Captain Bill Smith: bootlegging, Doc Lowe, and bonefish – part 1

âBonefish Bonnieâ™ Smith with husband Captain Bill Smith fly fishing for bonefish.
âBonefish Bonnieâ™ Smith with husband Captain Bill Smith fly fishing for bonefish.

The Legislature of the State of Florida has passed a House Resolution commending Captain Bill Smith for catching the first bonefish on artificial fly in the seagrass shallows surrounding Islamorada 75 years ago. 

While Captain Bill’s bonefish accolade is a unique piece of Upper Keys history, it is not the sum total of the Smith story.

Smith came to the Keys after another local legend, Edward R. “Doc” Lowe, invited Smith, a teenager at the time, to work as a charter boat captain at his Tavernier club in 1928.

Doc Lowe’s years in the Keys date back to the construction of Henry Flagler’s railroad; he was in charge of the railroad workers’ medical facility in the Vaca Key area. According to Captain Bill, after his days with the railroad Doc Lowe became one of three U.S. Deputy Marshalls in the State of Florida.

As an officer, Lowe spent a great deal of time traveling up and down the state. It was during one of his sojourns that he became aquatinted with Captain Bill’s father, Robert Toombs Smith. The two became friends after meeting at a murder trial in Jacksonville and, over the course of several summers during the mid-1920s, Doc Lowe and his family began vacationing with the Smiths at their family homestead. 

According to Captain Bill, Doc Lowe quite enjoyed the Smith family corn whisky.

During the Prohibition years, the Smith property served as a distribution portal for rumrunners and bootleggers. A telegraph operator would alert Bill whenever a shipment of booze was coming in from Nassau. Shortly thereafter, rumrunners would come up Mullet Creek, in the Indian River area where the 159-acre Smith homestead had been established, and unload their contraband. 

In a taped interview conducted by Ken Knudsen in 1990, Captain Bill said, “Sometimes there would be as many as 50 cars parked on our property waiting to get loaded up.” 

He also recalled seeing over $1 million in cash move across the family’s kitchen table.

Bill and his brother John became licensed as charter captains for hire by the Coast Guard in 1928. Back in those days, acquiring the license took little more than filling out an application. According to Captain Bill, “All you had to do was walk in with two hands and two feet and they would give one to you. Hell, you didn’t even have to walk in. They gave me one and I was never even there.” 

On the day that Captain Bill and his brother were scheduled to appear before the Coast Guard, Captain Bill no-showed; the telegraph operator had alerted Bill about a shipment of booze arriving from Nassau. 

Later that year, still in 1928, Doc Lowe contacted the Smith boys to say that he needed a couple of charter boat captains to work at his new Tavernier club. Doc Lowe, who operated a professional and businessmen’s club in Coral Gables, opened a secondary location in the Keys where he could entertain his members. 

When the Tavernier club opened it was a two-story house on a piece of ocean front property near the other Lowe family living in the vicinity, that of Leonard Lowe (no relation). The club did not even have a dock. At first, it was just Bill’s brother John who brought his boat down to the Keys to work for Lowe. 

The two brothers switched places after Captain Bill decided it was best if he disappeared for a while. Bill came to Tavernier and John went back to Melbourne after Captain Bill was named in a $1.3 million lawsuit; the government was looking to seize taxes owed on illegal profits from the sale of alcohol. Captain Bill went on to work for Doc Lowe until he left the Keys in 1930. Doc Lowe and his club continued to operate as was detailed in the December 1931 issue of Motor Boat Magazine: “Capt. Doc Lowe will be found a regular fount head of information on boats, tackle, and places to go. All sorts of fishing tackle, boats, in season, can be secured. Capt. Eugene Lowe is also a reliable guide. Captain Doc Lowe runs a fishing club famous for its fine eating, and from Tarpon down the fishing is good in the proper season.”

Smith would come back to the Keys in 1934, and the July 11 column will continue with the story of Captain Bill’s bonefish. In the meantime, to commemorate Smith’s historic catch State Rep. Holly Raschein will present the House Resolution to members of Captain Bill’s family at the Keys History & Discovery Center on Wednesday, July 9 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Family member Barbara Smith Arthur will present a short power point presentation on Captain Bill. For more information contact (305) 922-2237.

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at