By Carol M. Bareuther, RD
The moon and stars shone brightly in the pre-dawn night as Capt. Eddie Herbert started the engines on the 80-foot Merritt Reel Tight. His destination, the Virgin Islands’ North Drop. Reel Tight owner Jim Lambert Sr. took his passion for fishing seriously. He wanted to be first off the dock so he could catch and release two to three blue marlin before sun-up and the rest of the fleet arrived.
He also wanted to be last back at night, often with six to eight upside-down blue marlin flags flying off Reel Tights’ rigger. “Consider we’d do this for 10 to 14 days straight each moon in places like St. Thomas, and that Jim fished over 200 days a year between the Atlantic and Pacific, and you can see how busy we were. But for a captain like me, it was one of many dream jobs.”
In the Beginning
Eddie is a Florida native born and raised in Key Biscayne. The exception is the first few years of his life, when his family moved north to Jacksonville Naval Air Station, and then west to Guam, for his father’s Navy career. But if you ask Eddie, all his childhood memories center on Key Biscayne where the family returned in 1964. There was no better place to grow up, he says, especially for someone who loved the water as much as he did. Swimming, water skiing, scuba diving, Eddie did it all, yet it was fishing that most caught his fancy. If he wasn’t out in his 12-foot aluminum boat catching mackerel in the bay, he was running the charter docks at the Key Biscayne Yacht Club to see who caught what. A chance meeting on these docks would have a whopper of an effect on Eddie’s future sportfishing career.
“I was 11 years old, the kid who was always hanging out on the dock. Harry (formally named Henry and nicknamed HaHa) Tellam had a 35-foot Bertram, and he invited me to go out fishing. It was 1965. I caught my first sailfish that day. I had it mounted. I’ve had to have it re-mounted over the years. They used real skin back then. I still have it. That sailfish set the hook in me. I said to myself after that, this is what I
want to do. I want to fish every day,” Eddie says.
Tellam, an avid angler who caught his first blue marlin north of Cape Hatteras at age 13, moved to Florida to fish year-round. His Bertram, called Branch Office, was a fixture at the Key Biscayne Yacht Club for 40-plus years. Tellam’s love for fishing was as much or equal to the fun he had turning others onto the sport. This was especially true of a young dock rat like Eddie. Little did either of them know at that time, but Eddie would spend many years at the helm for Tellam’s brother-in-law, Jim Lambert, Sr., on his succession of Reel Tights.
But first, Eddie had to finish junior and senior high school. While classmates were clamoring for their first cars, Eddie developed a deep desire for a decent boat, something more than his aluminum starter craft. His dad said he’d buy one, but that Eddie had to work for it. So he went to school by day, got a job at night and cast off on his new 23-foot Seacraft, the queen of the fleet back then, each weekend. It was on this boat, named the Bounty Hunter, with its makeshift fighting chair bolted down on the bow and a borrowed Penn Senator 12/0 reel, that Eddie caught his first blue marlin over in Bimini.
This wasn’t Eddie’s first trip to the Bahamas. That came two years prior when he rode along on a 44-foot Whiticar to learn mating from the mate. Not much fishing happened on that trip, Eddie says. However, the world of offshore deep-sea fishing opened his eyes, and it deepened his desire to fish professionally. That opportunity soon came. The Whiticar’s owner had two boats, a Norseman called Sea Gull that he kept at the Miami Marina, and the Whiticar, Sea Lady, which he kept and chartered from behind his house. Eddie continued to fish with him on weekends. By age 15, Eddie had soaked up enough knowledge that he was running the Sea Lady in tuna tournaments in Bimini and Cat Cay. By the time he got his formal captain’s license at age 18, young Eddie was an old pro.
Eddie Goes Pro
License in hand, Eddie launched his career with two smart moves. First, he joined the Miami Sportfishing Club and Gold Coast Anglers, well known Dade County fishing clubs in the ‘70s, to meet the big names at the time who were fishing tournaments and chartering out of Miami. He started taking groups out, thus necessitating a bigger boat. He bought a 25-foot Speedcraft built in Miami. Secondly, he figured if he owned a boat, he should know how to keep it running too. Eddie got a job rigging boats at the Boat Center in Miami. Here, he took the manufacturers classes offered and received Mercury outboard and Cummings diesel engine training. It was a great arrangement Eddie says. He had opportunities to learn and get paid too, both of which came in handy in satisfying his habit: sportfishing.
The Boat Center had a 36-foot Hatteras, El Lobo. Eddie wanted to charter it out of Key Biscayne, but the marina was full. The only slip available was in Bahia Mar. So he set up chartering there with Skip Smith as his mate. This was the mid-1970s, and the
duo, sometimes with Skip’s sister Cindy and brother Kent as crew, both chartered as well as fished tournaments. On the charter front, Eddie says Skip would throw so many fish on the dock at the end of the day—dolphin, kingfish, sailfish, sharks, that they never had to worry about booking the boat. As for tournaments, they fished these in Florida, the Bahamas and for a couple of years in the Gulf of Mexico from Texas. One of those events was the family-run, invitation-only, high-stakes, Poco Bueno Fishing Tournament held out of Port O’Connor.
“Some people are a natural when it comes to fishing. They just have an instinct, like John Dudas for sailfish. Eddie Wheeler, too. Skip [Smith] was a natural and I consider him a mentor,” Eddie says. “There were some days when the fish just didn’t bite. Skip would always figure a way to make them bite. He was a real innovator. For example, we fished with baits in Texas. No one knew about lures. Then, when most boats would pull three lures, Skip wanted to pull four. Back in Florida, when everyone was using one kite and two baits for sailfish, Skip said ‘Let’s try two kites.’ Those were the days when instead of taking a couple of dozen baits out to go sailfishing, we’d take 150 and still worry about running out.”
The Reel Tight Era
Eddie ran the Bootlegger for the decade of the 1980s. He first met Jim Carr in 1991, who had just built his 64-Merritt, Blondie. The two would meet again, but before that Jim Lambert, who had since the Tellam days chartered with Eddie on the Bootlegger, asked Eddie to be his captain. The year 1995 marked the start of an 18-year run of Eddie captaining Jim Lambert’s Reel Tight, first a 50-foot Bertram and then in 2001 an 80-foot Merritt.
“Jim wanted a boat he could fish 200-plus days a year. Actually, 240 days of fishing was the most we did in a year. When he got the 80-footer, it was worse. He knew he was sick at the time, but that didn’t stop him from putting everything into fishing,” says Eddie, whose crew at the time included mates Robert ‘Fly’ Navarro, Eric Leech and Joe Fiegel. “In St. Thomas, he had to be up and on the North Drop before daylight. One year we ran south to Aruba to get out of the path of a hurricane. Even there, Jim found a seamount and we started fishing it.”
The Reel Tight’s annual calendar hit the billfishing hot spots. Panama and Costa Rica in the winter. Florida for sailfish in the spring where one day they caught 58 off Boynton Beach. Then, Reel Tight won the Bahamas Billfish Championship in 1998. Venezuela in the 1990s. Bermuda.
The Dominican Republic. St. Thomas.
By 2004, Eddie says Lambert loved St. Thomas so much that he was convinced blue marlin were there 365 days a year. So they started skipping the Bahamas and started fishing the spring moons on the South Drop between St. Thomas and St. Croix, then the North Drop in the summer and fall. Pitch baiting had replaced pulling dredges by then, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Capt. Brad Simmons, Eddie says. It wasn’t uncommon for the Reel Tight, with Jim in the chair and Eddie at the helm, to return to the docks with the most marlin flags of any other boat flying off the outrigger.
Eddie says he credits Peter B. Wright, whom he worked for in Australia for a season in 1983, with teaching him about boat handling especially with big fish on the line. This is something he used to his advantage in Virgin Islands waters. The fantastic run, which several years saw nearly 200 billfish released in a season, came to an end in 2008 when Lambert passed away.
Eddie and His Next Horizon
Eddie’s been running the Never Say Never for Jim Carr since 2012, first as a 58-foot Merritt and then when Carr moved up to his 72 Merritt of the same name in 2017. He’s continued to fish in St. Thomas, helping Carr’s grandson Zak win tournaments in the summer, and is currently based in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Up next, Eddie may take the boat to Magdalena Bay, where Carr wants to experience the striped marlin bite firsthand. The appeal, he says, is the potential of 100-plus catches in a day, each weighing 120 to 160 pounds. Eddie describes it like being in an aquarium, with fish, whales, sea lions, birds and more all in one view.
“I’ve been fishing since I was 15, over 50 years now, and have fished in a lot of places,” Eddie says. “I think if I could go anywhere next, it would be the Cape Verde Islands. I’ve heard so many stories about the quantity and size of the blue marlin. It’s the final frontier.”
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