Bob Brown, Jr., holds a Dorado caught by a customer off the Florida Keys. Brown runs a wide, stout, 32-foot Century fishing boat.
MARATHON, Fla. -- Bob Brown, Jr., has a lengthy commute to work. Every fall, he drags his boat onto the trailer and tows it 1,500 tough, arduous highway miles from Lake Erie to the Florida Keys, not very far from Cuba.
Brown despises the drive, but he still adores his job.
"I get to fish all year, in two of the best fishing grounds in the world, so I'm not complaining at all. It's just the 'getting there' part I'm not crazy about," Brown said recently after a successful outing fishing the reefs, and the shipwrecks near the Keys.
He spends May through September as a charter fishing operator in the western basin of Erie, the richest fishery in the Great Lakes. Brown takes groups out of Channel Grove Marina located on East Harbor, near Marblehead, in pursuit of walleye and smallmouth bass.
October is transition time, when Brown is focused on closing the operations at the marina where he is part of the fourth generation of his family to own and manage Channel Grove. His wide and stout 32-foot Century fishing boat is on the trailer and headed south by early November, so Brown can be ready for Thanksgiving weekend and the start of the busy season in the Keys, where dolphin, sailfish, grouper, barracuda, wahoo, and tarpon are the primary targets.
"It's quite a change. You drive out of one climate and one type of fishing, and into a completely different climate and style of fishing," Brown said. "It's not something you learn how to do overnight, as I found out."
Brown, a 1977 graduate of Port Clinton High School who also attended Ohio University, got a very early start in the fishing business. By the time he was 12 years old, Brown was out on Lake Erie nearly every day in-season, working as a hand on charter boats. He was a fully licensed charter boat captain on the lake at 18.
"So few people have that kind of foundation, that kind of background," said Rick Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association. "I think that's what makes Bob the consummate captain. This has been his life since he was old enough to remember."
Brown's father, Bob, Sr., started visiting the Keys with his family in 1970. By the time Bob, Jr., reached high school, the time spent in Florida was several months each winter. The younger Brown earned his captain's license in Florida in 1980, but that did not mean he could immediately reel in success.
"Back then, I was the 'guy from up north,' young and dumb," Brown said about his baptism into the business of fishing the Keys.
"I ended up getting jobs on bigger boats down here, working for other captains, and learning all of the little things from them. After four or five years of work as a first mate on other boats, I was finally ready to go out on my own."
Anne Brown has earned her stripes. She runs the business at Channel Grove in Ohio and the Keys in Florida.
Brown met his wife, Anne, a native of Michigan, in the Keys about 25 years ago, and she ended up working as first mate on his boat as they tried to establish themselves in a very competitive market.
"Those first two years were tough," Anne Brown said. "If I could have walked on water, I would have quit a hundred times."
Eventually, success came, despite the stubborn sentiments with some locals -- called Conchs -- that Brown was still an outsider in the Keys.
"It was probably the second or third year with our own boat down here that we finally got it going," Brown said. "By then I was the young guy with the new techniques, and catching a lot of fish. But I still had to win a couple of tournaments for most of the local guys to accept me."
Brown has been at 7-Mile Marina since 1988. The small harbor where he keeps his boat sits just yards off U.S. Highway 1, the only route from Miami to Key West, and at the approach to the famous Seven Mile Bridge.
Some folks driving by on the busy thoroughfare stop and inquire about fishing trips, but these days, 75 percent of Brown's salt water fishing business is made up of repeat customers. A few of the fishermen he takes out on the waters surrounding the Keys are Ohioans who also use Brown's charter service on Lake Erie. The rest of his dates here are filled with dedicated anglers who come to the Keys specifically for deep-sea fishing adventures.
"When I got here, I was the youngest guy around," said Brown, 52. "Now I'm the oldest guy. In my thirties I did 300 trips a year, between the winters here and the summers on Lake Erie. Now I do maybe 200 to 250 trips a year. That's enough."
In about three months, Brown will pull his boat "Sundance" out of the water, hook it behind his big pickup and point the rig north. Somewhere along the way he'll have to switch gears from sharks to smallmouth, and from wahoo to walleyes.
"What most people don't understand is that charter fishing on Lake Erie and charter fishing in the Keys requires two completely different skill sets because you are operating in two totally different worlds," Unger said.
"The equipment is different, the techniques are different, and the locations are different. I don't think one captain in a hundred could do it, and not one in a thousand could do it as well as Bob does. I wish I had his kind of talent."
Back in Ohio, Anne runs the day-to-day business at Channel Grove in the summers, but here in the Keys, she is a fully-skilled first-mate aboard "Sundance".
"They're unique because you don't see many husband and wife teams here, or anywhere else," said Bob Brown, Sr., a retired Lake Erie charter captain who keeps a winter residence on nearby Grassy Key. "He runs the boat, and she knows how to do everything else. There aren't very many couples that could do that. They make a really good team."
Unger said Brown's drive to run a "first-rate" charter service in two drastically different parts of the North American continent are not the only thing that makes him unique.
"It's his family history in the fishing business, and the expectations he puts on his whole operation -- those things won't allow him to do otherwise," he said. "There's a whole lot about what we do that is not fun, but Bob doesn't short-cut anything."
Contact Blade Outdoors Editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@ theblade.com or 419-724-6068.
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