By Ric Burnley
“I’ve always been a mate at heart,” admits Captain Gary Stuve. Even though the 77-year-old skipper has run some of the most famous boats for some of the most famous anglers, his soul is in the cockpit.
“I grew up as a gung-ho son of a bitch,” Stuve laughs. Stuve’s grandfather was a merchant seaman, his father a boat captain. “We moved from Staten Island to West Palm when I was a kid,” he recalls.
In the 1960s, West Palm was a Petri dish of early sportfishing, the parts were coming together to mold the future of the sport and Stuve was right in the middle of it. “I would work washing boats or paying my dues,” he says.
In high school, Stuve needed a summer job. “I read in Sports Illustrated that guys were going to Hatteras to catch blue marlin,” he remembers, “so I went to Hatteras to catch blue marlin.”
After graduation, he bounced around fishing with anyone who needed a mate. His flexibility had him traveling to Montauk and the Bahamas. “I didn’t have a family or bills, I was living with my mother,” he says.
Stuve has always done whatever it takes to stay on the water. “They say luck is when opportunity meets preparation,” he laughs. “I’ve been very lucky to have some great opportunities.”
His first big shot came when legendary pro golfer Jack Nicklaus needed a captain to run his 37-foot Merritt. “Jack was an owner-operator,” Stuve says. But the Golden Bear needed a skipper who could drive and rig baits. “We would switch off running the boat and fishing,” he remembers.
That job led him to tuna fish with Buddy Merritt. “I learned more from Buddy in one week than I had learned in my whole career.” Stuve considers listening one of the most important fishing skills. “He was like a professor, and I was a sponge,” he chuckles.
Fishing the Bahamas and Newfoundland, Stuve fell in love with tuna fishing early in his career. “They are the spookiest and scariest fish,” he explains. “You don’t catch a tuna by accident.” Bahamas tuna fishing is sight fishing, Stuve compares it to targeting permit on the flats. Even when a bait is presented perfectly, Stuve says a tuna will turn its nose up. “When you hook one, it’s a whole ‘nother game,” he laughs loudly.
Peer pressure was another factor. “Buddy and Allen (Merritt) were my idols, and they were tuna fishing,” Stuve says. His position on the dream team led to tournament wins in Cat Cay. “That opened a lot of doors,” he admits. One of those doors led to the bridge of Dinny Phipps’ Fighting Lady. Stuve fished with Phipps all over the world for ten years.
Another door opened in the mid-90s when Captain Peter Wright called from Hatteras with stories of giant bluefin tuna. Stuve recalls, “He told me, ‘The rumors were true, get up here, we need help.’” By midnight, Stuve and a “Splittail” Charlie Hayden were northbound on I-95.
That phone call led to another of Stuve’s most famous accolades—catching a record 73 giant bluefin in one day. “We loaded the boat with 14-flats of menhaden,” he marvels. The fish were schooling over a wreck 25 miles south of Hatteras Inlet. “They were biting when we got there and biting when we left,” he remembers.
To set the record, Stuve says everything came together. With 200- to 500-pound bluefin boiling behind the boat, they would bury a circle hook in a chunk of bunker and feed it into the melee. “The water is only 100 feet deep so the fish can’t run too far.” He remembers the team had 300-pound tuna to the leader in an average of seven minutes.
Stuve says advancements in tackle helped their average. Using PENN 130s capable of producing 100-pounds of drag, Stuve worked to develop a system to beat the giants. “We wanted to find the weak link,” he says. After breaking crimps, straightening hooks and snapping gimble bolts, they were able to release 600 giant bluefin in their second season. “When I was growing up, I fantasized about breaking the record of 16 fish in one trip,” he chuckles.
Stuve’s mastery of the North Carolina bluefin fishery led him to working with Dr. Barbara Block and Stanford University’s Tag-a-Giant program. Much of today’s bluefin management can be linked to Block’s research. For over a decade, Stuve’s cooperation furthered both bluefin science and fishing. All because he answered the phone.
For over 50 years Stuve has traveled the world, targeting everything from blue marlin to bonefish. Along the way he has worked for a who’s who list of owners, but one thing has remained constant: his collaboration with Merritt Boat Works. Stuve first came aboard Merritt working for Jack Nicklaus and has run a dozen Merritt boats since.
The relationship with Merritt has kept Stuve busy on land, too. While working on new builds for Danny Phipps, Stuve developed a passion for woodworking and boat design. Stuve says his side-career started when the two were building a tuna boat and only had three months to finish it. “Roy Merritt told me, ‘You’re going to have to get involved,’” Stuve recalls.
Starting as an observant apprentice to the master craftsman, Stuve quickly jumped in with both feet. “Roy taught me, you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish when you have to,” Stuve laughs.
Working on builds with Merritt, Stuve has since made many design contributions that make boats more user friendly. His favorite touches are a reverse windshield on the tower to reduce glare from the bow. He also suggested moving the bunks from the noisy v-berth to the bulkhead for a better night’s sleep.
“We look at the last build and then make the next one better” he says.
After a lifetime in the rat-race, his current owner of 20 years has sold the sportfish and now focuses on flats fishing. “I keep an eye on his house and make sure the two flats boats are ready to go,” Stuve says.
Shallow-water pursuits fascinate Stuve as much as deep-sea adventures. “Any flats guide could be an offshore captain, but not every offshore captain could be a flats guide,” he laughs. The constantly changing nature of the flats and the fine-tuned tackle required to fish for bonefish, permit and tarpon consume Stuve’s fishing focus, now. He giggles like a kid, “When I’m poling the skiff into the wind and loving it, I think maybe I still have a little gas left in the tank.”
When I was young, I wanted to catch tuna all day and drink and fight and arm wrestle all night. – Gary Stuve
Looking back over his extensive career, Stuve attributes his total consumption with sportfishing as a contributing factor to his success. “When I’m not working on tackle at the boat, I’m working on tackle at home.” He remembers bolting a table-crimper to his coffee table so he could work on bluefin tackle while watching TV. “I once tried to work as a bartender,” he shakes his head and chuckles, “That didn’t last a week.”
In his later years, Stuve attributes clean living for his tenacity. “I quit drinking when I was 52,” he beams. After watching friends succumb to the hazards of a dangerous lifestyle, Stuve decided to give it up before he had to. “When I was young, I wanted to catch tuna all day and drink and fight and arm wrestle all night,” he says. “Quitting drinking was the best thing I ever did.”
Today, Stuve still freelances for friends and flats fishes with his boss. When he’s not working, he turns his attention to detail to landscaping his yard and working on wood projects. “I like to build stuff and tinker around.”
For fun, he grabs his paddleboard and spinning rod. “I recently caught a 100-pound bull shark on the paddleboard,” he brags. The huge fish dragged him around before he brought it onto the board for a photo. “I like the pure simplicity of fishing from the paddleboard,” he says.
Whether he’s running a 70-foot Merritt or a 12-foot paddleboard, Stuve wants to be on the water chasing fish. He reflects on his career: “I was fortunate to have good boats and good anglers; I didn’t f*ck up too much and I got a good reputation.” He’s always been eager to learn and share his knowledge, satisfied with putting anglers on fish and looking for the next door to open. “I had some great opportunities in the beginning. I might not have deserved many of them, but made the best of it,” he says.
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