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The Captain

Bart Miller is living the "grander" life.

August 23, 2015
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Practice, skill and unrelenting determination took the humble Capt. Bart Miller from the helm to international angling celebrity.
When Capt. Bart Miller started making lures, he used the nylon straps in lawn chairs to create the skirts. It was on a homemade lure 31 years ago that he set the big-game world ablaze with a record blue marlin catch. Today, his lures are found in the tackle locker of almost any boat chasing big fish from New Jersey to New Zealand.
A look back through Capt. Bart Miller’s scrapbook is a history lesson for avid big-game anglers.
In addition to fishing and training dogs, Miller wants to write the story of his family from the 1920s to the present, including tales of his grandfather, a professional baseball player from 1917 to 1927 and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Black Bart trophy plaques shot at the Black Bart retail shop in West Palm, Florida.
Captain Bart Miller fishing the canals in Jupiter, Florida.
Captain Bart Miller fishing the canals in Jupiter, Florida.
Captain Bart Miller fishing the canals in Jupiter, Florida.

On a piece of dirt road in Jupiter, Florida, there’s a house. It’s a comfortable, fenced-in dwelling. It has an interior resembling a timeless ski lodge, with wooden beams and trim reaching up to a loft used as an office. There are posters of mountain ski trails in Colorado and France, and books on the subject are there too. It’s quite the juxtaposition, since the man who lives inside, Capt. Bart Miller, has spent his entire life plying the high seas in pursuit of big fish.

Miller, who developed the line of world-renowned Black Bart big-game fishing lures, is a legend when it comes to chasing leviathans of the deep. He humbly dismisses the moniker, but he has more than earned it. Today, he is an unassuming man, grounded as he enjoys his golden years, not just reminiscing about what was, but dreaming of what can be. At 80 years young, he’s endured heart ailments, blindness in one eye and the onset of Parkinson’s disease and all that comes with it. But when asked if he still has a fire in the belly, he wryly smiles, looking more like a young gent who is ready to get out and search for his next record-setting, pointy-nose foe.

Captain Bart Miller looking through old slides at his home in Jupiter, Florida.

The northern California native, who made a name for himself fishing out of Kona, Hawaii, has been at the game a long time. He caught the bug when he was 8 years old. Raised by his ­grandmother and sent to boarding school, Miller spent his time in the San Francisco and Sausalito areas developing his angling skills on local waterways, quickly realizing that fishing was what he wanted to do in life. “I would go off alone, learning about nature and being by myself,” he said.

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Eventually, he worked as a mate in The Golden State, learning the fishing trade and rising in the ranks. By the time he made captain, he knew he was also good with his hands. He had a talent for sculpting, which eventually led him into his lure-making business. “I had a friend whose father was a fresco artist,” Miller explained, enthralled by the craft’s handiwork.

Captain Bart Miller and his German Shepherd, Strike, at his home in Jupiter, Florida.

Question: With whom would you like to fish again?

Capt. Scott Levin, who was once pulled overboard when a line looped around his finger while leading a 551-pound blue marlin. Levin and the fish were successfully landed. “We fished together for many years as a team,” Miller said. “I enjoy fishing with him, being with him — basically love the guy.”

His first taste of the Hawaiian lifestyle came in 1955, courtesy of Uncle Sam and the U.S. Air Force. He did a two-year stint, getting out through a special program and being honorably discharged. He returned home to California and took on a new job title: professional golfer. Miller, a PGA-rated pro, worked out of Inglewood and Westlake country clubs near Los Angeles. He lived the high life by “making good money and driving a Porsche and a motorcycle,” and he says his golf background was instrumental in shaping him into a determined fisherman. “Golfers have to be dedicated to discipline and training,” he said. The captain golfed for a living but continued to fish for fun. It made for long days, up at dawn and not home until midnight.

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Little did he know that taking a golf job back in Hawaii on Oahu in 1965 would be his passport from a life on the greens to a life at sea. He eventually traded his clubs for fishing rods, professionally, chasing big marlin instead of little white balls. “I had a passion for golf, but a tremendous passion for fishing,” Miller said. He was firmly hooked after his first fishing trip: He caught a 250-pound blue marlin and two tuna at 150 and 175 pounds. Miller chose Kona as his base, had several boats and put in his time, honing his angling prowess. From his first charge as captain of a 36-footer called ­Adelante, he worked to keep the old wooden boat afloat while being consumed by big-game fishing. The owner purchased a new boat, Kiholo, in 1968. Aboard her, Miller learned how to use artificial lures rather than live bait for big fish. “I hunted the best-known fishermen to study their styles,” he said. “I exposed myself to a rich education.” He perfected his ability through “practice, practice and more practice.”

A collage of Captain Bart Miller containing old photos, lure sketches, newspaper clippings and a Black Bart lure taken at his home in Jupiter, Florida.

A sponsorship opportunity in 1970 saw Miller move his fishing territory to Bay of Islands, New Zealand, with a follow-up move to Cairns, Australia, to try his luck on the Great Barrier Reef. Fishing with the likes of International Game Fish Association Fishing Hall of Fame member Peter Wright and others, Miller learned how to handle big fish and perfected his big-tackle techniques. Upon returning to Kona in 1973, Miller captained the Christel, a 36-foot Bertram that was loaded for battle. This was the platform that saw him catching world records. From the early 1970s, Miller and his team won tournament after tournament. “We won so many, we were asked to not compete anymore,” he said with a laugh.

Miller caught a big break from a wealthy Japanese client he had served for years. After a visit that included catching 24 blue marlin in 21 days, the client offered to buy Miller a boat. Any boat he wanted, a boat of his own. Miller was stunned. They met with broker Richard Merritt, son of renowned boatbuilder Buddy Merritt, in Miami, and Miller chose a used 42-foot Merritt. Purchase price: $200,000. “It was the right boat at the right time with the right people,” he said. The client named the boat Black Bart.

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The showroom of Black Bart Lures in West Palm, Florida.

On March 16, 1984, aboard Black Bart, Miller made his grandest catch. Miller was on the wheel and angler Gary Merriman was in the chair when a big blue marlin came into the spread on an other­wise quiet day. The fish, which Miller estimated from his perched view weighed more than 1,000 pounds, eyed the right-side rigger lure several times. After an hour of cat-and-mouse teasing, and Miller jockeying Black Bart to keep the lure spread in front of the behemoth billfish, there was a strike and a two-hour battle. Miller managed the boat’s controls while directing the dance going on in the cockpit to ensure their best chance at landing the beast. They bested the fish, and a 1,656-pound blue marlin — the largest caught in Kona and second largest in the world — came through the transom door. It was the result of a life spent honing his craft. The successful lure? Miller had made it just a few days earlier. Black Bart Lures was born.

Miller managed the boat’s controls while directing the dance going on in the cockpit to ensure their best chance at landing the beast.

His company’s lures are still in production and used by countless anglers in big-game hot spots like Curaçao, Mexico, New Zealand and Hatteras, North Carolina. Fan favorites include names like Hawaiian Breakfast, Marlin Candy and Oz Prowler.

Nowadays, Miller spends time exploring business opportunities, participating in a few tournaments (in November his team won the 2014 El Salvador International Billfish Tournament), stopping by the tackle shop he once owned in Palm Beach, Florida, training his German shepherds and enjoying life with his wife, Frederique.

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Captain Bart Miller fishing the canals in Jupiter, Florida.

The captain still gets out fishing, but on a much smaller scale. He likes wetting a line in the local canals, and he does so with the same intensity he once brought to chasing big blue marlin. “Rhythm and tempo,” Miller said, are the most important forms of any champion. Good advice from a humble legend.

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