Key West charter Capt. Joe Mercurio, who has been fishing in Key West for 61 years, finishes his final charter before retiring on June 29. MAISON BENITEZ/Overseas Media Group

Captain Joe Mercurio still wakes up at 5:30 every morning, but now he doesn’t have to check the wind and marine forecast while loading ice and tackle onto his charter boat Triple Time at A&B Marina.

Mercurio has been a fixture in and on the waters of Key West since his family moved here in 1946 when Mercurio was 3.

“My dad, also Joe Mercurio, started down here in 1946 with a party boat called The Storm King. They used to bottom-fish for grouper. Then I bought my first boat when I was 18 around 1951, but back then, you couldn’t make a living doing charters year round, only in January, February and March. Otherwise, there weren’t enough people in town to support a family with it, but charter fishing. A lot of the charter guys would work at the Navy yard when they couldn’t fish.”

But Capt. Joe always wanted to fish. “So I started commercial fishing, first for yellowtail, but then I realized the money was in lobster, so I did that for a number of years.”

That was all back in the days before the marine sanctuary was in place and before strict fishing regulations required a saltwater products license to sell fish.

More than 40 people in custom blue shirts celebrate Capt. Joe Mercurio’s final charter. DAMALI PHIPPS/Contributed

“There were no licenses for nothing back then; you just needed a boat registration,” he said. “My first commercial yellowtail boat was the Ruth C. I had that for four or five years before I decided crawfish was where the money was. So I bought the Donna Marie commercial lobster, then the Tine Marie. Then, around 1965, we bought the Fiji III and that’s when I went back to doing charters, and were out of Garrison Bight, before the present-day Charter Boat Row was there.”

Mercurio had the Fiji III until 1979, “then I bought the Gulfstream III head boat and the Jolly Roger charter boat, which was next to it. It’s funny, the Gulfstream had been my father’s competition, but I’d known those guys since I was 4 or 5 years old, and I had always said I’d buy the boat from them whenever they were ready to sell it.”

That childhood dream came true in 1979, and Capt. Joe was taking out 50 people at a time on the boat he’d fished from since he could barely see over the rail.

“Eventually, I got tired of dealing with 50 people at a time, and I stuck with doing charters on the Jolly Roger,” he said. “We bought today’s boat, Triple Time, 23 or 24 years ago and I’ve run that boat ever since. I sold Jolly Roger to my son, Joe III, and we moved Triple Time downtown to A&B Marina.”

Mercurio’s wife, Sandy, always handled bookings, reservations and all phone calls and questions from charter clients, most of whom came back year after year.

“Sailfish and marlin and any of the blue water fish have always been my favorite to catch,” he said. “But we’ll go after whatever the clients want, including mahi mahi and snapper. But if I had my druthers, I’d go after the big ones, and always do catch and release. I was always taught, as a young kid, you never take more than you need and you never fish the same spot two days in a row.”

Capt. Joe and Sandy Mercurio celebrate their last charter after selling the boat Triple Time to their longtime mate Keith Hebert.

So, what’s next for Capt. Joe?

“I still wake up at 5:30, but I don’t have to do anything. I will get another job, though.” He said he plans to apply for a job driving the tender back and forth to Sunset Key, which would keep him on the water and around people.

“That way I don’t have to worry about maintenance or fixing the boat,” he said.

Looking back on 61 years of doing what he loves, Mercurio has zero regrets.

The charter boat Triple Time remains at its usual slip at A&B Marina. The Mercurios sold the boat to their longtime mate Keith Hebert. “He’s been with us for nine years, so most of our clients already know him, and we truly wish him the best.

“The fishing experience is not always about catching, but about having a great time on the water with good people,” he said. “It’s been the greatest way to make a living, and I’ve been so fortunate to have lived the old saying, ‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.’”

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.