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Epilogue | Bill Harris

Salty fisherman Bill Harris knew and respected local waters

ST. PETERSBURG — Some people throw lines into the water and call it fishing.

Then there are people like Bill Harris, whose whole life revolved around what others consider weekend fun.

He studied the moon and tides. He studied the habits of fishermen who came before him. He talked to the water and to fish. He was protective of the gulf's majesty.

Harris, one of the last South Pinellas commercial trout fisherman, died of esophageal cancer on Thanksgiving. He was 71.

Mr. Harris did not drive a car since the 1960s. He was terrified of bridges and the interstate. He motored his boat to the hospital or to errands, even if he could get there quicker walking.

Later in life, after a career as a commercial fisherman and a stint as a sport fisherman, he became a cantankerous old salt. Mr. Harris would rail against developers and fertilizers spilling into the bay. He drew up T-shirts that said: "Keep Florida Green. Plant a Developer."

His love for fishing began when Mr. Harris was 10 or so, said his sister, Mary Lou Harris of South Pasadena.

They would walk down to Vinoy Park and catch mangrove snapper on cane poles. They would ride bikes over to Bartlett Park and catch blue crabs with old twine and bits of bacon.

At 12, Mr. Harris began riding on charter fishing boats, ferries and sight-seeing vessels, just watching. By the seventh grade, he had dropped out of school to work on those boats full time.

His tools were few and simple. A compass. A lead line to gauge depth. A paper graph fish finder. A journal. Instinct.

For five decades, a cigarette dangled from his lips.

"He had hundreds of spots on the bay that he could go to and catch 200 or 300 pounds of grouper in a day," said his stepbrother, George Roux, 58, a charter fisherman.

His teachers were history and nature.

"He didn't use GPS," said fishing buddy, Mike Metz, 47, owner of Castaway's Fish House at Maximo Marina. "He'd just line up everything. Telephone pole, lined up with that tree over there, that's the spot."

Mr. Harris was briefly married to Sue Roberts, the daughter of one of his fishing mentors. Their marriage lasted a few years.

As he aged, his fishing slowed down. Mr. Harris was hired as the night watchman at Pasadena Marina, which later became Great American Marina. After that business changed hands, Mr. Harris docked his boat at Maximo Marina and supported himself by fishing, something that was becoming more difficult as development encroached.

"He knew a lot about the area, and he was willing to teach it to the right people," said Metz. "Someone who would shut up and listen."

Only a selected few were invited aboard his vessel, one at a time.

"He was Old Florida, an era before companies ruled the gulf, before the bays were playgrounds for tourists, and before developers turned wilderness into condos," his sister, Mary Lou Harris, 76, wrote in a remembrance. "Bill had already known that as much as the water had provided for us, we must all strive to return the favor."

On Dec. 12, his friends plan to spread his ashes a hundred yards west of Egmont Key, where one of Harris's old fishing boats, Thumper, went down.

Bill Harris

Born: Mar. 4, 1938

Died: Nov. 26, 2009

Survivors: Daughter Mary Jane Hochleutner, of Angora, Calif.; sister Mary Lou Jones and brother-in-law Robert L. Jones of South Pasadena; brother George Roux of St. Petersburg; two grandchildren; many nieces and nephews.

Memorial service: Dec. 12 at Maximo Marina at 3 p.m.

Salty fisherman Bill Harris knew and respected local waters 12/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2009 8:22am]
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