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Fourth-generation marina owner gets candid about challenges of fishing business

Conversation with Capt. Dylan Hubbard of Hubbard’s Marina in Madeira Beach a business where finding fish for a living can be really stressful.
Capt. Dylan Hubbard with a big red snapper he caught in 2019 while filming a fishing educational course. (Courtesy of Hubbard’s Marina)
Capt. Dylan Hubbard with a big red snapper he caught in 2019 while filming a fishing educational course. (Courtesy of Hubbard’s Marina) [ Courtesy of Hubbard’s Marina ]
Published Jan. 9
Updated Jan. 9

Capt. Dylan Hubbard is the fourth-generation owner of Hubbard’s Marina at John’s Pass in Madeira Beach. The company, which began in 1928, operates nine vessels, including party boats for deep-sea fishing, private charters for corporate events and memorials. It runs dolphin tours and sunset cruises, island trips, snorkeling trips and overnight fishing trips. The company owns but does not operate the Friendly Fisherman restaurant next door, where the staff will cook and serve customers the fish they just caught.

Hubbard’s has weathered hurricanes, red tide outbreaks, the Great Recession, bankruptcy, the 2010 oil spill and the ongoing pandemic. The most worrisome threat, however, is the build-up of drifting sand in the marina. If the problem isn’t solved, Hubbard said, the company will have to move elsewhere.

Hubbard, 29, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the business.

You catch a lot of grouper. How far out do you have to go in the Gulf?

It depends on the time of year. This time of year, some of those gag groupers come in really shallow (waters). We can catch them as close to shore as a couple of miles from the beach. Then other times of the year, like summertime, you have to go a little farther, like 30, 40 miles from shore. So it depends on the time of the year, but we specialize in bottom-fishing for gag grouper, red grouper, scamp grouper, hogfish, lane snapper, mangrove snapper. We catch yellow-tail snapper. We see some of those pelagics, like tuna, wahoo, kingfish, mahi-mahi.

You’ve been around the business all your life. What did you start out doing and how young were you?

Probably around eight years old. I bought my first boat when I turned nine. And when I was really young I wanted to buy a boat and was told I needed to get a job. (He laughs.) I started catching pinfish and selling them to the guys that were going fishing on the boats, and I worked in the bait shop cleaning up the bait tanks, and basically did whatever I could to earn some money to save up for that boat.

And then once I got the boat I did more fishing and catching bait and selling it and that kind of stuff. … As I got older I started working on the charter boats, and I started being a first mate. And then, from there, I injured my back when I was 21, and that kind of changed my path in life a little bit. From there I started working in the office as a front-line staff, and then I was an assistant manager, then I was a manager, then vice-president. And I got my captain’s license along the way, once my back healed up, and I run some trips and I run the business.

Drifting sand is building up in Hubbard’s Marina at John’s Pass Village, threatening the business. (Courtesy of Hubbard’s Marina)
Drifting sand is building up in Hubbard’s Marina at John’s Pass Village, threatening the business. (Courtesy of Hubbard’s Marina) [ Courtesy of Hubbard’s Marina ]

In running a boat, you say, the stress of finding fish is second only to the stress of being responsible for everyone’s safety.

We run trips every day, and there’s times where there’s a full moon or red tide or bad currents or temperature or cold fronts that make fishing tough, and those days are very, very tough, because no one wants to catch more fish than us. And when fishing’s tough and we’re working hard and the fish just aren’t biting, we can’t make them bite. All we can do is try different things. … Those days are very stressful.

You were locked down for more than a month in the spring with the arrival of the pandemic. Are people still fearful of going out on a party boat?

It kind of goes in waves. It will get to a point where no one’s really talking about it or asking about it, and then cases will go up, then everybody’s talking about it and asking about it again. … I would say this year it’s definitely been a big change. We don’t have our wintertime residents from Canada down. And I would say overall tourism has been down.

But we’ve had a lot of pick-up in our local drive market, a lot of people from other parts of Florida, Georgia, the South. We still have a lot of people coming in from the North. I mean New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, a lot of those people escaping some of those more strict states and coming to Florida because our governor is doing such a good job changing the approach. …

Overall, it was a very tough year and we really struggled at the start, but we were able to weather the storm and we’ve been slowly making a comeback.

The buildup of sand in the marina has been in the news lately. When did that problem start?

In the early ’90s they lengthened the south jetty of John’s Pass and didn’t lengthen the north jetty. And that in my opinion is what kind of started this problem. … Because the sand comes down the beach from the north, goes around the north jetty and into the pass and then kind of eddies right here along the northwest side of John’s Pass. ...

We have to work every week to try to hold that sand back, and if we weren’t here doing that, that sand would have totally shut down John’s Pass boardwalk already. ... We do anything and everything we possibly can to hold it back. We’ve dug with shovels and we’ve put boards up. We’ve brought bulldozers out and moved the sand around. We had a jet pump out here pumping the sand. In 2017, we paid almost $200,000 to dredge. And it lasted eight months because private property is only a small portion of that sand build-up. You can dig a deep hole all you want in that area, but there’s still tons of sand left on the state (department of transportation) and county property, and as soon as we dig a big hole on our property all that sand just fills it in. So it’s been a total nightmare.

Is the government going to help?

So now … the county has worked with (the University of South Florida) and are actually beginning a $35,000, six-month-long study to study what can be done about the sand. Unfortunately, we have to go through this study, and it sounds like the scientist is saying that he feels we need to dredge, which is what we wanted to do anyway.

For more information, go to hubbardsmarina.com.