So long, Billy

So long, Billy

  • By: Rick Ruoff
  • Photography by: Val Atkinson
Billy Pate

I am sitting on Buchanan Bank waiting for Billy Pate, who died in April (sources disagreed on whether he was 80 or 81). About 75 yards to the east is a white cross sticking out of the water, the final resting spot for some of the most famous tarpon guides in the history of the sport: Jimmie Albright, Cecil Keith, Jack Brothers—all were Florida Keys legends. This place is called “the Pocket,” a dip in the bank that tarpon are forced into by falling tides, giving a lucky fly fisherman the perfect angle to cast at those grand fish. It is the most hallowed spot in tarpon angling. Billy spent hundreds of days at the Pocket and, although not a guide, will soon be the most famous angler resting here. The memorial procession of family, friends, fellow anglers and guides is on the way. I can see dozens of boats on the horizon, all heading here.

Growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, Billy Pate was the quintessential sporting Southern gentleman. He was an enterprising businessman who through hard work and good fortune was able to retire at 33. In 1964 he took his first trip to the Florida Keys, and he was immediately captured by a passion for tarpon fishing. He soon bought a home in Islamorada, and was in full pursuit of giant tarpon for the next four decades. His world record, a 188-pound fish, stood for almost 25 years, and was just one of about 20 world records he held. He produced several tarpon fishing videos that thrilled viewers and instructed generations of anglers, and his love of the outdoors led him to champion many conservation efforts in the Everglades. Legendary Keys guide George Hommell joined forces with Billy to form a tackle and travel business named World Wide Sportsman—it became an internationally famous beacon for anglers fishing every exotic destination. Billy was the front man, traveling to remote locations searching for unfished water; George and the travel agency figured out how to get him home again. From Russia to Sierra Leone to Morocco, Billy fished the frontier. Between trips, he always came home to the Keys to pursue his preferred quarry, tarpon. Buchanan Bank, especially the Pocket, was his favorite. His distinctive boat was visible from a great distance, and you knew from a mile away that Billy was on duty.

The fly-fishing community will miss this gentleman with the soft Carolina drawl, but every day we’ll recognize the mark that he made on tackle design and fishing techniques. And maybe, just maybe, if things are right, you can fish the Pocket with Billy looking over you.

—Capt. Rick Ruoff