Profile: Capt. Chad Bombenger

July 16, 2021
By T Michele Walker

The first Jay Joiner Memorial Belt Buckle was given out the year after he passed away, in 1993. The buckle is engraved with an eagle, which represents the best fisherman nature has to offer, and a ruby, Jay’s birthstone.

Chad received the 2021 Jay Joiner Memorial Belt Buckle this past week, for leading all captains for releases in the qualifying tournaments this season, with seven. 

For Chad, the award is deeply personal. “It does have a lot of sentimental meaning to me,” he said. “Jay Joiner and his brother Lamar got me into fishing. When I was young, I rode my bike down here with Jay and Lamar, I was probably about 14 years old.”

Chad points to the yard as he recalls the vivid memories. “Over there was fresh cornbread, chowder, a full-on garden out here, a cook shed and fresh lemonade. As a young kid, I said, ‘I would like to work here one day. It’d be pretty cool to work in this boathouse.’ 30 years later, I’m at this boathouse, so you never know.”

Tucked out of the way on Damficare Street, Chad is content working on the boats and he’s at his happiest on the water. Fortunate to know at an early age what he wanted to do with his life, his next step was to find a mentor.

“I wanted to work on a sportfishing boat, and James Todd was the original guy that hired me,” Chad said with a grin. “I begged and begged for a job and he didn’t hire me. I was persistent and green as can be. I didn’t know what I was doing and he gave me a roll of wire and said, ‘When you can do a haywire wrap, you can come to work for me.’  

Chad struggled with the task, but he persevered. “I finally got my haywire twist down. It took a while and my fingers were bloody, but I learned how to wrap wire. I already knew how to keep up a boat, so he took me to the Bahamas and we did a tarpon season or two. I filled in here and there, went on more Bahamas trips, drove test boats at Mercury in between here and there, and worked for Braxton Bowen in between.” 

Chad knows he’s a lucky man. “It is a dream life at times, but it is like any job. I do love it. I figured out at a young age that the private gig was, I don’t want to say better, but it was more steady and provided a more reliable paycheck. I’ve just been lucky to work for these families. They’re all from Lakeland and they’re all fantastic people, like family after these many years. I’ve been grateful for the work and to raise my kids.” 

Chad has been working for the Watkins family for 23 years. “I bought my little Morgan, my boat, two years ago, and I was trying to come up with a name. I called Ms.Watkins and asked if I could use the name ‘Sabalo’ which means tarpon in Spanish. So she said yes since their boat was gone, so I went to Sunbiz and I bought the rights and now I own Sabalo Sportfishing, L.L.C.”

For a man who personifies the fishing and boating life in Florida, one would never guess that Chad was born in Chicago. “It’s not something I admit,” he laughed. “We moved to Englewood when I was 10 and I’m so glad we moved.”

His years at Lemon Bay High School hold fond memories and laid the foundation for the man he is today. “I wanted to be a football player, but I wasn’t big enough. Back then, they weren’t worried about your feelings and I was told, ‘You suck at playing football.’ Back in the day, not every person got a trophy. I ended up finding that wrestling was my sport, and it was there that I learned that it’s ‘mind over matter.’ I don’t mind, you don’t matter, get out of my way,” Chad laughed, then added with emotion,“Coach Reagan at Lemon Bay High School and a great bunch of guys that I grew up with in high school, that’s where I got most of the basics for my life, to be honest with you. It was all because of that sport, and because I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me. It’s just a matter of being persistent.”

A divorced father of three, Chad takes great pride in his children. “I’m blessed to have three great kids that are healthy, they’re happy and we have a Christian-oriented family,” he said. “Lexie is 23 and lives in Tampa, trying to finish up college, getting into the business world. Clay is 20 and he runs a restaurant in Port Charlotte, Bocca Lupo Pizza. Carson is 18, he was my first mate this year and he’s all about fishing. He fishes when we’re not fishing. It was nice having him on the boat this year.”

Cooking happens to be one of Chad’s hobbies, an interest he shares with his son, Clay. “Clay, he’s mastered the pizzas. I do have a green egg, a big ceramic cooker. I got one about three or four years ago and I probably cook three to four days a week.” Chef Chad frequently whips up pork ribs, burgers, steak, even a mean beef stroganoff cooked on his green egg with a smoke flavor. 

Chad enjoys cooking, but his passion is his work. “Work is your friend. If you don’t get anything accomplished during the day, you don’t feel right.”

Even during the shutdown, Chad stayed busy. “We never really slowed down for COVID. Because I work for myself, there’s always work to do on boats. Ms. Watkins told me to take some time off and I said, ‘You’re still paying me?’ and she said, ‘I’m still paying you.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll keep on working.’”

Chad recalled the moment he realized that he might be in the running for the Jay Joiner Belt Buckle. 

“Once I caught four fish, that’s when it hit me that I had a chance to win the belt buckle. I never really thought about obtaining it, but it’s nice that it worked out.”

He seems to believe it is as much the fish as it is his skill that put him on top of the fishing community this year.

“We’re lucky that these tarpon show up here every year. It’s a big part of this island, and even though it says we have a three to four month season, there’s fish here year-round. You can almost always find a tarpon somewhere, and that’s one of our most precious resources, the tarpon.”

Chad feels that the lessons he’s learned from handling boats in the Pass has given him the skills to go anywhere in the world. 

“I would have to say that I have learned a majority of my boat handling capability – from a single-engine boat to a twin-engine boat – here in Boca Grande. That’s what’s so nice about my little Morgan. It turns inside of itself and I can spin that boat right around and wheel it around. I have the flexibility.” 

It does make Chad sad to see third-and-fourth-generation families leave the island. “Thank goodness it will never be a Palm Beach, with high rises or anything like that,” he said, “but one of the biggest issues is that people want to take control; they want to start changing things and make it ‘like it was back home’. They don’t realize that the old man over there built that house. That’s where he raised his whole family. Of course, they can’t afford it anymore, so they sell it, and then it gets bulldozed. I’m lucky to be in my boathouse, my haven.”

Staying positive and working hard are the foundations of Chad Bombenger’s life. 

“When you get beat down, you’ve got to get back up … we all go through it. The older we get, the more we’ve got to roll with the punches. No matter what you do, be the best. That’s what my dad taught me. With every relationship, good or bad, you learn something. You take a little piece from each person as a chapter in your life. Our mentors, family, and friends, that’s who make us all who we are.” 

Chad reflects on the qualities that made Jay Joiner so special. 

“He was very positive, and I’m a positive person. He was cocky, and I can be cocky … or maybe I should say confident. You have to be. And competitive. Jay was always very competitive, and he always had a s***-eating grin on his face,” Chad laughed, remembering his friend. “You know, we were fighting over a dart game when he passed away, about keeping score and cheating in a game of darts. He was a good dude and we were friends. That was Jay.”