Off the Scales

Destin Fishing Rodeo weighmaster Bruce Cheves is one of a kind



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SEAN MURPHY

 

Bruce Cheves’s head is topped by a pair of sunglasses, a tattered bandana and a visor to which various objects, including a pink breast-cancer awareness ribbon and a “My Vote Counted” sticker, have attached themselves like barnacles. He wears a Bob Marley T-shirt, shorts in good repair, New Balance sneakers and black socks that are pooled around his ankles. His beard, bushy and unkempt, is one a pirate might have worn, and his voice, two octaves below gravelly, completes the buccaneer effect.

But Cheves’s eyes reveal that he is a good guy. Turns out, he is equal parts public relations expert, educator, entertainer, carnival barker and fisherman.

For 40 years, since trading the Pacific Coast — he grew up in Monterey, California — Cheves (pronounced cheevz) has been decking aboard charter boats.

“I never wanted to drive,” he said. “I always wanted to be with the people fishing.” (And, sure, the role of captain involves more responsibility than that of mate.)

Cheves will abide non-fishing customers if he has to, but however aloof about fishing they may be when they board, he is likely to change their minds.

“We had a lady one time, all she wanted to do was sit on the bow in her beach chair,” Cheves recalled. “Very sophisticated. Had a Cosmopolitan book with her. Every so often, I would go check on her, bring her some ice to keep her wine chilled. Back at the stern, fishing was good, but she was not paying any attention.”

Then, as he was approaching the sea buoy, the captain spotted a big mahi-mahi — about 35 pounds — and threw the boat in reverse, splashing the decks. The captain alerted Cheves, who came forward with a baited rod and reel. Cheves bounced the bait off the buoy, and the big bull dolphin engulfed it as soon as it hit the water. Feeling the sting of the hook, the fish leaped 15–20 feet in the air again and again before it streaked toward the stern. Cheves followed the fish and the sophisticate followed Cheves, who tried, at one point, to pass the rod to the lady.

She declined and Cheves landed the mahi, whereupon the woman, as Cheves tells the story, abandoned all pretense and proclaimed, “That was the f---king coolest thing I have ever seen.”

She was hooked. You could almost envision her passing up Cosmo in favor of Saltwater Sportsman.

Cheves knew little about offshore fishing in 1977, when he moved from Monterey, California, where he grew up, to the Florida Panhandle, where his parents had retired. Nonetheless, his mother suggested that he see about catching on with a fishing boat in Destin. The second captain he spoke to decided to give him a chance, and Cheves has been a waterman ever since.

SEAN MURPHY

Bruce Cheves (seen here in Dr. Seuss socks) is always around the action when catches are brought to the Rodeo scales at AJ’s Restaurant.

“Being a mate isn’t a job; it’s a lifestyle,” Cheves offers. “Seven days a week during the season, and when the boat isn’t running, you’re working on the boat. Always, there is something that needs to be done. Now, a lot of guys go from the deck to the bridge and put on 100 pounds. But I never had an interest in taking the wheel.

“I love what I do,” Cheves enthuses. “Anything can happen out there, from A to Z, and sometimes, you go through half the alphabet in one trip.”

Just a couple of years after arriving in Florida, Cheves discovered that he had a talent for infecting people on the hill with the type of excitement that often develops offshore.

Cheves had taken a job at a Destin restaurant, shucking oysters, washing dishes, doing barback work. Behind the restaurant at the marina, at what is now HarborWalk Village, weigh-ins for a shark tournament were being conducted.

Cheves observed that the weighmaster, with whom he was a friend, didn’t say very much and didn’t attract much attention. So, on the tournament’s last day, Cheves asked for a turn at the microphone. With his rambling, enthusiastic style, he drew a crowd of 100 people and a pile of unsold souvenir shirts disappeared.

He took the 10 bucks he was given for his trouble to a nearby pub and discovered that he was an instant celebrity. He never broke the sawbuck. People competed to buy him drinks.

He would serve as the Destin Shark Tournament’s weighmaster for a total of 17 years.

In 1991, he was summoned by Bill Sherman, who had been serving as weighmaster for the Destin Fishing Rodeo. Then, before the advent of digital scales, weighing a fish involved suspending the fish, climbing a pole and operating a beam scale. Sherman’s pole-climbing days, he conceded to Cheves, were over.

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