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Epilogue: James 'Jimmy' Kelley remembered as local tarpon fishing legend

James “Jimmy” Kelley grew up working at his dad’s bait shop at the Million Dollar Pier.
James “Jimmy” Kelley grew up working at his dad’s bait shop at the Million Dollar Pier.
Published Jun. 24, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Anyone who knew anything about fishing in the area knew James "Jimmy" Kelley, 81, who died on June 9, his friends said.

Mr. Kelley was born in his St. Petersburg home during the Hurricane of 1935, and helped his dad, James "Pappy" Kelley, at the bait shop he owned at the Million Dollar Pier from the time he was little.

It was a tarpon fishing family, said JoAnn Mendenhall, one of Mr. Kelley's younger sisters, and Pappy was a local legend among the fishing and shrimping community.

Pappy had once caught a fish so rare in the '40s, a hybrid between a bluefin and dolphin, the Smithsonian Museum called him to ask if they could mount it, Mendenhall said, but her dad gave it to the restaurant at the pier to cook. Newspaper headlines called it a "freak fish."

"You can't really talk about my dad without talking about Jimmy," Mendenhall said. "They spent so much time together."

Mr. Kelley quickly learned the ways of his dad, running shrimp boats from the pier, and learning his tricks, placing in tarpon roundups and earning the admiration of those younger than him.

"When I was kid, he was the guy we looked up to," said Larry Mastry, co-owner of Mastry's Bait and Tackle. "You always wanted to be as good as Jimmy. He was ahead of his time in terms of tarpon fishing."

Mastry first met Mr. Kelley when he was a teenager, working at the bait shop.

"I'd be fishing beside him and I'd be cussing him every second because he'd catch a fish you didn't," Mastry said. "He knew all the tricks, and he was pretty secretive back in those days. You pretty much had to catch him doing something to learn."

But later, Mastry said, Mr. Kelley became a mentor to people on tarpon fishing.

Charlie Owens said he used to take the city bus to go fishing at the pier when he was 12.

"The downtown pier was pretty much the only thing going on then," Owens said.

Mr. Kelley was about 20 years older, and Owens started working as a teen on Mr. Kelley's shrimp boat. He later ran his own boat, keeping a lifelong close friendship with a mentor he said at times was almost like a second father. The two would go out fishing together with Mr. Kelley's poodle, Sugar, but maintained a fierce sense of friendly competition.

During a Suncoast Tarpon Roundup in the late 1970s, Owens, Mr. Kelley and a third friend of theirs competed. On the first day, their friend caught a 168-pound tarpon. He cut off the head and drove from Anna Maria, leaving it to taunt Mr. Kelley. The next day Mr. Kelley caught a 168-pound tarpon as well. The following day, Owens beat both of them, catching a 171-pound tarpon.

Mr. Kelley was engaged briefly once, but never married. He ate at Munch's Restaurant every day, first with his dad and his friends and later with Owens and some of his own friends.

They'd come in around the same time every day, Larry Munch said, gathering on the corner stools around the counter, drinking coffee and swapping fishing tales.

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"He was a Florida Cracker," Munch said. "He was a really nice guy."

Munch said he saw him less regularly in later years, but keeps a photo in the restaurant of Mr. Kelley wearing a Munch's T-shirt while tarpon fishing.

It was a different time, Owens said, for those who grew up in St. Petersburg in the 1950s and '60s. Mr. Kelley used to hunt quail near where Seminole High School is and deer elsewhere, Mendenhall said.

After the old pier where the bait shop was housed was demolished in 1967 and Pappy died while in his boat in 1979, Mr. Kelley kept the house he grew up in and took interest in growing orchids and African violets, Mendenhall said.

He began working at Mastry's, selling bait and tackle to stay plugged into the fishing community, but began fishing less, his sister said.

Sandra Williams, a friend of Mr. Kelley's who took him to his first Suncoast African Violet Society meeting, said he fell in love with African violets.

His sister said he had around 10,000 orchids planted at his house at the time he moved to a nursing home, many of which would get stolen.

"We'd say, 'What are you going to do this weekend, Jimmy?' " Williams said. "He'd say he was going to go to the flea market to buy back his orchids. He'd say, 'Everyone has to make a living somehow.' "

He also started keeping a succession of rescued Rottweilers, all of whom he named Kodiak, Mendenhall said.

Owens said his friend made it a point to see his friends and would do anything for them.

"He was a hell of a guy," he said.