PROFILE: Capt. Tater Spinks

August 27, 2021
By T Michele Walker

Mary calls him “My Salty Dog Redneck Fisherman.” It’s an affectionate nickname that only a wife could get away with calling a husband of 40 years. That fisherman is John “Tater Spinks, better known as “Captain Tater.”

Colorful nicknames started young for John when a couple of his older sisters started to call him Tater. “I was very small, and it just stuck with me. And then it just stayed with me,” laughed Tater.

Born and raised in the Panama City area in a small town called St. Andrews on St. Andrew’s Bay, Tater started working at the age of 11, cleaning fish and working on the dock. “They had a wooden dock, and they had some party boats down and a bunch of kids. I was like 10 or 11 years old, and I cleaned fish on the dock for the tourists. I worked for $0.75 or $0.50 and that was lots of money back then to a kid my age.”

By the time Tater reached the ripe old age of 12, he could do what he was yearning to do, work on a boat. This was about the time they tore the old dock down.

“We fished offshore, left at 2 a.m. and carried 40 people,” he said. “We had two other deckhands and a first mate in the cabin, and we’d fish that deep water. Caught lots of big fish.”

Young Tater thought he had died and gone to heaven. “I thought it was like being buffalo hunters or something,” Tater said, the excitement of those days still in his eyes.

It all reads like a story from Mark Twain or Charles Dickens; an earnest young man sets sail on the Gulf of Mexico in search of adventure. In this case, it’s not far from the truth.Tater Spinks truly is a walking, talking Mark Twain character who set sail on the Gulf of Mexico as a teen.

Tater discovered Boca Grande in 1969.

“I was with Captain Buck Lee with Avondale Mills, and they had been coming since right after the war in 1946,” he recalled. “They came to Boca Grande and hired guides, but his boss had been coming in the 1920s, Mr. Comer with his grandfather who was the governor of Alabama. In 1925 he’d come and camp on Cayo Costa with the local people. Mr. Comer said his grandfather loved it down there because he liked to be isolated. The guide would come to check on him every day, but that’s how I got to Boca Grande in 1969.”

Tater said the first person he met in Boca Grande was Sam Whidden, who was standing on the dock when he pulled in.

“I met Captain Sam, and then I met Tommy Parkinson,” Tater said. “And then a little bit later, I went over and met Babe Darna. Those are the first three people I met in Boca Grande back in 1969. Babe and I have been lifelong friends ever since.”

Tater spent his career traveling the coast of Florida, the Keys and the entire Gulf of Mexico, but he would always come back to Boca Grande around the middle part of May for tarpon fishing.

“For a few years we spent the whole winter in Boca Grande,” he said. “Back then there was very little do around here, but we could go fishing and there was the Pink Elephant, the Temptation, and The Laff-a-Lott.

“We had 40 to 50 people there a day for about 12 days, and we had 10 or 12 guide boats. That’s how I got to meet everybody. I enjoyed Boca Grande. It was like my little hometown of St. Andrews in Panama City.”

A firsthand witness of life and fishing on the Gulf of Mexico, Captain Spinks is a treasure trove of history. Throw out a word that has anything to do with Florida waters, he’ll tell you a story.

Marlin.

“You know, we caught the first white marlin ever caught out in Panama City back in ‘65. A few days later when Johnny Garrett was with them, they caught the first blue marlin ever caught in Panama City.”

Hurricanes.

“I think it was 1969 when Camille came through there. I went to Biloxi and the damage was unbelievable. There were so many shrimp boats up in the middle of town.There were a couple of ships down in Biloxi on the beach and there were these big fuel tanks rolled up through town. I got to ride around and look at all that damage and I said, ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe that a hurricane could do this much damage.’ From then on, I had a different respect.”

Tater enjoyed his career, but is especially passionate about tarpon fishing, calling it “Some of the greatest fishing that I’ve ever done. It is unbelievable. I’ve caught all kinds of stuff, I’ve caught marlin, I’ve caught groupers, I caught 40-to-50,000 pounds of snapper, but tarpon fishing with live bait like it used to be done in Boca Grande, and like they still do it, you’ve got to get that bait just right to get that bite. When you figure it out, it’s just something.”

According to Tater, there are some trade secrets to tarpon fishing. Some of Tater’s tips include the fact that everything changes from moment to moment. “The tide changes and what this guy’s doing over there, you can’t do. You’ve got to do your own thing, you know. You’ve got to fish your own fish.”

Tater didn’t spend all of his time in Boca Grande. He spent a lot of time in the Keys, where he met Mary. After a whirlwind courtship they married some 40 years ago.

In the past few months, Captain Tater sold his boat and has officially retired.

 “I don’t think it’s really sunk in for me yet,” he said, when asked how it felt to be a man of leisure. When asked about future plans, Mary stepped in and said, “As far as the future goes, we’re going to make up for a little traveling that we haven’t been able to do in the last couple of years.”

Tater has battled and beaten cancer four times. In 2000 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Then there was Crohn’s diagnosis in 2008, which kept him in the hospital for 18 days took a full year for recovery.

Then there was bladder cancer, and then they found a spot on his right lung.

“Last year I took that radiation and chemo which I’ve never had to take until then. Radiation was worse than chemo and I didn’t take the real heavy stuff at first. That’s some bad, nasty stuff,” Tater said.

“He’s a survivor,” said Mary with pride. “With a clean bill of health. We have seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren to visit, living in Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina. We also plan to visit Minnesota, where I’m from.”

After sailing the seas for all of these years, does it feel different to travel on land?

“It just feels good,” said Mary. “I would like to see us in Panama City one day, where Tater’s from, but I don’t know if I’ll get him to move.”

“I don’t know,” said Tater. “To me, Boca Grande is our home. You know we did it here and we worked very hard.”

Tater has cultivated many non-fishing hobbies, from gardening to making mulberry wine.

 “Daniel (Godwin)  made up labels because I told him how people enjoy it,” Tater said.

“As a matter of fact, they love it so much that it makes their clothes fall right off,” laughed Mary. “It gives you this warm, fuzzy feeling, so he made the label for the mulberry wine that says One Tree Winery.”

Tater has other hobbies, too. He can still hunt varmints, such as raccoons, opossums, armadillos and hogs … many of which he can get right outside his home. It is rumored he can also make the best king mackerel dip around.

Mary and Tater agree that it’s time to relax and enjoy life. After all, he’s been working since he was 11 years old.

“I got my social security card when I was 13 years old,” Tater said. “I was a New Year’s baby, but my mom was disappointed that she couldn’t get me out to be the first baby born. Someone else got it first and she missed out on cases of diapers and all that stuff.”

Tater may not have hit the mark with coming out of the womb that New Year’s Day, but in most other ways he has hit the bullseye … including making Mary his wife and becoming her “Salty Dog Redneck Fisherman.”