Loss of a legend

Gulf kingfish anglers owe a debt of gratitude to Capt. Gene Turner, who recently passed away in St. Petersburg, Fla. Courtesy of the Turner family

Times like this make me glad I'm a writer and not a public speaker. Leaky eyes, trembling lips and that irrepressible lump in the throat don't impede my work. Nevertheless, it's really tough to comment on the October 13 passing of Capt. Gene Turner -- a true sport-fishing hero and one of my most influential mentors.

Considering that Gene's family already handled the obituary and that St. Petersburg Times writer Jeff Klinkenbeg, a longtime Turner family friend, wrote a fittingly candid summary, I'll focus on a couple of impactful points that I learned from this Florida original. First, form your own opinion and stick to your guns. Second, respect the views of others -- even if you disagree.

For examples of both, I look no further than my favorite Gulf of Mexico species -- the king mackerel. In recent years, spring and fall have brought increasingly strong kingfish runs and we owe that mostly to Capt. Gene Turner. He's the one who sounded the alarm when rampant commercial netting of the 1970s and early 80s nearly collapsed the species.

Never one to hold his tongue or mince words, the outspoken boat builder from St. Petersburg Beach preached his "No Nets" message from local fishing club meetings to the state capital. His words did not always fall on receptive ears and, in fact, he endured much grief from those whose interests rested in those bulging nets. Many would have relented and picked a different battle, but Turner persevered until the feds finally took action to spare kingfish from the greedy slaughter.

Regulations that now limit commercial and recreational harvest of kingfish exist largely because of his commitment to what he believed. Gene's campaign also helped ignite a public fury over the gill netting that was wrecking inshore fisheries for prized species like pompano and speckled trout. The result was Amendment Three to the Florida Constitution (aka the "net ban"), which outlawed all entanglement nets in Florida waters.

Each time I set the hook over a shallow grass flat, or watch my screaming reel painfully yield its line to a blazing kingfish, I'll think of Gene Turner. I'll also think of Gene when debating whatever point of tackle or tactics riles my opinionated nature. I'll remember that you can tell someone they don't know what they're talking about, but still call them a friend.

Example? Sure, got a good one.

I first got to know Gene Turner in the early 90's during my involvement with several popular kingfish tournaments on the Central Gulf Coast. Back then, Floridians were just catching on to the live bait slow trolling tactics pioneered by North Carolina's kingfish pros. The mainstream recipe for giant, tournament-winning kings comprised light main line, thin wire leader and small treble hooks (No. 4 or 6). The idea was to downsize tackle in hopes of fooling the big ultra-wary kings we call "smokers."

Well, Gene had been yanking monster kings out of the Gulf since before most of us had received our first Zebco spincast outfit. His smokers never required anemic tackle and if you ever fished on his boat you knew better than to even bring it. Ask a local about the "Gene Turner Rig" and they'll show you a pair of hefty J hooks with the point of one set through the eye of the second.

Of course, when a southeastern kingfish circuit brought out-of-towners and mainstream locals to Gene's backyard, they all knew they'd have to respectfully listen to his admonishments over what he considered inferior tackle. I was learning the kingfishing craft back then, so you can bet I got the speech more than once.

Clear as the Egmont Channel whistle buoy, I can still hear that gritty, no-nonsense voice telling me: "David, them boys that think they've got to use that light line and those little bitty hooks, well they're just as wrong as they can be! Those little hooks can fall right out of a big kingfish's mouth, but when I sock one of them big hooks in that fish he ain't gettin' away!"

That's the funny stuff. Here's the part you don't want to miss. Gene Turner never insulted the person he corrected. He'd treat each competitor with respect and kindness and he'd gladly offer a few tips on where to find live bait or where a good pack of kings may be lurking.

The anglers admired him for that. They put their arms around his shoulder. They patted his back with unmistakable reverence. They hugged him. We all loved him. And now; now we'll miss him.

Always willing to spend a couple of hours chatting with me about the industry he loved, Gene befriended me early in my career; back when I was a young, immature journalist who knew nothing about nothing. Now, sometimes I feel like I'm an older, more mature journalist who knows nothing about a lot of things.

But I know two things with certainty: David Brown the outdoors writer has benefited greatly from Gene Turner's time on this planet. More importantly, David Brown the person has a better handle on life because of this man's influence.

Gene taught me, he counseled me; he bought me lunch and he fed my appetite for knowledge. He let me know it was OK to be a beginner at something and he encouraged me to keep trying to get better. With all my heart, I hope I earned his approval.

I think it's fittingly appropriate that I received word of Gene's death shortly before leaving for a Gulf fishing trip. Announcing his father's passing by email, Capt. Chris Turner's words surely dampened the eyes of anyone who knew the man I was blessed to know: "Gene Turner 06-18-1918 - 10-13-2010. Gone fishing."

I had a great day on the water, but I'd gladly trade every fish I caught, plus every one the rest of my time may bring for one more conversation with Gene  even if he has to tell me I'm using the wrong hooks.

David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "FISH SMART-CATCH MORE!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.