‘Catch ’em up, Capt. Jim!’ Legendary fisherman remembered

Capt. Jim Lunsford of Long Beach was widely known along the Gulf of Mexico for his skills as a blue-water fisherman.
Capt. Jim Lunsford of Long Beach was widely known along the Gulf of Mexico for his skills as a blue-water fisherman.

James V. “Jim” Lunsford spent most of his years on Earth doing exactly what he wanted. He fished.

Lunsford, who lived in Long Beach and died just shy of his 81st birthday, is considered a pioneer of blue-water fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. When he arrived on the Mississippi Coast in the mid-1960s, commercial boats dominated the waters.

He and the man whose boat he captained, Coast businessman Guy Billups Jr., raised the profile of sport fishing in the Gulf, but also enjoyed tropical paradises: Turks and Caicos, Cozumel, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and Australia.

People who never met the captain learned some of their best fishing tricks from him. Spotting a ripple in the water and knowing which way the currents were running, rigging bait, it all became second nature to Capt. Jim.

He taught those who knew him best a lot about life, too.

“He was pretty much the rock of our family,” grandson Jimmy Lunsford said. “He was a straight shooter. If you were wrong, he was going to tell you that you were wrong. If you were right, he would tell you to stick to your guns.”

His grandfather especially liked to say, “Dreams are only in your head until you make them come true.”

Partnership born

By the time he was 12, Jim Lunsford pretty much lived on the docks in his hometown of Boynton Beach, Fla. Charter-boat captains paid him to drag their fish to market. He secured a charter boat captain’s license at age 18 and began his lifelong study of how to land the big fish.

Lunsford delivered a 41-foot Hatteras to Billups in 1965 and a partnership was born. The two took the boat to Destin, where Billups’ son Guy Billups III remembers the whole family went out fishing on the new Hatteras. The baby was crying, his little sister was stomping her feet. At one point, she stomped and said, “I want to catch a fish now!” And she did.

Guy Billups remembers his father always wondered why Lunsford agreed to captain the boat after that day with the family. But serve as the captain he did, for 43 years.

Lunsford was a father to the Billups children just as he was to his own four children.

After a trip, when Capt. Jim tied off the boat and shut down the engine, “he would look at me and say, ‘Well, we cheated death again, Guy,” young Billups III recalled. “It was just his way of saying, ‘We’re back at the dock safe.’ ”

Lunsford and Billups were almost unbeatable in the Gulf fishing tournaments of the ’60s because they had a secret weapon: The men caught blue marlin with bait fish — ballyhoo Lunsford flew in from Florida. Lunsford quickly earned a reputation at the New Orleans Big Game Fishing Club. Other fishermen eventually caught on. Ballyhoo are widely used today for marlin.

“Billfish” magazine featured Lunsford in an article when he won the Billfish Foundation’s Distinguished Captain’s Award for the Gulf of Mexico in 2014, saying Lunsford and Billups won their share of tournaments, including the elite Gulf Coast Master’s Tournament.

“In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s if there was a tournament, you knew Guy Billups and Capt. Jim were coming at you,” said Sonny Middleton, a good friend and owner of Middleton Marine and Dog River Marina in Mobile.

‘Catch ’em up!’

In the early days, the fish Lunsford and Billups caught were stacked like cordwood on the docks, the carcasses pushed off into the water. The men regretted the waste as sports fishing grew in popularity and became avid conservationists, releasing every fish they caught.

Chasing the spectacular blue marlin was their favorite pastime. But Lunsford even distinguished himself once by catching a rattlesnake 10 miles out at sea. It was floating on a snarl of leaves and pine straw that washed out after flooding.

Fisherman and Coast businessman Frank Wilem said, “When he was running that boat for Guy (Billups Jr.), he had two speeds. That was full ahead and stop. There was nothing in between.”

His boss and fishing partner passed away a few months before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Because of the storm’s devastation, the Billups family moved their boat to Orange Beach, Ala. The commute from Long Beach eventually became too much and Lunsford, who was fighting cancer, finally retired.

That gave him more time to fish with his grandchildren and care for his wife of 56 years, Joan Alice Lunsford, who passed away in July 2010.

Grandson Jimmy Lunsford spent some of his most memorable times on a fishing boat with his grandfather, whose legend as a fisherman is known throughout the Gulf.

After his death, Hattiesburg car dealer Tony Petro wrote on Jimmy Lunsford’s Facebook page: “Although I never had the privilege nor the honor of meeting this legend, and even though he never knew it, I have learned almost all I know about big game fishing from this man. Catch ’em up, Capt Jim!”

Capt. Jim’s funeral is Wednesday. Guests have been asked to wear Guy Harvey shirts or their favorite fishing attire.

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99