Capt. Jeff Belsik By Ben Iannotta:
Capt. Jeff Belsik was easy to spot in a fishing culture of beige flats boats and khaki sportswear. He was the guy in a cutoff sweatshirt dunking a sky blue Action Craft, a cell phone glued to his ear, and "Hey, buddy" echoing over the boat ramp.
Life as a guide in the Florida Keys was not about playing a part for Jeff. It was about hunting for fish, respecting the places they lived, and finding customers who shared the same passion. And customers he found. Some came to fish with him for days or weeks each year. He treated them not as clients but as friends he just happened to work for.
When Jeff moved to the Keys from New Jersey in 1991 and began guiding two years later, he found the profession he was put on Earth to do. He guided with a flare and honesty that will never be matched. Family and friends lost him much too soon, at age 50, of prostate cancer.
On Jeff's days off, I was one of those who spent time on the water with him. He was always the captain. I was the angler. Once I accepted that, the experiences he gave me were some of the best of my life.
We hooked a giant tarpon in the pre-dawn and fought it while the sun rose through the sooty mist from the sugar cane fields burning in Cuba.
Big jack crevalles and bluefish chased and smashed our surface poppers in the Gulf of Mexico on otherwise gloomy winter days.
He guided me to tarpon and snook in the mangrove wilderness of the Everglades.
Jeff had so much respect for the fish he hunted. He would keep the occasional mackerel or pompano for dinner but released everything else. He didn't feel right killing a game fish.
He didn’t fly fish often, but when he did it was impressive. On a late summer afternoon, I watched him tease a bonefish to the hook in inches of water on a sun-baked flat west of Key West. He had released a tarpon earlier, and I wanted to go for a permit and the flats Grand Slam. Jeff shrugged. We didn't get that permit but that was fine because Jeff didn't fish for bragging rights.
It was surprising that in 2003, before I knew Jeff, he found himself at the center of a controversy over a possible world record catch. He and his angler, Brian Eliason of Rhode Island, caught and released a huge permit on fly and submitted paperwork to the International Game Fish Association saying the fish weighed 51 pounds. IGFA declared the fish a world record for a permit caught on fly in the 16-pound-tippet category. That's when things got interesting. Permit world record chasers in the Keys questioned the size of the fish and began lobbying IGFA. In 2004, the association rescinded the record, saying the catch lacked adequate documentation.
Jeff never regretted releasing that fish instead of hauling it to the dock for an official weigh in. He didn't care about records. He did care about integrity. A couple years ago, I asked him what he would say to those who doubted the fish's weight. He offered two words: "---- you."
Jeff could be as tough as his tanned muscles and tattoos suggested, but he was also incredibly personable. He became easy acquaintances with park rangers, boat mechanics and store clerks from the Keys to Sanibel Island. Passing him in our Summerland Key neighborhood one day, he waved. I asked him if he wanted to go fishing. It didn’t take long for him to become "Captain Jeff" to the kids and a brother to me. Becky and the kids lit up when the door popped open with a, "What's up chiefs." The kids would rush to him, and he'd flip them in his arms.
In the quiet evenings on our porch, the conversation would often turn to family. Jeff dreamed of having children, and he talked a lot about growing up in New Jersey. He was proud of the successes of his family and the respect and loyalty they showed for each other, despite leading very different lives. New Jersey was always a part of Jeff. Sometimes he'd call on Sundays and demand to know why the Giants weren't on.
Jeff loved the life he constructed, a fact that adds tragedy now but might someday sooth. Not long ago, he told me he had a dream he'd never moved to the Keys. He woke up, saw the silhouettes of the palms, and said, "Thank God!" Thank you -- chief.