Competitive, curious and obsessive-compulsive, Nick Smith has laser focus once he sets his mind on something, whether it’s catching the most blue and striped marlin on fly or the most sailfish — both of which he’s done numerous times in the Silver Sailfish Derby and Metropolitan South Florida Fishing Tournament. Bottom line: Smith is driven to succeed, whether he’s building his collection of award-winning muscle cars or running a 23-footer 75 miles to get in on a sailfish feeding frenzy.
There were early indicators he was on a trajectory to become one of the world’s most dedicated and accomplished sailfishermen — all borne out in time, as he now closes in on 10,000 releases. Smith, who is 73, grew up outside Detroit, where his working-class father’s unlikely friendship with Henry Ford led to the family’s first automobile dealership. He was a precocious child, mature beyond his years. The fishing bug and his thirst for competition were manifested at age 5, when Smith cried after his father bested his 14-inch rainbow trout with a 17-incher on the Upper Peninsula’s Little Two Hearted River. At 12, when not devouring outdoor magazines, he was catching hard-to-hook snook, pompano and Spanish mackerel off Palm Beach, Florida — where the family relocated in 1955 — and tying Bimini twists as well as any mate. His after-school rounds included the Palm Beach Pier, Bob Kleiser’s Sport Shop and the West Palm Beach Fishing Club, where Smith first met club member and boat owner Dick Beinecke.
Beinecke invited Smith and his father, Bev, to fish offshore, but the youngster declined. “Why go for a boat ride when I can catch dozens of fish off your dock?” he said. His father accepted the invitation and enjoyed offshore fishing so much that he persuaded his son to accompany him on a charter trip soon after. An avid reader of the Palm Beach Post fishing report, Smith suggested to his father that they hire the Adventuress with Capt. Bob Haines Sr., who with his son Bobby were known for catching fish.
The boat was an old-style charter boat with four sailfish chairs. “Bobby Haines, then 20, asked me if I wanted to hook my own fish,” recalls Smith. “When I said yes, he put me in the starboard chair at the stern, so I could monitor the flat line bait, and said, ‘When you feel a tap, lower the rod tip and drop back without adding pressure or jerking, engage the drag and reel.’ ” By the end of the day, the 12-year-old was free-spooling sailfish without backlashing. “I can still hear Bobby saying, ‘If you feel the fish, he feels you.’ ” Smith also remembers the fear and exhilaration as his first sail leapt from the wake and took 300 yards of line as a freighter bore down. “Somehow I got that fish to the boat and caught another one an hour later,” he says.
When his father asked what he thought about the experience, Smith told him, “We need to buy a boat” — and kept telling him. He also made it his business to determine what they should buy, riding his bike to the Trojan dealership four times before deciding on a 20-foot inboard Seabreeze, which they outfitted and stored at Rybovich and Sons in West Palm Beach.
Bobby Haines Jr. and his younger brother Dickie became Smith’s mentors and fishing companions. “Where Bobby was a natural-born sailfisherman, Dickie knew as much as I did, which wasn’t a lot,” Smith says. “Our first day out, we managed a double-header, one a little 7-pounder. We ended up catching a bunch of sails that year and two white marlin in 14 days — rare for Palm Beach.”
Smith soon was hanging out at the Rybovich yard, meeting captains who were pioneering the fishing in St. Thomas, Venezuela, and Central and South America. “I was like a dry sponge in a bucket,” he says. When he wasn’t pestering captains, he was questioning Tommy Rybovich about boats. It wasn’t long before he started talking to his father about Rybovich boats. They bought a used 28-footer. Two years later came a 31-foot Rybovich, followed by a 37, both designed and built by Tommy Rybovich.
By this time, Smith had distinguished himself as a sailfisherman who was good enough to enter the prestigious Masters Angling Invitational Sailfish Tournament in Palm Beach. He became part of Masters lore as the youngest ever, at 17, to fish that tourney.
As he grew into adulthood, Smith ran the boat, relishing the crew’s role more than the angling. Though still important to him, fishing was relegated to holidays, summer vacations during college — and for several years — after college, as he took his place at the family’s auto dealership, eventually becoming manager of Bev Smith Ford. With financial success came the first of more than 25 boats that he named Old Reliable — a 22-foot Aquasport bought in 1969. With that boat, Smith began his journey from fisherman to master angler, keeping a log not just with numbers but also behaviors associated with oceanography and the biology of the sailfish he targeted. He pioneered kite-fishing with live goggle eyes off Palm Beach, running 80 miles north to Sebastian, Florida, and trailering 80 miles south to Key Biscayne for the spring sailfish run.
None of Smith’s children share his single-minded pursuit of sailfish, but in captains Angelo Durante and Ray Rosher, both of whom live in the Miami area, he found kindred spirits, especially fishing the West Palm Beach Fishing Club’s Silver Sailfish Derby, which he won six times between 1990 and 2002 after dominating the sailfish release division in the ’70s and ’80s. After buying a house on Key Biscayne in the 1990s, where he pursued sailfish during the South Florida migration, he won the Met Master Sailfish Angler award 15 times, setting a record with 113 in one three-month period. In 1996 and ’97, he won The Billfish Foundation’s sailfish release award. Fishing with Durante in 1994, he won the Fort Lauderdale Billfish Tournament, and with Rosher, he won the 2000 and ’01 Miami Billfish Tournaments.
In the meticulously penned fishing log Smith keeps are notations of 40 days with 15 or more releases, including four when he caught and released more than 30 sailfish off South Florida. But even after six decades, he remains a “student” of the fishery, constantly trying new ways to produce double-digit catches. As early as the 1950s he was at the forefront of live-baiting sailfish off Palm Beach. With Durante, he started kite fishing with one and then two kites after Capt. John Dudas of Miami showed him how to weight them so the baits separated without tangling. During the past decade he developed a technique for catching summer sails with kites and deep baits in 350 to 500 feet that’s produced 17-fish days in what’s officially the off-season.
Smith’s favorite fishing grounds remain the western wall of the Gulf Stream, which is so close to the continental shelf off Palm Beach that guests at The Breakers hotel frequently spot free-jumping sailfish. The 1- to 5-knot Stream hugs the coast between Miami and Palm Beach and swings east 5 to 7 miles off Stuart, 12 to 15 miles off Fort Pierce and 20 miles off Sebastian. Known as Sailfish Alley, it flows over seamounts and rocky outcroppings that sustain enormous bait schools that attract sailfish.
Smith more often than not does rod-to-fish combat aboard small boats of his own design, such as the walkaround he conceived in the 1970s after finding his 22-footer too rough riding and open for his winter sport. He also has owned a variety of small center consoles from such builders as Cuda Craft, Formula, Mako, North American, Sea Vee and Contender, but his favorite boat is the 36-foot walkaround he built with Bill Knowles in 1988.
“The problem with early center consoles was their lack of protection from wind-blown spray in rough seas,” Smith says. “Essentially what I wanted was a flybridge set down on the deck of an open fisherman. But because of the 8-foot trailerability regulation in Florida, I couldn’t get the proportions right. The bridge would have been too narrow. … I needed a 30-foot boat with an 11-foot beam. Once I had the proportions, everything fell into place. Initial sketches became working drawings of the first walkaround.”
After seeing the plans, John Rybovich suggested Bobby Sherbert of Daytona Boat Works as a builder. Smith wasn’t familiar with Daytona, but he spotted a low-profile express with a varnished transom a couple of months later at the Fort Lauderdale boat show — the slickest boat he’d ever seen. “I said to the broker, ‘I know most of what’s out there, but I don’t know what this is,’ ” says Smith. The broker told him it was a Daytona, and the rest is history.
The layout of the 30-footer Sherbert built was perfect, but with its single Caterpillar 3208 diesel, it wasn’t as fast as Smith wanted. In 1986, he started working on plans for the bigger boat that he would build with Knowles. “I was trying to create a fast, modern 21st century design with Rybovich styling but more deadrise for a softer ride,” he says. This new Old Reliable had an elevated bridge deck to make room for twin diesels and a helm just a step from the cockpit.
While vacationing in Guatemala in 1999, Smith was presented with a challenge. An unusually slow bite had left him wanting, so Capt. Bud Gramer suggested he try catching sailfish on fly. “I was reluctant,” admits Smith. “But Bud kept saying, ‘Try it, you’ll like it.’ Fortunately I did because it took me back to [the thrill of] catching my first sailfish off Palm Beach.”
The most anticipated aspect of billfishing is the strike. “Fly-fishing, you tease the fish to within 25 feet of the boat before tossing the fly, so visually it’s the most exciting fishing there is,” says Smith. “And for a guy like me, who relishes the technical side of fishing, it was like discovering fishing for the first time. Just as I’d done with Bobby Haines 50 years earlier, I said to Bud, ‘I wanna learn this — show me everything.’ ” Within two years he’d set a record, catching 23 sails on a fly in a day, a record he bettered twice, catching 35.
Catching billfish on a fly cannot be done alone, so Smith sold the walkaround in 2003 to buy a 64-foot Bayliss. And he hired the best fisherman he knew: Capt. Chip Shafer. In the decade since, he’s caught every billfish species except swordfish on fly — almost 4,000 in total. In 2013 Smith beat the single-day Pacific blue marlin fly-fishing record by catching and releasing 18 — the previous record was three — on deep-water seamounts off Costa Rica. Also that year, off Baja’s Magdalena Bay, he caught a single-day-record: 25 striped marlin.
Smith acknowledges that success does not happen in a vacuum. “I’ve been very lucky to have great parents, great fishing companions, along with captains and boatbuilders who shared their knowledge,” Smith says. “They are my heroes.”
God blessed Smith with uncommon mental and visual acuity and stamina, says his friend Angelo Durante. “He’s intensely focused and seeks excellence in everything, be that boat design or the pursuit of billfish. At the same time, he’s this humble guy who just happens to be a great sportsman.”