Stroke claims West Florida institution Gene Turner, 92

Death has silenced Gene Turner, a man who otherwise would have talked your ears off and the ears of your neighbor and your neighbor's dog about fishing and how to tell when a watermelon is ready to eat. He was 92 when he closed his blue eyes for good Wednesday morning at Hospice House Woodside in Pinellas Park.

We were friends more than three decades. I won't say we talked regularly; like almost everyone else who knew the garrulous man, my role was to listen. So it is accurate to say I listened to him regularly, even when he called me at dawn to share a thought, then another thought and then a thought after that.

St. Peter, brace yourself when you open those pearly gates.

"The fall run of king mackerel happening yet?" likely will be his first words to the Big Fisherman. "Tell them boys down on Earth they need to anchor up and fish by the pass with live bait. Yeah, right out there by Egmont Key. They don't have to go way out there and troll all day and waste gas. Them big kings will sure enough be close to shore."

He was a West Florida institution. He was the original old salt — rough-around-the edges folksy, grizzled in appearance, no stranger to colorful language, good with his hands, even better with words. "You're strong as an ox, ain't you, boy?" he might ask. "But you ain't half as smart."

He built boats for a living. For fun he caught fish. He loved talking about fish and how to catch them. Conservationist? He never thought of himself as a conservationist. But modern anglers who regularly catch spotted sea trout in Tampa Bay have Turner to thank for that tug on their lines. And those who hook big kingfish in the gulf need to nod toward the heavens in gratitude. He'd love that.

Three decades ago, when the fish started disappearing, Turner opened his mouth and began talking, talking, talking. "The nets is taking all the fish," he declared. "When is somebody going to do something about it?" Nobody listened at first. Eventually they had to.

• • •

He suffered a stroke on Sept. 26. He had finished his usual breakfast of Farina and bananas when Jeannie, his wife of 63 years, announced she was headed for Publix. When she returned 20 minutes later she found her husband sprawled on the couch.

"You okay, Honey?" she asked. No answer. At Palms of Pasadena Hospital he got clot-killer medicine. He lay in bed with tubes in his nose and his arms, unable to say a word. The terrible irony was not lost on anyone. The man who loved to talk more than anything had lost his ability to speak.

He was born in Georgia and raised on a farm in Plant City. After the Navy, he became a boat builder, first in Hillsborough and eventually in South Pasadena. Wood was good enough for Noah; wood was the material of choice for Turner, too. If you wanted to watch him build your boat, he didn't mind an audience.

Unlike many people, he had interesting things to say, especially about fishing. He would tell you what bait to use and show you how to rig up, tell you where to fish and on what tide. If you listened to him until closing time — sometimes it was impossible to escape — he'd share the day's watermelon.

A lot of Gene's watermelon-eating gang dropped by to pay respects in the last few weeks. Even Gov. Charlie Crist, a St. Petersburg boy who has reeled in a fish or two in his time, took a moment to telephone. At the hospital I gripped Gene's leathery hand and for once did all the talking.

For most of the 20th century the Florida fish population seemed endless. But in the 1970s, Turner and a few others noticed a decline. Turner blamed net fishing. Out in the gulf, commercial fishermen were using nets longer than aircraft carriers to corral thousands of pounds of his beloved kingfish at a time. Airplanes all the while circled above the fleet, directing the fishermen where to drop their nets next.

Turner pointed this out to everyone he saw. Next he showed up at newspaper offices to share his opinion with the folks who wrote editorials. He was on the radio and profiled in magazines. Soon he was traveling to Tallahassee to chat with legislators. Lobbyists for commercial netters implored the legislators not to listen because fish populations were infinite.

"Let me tell you why they're wrong," Turner said when it was his turn to testify.

In federal waters these days net fishing and sport fishing are tightly regulated. Kingfish swarm in big schools again. Some years back, Florida citizens voted to ban gill nets in the bays and along the beaches. So the population of trout and redfish have bounced back as well.

• • •

We all thought the old coot was going to pull through. At the hospital Jeannie, his son Chris, his daughter Brenda Griffin and his grandchildren kept a heroic vigil. For a while, Gene seemed to improve. He began moving his limbs. He watched fishing shows. He paid attention to Rays games. When he was excited, he moved his lips, trying in vain to speak.

He was always inventing things. I'm not good with my hands so I appreciated his talent. He made wood-handled gaffs for fishermen who needed something sturdy and dependable to haul a thrashing kingfish into the boat. He also made nifty wooden fish dehookers to spare the small-time angler an unpleasant encounter with slime or teeth. I owned one, but I always thought it was too pretty to use.

This Christmas, in honor of the reluctant conservationist, I intend to hang my dehooker from the tree.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com.

Stroke claims West Florida institution Gene Turner, 92 10/14/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 15, 2010 8:25am]

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