The first time I met Larry Hoffman, back in 1993, he wanted to strangle me.
We were sitting at the old Kingfish Restaurant on Treasure Island when the former U.S. Army Special Forces officer said he did not like my line of questioning concerning a story I was reporting.
"Captain Huffy," as he was known around the docks, told me I reminded him of "a snot-nosed second lieutenant fresh out of West Point."
I thanked him for the compliment. That's when he got really mad.
He stared at me for a moment, undoubtedly gauging the distance between his right hand and my trachea. So I smiled. He grimaced, then smiled back.
We were best friends ever since.
On Tuesday when his wife, Cathy, called to tell me that my old fishing buddy had died, I'm not ashamed to admit that my eyes swelled with tears. Cathy had found him unresponsive in the morning at home in Treasure Island, and a cause of death has not yet been determined.
After hearing the news, I thought about his life and realized that Larry Hoffman had squeezed a century of living into his all-too-short 61 years.
I had just called my friend the night before to thank him, for well, just being Huffy. I had just finished a column about four men whose boat had capsized during last weekend's cold front. One man was rescued. Three were still missing. Life. Death. It gets you thinking …
In the past 15 years, I had been offshore with Hoffman dozens of times, fishing for amberjack, snapper, grouper and, his favorite, king mackerel. Many times the weather turned bad. But Capt. Huffy, who actually retired as a full colonel, always brought us home safely.
A day seldom passed when I did not call to ask a favor.
"I need help …" I would start.
"Consider it done," he would answer before I could finish.
Later, after we caught the monster kingfish I needed for a photo, Huffy would proclaim, "Mission accomplished!"
In February 1996, Hoffman signed on as one of the Times' first "Captain's Corner" correspondents. Here is the introduction that appeared in the paper:
"Larry Hoffman was on leave from Vietnam in 1970 when he landed his first kingfish off Treasure Island. When he retired from the Army, Col. Hoffman made good on his threat to start a charter business at John's Pass. Capt. "Huffy" Hoffman feels he's living a dream, taking people fishing on The Enterprise."
A year later, I joined Hoffman on the kingfish tournament trail, fishing three weekends in a row, for a series of stories called The Plan, The Hunt and The Glory.
"You bring the sandwiches," I quoted him as saying back then.
The first two weekends, we got shut out.
Huffy, always the officer, loved to shout orders, even when it came down to the most menial tasks, including cutting bait.
"Chop it up into tiny pieces," he commanded. "We want to tease the fish, not feed them."
I remember that he didn't like it when his mate asked: "How many tournaments have you fished without winning anything? Was it 56 or 57?"
At 3 p.m. on the final day, the livewell was almost empty. The chance of catching a winning kingfish and making it back to the weigh-in by 4:30 was pretty slim. We had one 2-pound blue runner left.
Ten minutes passed, then one of the engines started to sputter. Suddenly, a reel screamed. Huffy knew by the length of the run that it was a keeper.
The king hugged the bottom like the big ones usually do.
As the time ticked away, Huffy muttered the unthinkable.
"Tighten down that drag a little," he advised. "We've got to bring that fish in."
The fish surfaced. Mike Hubbard, one of Hoffman's oldest friends, tried to snag it with the gaff and missed. He tried again — another miss.
"What are you guys doing up there?" Huffy screamed. "We've got one minute, then we've got to go."
This time the gaff found its mark. Huffy yelled, "Hold on!" as the kingfish, still hooked in the side, bounced around the deck.
There was no time to put the fish in the ice box, but it was losing blood, and weight, on the deck. So I grabbed a sandwich wrapper and tried to plug the gaff holes.
Bouncing across the waves, gear flew all over the boat. Three miles. Two miles. One mile to go.
We hit the "no-wake zone" at the bridge as the announcer counted down … 30… 29 … 27…
After three weeks of frustration, Huffy made the leaderboard with a 34.22-pound fish worth $3,000.
In the years that followed, I heard Huffy tell that story, again and again. Each time, the fish got bigger and bigger, but it never got quite as big as the heart and spirit of my larger-than-life friend.