DESTIN — The Destin Fishing Rodeo is here — and that means "the Tennessee boys" are back in town.
Lifelong fishermen who grew up along the shores of Watts Bar Lake in eastern Tennessee, Ron Walton and his brother, Bruce — both just south of 70 years old — have been fishing the waters in and around Destin since 1986.
For the past 13 years, they've been entering the Fishing Rodeo — in separate boats they each tow the 500 miles from Tennessee. Routinely, they'll arrive a week before the rodeo, and they'll do some fishing together in the same boat.
"But when the rodeo starts, that's when it's on," Bruce said.
"That's when it's on," Ron agreed, talking over his younger brother.
It's not that there's any bad blood between them, and neither of them have any illusions they'll ever be all that competitive in the rodeo. They'll usually stay for the first couple of weeks, and both have caught fish large enough to get on the rodeo's tally board — but never quite large enough to win anything.
"We never win, but you know, we have fun," Bruce said.
"If we was to win, we'd come back in November for the trophy presentation," Ron joked, as he and his brother sat under a pavilion at Jetty East. They've been staying at the Gulf Shore Drive complex for years — long enough that condominium management just sort of looks the other way when the brothers leave their boats in the parking lot.
Ron says the brothers' decision to fish separately during the rodeo is simply a matter of "different fishing styles."
"He's more bay," Bruce said of his brother.
"We don't have monster boats," Bruce continued. "Our boats are 20-foot. If the Gulf is laid down, I'll go out and do a little blue-water fishing."
His brother, he said, "is not very good at it (fishing the Gulf), because he don't like it."
In the end, Bruce said, it's just that the two men are "uniquely different."
"We never have any friction," Bruce said. "I want to do this, he wants to do this, so he'll go do that, and I'll go do that."
Which isn't to say that they aren't at all competitive, as the incident with the Jack Crevalle illustrates.
One year during the rodeo, the brothers happened to be fishing together, and came up on a school of the feisty fish. They both hooked one at the same time.
"Both of us wanted the other one to cut their line and help the other one, but neither one of us would let it go," Ron said. In the end, Ron recalls, "we got them both in, somehow."
"Mine went this way — his went that way," Bruce recalled. "We're cracking up, we're laughing at each other, and thinking 'What do we do?"
And not that anybody is keeping track, but for the record, Ron's Jack Crevalle was the bigger one — by two pounds.
When it comes to the question of which of them is the better fisherman, it's easy to tell which one of the two is the older brother.
Ron — a little quiet, thoughtful, and three years his brother's senior — has a straightforward answer.
"I am," he said. "I'm older. Been fishing longer."
Bruce, a shock of hair pushed back by a visor and an adult beverage in front of him, has a more colorful assessment.
"Well, let me put it this way," he said. "When we're fishing, if I have a fish in the live well, he can't put his fish in there, because mine will eat it."
Then, after a pause, Bruce laughs and says, "So the answer is 'I am.' And the answer is 'he is.'"
'We've had our moments'
But as far as the Destin Fishing Rodeo is concerned, Bruce added, "The reality of it is, we're not good fishermen compared to the people here. We've had to learn, and watch, and over the years learn where to go, learn how to catch them, how to catch bait."
"Although we've had our moments," he added.
"We have had some good moments," Ron agreed.
"We enter the rodeo because I would hate to catch a winning fish and not be entered in the rodeo," Bruce said.
Born and bred in the South — the Walton family moved from Michigan before the brothers were born, in Tennessee — the two brothers are quintessential Southern "good ol' boys," men with hearts of gold, filled with stories and a taste for wacky adventure.
Here, for example, is one of Bruce's stories:
In 1994, he was living on a houseboat on Watts Bar, where he still has a home. He and a couple of friends "were sitting around at the lake one Friday night — having a few — and I said, 'You know, you can go all the way to the Gulf of Mexico from right here at my boat.' They said, 'You can?'"
"The next Friday — this was before GPS — here we come. Got caught in the second worst flood on the Tombigbee Waterway ... ."
"None of us had ever been past Chattanooga," he said. "The odds were so much against us. Lack of knowledge, lack of navigational skills." Improbably, they made it to Mobile Bay, at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Their final destination, St. George Island, still lay many miles away.
"We ducked into Mobile Bay," Bruce said. "It's pouring rain. The boat did have a LORAN (an electronic navigational aid) — that nobody knew how to operate. So we're in Mobile Bay, and we get the (instruction) book out. We punched in where we wanted to go. We're going, and we're going. We can't see the shore. We're just a bunch of redneck hillbillies from Tennessee, and we're looking for a sea buoy."
They found it, and seven days after they started, Bruce and his hapless crew made it to St. George Island.
Ron, though, wasn't aboard for the adventure. Pausing for a perfect beat after his brother finished the story, Ron deadpanned the reason why.
"I couldn't get off work," he said.
Ron, too, has his own collection of good ol' boy stories. There was, for instance, the July three years ago when he had a knee replacement, uncomfortably close to the opening of the Destin Fishing Rodeo.
"I told the doctor, 'Hey, I've got a fishing tournament to go to in October,'" Ron recalled. "He said, 'You better work your ass off in therapy.'"
For three weeks, Ron spent 90 minutes each morning, and another 90 minutes each afternoon, in physical therapy, and was able to make the trip to Destin.
"I brought the boat down, got out here, fell and busted three ribs," he laughed.
'That's my high'
Over the years, both men have slowed down their approach to the rodeo. These days, they'll fish one day, and take the next day off.
"It hurts too bad at our age" to spend a full day on the water, Bruce said. Plus, the days off give them a chance to spend time with their wives, who come down to Jetty East for two weeks during the rodeo.
"We fish and they shop," said Bruce. "Just give them a fistful of money, and they're happy."
"One day, we'll hang out by the pool, get ready, do what the wives want. The next day we load up and head out at dawn," Ron said.
Bruce's wife doesn't have any interest in the rodeo — "She'd never go fishing," he said — but Ron's wife will occasionally go out, for maybe half a day.
Over the years, the brothers have gotten to know many of the people who vacation at Jetty East in the fall, and these days, they like to spend time with them on the water.
"We both enjoy taking a couple of days, and taking somebody fishing who's never gotten to do it," Bruce said. "Some of them have never been in a boat, some of them have never picked up a fishing rod. We enjoy taking them out there and watching them catch fish."
"I'm baiting their hooks, taking their fish off," Ron smiled.
"Any more," Bruce said, "I get a bigger kick out of watching people catch fish. I've caught a lot of fish in my life, and if I can take somebody out there who's never experienced it, that's my high."
"I get Christmas cards from people I've taken fishing," Bruce continued. "I get phone calls from people I've taken fishing. It's pretty neat."
Still, the brothers are mindful that their age might just be catching up with them, in terms of hitching up their boats each year and making the 500-mile trip to Destin.
Don't get them wrong, the brothers say — they'll keep coming to Destin, but they'll do their fishing on charter boats.
But, Bruce said, "This may be my last rodeo. It'll be a call (to make) next year."
"A lot can happen in a year," he said wistfully. At the same time, though, he contemplated the never-ending thrill of having a fish on the end of his line.
"When you feel that hit, when you feel that pull, you never get tired of it," he said.