Destin's Dave Young turns fish into wallets, mementos from trips
He’s cleaned his share of fish over the years, tossing the skins into the trash tubs. But now Dave Young has another use for those fish skins — wallets.
Young, 70, has fished out of Destin for 30 years, worked on the decks of many charters and even served as second captain for some of the overnight trips.
But about six years ago while he was still working the deck of the New Florida Girl’s American Spirit, he got the idea to try to make a fish skin wallet.
He had a grouper skin wallet about 30 years ago that he enjoyed. It lasted 10 years or more.
So, with time on his hands in the winter, he started searching the internet for how to make his own.
“It was just a crazy whim,” Young said.
He said he hooked up with the guys at Harbor Docks who commercial fish all year and they started saving him some skins.
His first fish wallet was a red grouper.
The wallets are all unique, with fish skin on the outside and cowhide on the inside.
“I had read up on how to cure and preserve the skins,” Young said. “A lot of people ask me, ‘What’s your secret?’ I tell them, ‘Well, it’s a secret unless you have access to the internet.’
“I just tried it,” he added.
And, of course, he was happy with his first one, but definitely saw where he could improve, “and I think I have so far.”
In the past six years, Young figures he’s made about 140 wallets.
That doesn’t sound like a lot, but each wallet takes weeks of processing and sewing.
First you have to have a skin that is big enough.
“So, to get a wallet-size fish, it’s got to be about a 28-inch fish,” Young said
He said it got to be a joke on the Spirit when someone would pull in a big fish, the deckhands would say, “Oh, that’s wallet size,” Young said.
For example, a 28-inch red snapper would be about a 15-pound fish.
With a big enough fish, Young must remove all the flesh from the inside and take off all the scales.
Then the skins go through a chemical process in which they are soaked for about a week before they are stretched and tacked on wood for about three weeks to dry out. Then Young glues the skins with a leather glue to the cowhide wallet.
“You don’t really have to be that careful after they are ready to process. Fish skin is tough. … It’s tougher than you think,” Young said. “After it cures and adheres, it’s still flexible, so you can bend the wallet.”
Then he has to poke holes through the skin to begin the stitching process.
Young said it takes 9.5 feet of premium brown leather cord to hand stitch the outside of the wallet and 3 feet to stitch along the inside.
“It takes a lot of time. … It’s time intensive to make one. And a lot of sewing … my hands get sore,” he said.
Young said thin fish skins are the easiest to work with.
“I like the red snapper,” he said, noting that’s what he carries.
“It makes a pattern that almost looks like snake skin” after it’s tanned and finished, he said.
“One of my favorites is the black snapper. … It makes a beautiful wallet,” he said, noting it has a dark sheen to it.
He’s also made wallets from red grouper, gag grouper, scamp and amberjack. He’s also done a couple of wallets from a barrel fish and a golden tile.
Last fall, he made one out of a barracuda for a local captain and a deckhand that turned out great, he said.
Fish that don’t work for wallets are the thick-skin fish, like shark, triggerfish and tuna.
Young said he gets his greatest joy when someone requests that a particular fish they have caught be turned into a wallet.
"I really enjoy that … because they want it out of that fish,” he said.
Six weeks later he’s got their wallet in the mail to them. Young said he’s shipped wallets to Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin and Idaho.
“I get a kick out of that because it’s like a memento of their trip,” he said.
How long do the wallets last?
“It’s hard to say,” Young said. However, he said some of the ones he gave to friends six years ago are still being used.
“It’s going to wear out eventually, but in the meantime it’s something when you pull it out at the bar to pay your bill … and they say what’s that?” he said, noting it’s an eye-catcher.
“I like it when people appreciate the uniqueness of them. A lot of people buy them for birthdays or Christmas presents … because you can’t go to Target and get one,” he said.
How long will Young continue to make the wallets?
“I enjoy doing crazy stuff. At least another year or two. … I’m not tired of it yet,” he said.
Young puts two cards in each wallet. One is his personal card and the other says what fish it’s made from, with the words, “locally caught fish, locally handcrafted.”
If interested in a “fishy wallet,” Young can be reached at email@example.com.