Legendary Key West light-tackle guide captain Ralph Delph retired from charter fishing just about a year ago, but it’s highly unlikely that some up-and-comer will top most of the 70-year-old’s accomplishments:
▪ He guided anglers to at least 127 IGFA-certified world records.
▪ He landed four giant bluefin tuna over 1,000 pounds (including one weighing 1,154) on a stand-up rod.
▪ He guided more master angler winners than any other captain in the Metropolitan South Florida Fishing Tournament (MET) — which ran from 1935 to 2008 and predates the IGFA by four years.
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▪ He guided anglers to seven of the heaviest fish ever caught on fly rod — including a 385-pound lemon shark that was released alive.
“An awesome outdoorsman,” said IGFA Hall of Famer Stu Apte of Islamorada, who encouraged Delph to become a guide in the early 1970s. “If they had a tournament anywhere in the world, and the anglers could only use 10-pound test, Ralph would kick everybody’s ass.”
Said retired Coral Gables physician Marty Arostegui, who has caught more IGFA world records (441) than anyone ever — including the gigantic lemon shark: “A tough guy, a great teacher, a great family man. He brought out the best in me.”
Arostegui and Delph reunited for a daylong outing recently with Delph’s son, captain Billy Delph, on Billy’s 40-foot open-fisherman, Protégé. Accompanying them were Arostegui’s college student son Martini, 22, holder of 193 IGFA world records; IGFA photographer Adrian Gray; and Billy’s two sons and crew members, David, 11, and Daniel, 13.
By most standards, it was a banner day of fishing in the Gulf north of the Dry Tortugas — four dolphin to 20 pounds; six mutton snappers to 15 pounds; six amberjack to about 30 pounds (released); a 100-pound Goliath grouper (released); 10 red snapper (released); and a potential world-record banded rudderfish of 5 pounds (released alive at the dock after weighing).
But for Ralph Delph, who has been fishing these waters since the 1960s, it wasn’t all that. The Keys fishery today on a scale of 1 to 10, he said, is maybe a two.
“In the old days, this would be terrible,” he said. “We used to go out with the expectation of catching kingfish over 60 pounds on 8-pound test. Nowadays, all fish have such a commercial value that you don’t see 100-pound amberjacks anymore. At Eastern Dry Rocks [a reef located a few miles off Key West], you’d see 10 acres of busting ballyhoo, black grouper, muttons doing flip-flops, tuna crashing. Twenty-pound kingfish were considered schoolies.”
Delph said he got into the charter business during South Florida’s golden age of recreational fishing. A successful structural engineer in Miami in the ’60s and early ’70s, he fished every chance he got and was one of the original members of the Miami Sportfishing Club based in Hialeah. Club members regularly competed against one another to see who could catch the biggest fish on the lightest tackle. They thought nothing of traveling from Key West to the Dry Tortugas — about 70 miles — in single-engine boats as small as 15 feet in search of really big fish to catch on fishing lines with breaking strengths in the single digits using artificial lures and fly tackle.
“Those were fishermen,” Delph said. “Those were the days a guy could handle every kind of fishing tackle. The fishermen we had in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were the best fishermen in the world.”
In 1973, Delph quit his engineering job and relocated to Key West to launch a new career as a guide. One of his most successful anglers was Jim Anson of Miami, now 75, who chartered him weekly for 15 years after retiring from service as a U.S. Army Green Beret in Vietnam. Delph guided Anson — his classmate and fellow track team member at Coral Gables High — to win grand champion honors three times in the MET and four times in the Key West Fishing Tournament.
One of their most memorable catches was a 285-pound Warsaw grouper that they fed a 7-pound mutton snapper for bait. With Anson holding a heavy conventional outfit strapped into a harness, the huge fish ate the bait and “the rod bent over and the rod butt came up and it broke two ribs and knocked a disc out of my back,” Anson recounted. “But I got him. It was a heck of a catch.”
At the height of a fishing career filled with accolades, Delph earned a reputation for berating anglers who made mistakes that cost them big fish.
“He was relentless,” Anson said. “There were times people got off the boat and chewed him out, and I mentioned it and he said, ‘They were the losers and you were the winner.’ ”
Anson said Delph’s admonishments never bothered him because he was hard of hearing and accustomed to being yelled at in the Army.
Today, Delph is widely considered the father of light-tackle sport fishing in South Florida with fishing and boating innovations still employed by younger guides. He was among the first to figure out how to tease large amberjacks and permit away from their smaller peers to bite an angler’s bait or lure. He had his 29-foot Contender Vitamin Sea customized with a large, aerated fish box to transport Arostegui’s huge fly-caught lemon shark to a scale on shore to be weighed and released alive. He also has helped rod and reel companies test and develop new gear.
Delph would probably still be guiding in the Keys, but he lost sight in one eye to cancer several years ago and is having problems with his other eye. He and wife Caroline spend most of their time at their home near Bozeman, Mont., traveling to Key West to see their children and grandchildren. Delph now concentrates on fishing for fun in the northern U.S. and Canada targeting giant steelhead, Atlantic salmon and other species. He’d like to launch his own television show emphasizing the pure enjoyment of fishing and natural beauty of the fishing grounds instead of the sport’s financial rewards.
On his Dry Tortugas outing with the Arosteguis, Delph caught the last fish of the day — an amberjack estimated at 30 pounds that he reeled up from 200 feet deep and decided to release. The crew had been testing a new device that day designed to prevent deep-caught fish from dying of barotrauma upon release. The device had been mostly successful, but one small snapper had died on the surface.
The veteran guide didn’t waste any time. He removed the hook from the amberjack’s jaw and laid it on the gunwale.
“Watch this,” he said, pressing inward on the fish’s belly and causing a hissing sound as it expelled air through its mouth.
Delph dropped the fish into the water and it swam quickly out of sight.