Captain Bill Smith: bootlegging, Doc Lowe, and bonefish – part 2

This 1939 photograph captures Captain Bill Smith with the first bonefish ever caught on a fly rod. The fly has been superimposed onto the photograph.
This 1939 photograph captures Captain Bill Smith with the first bonefish ever caught on a fly rod. The fly has been superimposed onto the photograph.

Captain Bill Smith was 19 when he started working as a charter boat fishing captain for Doc Lowe’s Tavernier fishing club back in 1928. 

He left Doc Lowe’s and moved away from the Keys in 1930, but found his way back to the islands in 1934. Smith found work as a charter boat captain for Islamorada’s Ed and Fern Butters, owners of the Matecumbe Hotel. He was given room and board, plus Ed paid him half of the price of each charter. It was not full time work.

The Matecumbe Hotel also served as the headquarters for the agencies in charge of building the bridge system that would have made Key West accessible to automobile traffic via a series of concrete bridges that roughly paralleled the Overseas Railway. They were also staying at the hotel; Fern Butters was serving three meals a day to the project’s supervisors. When Captain Bill was not fishing, he would help Fern serve and clean up. 

Smith was offered a job as nighttime security guard at Camp 3, located at the southern tip of Lower Matecumbe. His primary job was ferrying higher-ups between their living quarters aboard the barge Sarasota anchored just offshore and the work camp. When those on the Sarasota needed to signal Captain Bill, they turned on one of the barge’s lights. Fortunately for Smith he had a little white terrier who loved boat rides, and it had not taken long for Smith’s dog to understand that when the light switched on, a boat ride was imminent. When the light would suddenly glow in the distance, the terrier would start to bark. It was because of Captain Bill’s furry alarm clock that he was able to sit inside his car and spend a fair amount of time sleeping on the job. 

Captain Bill Smith, along with approximately 30 other people, would end up riding out the killer Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 aboard the Sarasota. The barge had been moved inside a 1,000-foot canal that had been ordered to be dug out months prior — in case of just such an emergency. Heavy anchors attached to the barge with thick lines were secured deep within the mangrove thickets on either bank of the canal; everyone aboard survived the 200 mph winds and 17 feet of storm surge that mauled the Keys.

Captain Bill remained in the area as a charter boat captain long after the 1935 event. While the bootlegging and hurricane survival aspects of the Captain Bill Smith story are engaging, they have nothing to do with the historic fishing feat he is best remembered for. That story, the bonefish story, is another fish tale altogether; it comes in two parts.

The first part of the story involves a client from Alaska who brought salmon flies to the Keys in hopes of hooking into silver kings — tarpon. The flies proved futile and after that first day of fishing, Smith consulted with another local guide, Leo Johnson, who was catching tarpon on a fly rod. Johnson’s secret was to wrap a piece of pork rind around the hook.

The following morning, Captain Bill supplied his client with a fly that he had tied, one with a little pork rind wrapped around it. The Alaskan, Mr. Crawford, caught a couple of tarpon that day; he also threw the pork-rind fly at one or two schools of bonefish. He hooked two bonefish that day, too.

Back at the dock, Smith brought the second bonefish to the local grocery store so he could weigh the fish. It just so happened that on that particular day fishing writer George LaBranche stepped inside the store at around the same time. When Smith saw LaBranche, he told the fishing writer and purist that he had caught a bonefish on a fly rod. LaBranche asked to see the fish and when Smith presented it, the bonefish still had the original fly embedded through its lip and the sliver of pork rind was still wrapped around the shaft. 

As soon as LaBranche saw the pork rind he called the catch bogus, referring to the fly as little more than bait. Captain Bill took the criticism to heart and spent several months tying different flies in an effort to perfect the first legitimate bonefish fly. Hard work, as it generally does, paid off, and Smith eventually tied a combination of ostrich feathers, brown squirrel hair, red and yellow hackle, red and orange thread and a 1/0 hook that he named the Salt-Us after one of his bonefishing clients, Mr. Saltus.

It was that fly, the Salt-Us, that Smith cast at a school of bonefish gathered in the shallows surrounding the islands of Islamorada in the early summer months of 1939. The fly worked and an 8-pound bonefish was recorded as the first ever caught on a fly rod.