Capt. Skip Bradeen plunges his forearms into a stinky vat of sand, chum and oats on the transom of his 48-foot charter boat Blue Chip Too. After shaping a chum ball around a piece of cut ballyhoo, Bradeen tosses the messy bomblet overboard and shouts, “There ya go, baby! Make it yellow!”
Humming along with a 1960s tune playing on the oldies radio station, he watches for a yellowtail snapper to gobble the bait cloaked in the dissolving chum ball on customer Gary Anderson’s line.
Suddenly … a bite! The slack line on the spinning reel whizzes out in a rush.
“Don’t let him get in the bottom!” Bradeen excitedly coaches Anderson, who soon reels up a 2-pound yellowtail.
This scene has played out hundreds and maybe even thousands of times on the deck of Bradeen’s Islamorada charter boat, but it just doesn’t seem to get old for the 71-year-old captain. Despite leading fishing trips out of the same marina — Whale Harbor — where he began his Keys career 50 years ago, Bradeen still bounces around the boat, rigging baits and gaffing fish with the enthusiasm of a high schooler skipping school to wet a line for the first time.
“I love it out here, you kiddin’ me?” he says. “I gotta pinch myself.”
Bradeen’s mate, Wayne Kvadus, has worked for him for 32 years and calls himself the “new kid on the block.” He runs Bradeen’s second boat, a 50-footer, when both boats are booked. Together, they’ve guided customers to catch just about every fish that swims in Keys waters, including giant kingfish, wahoo, dolphin, amberjack, sailfish, sharks, cobia, grouper — you name it.
“And now I’m going to catch another one!” Bradeen shouts as he forms another chum ball.
Anderson and his fishing partner, Greg Kovach, look at Bradeen and chuckle. Anderson, who’s from Melbourne, first fished on Bradeen’s boat with his father 35 years ago. Now Anderson’s father is in assisted living, so he brought Kovach, a boyhood friend from Ohio.
“Skip is always steady. He’s a lot of fun,” Anderson said. “I try to get here once a year with Skip.”
Bradeen got his start working as a deckhand on charterboats in his native Freeport, N.Y., on Long Island. After serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, he and buddy Ray Jensen decided to visit Florida. Jensen got a job on an Islamorada party boat, and Bradeen, who had planned to drop off his friend and return home, fell in love with the small Upper Keys island and the region’s bountiful fishing. He bought his first boat in 1964 and never left.
Back then, a day’s outing on a sportfishing boat cost $60, but diesel fuel was only 72 cents per gallon. Today, an all-day charter runs about $1,300, with diesel hovering around $4 per gallon. Bookings have remained steady for the Blue Chip throughout the years, but took a dip during the depth of the economic recession in 2009. That prompted Bradeen to open a piano bar upstairs at Bentley’s Restaurant, which recently closed.
The captain has seen plenty of changes in South Florida’s fisheries over the past 50 years.
“On average, everything that we catch is smaller now,” he said. “It used to be that a ‘flag’ yellowtail was between 4 and 5 pounds. What we called ‘pennants’ in the old days — 14 inchers — are what people call ‘flags’ today. Amberjacks used to be 75 pounds. The average today is 40 to 50 pounds. Muttons were 15 to 20 pounds; now they’re 5 pounds on average.”
Bradeen said “slammer” dolphin (mahi mahi 20 pounds and above) are not as common as in decades past. And unlike some Keys charter captains, he has no problem with the annual four-month shallow water grouper closure throughout the South Atlantic.
“I think when it’s spawning season, let’s not catch any,” he said. “They’re most vulnerable then, and that’s when they should be off limits. It pains me when people say, ‘I can’t wait for spawning season.’ Fish get stupid.”
Besides his considerable fishing prowess, Bradeen is well-known around town for his popular fishing reports spiced with commentary about community issues on the local radio station. In the 1990s, a pet Vietnamese pot-bellied pig that he bought for wife Lisa was the talk of Islamorada — even appearing on ABC’s Good Morning America. The pig — named Adios after Lisa’s threats to leave if her husband didn’t banish it — was a fixture on the Blue Chip Too for years, riding around with fishing customers and generally behaving politely. Eventually, Lisa came around and the couple adopted a second pig named Amigo.
“They’d run around squealing,” noted Anderson.
Both pigs have since passed on to the giant sty in the sky.
Today, at the height of the spring tourist season, Bradeen’s boats are out fishing nearly every day, and he couldn’t be happier.
“People ask me, ‘When are you going to retire?’ ” Bradeen said. “I’m not ready. I love painting the boat, working on the boat. It’s a great life — keep it like this forever. My idea of retirement is the boat’s going to go around in circles. Then I’m gonna fall off the bridge and the sharks are going to eat me.”
But before anything like that could happen, an eight-foot hammerhead ate one of the Blue Chip Too’s kite baits and Anderson fought it for about 45 minutes before bringing it close enough for Kvadus to cut the line and let it go.
An exciting end to one of many fish-filled days on the Blue Chip Too.