The Boca Interview: RJ Boyle

RJ Boyle in his studio, photo by Aaron Bristol

For decades, RJ Boyle has been one of the faces of South Florida’s fishing community, but there’s more to this local mariner than meets the eye.

It’s easy to get lost in the fables of RJ Boyle. Born and reared in South Florida, Boyle is the man who could throw a 90-mile-per-hour fastball, book cutting-edge alternative music artists to play at his dive bar, reel in a 200-pound swordfish, and then create an exquisite work of art depicting his catch. For an outsider, it’s easy to see him as more myth than man, but to the SoFla fishing community, he’s just RJ.

Bespectacled and towering at an imposing 6-foot-4, Boyle is an affable guy whose presence belies his stature as a jack-of-all-trades, master of most. His path has taken him from art school to minor league baseball, from bar owner to globe-trotting fisherman, and now to business owner and elder statesman of the local fishing community.

For nearly 20 years, he has been the owner of RJ Boyle Studio in Lighthouse Point, where he sells bait and tackle, popular branded merchandise and his own artwork. Now in its third location, the studio boasts some of Boyle’s most prized catches on the walls, along with his artwork and a healthy amount of swordfish bills; it also serves as home base for a lucrative video studio. As if that wasn’t enough, the storefront’s walls boast hundreds of photos, any number of which show Boyle posing with what would be a casual fisherman’s prized catch.

From humble beginnings as a part-time mate on local fishing boats to the brains—and name—behind a South Florida fishing empire, Boyle has parlayed his considerable talents into the creation of a world all his own, and in the process cemented himself as something of a salty local legend. Earlier this year, Boyle chatted with Boca magazine to discuss his many trades, share some epic fishing anecdotes, and tell us what drives him.

How did you get started fishing?

I’m a native, I was born here. I have five brothers and sisters, and my older brother actually grew up fishing at the Hillsborough Inlet, working on a boat called the Helen S. And that was back in the day when fishing was a way of life in South Florida. It’s much different now than it was then. Back then, at 5 o’clock, you’d have half of Florida waiting in line to buy fish. My father wasn’t huge into fishing, so I would have to credit my brother for the inspiration behind getting into it.

So it started at an early age. When I was 6 to 10 years old, I was riding along with him—sometimes, especially in the summer, for three trips a day. One of the things I’ve always said is, “Keep the boys away from fishing if you don’t want them to end up being fishermen.” Meaning: The minute you get paid to do something you love, it can be a problem, because now it’s tough to go do regular jobs. Once I had that taste of getting paid to do something I love, it never changed for me.

And did you immediately launch into a fishing career once you finished school?

That came after baseball. Baseball was always my first love, but I didn’t make it. I played in the minor leagues, but I just wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t a student of the game.

I’ve heard some tall tales about you throwing 90-mile-per-hour fastballs in high school.

I was, but my glasses were so thick that I had absolutely no idea where the ball was going. So I struck out half the batters just on sheer terror. I wasn’t that good at knowing how to pitch. I was good at throwing hard and getting people out, but it doesn’t work in the minor leagues where everybody can throw hard. So when I graduated out of that mindset, it all became fishing and artwork.

You also ran a rock club after college, right?

Man, what a time that was. The Ambassador was the name of the bar. It was a neighborhood bar. My aunt owned it—it was a biker bar—and it was so hardcore there were iron bars on the inside of the windows so people wouldn’t get thrown through the windows from the inside. I had just finished playing baseball and I was helping out. My dad had just passed away, my mom was trying to run a furniture store, and my aunt who owned the bar got sick. And one of my responsibilities was to start taking care of that bar and make sure everything was okay.

So I started going over there and, long story short, one of my friends tells me, “Hey man, we should really have a progressive music night here.” We handed out flyers at the beach, and that Friday night there were maybe 600 people in line trying to get in. I never went back to baseball. I bought the liquor license from my aunt and we started booking bands every single night. … Bands that at the time might’ve cost us a couple thousand dollars, but then they went on to make it huge. It was a time in alternative music where we were like the CBGBs of South Florida. And for a four-and-a-half year period, we entertained with some of the best music in the world. We had a lot of crazy, crazy bands. You never knew what you were going to see. Was it a great reggae band or the Impotent Sea Snakes? [Yes, that is a real band. -Ed.]

You could never pull that off again like we did. I was a 22- or 23-year-old kid owning a club, and I never went to court once in four years. It was complete controlled mayhem, and people just loved it.

After baseball and the Ambassador, did you find yourself becoming an artist before you were starting to fish professionally, or did they happen together?

I was always an artist. I had grown up being into art, and then life took over. I was an art major in college, but when you’re in college, you’re doing sculpture and all these other things that I didn’t really care about. I was more of a painter and an illustrator. Drawing was what I really liked to do. And then once college was done, I kind of lost touch with art until I took a trip to New Mexico. I’ll never forget walking into the galleries and seeing the beautiful paintings and seeing the price tags on some of those pieces and thinking man, I actually may have a shot at this. And so I came back and I never stopped painting and drawing from that time forward.

How did your career as an artist get off the ground?

I transitioned from being a part-time mate into a full-time mate on some of the best boats in the world. And I was lucky—locally, some of the best captains come here from around the world. And in my downtime, when I was traveling to the Bahamas and Venezuela, I would do illustrations and paintings or drawings inside the boat, and I would sell them.

Then, I started making more money as an artist than I was fishing. So I had fished for several years, and then started making real money selling art out of my van and at fishing tournaments. … And then at some point I transitioned out of fishing full-time and started the store.

How did you transition from selling your art in the fishing community to opening the store?

I started doing art shows around the state of Florida with my mom, and I was making a living. But during the week, I had to put my painting somewhere. So I rented a bay behind Nielsen’s furniture in Deerfield, and my goal was to sell art on the weekends and give art lessons during the week. Then all the fishing guys started coming in saying, “Why don’t you carry fishing tackle?” Then a company contacted me and said, “Hey, we hear you got a good reputation. We’ll give you the tackle up front. And if you sell it, then you pay us.” So all of a sudden I put in some tackle on consignment and all the guys would come in and order tackle and we built our inventory based on sales. There was never any speculative buying. It was just: If we sold one, we bought two and replaced it. And that’s how we built our inventory. And one thing led to another, and it’s been 17 years having a store.

How do you manage to find the time to get out on the water and fish and still run the business ?

I fish almost more now than I ever have. It’s important to stay in the mix. Once you’ve lost touch with the fishing community, on a daily basis, from a catch standpoint, you’re not as effective. So for me, I have two charter boats (Datsnasty and Lisa B). I fish usually two to three times a week. Lisa B sails 250 to 300 trips a year. I also write fishing reports every week. I do a fishing report for the Pelican, and I do one for [105.9-FM].

After all these years, you must have some crazy fishing stories.

One of the most memorable things to me was catching one of the biggest tunas of all time: 1,400 pounds. We were in Nova Scotia, and it broke the fighting chair. We used to travel there to catch giant bluefins. And I think the record’s about 1,500 pounds. We caught one just under the record, and we actually let it go. But it was like looking at a Volkswagen bus next to the boat.

We caught the biggest fish on rod and reel in Puerto Rico, of all time: 654 pounds. That one’s hanging in the front of the shop. And that’s still the record for the biggest sword caught in Puerto Rico. We flew down to give a seminar, and that was [caught] on the first day there.

But from an achievement perspective, I would say the coolest thing for us is that in swordfish tournaments we’ve put more weight on the dock than anybody of all time.

What would you say you’re known for in the fishing world?

From a big game fishing perspective, what we’re really known for is being a pioneer of daytime swordfishing. In the modern day era of swordfishing, everybody was fishing at night. Then there was a guy in the keys named Vic Gaspeni, who dropped down and caught one in the daytime. And after I heard about that, I was the first one here, locally, to drop down for swords and figure it out. So if there was one thing that I could credit myself with truly, it’s the technique for daytime swordfishing, the way we do it today, as far as the tackle, the rigging, and how it’s done. From putting it out there to teaching people, that’s our biggest thing right now.

When fuel went to five bucks in 2008 and we had the recession, I took a step out of the store and started commercial fishing for swords full-time. That was the beginning of how I learned, and when I was able to give the time to learn the techniques and how to really do it. From 2008 to 2012, I commercially swordfished to make ends meet. And that’s how I got good at it, and then started teaching people how to do it.

Now, we have a subscription platform called RJ’s Crew. It’s 250 films on big game fishing, and people sign up and watch. We release a new film every week, and it’s basically all saltwater, tactical and technical stuff for swordfishing and anything big game.

Of all your pursuits, what’s most important to you these days?

The most important thing to me now is the 501(c) that I started. It’s called Mission Fishin’. Every month, we do a kid’s fishing trip for special-needs kids and families. Basically, we give a Saturday and we take them out fishing and get them on the water in some fashion. Being blessed is a wonderful thing, but at some point you’ve got to give back. And to me, it’s not about catching a big fish anymore. I’ve been there and done that, and it’s been wonderful. But now it’s all about giving it back to kids and people that don’t have the opportunities that we have. That’s the focus for the rest of my life, all through fishing.

RJ Boyle Studio, 5040 N Federal Hwy #7057, Lighthouse Point; 954/420-5001; https://www.rjboylestudio.com/

This story is from the July/August 2021 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.