Photo by Jeffery Salter
The store in the shopping center in West Palm Beach, Florida was exactly like Capt. Bart Miller had described it on the phone. A big black-and-gold sign over the door proclaimed: Black Bart Big Game Fishing. The floor inside was paved with scuffed, ambience-inducing dock planks. The walls were hung with thousands of the big, jewel-like, artificial lures Miller developed and popularized while building a global reputation for himself as a charter boat skipper in Kona, Hawaii. And off to the right, on the same side as the workshops and storage rooms, a life-size replica of the cockpit of Miller’s lovely 42-foot Merritt Black Bart sported a tournament-grade fighting chair outfitted and rigged for the impromptu instruction of customers.
“Is Captain Miller around?” I asked a young employee who introduced himself as Troy Weber. Weber nodded toward the cockpit replica and then remarked with the kind of pride young men sometimes take in their elders: “He’s in his office over there, sir.” I turned to study the cockpit area closer and caught sight of a surprising but subtle detail I’d not noticed before.
In the forward bulkhead was a big picture-window and behind the glass I could see the visage of a man who, even at first glance, seemed absolutely determined and indomitable despite the challenges of age, two bypass surgeries, partial blindness, and the onset of Parkinson’s disease. The symmetry of the set-up was perfect, really. Miller, ever the gutsy, perfectionistic, calculating competitor, who’d watched so many epic piscatorial battles unfold from his fabled flying bridge in Hawaii, was faithfully maintaining watch in West Palm. The two of us hit it off. I told a few stories and he told a helluva lot more, harking back to his hard-scrabble childhood in Depression-era San Francisco, his stint in the Air Force teaching martial arts, the unsuccessful campaign he waged to become the world’s top PGA tour golfer, and the glorious day he forsook golf forever after catching a blue marlin during a half-day’s fishing trip out of Kona. “I loved it from the first…I just loved it,” he remembered, “I decided right there and then that I was going to do in fishing what I could never have done in golf…I was going to become a world champion.”
Both TV and print journalists have documented virtually all of the exploits that resulted from that fateful decision. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Miller was credited with perfecting the design of high-speed artificial lures as well as the techniques used to successfully troll them. He also became known during that period as “the captain to the stars,” and had a list of clients that included luminaries like Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Stephen Stills, and Albert Finney. In 1984, he skippered the capture of a whopping 1,656-pound blue marlin, the largest ever taken near Kona at the time and still the second largest blue ever taken on rod and reel. Today at the store in West Palm, he and his staff of five continue to build and sell artistically crafted, “perfectly dangerous” artificials (in addition to custom rods, reels, and clothing) to walk-in customers as well as mail-order clients around the globe.
But Miller’s a cagey fellow. And while spending the day with him I discovered at least one episode gracing his long and illustrious career that had never before been wholly reported despite its truly revelatory nature. He sat tilted back in a chair while telling the tale and I sat tilted back in another, with photos of great fish and great personages looking down from the walls.
In early 1973, Miller was running a 38-foot Bertram called Christel out of Kona and making $40 a day, a decent wage for a charter boat captain at the time. Moreover, he was decidedly on the rise professionally, with numerous records broken and a slew of marlin caught, although he hadn’t yet been able to purchase his own boat.
“One day a buddy of mine tells me he’s got a Japanese friend who’s really into fishing,” explained Miller. “And he asks if I have any available time for this guy.”
Shigeyuki Tachibana was an enormously wealthy real estate developer with a Samurai’s grit and intensity, qualities he and Miller shared in spades. Tachibana fished onboard Christel for 21 days and caught 24 blue marlin. The largest tipped the scales at 644 pounds.
“The Japanese tradition is to tip first,” Miller explained, “So every morning I’d arrive at the boat and get $100 for me and $100 for the crew.
It was great. Then we’d fish all day and talk all night. Tachibana had a girlfriend who translated.”
Finally, just prior to the tycoon’s return to Japan, Miller received an invitation to meet for breakfast at Kona’s Hilton Hotel. In the midst of the meal he was offered a proposition that caused him to momentarily question his hearing. “Mr. Tachibana has had a wonderful time,” translated the girlfriend, “and as a gesture of good will he wants to buy you a boat…a boat of your own.”
“As soon as I realized this guy was for real,” laughed Miller, shaking his head as if still stunned, “I asked the only question I could think of…why?”
The answer was poetic. “Captain Miller has given Mr. Tachibana history,” the girlfriend translated, “and Mr. Tachibana wants to give him a boat—not even two million or three million dollars is too much.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.