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Childhood play pays for man who earns living touring the gulf

When he was growing up, Bill Fehl's playground was the gulf.

He caught his first fish there as a toddler. He learned to maneuver a boat across its choppy waters before he could write in cursive or stay out past dark. He owned six boats before he could legally drink a beer.

Once the playground, now the job site.

These days, the 21-year-old introduces himself, with a firm handshake, as "Captain Bill." Having obtained his captain's license two years ago, he charters small fishing tours for a living.

He's breaking in his seventh boat, a sleek 19-foot Hydra-Sport. He usually perches himself on the console, to get a better angle on the shifting schools of redfish or snook or trout.

"There are two things you need to know before you do this kind of work," he says. "You've got to know how to find bait, and you've got to know how to find the fish. Without those two, you're nowhere fast."

And "you don't go partying the night before," he says, speaking from experience.

Up at 4 a.m., he's casting for bait fish under moon shadows of the Belleair Beach Causeway or the Clearwater Pass Bridge.

By 6 or 7 a.m., he's somewhere secret, a place that has proven generous. He won't say where exactly.

In the summer months, he charters shark hunts. One time, he was reeling in a bull shark that weighed about 200 pounds. He burst blood vessels up the side of his hand. He then tried to convince his fellow fishers that letting it go would be the better thing to do.

But there was a time when Fehl wasn't thinking about conservation, when it seemed every step he took was backward. For some time, he says, he was angry.

At 15, he was skateboarding with friends when he lost control of his board and watched it roll out into a nearby road. As he retrieved it, a man driving a truck plowed into him. It left him with severe head trauma, a hair-line fracture and memory problems.

"I got real mean for a while," Fehl says, "I had to learn to control myself. I've done a lot of growing up."

Two years ago, after a long legal battle, Fehl won a settlement that allowed him to finance his career.

That made all the difference in the world, says Pat Ullrich, mother of Fehl's close friend, Nate.

"This job suits him to a T," Ullrich says. "He's an outdoors-type of person, and he's a fisherman. Most of all, though, he's so fun to be with."

Fehl's mentor and business associate Larry Blue has been leading deep-sea tours in the area for 14 years. He says Fehl has come a long way out here on the water.

"Bill's biggest concern is learning how to do this the right way," Blue says. "He just doesn't want to take people fishing."

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