Robert “Fly” Navarro never knew that taking a job refurbishing patio furniture as a teenager to help pay for college would change his life. As with all things regarding fate, the path that was laid out for him could only be understood in retrospect. Navarro was not yet old enough to vote when he started working for a friend in Palm Beach County whose father was a fishing-boat captain.
“The guy asked me what I was doing that summer, and I said I was just trying to make money for school,” says Navarro. “He offered me a position as a deckhand. I’d been fishing since I was 5, but I told him I didn’t know anything about big boats. He said it didn’t matter, he wanted someone who spoke two languages.”
Navarro, who is of Cuban descent, is fluent in Spanish, and that was a major asset as American sportfishermen became more and more interested in plying Latin American waters for giant billfish. The young fisherman soon found himself in Mexico, where he says he was picking up jobs left and right due to his bilingualism. By the late ’90s he was living in Venezuela and working as a deckhand and interpreter on various sportfishes.
That was when Jim Lambert came calling. At the time, Lambert’s fishing operation from a fully custom, 80-foot Merritt named Reel Tight based out of Hillsboro Beach was, as Navarro puts it, the New York Yankees of sportfishing, with no expense spared. Lambert signed Navarro as a deckhand, and the two worked and played together catching billfish for 14 years until Lambert’s death from cancer in 2008. By that time Navarro estimates he had landed about 725 billfish aboard Reel Tight, and in doing so had become one of the most knowledgeable, well-known, and well-loved anglers on the South Florida scene.
He would parlay that experience into becoming a fishing guide based out of Palm Beach County, with a specialty in landing massive billfish—sailfish, swordfish, and black and blue marlin. One time aboard the Reel Tight off Panama, he hooked into a blue marlin he estimated at 950-plus pounds. “I’m old school,” he says. “It might have been a grander [slang for a 1,000-pound fish] but I didn’t weigh it, so I can’t say it. I know it was big enough that Jim Lambert—who was a major conservationist—said that if he was the one who reeled it in, he’d want to bring it back to the docks for weighing. So that tells you something.”
As Navarro, now 50, grew older, he found being on the water 250 days a year too taxing for the long haul. If his joints were aching, his passion was not—and he still felt a fierce pull to share his passion for angling with the world. “My whole thing is that I want to get more people fishing, especially the younger generation,” he says. “And I realized that instead of taking one person fishing, I can go fishing myself and record it and share it on my social media platforms and the world can see it.” Think of it as “teach a man to fish” for the digital age.
Indeed, the world soon noticed. Navarro’s promotional work for fishing has caught the attention of tourism boards and fishing organizations across the globe. Today Navarro spends those 250 days a year traveling to far-flung locales like Portugal, Japan, and Australia helping to spread the joy of fishing. “I’ve been to Beijing,” says Navarro, “and I helped the prince of Abu Dhabi put on a fishing tournament in the Seychelles. People see my love for the sport and my knowledge of how fishing events should be run, and they hire me. That’s great for me, great for them, and great for the sport.”
The COVID-19 pandemic crimped Navarro’s jet-setting ways, but he was undeterred in his purpose. “During COVID I helped start RTH TV, which is a streaming service that was originally dedicated to putting out fishing content, but which has grown to include Olympic sports like judo, diving, and a bunch of others,” Navarro says. He adds that RTH TV will have the capacity to be distributed to 320 million homes and could be the nexus for the next big boom in the fishing industry.
Not a bad career for a kid who started out sanding down rocking chairs.
The Fish: Catch This
For decades South Florida has been one of the world’s hot spots for fishing, and it’s no secret why. With spectacular reefs and easy access to the Gulf Stream, the region could not be better situated for wetting a line. Here are some of the most famous fish you might hope to catch.
Sailfish: Perhaps the fastest and most acrobatic of any gamefish, sailfish regularly travel in large schools offshore, meaning when you catch one, you often catch many. The fish are known for their majestic jumps when hooked. They have minimal table value, and because of their sought-after stature as gamefish, they are nearly always released back into the sea.
Swordfish: Built like tanks, these delicious fish are mainstays on restaurant menus for good reason. Lately, it’s been en vogue to “deep drop” for these large billfish off Miami, where they bite at depths around 1,500 to 1,800 feet. Once hooked, an angler can expect to be in for the fight of his life.
Tarpon: One of Florida’s most iconic gamefish, the tarpon grows to around 200 pounds, with every ounce full of fight. This is an inshore species, abundant in places like Government Cut in Miami, Palm Beach Inlet, and the Keys. Because they’re nearly all bone, you’ll likely never see one on a plate.
Snook: Snook used to be referred to as soapfish because if you cook them with the skin on, they taste like, well, soap. When prepared properly, the mild and firm flesh is highly prized. These elusive fish prowl South Florida’s grass flats and can be found in both salt and fresh water.
Grouper: Multiple species of grouper can be found among the reefs and wrecks of South Florida. Nearly all of them are delicious, with a flaky, white flesh that is excellent blackened, grilled, or fried.
Yellowtail snapper: These tasty and aggressive fish respond well to chumming and they love glass minnows as bait. Just be careful, because that chum can bring up bigger, toothier fish like shark and barracuda that want to make a meal of your snapper just as much as you do.
The Environment: Seeing Green
Fishing in South Florida is nearly totally dependent on clean waters. The state does a good job of regulating habitats so that wildlife—and the tourists and fishermen it attracts—can flourish. Here are a few things you can do to help the cause.
Once you catch a fish, handle it as little as possible before releasing it. Touching a fish removes the protective slime it needs to stay healthy. A dehooker is highly recommended for getting out a hook.
To be the best conservationist you can be, you should read books and articles, and talk to fishermen and conservationists about how to best protect the environment in your neck of the woods.
Circle of Life
Circle hooks work best for keeping fish healthy as they lodge in the side of the animal’s mouth and don’t threaten to hook a vital organ.
Mangroves serve as key nurseries for younger fish, among other important duties. They are protected by law and should be respected by all. In the state of Florida, if you develop on a patch of mangroves, you must plant the same area of mangroves elsewhere in the state.
Leave It As You Found It
Debris and trash from watercraft is a huge problem in South Florida. Not only is it unsightly, it’s harmful to marine life and birds. To avoid pollution, be sure that everything you bring on the boat stays on the boat. Secure equipment and bag trash so that you may throw it away after you return to shore.
Far and away, the most democratic type of fishing is freshwater fishing. With so many lakes, ponds, and canals in Florida, anyone can do it. In the Sunshine State’s freshwater abodes, the largemouth bass reigns supreme. Lake Okeechobee is the most famous place to catch the king of freshwater fish, with the largest ever hauled out of the lake weighing in at a whopping 15 pounds, 5 ounces. It’s not surprising these bass get so large because they’ll eat almost anything—fish, frogs, crayfish, and even ducklings are on the menu.
Both American lobster (with claws) and Caribbean spiny lobster (no claws) can be found in Floridian waters, though the latter is the far more common and iconic of the pair. The shallow waters of the Florida Keys are the best places to find spiny lobsters. Regular lobster season in Florida runs from August 6 to March 31, with a mini season just for sportsmen that begins on the last Wednesday in July and extends to midnight of the following day (this year, July 26-27). The close supervision Florida officials keep on these animals is the reason why the fishery is so strong. Spearing for lobster in Florida is illegal, so your best bet is a tickle stick and a net.
Hot Spots: Oh, The Places You’ll Go
The best locations in South Florida to (try to) catch your favorite fish
Palm Beach: Hooray for the hometown. Palm Beach is perhaps the best place in all of Florida to hook into a sailfish, since the island sits so close to the Gulf Stream. It doesn’t matter if you have a 90-foot sportfish or an 18-foot skiff, the sailfish are there for the taking.
Islamorada: For tarpon, the best bet is Islamorada. Take out a skiff and hook into one of the most exciting gamefish in the world.
Jupiter Inlet: Snook love the strong current found here and congregate in droves on the north side of the inlet in a spot known to locals as the Groin.
Key West: Yellowtail snapper are abundant up and down the Florida coast, but to escape the crowds, go all the way to the end. People nail snapper here in about 60 feet of water, in any size boat.
Miami: For a town with so many top-shelf restaurants, it’s a stroke of great luck that swordfish populate the waters off the Magic City. The billed brawlers love the bottom structure there. Larger boats are recommended for fishing this area as you’ll likely be trolling a large swath of water for your prey.
The Experts: Guiding Light
If you are serious about catching lots of big fish, we recommend these South Florida guides, widely regarded as the best of the best
Departing from Sailfish Marina in Palm Beach Shores, Yates offers four-, six-, and eight-hour charters for up to six people aboard Champagne Room, a 53-foot Viking Sportfish starting at $1,200.
Out of Hawks Cay on Duck Key in the Florida Keys, Jensen offers reef and offshore fishing charters starting at $1,300 aboard the Gotcha, a 45-foot Key West No. 1 Hull that can accommodate six people.
Boyle’s boat, Lisa B, a 44-foot Jersey Devil captained by Mark Danley, departs from the Lighthouse Point Yacht Club. It offers half-, three-quarter, and full-day expeditions for up to six people, starting at $900. Swordfish expeditions are $2,700. The R.J. Boyle Studio also sells a variety of bait, fishing tackle, apparel, art, and custom-made swordfishing gear.