Here’s a story I wrote for Blu Magazine this summer about the fishing industry in the Bay and three individuals who have made an impact. Enjoy.
Let’s look at some numbers. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are approximately a million registered boats in the state of Florida. Roughly 100,000 of those roam Tampa Bay and its nearby waters.
Anyone who has enjoyed the pleasures of a day on the Bay knows the responsibility of boat ownership. There’s everything from storage to repair. And even if the basics are covered, there is always a need to make your craft ship shape each season. Tampa Bay has scads of companies to serve your nautical needs. Here are three local entrepreneurs, who have made their mark.
All three are fishermen. All three saw a need to make their sport better, so they did. Below are their stories.
John Oliverio had a problem. He could find the fish. He just could not make a cast without spooking them, because he could not stop the boat quickly or quietly enough. A conventional anchor just didn’t work.
If you’re a weekend fishermen, a noisy anchor is a mere annoyance. If you’re a tournament angler, it’s the difference between winning and losing.
A competitive fisherman, Oliverio put his engineering skills to work. After tinkering with connectors that resemble Legos, the Brandon resident came up with the first Power-Pole, a shallow-water anchoring system that uses a hydraulic lever and rod to penetrate the ground quietly and stop the boat with the flip of a switch. There is no heavy metal to lift, no splash to scare the fish. Safe, secure and speedy, Power-Pole ultimately changed the complexion of shallow water fishing.
The impact was not immediate. When the first Power-Poles entered the market in 2000, there were skeptics. Now most of the doubters are believers.
At first, Oliverio sold Power-Poles out of the trunk of his car; the device is now available via 2,000 dealers nationwide.
Power-Pole, which is produced by JL Marine Systems in east Tampa, is one of the heavyweights in the fishing industry. A company that started out with two friends side by side is now home to 60 employees at a 40,000 square foot facility.
Joe Welbourn wants to get one thing straight as we took a walk around his Tampa warehouse on a warm afternoon.
“I don’t give up. I’m not wired that way,” he said.
A former manager of headhunters, the former job finder left the comfort of a six-figure career to create his own line of work. It just took a few years.
Back in 2007, Welbourn was sitting in his South Tampa garage trying to find a way to fix the tiller extension on his skiff. A bit of research revealed that there was no easy way to buy a replacement. That’s when Welbourn’s intellectual tenacity took over. He made his own replacement part and his invention — known as the tiller pillar — formed the foundation for his business, Carbon Marine, which makes more than just tillers. You can buy push poles, casting platforms and poling platforms. All are made out of carbon fiber, a substance traditionally known as graphite. Historically, boating accessories have been made of metal, but carbon fiber is much lighter and more durable. In fact, Welbourn’s motto is “Float Shallower.”
Stealth is the name of the game in saltwater flats fishing, and Welbourn has done quite well serving those who prefer precision over power. After more than six years in his latest venture, he expects to generate more than $400,000 in 2013, not bad for a guy that barely grossed $4,000 after his first year in business.
“I’m an engineer at heart,” Welbourn said. “I love to build stuff. I love to solve problems.”
Pelican Custom Flats Boats
They’re friends, former prep baseball players and life-long Tampa Bay fishermen who talked of owning their own boating company back in high school. Sounds cliché, right? In the real world, such talk usually never amounts to much. The reality of marriage and money gets in the way. But T.J. Strahan and his two buddies, Chis and John Rosende, made good on their promise, turning a plan into profit with Pelican Custom Flats Boats.
Their mission is simple: Build an affordable, quality flats boat, which is not easy, considering that a high-end technical poling skiff can run $70,000.
Pelican, which is still in its infancy as a company after two plus years, tries to produce a boat that costs around 35 grand. The main models are the FLY17 and PELICAN17. Both provide comfort and a dry ride.
Bigger boating companies rely on their brand for business, but generally carry more overhead, which is then passed on to the consumer. Pelican relies on low overhead, quality and customer service to create its niche.
“We spent time early, so you don’t have to spend the time later,” Strahan said, referring to the boats’ design process. “It’s one of those things. Sometimes you get lucky. But then sometimes you’d like to think you know what you’re doing. I think it was a combination of both in our case.”
For those who want to fish super skinny water, Pelican created the AMBUSH, a 13-footer that was originally designed as a luxury paddle board, but morphed into a cross between a kayak and boat. The AMBUSH, which floats in less than 3 inches, can be powered by motor or paddle and has the many of the amenities of a traditional skiff.
The latest AMBUSH is a carbon fiber version, which promises to be significantly lighter, ideal for one angler to portage and pole.
“To be honest, we’ve never been able to keep a demo,” Strahan said. “Our demo boats sell fast, like that. It’s a good problem to have.”