FLORIDA KEYS -- Nobody catches fish without the bait.
That is why, in the world of Florida Keys fishing, Bert "The Shrimp Man" Smith, as he is affectionately known, becomes the most valuable person in any angler's life.
Live shrimp are the preferred bait of choice by the majority of anglers looking to catch any variety of species found in local waters. It doesn't matter whether the anglers are professional captains or recreational fishermen; they all need bait to catch fish.
No bait is more important than the live shrimp Smith delivers every morning to tackle shops and marinas throughout the Keys. One only needs to visit a tackle shop that sells live shrimp to see how important it is to every one waiting there for the early morning delivery from Smith's Island Shrimp Incorporated truck.
Smith, 79, has been delivering live shrimp to bait shops in the Keys for more than 35 years.
His typical morning starts early, at 3:30 a.m., when he drives north from his home in Tavernier to meet the shrimp boats at 4:30 a.m. at a private dock on Card Sound Road. There, he loads the thousands of shrimp he purchases from Jamie Green's commercial shrimp boats. After loading his truck, Smith begins his daily route with his first deliveries in Key Largo by 5:30 a.m.
Smith hasn't always delivered shrimp. As a young man, he moved to Miami from central Florida's Longwood and worked as a typesetter for the Miami Herald. It was a job he said he loved, but technology eventually made his work obsolete as the paper transitioned away from the old hot-type method of printing.
Without a profession, Smith found work as a shrimp delivery driver for Bob Still's Live Bait, which he initially viewed as a temporary position. Smith had worked for Still for a year when the owner said he was looking to retire and asked Smith if he would be interested in buying the business. Smith jumped at the opportunity and purchased the business in 1979, changing the name to Island Shrimp Incorporated.
In the beginning, Smith's daily routine of 38 deliveries to tackle shops and marinas started in Key Largo and ran all the way down to Key West.
"I'm semi-retired now. I only deliver to 16 places anymore," he said with a laugh. "Now my deliveries run from Key Largo to the Sunshine Key Resort just south of the Seven Mile Bridge. I finish around 11:30 each day.
"At one time I had three trucks on the road up to 1995, but as I said before, I'm semi-retired."
During the busy season from Christmas through March, Smith said he delivers 20,000 to 22,000 shrimp every day. Starting in April, that number drops to around 15,000 shrimp on a daily basis. His only real break from the seven-day a week routine comes in July and August. That is when the shrimp become scarce in Florida's east coast waters and shrimp boats remain at the docks.
Smith says he really appreciates the critical role he plays in the world of fishing in the Florida Keys.
"People have been great," he said. "They only get upset a little if I don't have the amount of shrimp they want, or [if] I'm a little late."
His importance is displayed by the many faces of anglers who wait eagerly each morning for the shrimp to arrive. As his truck pulls into the parking lot, the anglers perk up and say, "The Shrimp Man is here."
Jack Eastman, who handles the majority of bait deliveries at Islamorada's Caloosa Cove Marina, has known Smith for 20 years.
"Bert is a good man," Eastman said. "He's a very pleasant person, a kind man who we all admire. ... His job is very important to our business. We all look forward and enjoy seeing him every day."
As for Smith, he says he has no intention to retire any time soon.
"I plan on doing this as long as I feel good and remain in good health," he said.
That should come as welcome words to those who wait each morning for "The Shrimp Man."