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An In-Depth Look At Sport Fishing And The Boats That Fuel The Industry

Sport fishing is a lesser part of the overall boating scene in South Florida. Most boat owners are in it for cruising along. But considering the enormous scope of the marine industry in the state, fishing boats are still a major economic factor. And unlike much of the industry, which sees major yachts built all over the world, sport fishing boats, including the finest custom designs, are concentrated in Florida. There are four builders in the Stuart area alone.

“Florida is the place with the pedigree when it comes to sport fishing boats,” says Paul Flannery, director of the SYS Yacht Sales office in Jupiter.

Paul Flannery
Flannery poses on “Big Blue,” a 45-foot Rybovich built in 1967. It is the last plank on frame boat built by the legendary Tommy Rybovich. It is valued at about $400,000. “There’s no better boat than Rybovich,”  Flannery says. “It’s a name synonymous with the highest quality in the world, bar none.”

Paul Flannery could have written this piece, and not just because his 30 years in the boating industry include 15 years as a fishing boat captain. He’s knowledgeable not only about boats, but he also has fished about every destination available to South Floridians, and tried the latest equipment in the field, which is seeing rapidly advancing technology.  When it comes to boat builders, he’s a bit of a historian. And he has a gift for talking about it. Moreover, he also has done a bit of writing, a skill he attributes to his classical Jesuit education, first at a Massachusetts prep school and later at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. He contributed to Marlin Magazine, the bible of sports fishing, when it launched in the 1980s.

He has been director of SYS Palm Beach (the actual office is at the Jupiter Yacht Club Marina) for two years. He formerly owned his own company, which he sold to HMY Yacht Sales, and worked for that company for 12 years.

The major players in the sport fishing world are mass production outfits—Viking Yachts in New Jersey, Hatteras in North Carolina and Bertram in Tampa. But when it comes to custom builders, South Florida is dominant.

There is a story behind each of these builders, often started by colorful figures. Among the oldest is Michael Rybovich & Sons in Palm Beach Gardens, which traces its history to John Rybovich Sr. who came to the Palm Beach area in 1910. Merritt Yachts in Pompano Beach opened in 1948 and Jim Smith Boats in Stuart in 1959. These firms built their reputations on quality and innovation in custom-built boats.

“There are production boats and there are custom boats, they’re entirely different,” says Jamie MacGregor of MacGregor Yachts in Palm Beach Gardens. “Custom are handmade; they take two to three years to build. A production boat takes a couple months. And the ‘gentleman’ boat owner is going to go custom every time.”

It is not just the business that is big in Florida. The boats themselves are getting bigger, and correspondingly more expensive.  Paul Flannery explains why: “Years ago, a 52-foot Hatteras was a huge boat. Today, 62 feet would be about average on the tournament circuit. We came to learn that a boat over 50 feet rode a lot better. With the advent of big engines, it gives us more response. You’d be amazed at the responsiveness of a 70-foot boat. You know, a Bentley Coupe is a hell of a big auto, but it handles beautifully.”

The more expensive boats have sleek designs and amenities, such as staterooms, associated with luxury yachts.

“These are not your daddy’s fishing boats,” Flannery says. “The technology gets better every day. In the Bahamas they’re using a dredge, a teaser that has as many as 48 baits. It’s like having a school of fish following your boat.” 

The new boats also keep pace with technology. Bob Denison, president of Denison Yacht Sales in Fort Lauderdale, describes the use of drones to help spot fish beyond the range of outriggers.

Sport fishermen in South Florida need not go far to find action. “You don’t have to run [a boat] very far in this market,” says Mike Bass of Flagler Yachts. “Between here and the Bahamas the Gulfstream is closest to the U.S. You have good fishing two miles off shore. Up north, say New York, you have to go 50 miles off shore.”

Viking enclosed bridge sport fisherman
Bass (left) and Bilbo (right) are aboard a 2008 74 Viking enclosed bridge sport fisherman, valued at $2.85 million.

Flagler Yachts in Jupiter is a new name in the boating brokerage business, but one of its principals is anything but new. In fact, Mike Bass may have the deepest Florida lineage of anybody in the marine field. He is a fourth generation Floridian. His oldest relative arrived in Florida in 1865, and his grandfather and great grandfather were both born in Kissimmee. And although his company is only 10 months old, Bass has 22 years experience in the boating field. He was formerly with South Florida Yachts. His partner, Bob Bilbo, came to Florida from Maryland to play on the PGA tour. 

“He’s a sharp guy with computers, which I am not,” Bass says. “We make a good balance.

That said, local fishermen do travel to favorite fishing spots. The Bahamas have always been popular. Lately, Costa Rica has become popular and has seen some extraordinary catches.

“Costa Rica has become one of the highest destinations,” Flannery says. “They’re using a FAD (Fish Attraction Device). On a fairly regular basis they are catching 15 to 20 blue marlin in a day. That’s epic activity.”

Flannery adds: “Different places have different seasons— spring and summer are best for east coast fishing. You’re not going to catch a lot of marlin in the winter off New York.”

Which is precisely why South Florida is as good for sport fishing as it is for baseball. When the fishing is good it lends fame to otherwise quiet places such as Stuart, which has used fishing as a tourist attraction almost from the day the town incorporated more than a century ago. It is no accident that its most prestigious gated community is named Sailfish Point. 

And even when the fishing is bad, it’s still pretty good. The modern sport fishermen would rather use air conditioning than a heater on their boats.

Jamie MacGregor
Jamie MacGregor has specialized in sport fishing boats throughout his career, the last 18 with his own company. He has seen the genre grow from small boats to large vessels with amenities associated with luxury yachts. Yet, in his words, the modern boats  “are fast, nimble and go to sea very well.”  He is shown with “Mantra”—an 87-foot Weaver built in 2013. It is capable of 43 knots and has four staterooms. Priced just under $7 million, it is the epitome of the custom “cream of the crop” boats his brokerage handles.
Bob Denison
Bob Denison is shown aboard the Hatteras 45 Express Sportfish, priced at $1.8 million.

The Denison name is one of the oldest in the South Florida marine industry. It traces to Frank Denison who bought a Fort Lauderdale boatyard and turned it into Broward Marine in the late 1940s. The firm originally built boats, including mine sweepers for the U.S. Navy. It is now known as Denison Yacht Sales—a large brokerage, with 80 brokers, headed by a third generation, Bob Denison.

It is a South Florida distributor for the popular Hatteras line.