn't go there anymore. He's living in a new fishing paradise.

Tips from a hero

When his boat motor fails, he catches my crestfallen look.

"I've got another boat at home," he says. "It's too small to take out in the gulf, but we can fish in the Withlacoochee River."

I'm thrilled.

"The tide isn't right for fishing the river," Dunaway says. "I like a falling tide and it's high. So don't be disappointed. But we'll hit a few spots and see what happens."

The Withlacoochee in the fall is thick with mullet. But they seldom bite on baited hooks. We're hoping for redfish, though I wouldn't mind catching that important fish of my youth, a snapper.

Snapper, and there are many species, are among our tastiest fish. Unfortunately they no longer are staples of restaurant menus. Most eateries feature grouper, a fine eating species, and the occasional mahi-mahi. But most are just as likely to serve cod from New England or salmon from the Pacific Northwest. Many Florida anglers would rather starve than eat salmon or cod in a Florida restaurant.

Dunaway has yet to meet a fish he wouldn't sprinkle with salt and pepper. When he wrote his bookFrom Hook To Table, he caught, cleaned and ate fish that most anglers would rather use as fertilizer.

I ask about the table qualities of a fish I would never eat, the freshwater gar, which smells like day-old road kill the moment you haul it out of the water.

"Well, the Seminole Indians eat them, and I think they're smart to eat them. Gar taste pretty good. They're bony and you have to chop them into chunks with a meat cleaver and then skin them. The bad smell is in the skin. After you get it off you've got a fish that tastes pretty much like lobster. But never eat the roe. It's poisonous."

Despite his angling prowess, Dunaway seldom is overconfident about his next seafood dinner. For the depressing days when there are no gar, snapper or grouper around, he receives onboard sustenance from one of his ever present cans of Vienna sausages, that convenience store institution.

"If you can pry a sausage out one of those cans without slicing open your fingers, they're pretty good," he says. "And you can drink the oil the sausages come in."

Please, Lord. Help us catch snapper.

Peeling and reeling

We fish for an hour without a bite. Then I get a big one.

Line sizzles from my reel. My wrist aches as the rod bends in half. Something big refuses to surrender.

It's a jack crevalle, a decent 3-pounder. If jack crevalle grew to 100 pounds they'd never be caught. Pound for pound they might be the strongest fish in the sea.

Ping. My line breaks. Rookie mistake. My face turns red.

Soon, something grabs my bait again.

It feels even bigger than the last fish. Line peels off the reel as a mystery fish heads down the river for the gulf.

"It's fighting like a redfish," Dunaway says.

I picture a world record.

The line goes slack.

"Oh, no!" Dunaway cries. "I don't like to coach unless I'm asked, but it's important that you delay hooking a redfish. You've got to give him time to throw the bait into the back of his throat. Otherwise, the hook will pull."

Impatient with the nimrod, he goes to work.

Somewhere down below, in the cola-colored water, over by the oyster bar and rocky shoal, a snapper homes in on the old man's baited hook.

The snapper mouths the shrimp; Vic Dunaway feels the bite. He sets the hook and the snapper dives toward the rocks. Dunaway reels like mad and the snapper pops to the surface. It's a gray snapper, a nice one, but too small to legally keep. He catches another and another. Vic Dunaway among the snappers is a wonderful sight.

"I am having fun even with these little fish," says the man who used to haul in blue marlin.

"The older I get, the more I enjoy doing the kind of fishing I did as a kid."

Old fishermen never die. They just smell that way.

So says the tackle-store bumper sticker. For my money Vic Dunaway smells better than Old Spice.

A fishing tale

From a column by Vic Dunaway, published in April 1980, in Florida Sportsman:

Flyfisherman Walton Isaac Cray had been casting along a stream for nearly three hours. Despite his three-hundred dollar custom graphite rod and impeccable custom flies, he had managed to catch only four small bass.

Rounding a bend, Cray came upon a barefoot lad wearing tattered overalls and a floppy straw hat. Clutched in the moppet's hand was a broom handle fitted with wrapping twine and a diaper pin. Baiting the giant safety pin with a chicken gizzard, the youngster tossed it into the water, then looked up at the flyrodder and flashed a disarming snaggle-toothed grin from a cherubic mouth surrounded by a sea of freckles.

The angler's heart went out to this ill-equipped yet cheerful and determined tot.

"Here, son," he said, tendering a five-dollar bill. "Take this money and go buy yourself a decent pole and a can of worms."

"Gee, thanks, mister," said the boy, his saucer eyes widening under an unruly mop of flame-red hair. Then, politely, he inquired of the flyfisherman, "You caught anything?"

"Only four small bass. How about you?"

"Sure have," the waif exulted. "Lookit!"

He reached into a grimy burlap bag, previously unnoticed by the older angler, and withdrew from it two other five-dollar bills.

"You're the third sucker I caught today!"

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