MADEIRA BEACH — Dave Zalewski has awakened every morning for the past 40 years eager to go to work.
"I have never had one day of regret," said Zalewski, perhaps one of the longest running fishing guides in Florida. "After all, I have the best job in the world."
Zalewski, who turned 71 this week, has been able to not only survive but thrive in an industry that can chew up and spit out even the most talented of anglers.
"I never get tired of it," said Zalewski, who runs the charter boat Lucky Too out of the Madeira Beach Municipal Marina. "My heart still jumps every time a fish strikes."
Zalewski, born and raised in Michigan, bought his first charter boat, a 25-foot Bertram, in 1973. The twin-engine, gas-powered craft could carry four anglers to offshore fishing spots.
Back then, fishing boats didn't have the advanced electronics of today. They used LORAN A, based on World War II radar technology, to locate wrecks and reefs.
Zalewski's pair of 165-horsepower engines gave him a range of roughly 100 miles, nothing compared to the fast, fuel-efficient motors anglers rely on today. There were no electronic depth finders; the contour of the sea floor was recorded with paper bottom machines.
"I can remember heading out to the Mexican Pride, driving around in circles for three hours, and heading back without ever finding the wreck," he said. "It is not like today, when somebody with no experience and a cheap GPS can head out and find a fishing spot, no problem.
"Once you did find a spot, you threw out a jug to mark the spot so you could come back the next day," he said. "But you had to watch out because the old timers would mark places a couple of hundred feet from the actual fishing spot, so if you didn't know any better, you could be anchored up on a spot that had no fish."
When he first started out in the business, Zalewski would sometimes run 40 miles offshore in search of fish. But eventually, he got older and wiser.
"The young guys remind me of bass fishermen," he said. "The guy on the north end of the lake thinks all the fish are on the south end and the guy on the south end thinks all of the fish are on the north end.
"If you spend all your time running from spot to spot, you don't have a line in the water. The only way to catch fish is with bait on a hook and it has to be in the water to work."
Over the years, Zalewski has kept away from most tournaments, choosing instead to focus on "entertaining" his clients.
"The first time I fish with someone they are my customer," he said. "The second time I fish with them they are a friend who happens to pay me darn well for my time."
After 40 years on the water, Zalewski is now on his third generation of clients. "I fished with their dad, then the dad and son and then the dad, son and grandson," he said. "I hope I can last long enough to get four generations of anglers on the same boat."
Zalewski has his share of regulars. A few weeks ago, he had a party from Essex, England, charter him for 12 days straight.
"They kept one fish each for dinner," he said. "The only problem was that most of the time I couldn't understand a thing they were saying. But we had fun anyway."
The skipper doesn't like to take out "meat" fishermen. If an angler wants to fill the cooler, he refers them to another captain. He has a boat rule of two grouper per angler.
"My motto is limit your catch, not catch your limit," he said. "That is the only way we can ensure that are fish left for future generations."
He knows his conservation ethic is shared by most everybody on the water.
"But that is the great thing about getting old," he said. "You don't have to care anymore about what anybody else thinks."
Dave Zalewski charters out of Madeira Beach. You can reach him at (727) 460-9893 or [email protected]