Randolph Smith grew up old school, in an outdoor family in which his father hunted, fished and collected arrowheads. When they moved from Michigan to South Florida in the mid-1950s, his mother turned the boy and his two siblings outside to burn off energy after school and during the summer. With his younger brother in tow, Randolph often fished for bluegills and largemouth in a nearby rock pit quarry. When it was time for supper, their mother blew a conch shell, and the kids came running.
The boy was big for his age. In grade school, a jock stuck him with the nickname “Bouncer” after watching him dribble a volleyball. It was meant as a slight, but the name stuck, and today Capt. Bouncer Smith is one of the best-known charter skippers on the East Coast. And the wise guy from school who gave him the name that would become part of his brand? He’s a judge in Texas who continues to fish with Capt. Bouncer, who’s been operating a charter boat out of South Florida for more than five decades.
The son of a mechanical engineer and backyard boatbuilder, Bouncer gravitated to fishing like an iron finds a lodestone. “I always had a one-track mind — fishing,” says Bouncer, who is based in Miami and runs a 33-foot Dusky named Bouncer’s Dusky, a center console powered by twin Evinrude 300s.
But even now, after fishing full time for almost 54 years, Bouncer says, “I can’t stand days I’m not out fishing. I’m 71, and that’s a piss-poor excuse not to go fishing. It’s what I live for.”
Bouncer is as smart and versatile a skipper as you’ll find anywhere on the coast. A skilled light-tackle angler, he helped popularize kite fishing and the use of downriggers in South Florida. He worked as a flats guide out of Bud N’ Mary’s in Islamorada for several years while in his 20s. He can catch swordfish in 1,000 feet of water, sailfish on live bait and put his clients into a couple of 100-pound tarpon in a night.
He has a boatload of world records. “I’ve never kept an exact count, but it’s somewhere between 70 and 75,” says Bouncer, who is known for his superstition about allowing bananas or even their image on board, a quirk he picked up as a flats guide and one whose origin likely goes back to the days of sailing cargo ships when spiders and snakes were common in holds of bananas.
He lectures and gives seminars, and having fished with him twice in the last 12 months, I can attest that he can draw on a deep supply of entertaining fishing stories. He also published his first book this year, with writer Patrick Mansell, The Bouncer Smith Chronicles: A Lifetime of Fishing.
A large man with a big heart, Bouncer has put smiles on the faces of scores of children who are battling illnesses or grieving losses by taking them fishing. “It’s unbelievable what he’s done,” says underwater photographer Kevin Dodge, who is vice president of the charity Fish to Make A Difference. “He’s the biggest give-backer I’ve ever met. He’s really giving of his time. He’s a home run.”
Start ’em Young
Bouncer had an early and thorough internship in the ways of making a living off of fishing. He came up the way most old timers did, through the hawse pipe.
He worked at a Miami fish pier when he was 13 and 14, catching and selling pilchards. He volunteered as a mate on a headboat when he was 14, gaffing fish and cleaning off the blood. His first paid trip as a mate was New Year’s Eve 1963, when he was 15 and filling in for a buddy “who had a hot date.”
Bouncer worked weekends and summers through high school until his senior year, when he added evening trips on school nights. His father wasn’t amused. He called the first mate and told him that if he took his son fishing again during the week, the police would be waiting at the dock to arrest him for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
“I had a great father, but we had a lot of heated discussions over the merits of fishing as a hobby, rather than making it your life,” says Bouncer, who has been working out of Miami Beach for more than 20 years. “He thought I’d burn out.”
Bouncer attended one semester at Dade Community College, and that was that. “I told my dad that college was a waste of time and money,” Bouncer recalls. “I said, ‘Dad I’m quitting. I’m going to be a fisherman.’ He said, ‘OK, if you’re going to be a fisherman, be a good one.’ ”
Unburdened by a school schedule, Bouncer started working two jobs. He was a mate on a charter boat during the day and on a headboat at night out of Pier 5. When it was cold, he remembers sleeping in the rod locker on the headboat. When it was hot, he slept in the saloon on the charter boat. On Sundays, he drove to the Keys and fished off bridges. He got his captain’s license when he was 19 and ran a charter on a 45-footer the next day.
“Sleep was secondary to fishing,” he says. No one has ever questioned Bouncer’s work ethic.
Until the last couple of years, he says he worked 12 hours a day on average, especially during tarpon season, when he fished nights. He used to fish seven days a week and four nights. Now he takes two days off a week and still averages about 250 days a year on the water. “Once I’m on the boat, I’m like a kid in a candy shop,” he says. “But once I have to get off, all the aches and pains come back.”
Bouncer cut his teeth filling fishboxes, but now he speaks with authority about the dangers of overfishing and the need for conservation. “We grew up in a different time. There was no such thing as throwing fish back,” recalls Bouncer, who was awarded the 2018 International Game Fish Association Conservation Award. “We went from keeping them all, to catching your limit, to limiting your catch. We’re in a new time. We have to stay ahead of the times in terms of conservation.”
Bouncer is not afraid to call it like he sees it,
even on the contentious topic of marine conservation reserves. “I’m a firm believer that we all have to make the sacrifices of having a few marine reserves,” says Bouncer, as we drift off Miami in the first cold front of the year. “We resist them like the plague. Everyone is afraid if we give up an inch, they’ll take a mile. But we have to give up the inches. We need a place where black grouper can grow to 50 pounds and spawn.”
While Bouncer has earned a long list of accolades — world-record catches, tournament wins, awards for this, that and the other thing from half a century on the water — the honor he’s most proud of is the John Rybovich Lifetime Achievement Award. He received it from The Billfish Foundation for his longtime support of billfish conservation. A staunch supporter of catch and release, he has tagged more than 1,000 billfish.
Bouncer also was pleased to have been recognized by his peers with the prestigious IGFA Tommy Gifford Award, given by the legendary captains and crew committee. “I’ve been very, very blessed,” he says.
When it comes to gamefish, Bouncer places one above all others. “My favorite has always been tarpon,” he says. “They jump. They take lures. They eat bait. You can throw flies at them. And a lot of the fishing is in relatively calm water.” When the fishing is good, he can be fairly certain his clients will hook three fish between 75 and 150 pounds on a four-hour charter.
Truth is, Bouncer is good at many things. “I love bottom fishing,” he says. “I think it’s some of the most skilled fishing we do, going from wreck to wreck to wreck.”
What has made Bouncer successful in a competitive metropolitan market? “His ability to outthink every captain out here,” says Abraham Raymond, 30, a captain who works for Bouncer as a mate. “He’s got a plan B, C, D, for everything we do. He has a reason for everything.”
Abie, as he is known, has been a full-time mate for Bouncer for 10 years. He’s 30 and has had his captain’s license since he was 18. When Bouncer needs a day off, Abie runs the boat. He’s calm and competent. “I love what I do, man,” says Abie, who appears destined to run his own boat someday. “It’s a beautiful office. My cubicle walls are always changing.” And like Bouncer, he, too, did one semester of college before opting for the fishing life.
Video produced by John V. Turner
The banter between captain and mate is friendly and unforced. Bouncer didn’t fish with a mate for his first 20 years, then ran through a parcel of them until he and Abie, who had worked for Bouncer when he was in high school, found each other again.
The secret to their partnership? “Some thick skin,” Abie says. “Mutual respect. Just horsing around and having fun.”
“He’s very intelligent, and he loves to fish,” Bouncer says of his wingman. “If you put those two things together, it’s hard to miss.” And Abie is calm, Bouncer notes, which keeps clients from getting uptight when things start happening quickly.
As much as anyone I’ve met, Bouncer seems born to fish. His stories, memories and friendships are built around the years he’s spent on the water. Retirement, at least at the moment, is not in the cards. “I can’t image living if I wasn’t fishing,” he says.