Within the ranks of the United States Air Force there are soldiers who are responsible for getting fuel to the planes fighting in combat. This most important fueling task is done carefully and with a great deal of risk while the planes are in the air, as well as on the ground during combat.
These highly trained pilots and ranking support personnel have in their possession coins with the words "Exceptional Performer" printed on one side. The officers occasionally distribute the coins to thank people who have helped them along the way.
I became aware of this practice when I received such a coin from two Air Force officers from the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill Air Force Base who had just returned from Iraq. It was their way of thanking me for helping them on their physical training routines.
That coin also had the following initials printed on the opposite side, NKAWTG -- Nobody Kicks A•• Without The Gas.
When it comes to fishing, the following letters would work well on a piece of tackle, only the letters on the flip side might read NCFWTB -- Nobody Catches Fish Without The Bait.
And in the world of Florida Keys fishing, Bert "The Shrimp Man" Smith is the Most Valuable Player in any angler's life. Just like the Air Force pilots who need fuel for combat, anglers need bait to catch fish.
Live shrimp are a preferred bait for many anglers looking to catch any of the species found in our waters. Shrimp are the most desired and one of the most effective baits you can purchase for fishing, any angler -- professional or recreational -- will agree.
No bait is more important than the live shrimp Smith delivers every morning to tackle shops and marinas throughout the Keys. To see you only need to go early one morning to a tackle shop selling live shrimp and observe how important shrimp is to anyone waiting for the morning delivery.
Smith, now 79 years old, has been delivering live shrimp to bait shops in the Keys for more than 35 years.
His day begins at 3:30 a.m. seven days a week. After eating breakfast he gets in his truck and drives north from his home in Tavernier to meet the shrimp boats at 4:30 a.m. on a private dock along Card Sound Road.
At the dock, Smith loads thousands of shrimp he purchases from Jamie Green's commercial shrimp boats. After loading his live well truck, you will find "The Shrimp Man" making the first of his daily deliveries in Key Largo at 5:30 a.m.. Shrimp typically sell at bait and tackle shops in the Keys for anywhere from $3 to $3.50 per dozen.
"I'm surprised he's still alive after driving up and down U.S. 1 as dangerous as it is for all these years," said Tommy "Spanky" Bressler, marveling at Smith's early morning adventures. "Heck, he even fell off the back of his truck and broke his hip not that long ago. He's tough; he only missed two months while he had someone else do the deliveries for him."
Bressler grew up in the Keys and has watched Smith make his deliveries since he was nine years old. From the way people talk about him, you know instantly Smith is one of the people who make the Keys a special place to live.
Smith did not always deliver shrimp. As a young man he moved to Miami from Longwood in 1970 and started to work as a typesetter for the Miami Herald.
It was a great job that he loved, Smith said, but technology stepped in and eventually eliminated his job, along with hundreds of others, when the paper went from the hot type to the cold type method of printing.
Unemployed, Smith saw a job come available as a shrimp delivery driver. He jumped at the opportunity, thinking he would do this job for a little while.
It made sense, as he was accustomed to early mornings at the newspaper, and this seemed like a good temporary employment move.
Smith went to work for Bob Still's Live Bait and the owner, Still, was impressed.
After a year on the job, Still, who was looking to retire, asked Smith if he would be interested in buying the business.
Smith jumped at this opportunity and purchased Bob Still's Live Bait business in 1979. Smith changed the name to Island Shrimp Inc. Still died in 1982 and is still remembered fondly by his shrimp successor.
In the beginning, Smith's daily routine of deliveries started in Key Largo and ran all the way down to Key West, with stops at 38 tackle shops and marinas.
Smith laughs when he looks back on those treks.
"I'm semiretired now. I only deliver to 16 places anymore. 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 morning."
He continued to speak with a proud smile on his face: "At one time, I had three trucks on the road delivering up to 1995, but as I said before, I'm semiretired."
During the winter months from Christmas through March, Smith delivers an average of 20,000 to 22,000 shrimp a day. Come April, when the snowbirds and tourists head north, that number drops to 15,000.
Smith's only real break from the seven-day-a-week routine comes in July and August when the shrimp leave the waters off Florida's east coast and the shrimp boats stay at the docks.
At certain times of the year, Smith also delivers crabs for tarpon and permit fishing.
"Bert is a good man; he's a very pleasant person, a kind man who we all admire. I've known him for 20 years. His job is very important to our business. We all look forward and enjoy seeing him everyday," said Jack Eastman, who handles deliveries at Caloosa Cove Marina.
Smith cherishes the role he plays in the world of Keys fishing; you can see it in his eyes when you talk to him.
"People have been great; they only get upset a little if I don't have the amount of shrimp they want, or I'm a little late getting there," said Smith.
The results of his efforts can be seen daily on the many faces of anglers eagerly awaiting the shrimp deliveries.
As he drives up to a tackle shop, a big sigh of relief ascends from the waiting fishermen.
"The Shrimp Man is here," they say, nearly in unison.
Smith has been delivering the fuel for fishing for quite some time and has no plans for retirement.
"I plan on doing this as long as I feel good and remain in good health," he said.
Many anglers will be very happy to know he's not going anywhere soon.