Bonefish are among the most elusive of creatures. Outdoorsman and author Zane Grey once dubbed the silvery and skittish salt water gamefish “the Gray Ghost of the shallows” for its ability to seemingly disappear on the flats of Biscayne Bay.
Legendary fishing guide Bill Curtis, however, was a hawk-eye at spotting them and — even more difficult — catching them.
Writer John Katzenbach once wrote in the Miami Herald’s former Sunday magazine, Tropic, that catching a bonefish is “one of the most exquisite thrills in sports.”
Curtis, who died at 91 on Oct. 24, in Lecanto, Florida, arguably experienced that thrill more than anyone. The renowned charter captain, who helped pioneer flats fishing in South Florida, spent more than 50 years showing others how to spot, catch (and release) the prized bonefish.
And he did that, along with everything else in his life — he was an aerophotographer in the Army Air Corps during World War II and later an advertising photographer — with one eye. He lost the right one at age 4 in an accident while roughhousing with a friend.
It’s a cliché to use the word legend, but that’s what Bill Curtis was.
Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen.
“He could spot the bonefish better with his one good eye than most people who have two,” said friend Carl Hiaasen, the Miami Herald columnist. Hiaasen said Curtis elevated bonefishing to a primal art form.
“Bill Curtis was one of the great colorful pioneers of flyfishing for bonefish in South Florida,” Hiaasen said. “He was generous enough to share his knowledge with Bob Branham [who also would become a noted Biscayne Bay guide] and I when we were young, and learning our way around Biscayne Bay.” We fished with him on occasion, but more often on the same waters in our own skiffs. We’d stay in touch by radio, and then meet back at Crandon Marina at the end of the day to talk about the fishing.
“You see, that’s the bonefish. I think of him sometimes like he’s Don Juan, you know, the great seducer. Well, he may score a lot, but he sure sends everyone home happy,” Curtis told the Herald in 1983.
His late wife Adrienne lovingly called him “an outlaw, a nonconformist, a walking rejection of the corporate man.”
She’d get no argument from the feisty Curtis.
“Man was born to hunt, fight and make love. Anything else is just a complication,” he once said.
Born March 25, 1925, in Chelsea, Oklahoma, Curtis moved to Miami in the 1950s and let his photography career fritter away like bubbles in a boat wake. Landlubber jobs were just diversions between the main course of life — fishing.
Bill pioneered fly tackle fishing in Biscayne Bay 50 years ago and had all this up in his head and was willing to share that information with anyone who would ask him.
Capt. Jerry Appling on Bill Curtis, his partner at Bass Pro Shop in Miami.
He studied Biscayne Bay like a scientist. He found his niche as a bonefish guide and in 1960 whisked then-Interior Secretary Stuart Udall and Commerce Secretary Luther Hodges on fishing expeditions on the bay. These trips helped lead to the formation of the Biscayne National Park.
Others who also enjoyed a ride with Curtis included baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who fished as well as he hit, and boating editor Bob Stearns. Songwriter Jimmy Buffett and his brother-in-law, writer Thomas McGuane, also cast lines and traded tales with the old salt. In 1968, Curtis was often featured on the late sportscaster Curt Gowdy’s “American Sportsman” TV series as the pursued bonefish, tarpon and permit. He also was an inspiration for a fictional Florida Keys fishing guide in the acclaimed 1973 Thomas McGuane novel, “92 in the Shade.”
The yellow flat boat Curtis designed with Bob Hewes, the Grasshopper, was such a presence on Biscayne Bay local anglers refer to one spot on the oceanside of Old Rhoads Key as “Curtis Point.”
Another early innovation on Curtis’ Grasshopper was its raised platform at the stern of the skiff. From its perch, he could spot bonefish and pole his craft. Curtis’ design, initially dismissed by competitors as “a fish cleaning table,” is now standard issue on flats boats.
“One of the best compliments I ever got from him is when I was doing a movie for TV on bonefishing and he said, ‘You see the bonefish as well as I do.’ And he was good at seeing bonefish. That’s a tricky thing to do. I took that as quite a compliment from a guy who was doing it most of his adult life,” Stearns said. “He was considered the No. 1 bonefish guy when I first met him in the ’60s. There were some others who became very good but he was the man in his day.”
Adds Hiaasen: “Bill was tough, crafty and funny — and he did not suffer fools kindly.”
Fellow fisherman Robert Kilgore remembers some salty exchanges he’d overhear out on the waters off Key Biscayne between his friend, Curtis, and some hapless soul who couldn’t tell stern from bow.
“I’d be down on a flat on another flat from him and I’d hear him shout at an angler, ‘Why are you throwing at his tail? He eats with his mouth, not his asshole,’ Kilgore said, chuckling at the memory of a man he refers to as “dean of the flats.”
In his 2004 book, “Tideline: Captains, Fly-Fishing and the American Coast,” Kirk Deeter, who covers flyfishing and trout fishing for Field & Stream, recounts an encounter anecdote that led to Curtis becoming the inspiration for a fictional character — guide Tom Skelton, in author Thomas McGuane’s 1973 novel of Florida Keys fishing culture, “92 in the Shade.”
How McGuane first encountered Curtis says a lot.
“Almost all good writing on Florida flats fishing — especially stories on the uniquely gritty, sometimes cutthroat guiding culture of the Keys — reflects, intentionally or not, the persona of Bill Curtis. It is hard to read any story about this area’s fly-fishing heydays, turf wars, wild adventures, or working character, without somehow seeing Bill Curtis in the pages,” Deeter wrote.
“Bill likes writers, or so he says. Bill’s favorite story involves another writer and angler with whom he had a run-in near Key West, roughly thirty years ago. ‘He had a 17-foot center console Mako, and decided to race me for this little channel, but my Hewes Bonefisher was just a little faster. So I made the cut before he did, trimming up my engine so he would eat my spray as I ran across Northwest Channel. When we got into Garrison Bight, I really hosed him out. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but he knew me, so he came around looking to start something back at the dock. I had a charter with me, a guy and his wife, but he ran right over, all mad, and started yelling, ‘If you do that again you son-of-a-bitch, I’ll …’
“ ‘And I said, ‘Fine, you just come down right now, and we’ll start swingin,’ but one way or another, it blew over.’
“Some time later, mutual friends would introduce Bill Curtis to Thomas McGuane. They eventually forged their own, respectful friendship.”
In 2000, Curtis helped found the Bonefish & Tarpon Unlimited foundation (now called Bonefish & Tarpon Trust) to raise research money and awareness of depleting fishery.
“He was a great innovator in the sport and one of the early pioneers of bringing saltwater fly fishing to Florida,” said Bonefish & Tarpon Trust founding member and director Jeff Storm Harkavy. “He was an iconic personality. Like many captains he could be surly and tough at times but invariably he helped everyone take their game up a notch.”
Curtis is survived by his daughters, Nancy Curtis Bacon, Gael Routenberg, Carol Lynn Curtis, five grandchildren, Sydnee Hunter Curtis, Jahnne Velez, John Velez-Machado, Alexandra DeBourcy, Jesse Hammond, and four great-grandchildren Evonna, Debon, Xuly, Albus. He was predeceased by his daughter Bonnie Alyce Curtis and grandson Lukas Samuel Hammond.
Donations in Curtis’ memory can be made to the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. A memorial by boat at Curtis Point will be announced at a later date by his family and friends.