Fishing Lines: Keys to success for Rawle are putting Florida skippers in place

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The Independent Online

Old skippers from Florida have not taken too kindly to an upstart Essex lad muscling in on their territory. People who fished on their boats called them "characters". They were renowned for their rudeness, unwillingness to listen and general bloody-mindedness. But if you wanted to fish the Keys hotspots, you often had to put up with your skipper being drunk, aggressive, abusive and often all three.

They're still there: unshaven, untidy boats and a sod-you attitude. But their business is declining. A major factor is John Rawle.

He's done well, the boy. I remember him as a kid, fishing for flounders off Southend pier. Now he's running two thriving fishing businesses, and one is based in Cracker Country at Islamorada in the Florida Keys.

It all started when he visited the Keys 13 years ago. He loved the place and the fishing, so he bought his own boat. Other skippers (every boat owner down there calls himself Captain, which tells you a lot) were unhelpful, even mocking. However, Rawle was nothing like the wealthy playboys who zoomed around frightening the manatees.

At Bradwell in Essex, famous for its nuclear power station and not much else, Rawle was already running a highly successful charter business. At one stage, trawlers would follow him to see where he was catching so many fish.

This wasn't a Brit who wanted to dangle a line over the side and get a tan, but one of our top boat skippers.

Rawle treated Florida like the Thames estuary. He spent months exploring it. When he felt he was ready, he bypassed the local mafia and offered trips to UK anglers fed up with the British winter.

In Florida terms, Rawle was wet behind the ears. But, suddenly, locals noticed he was catching fish. Lots of them. Way more than they were.

What he had realised was that tarpon, the fish everyone wanted to catch, didn't really feed during the day.

So Rawle's trips start at dusk, or at 3am. As the local boats are setting off, Rawle is heading in with a party of tired but smiling anglers.

During the day (goodness knows when the man manages to get some sleep), he takes Brits to catch sharks, which local boats had never bothered with. But most people were delighted and excited to catch sharks weighing up to 300lb, in water so shallow you could paddle in it without getting your thighs wet.

Rawle has now built up some better relationships with a few of the more agreeable local "captains" to take business that he cannot handle. "I reckon that I gave them more than 100 clients this season, which helps them and helps me," he said.

Tope-fishing with him (off Bradwell, not Florida, sadly) this week, he showed me pictures of mighty tarpon (three over 200lb), shark amberjack and grouper.

He also gave me the best fishing news I'd heard for years. I'll tell you all about that next week.

For details of John Rawle's Florida trips, go to