Jack Wiggins swears he didn't do it.
"I deny it, flat," he said.
Wiggins is captain of a fishing boat that made national news. He was in Sports Illustrated. There was a frontpage story about him in the Miami Herald, with a color picture.
What more could a charter captain want?
"Business is great," Wiggins conceded. He said people have come from as far away as Tampa to see the Therapy IV -- the famous boat he runs. Some even sign on for a half-day charter, merely to go along with the man who stands accused of the great dead fish scam of 1979.
"They want to know how we did it," Wiggins says.
But he insists he never did.
The Miami Herald says he did. And claims to have watched it all, start to finish.
Herald fishing editor Jim Hardie says, "We stand by our stories."
Those stories say that Wiggins and his mate, Stan Saffan, pulled a trick on some tourists that would make a veteran flim-flam man blush.
The Herald had reports that there was shady business going on among the North Miami sport fishing fleet, Hardie said. He said the rumors had increased in recent months. The paper set a trap.
It put reporters and photographers out in a boat, watching the waters off Miami Beach. Two weeks ago, the paper claims, the trap paid off.
According to the Herald, newspaper personnel watched the mate aboard Therapy IV slip up to the bow of the boat while a party of tourists was fishing in the stern.
They watched, they say, as he carefully lowered a hooked, 7-foot sailfish over the side, then hurried back to the stern to find the party miraculously fighting a 7-foot sailfish.
The Herald had a marine biologist on the deck when the Therapy IV came in an hour later. He inspected the sailfish and concluded it had been dead for a long time, perhaps since the day before.
The unwitting angler, Katie Crowe, had come to town for the Super Bowl with her husband, Charles. She told Hardie they had agreed to have the fish mounted for $431. Boat crews are entitled to 30 percent of taxidermy fees as a commission.
Charles Crowe told the Herald, "When we first got on the boat Stan (Saffan) was pushing us to have a fish mounted. I told (him) that if (Katie) got one I'd have it dipped and bronzed. I knew the odds were 1,000 to one against getting a sail(fish) in a threehour trip."
The odds apparently weren't quite that bad.
It all made for a fine scandal and started fishing people buzzing. The crew of the Therapy IV was suspended from the Metropolitan South Florida fishing tournament. The dockmaster at The Castaways, the motel/singles bar/disco/sport fishing center where Therapy IV is docked with 23 other charter boats, vowed it wouldn't happen again on any of his boats.
Crowe stopped payment on his deposit check for the taxidermy work.
Wiggins doesn't own the Therapy IV. The boat is owned by North Miami City Councilman Hobart Feldman, a physician. Feldman says he's sticking with his crew. He says Wiggins told him he didn't do it.
The dockmaster, John Callan, who owns three boats, says he doesn't believe it happened. "But even if it did," he said, "I can't see how the guys did any harm to anybody."
Wiggins is no novice at chartering. He's 55 years old and he's been taking people fishing, he said, since he was a 6-year-old growing up in the Everglades.
"My schooling was very little," he said.
Wiggins didn't help his cause by telling Herald reporters that he had actually played the dead fish trick on others on two occasions.
"The first time I done it was for a couple of guys who went hunting and fishing together and always played jokes on each other," he said last week.
One had pulled a dead-deer trick on the other the previous hunting season, and the offended party wanted to retaliate with a dead sailfish trick, Wiggins said.
The second time, he said, was for a little boy with one arm. "His father told me the boy was going to die and all he wanted to do was catch a sailfish.
"He told me, 'Cap'n, whatever you have to do, do it,'" Wiggins said.Both those occasions were at least four years earlier, Wiggins said. Both those occasions were at least four years earlier, Wiggins said.
What could induce a charter skipper to pull a dead-fish trick?
Taxidermy money seems the likely candidate.
Everyone interviewed at the Castaways docks -- mates, bait and tackle men, the dockmaster, the captains -- agreed that the boats couldn't make ends meet without mount money.
The boats charge $30 per person for a half-day of fishing, and the most they can carry is six. These are big boats in a high-priced dock, and overhead is far from cheap.
"All our customers know we make our money off mounting," said Wiggins. "We don't keep it a secret. They'll walk on board and I'll tell them, 'Hey, are you going to mount some fish today? I need to make some money.'"
And when the boats come in at day's end the first thing people in the know look for are mounting tags on the tails, to see if any money's been made.
I watched them come in Monday. When Wiggins' boat arrived there were two shark flags flying, and when a big dusky shark and a smaller lemon shark were unloaded onto the dock both wore mount tags in the tails.
How much would the taxidermy cost?
"I don't know; $1000 I think," said the unconcerned angler.
Wiggins, for his part, contends he means no harm.
"Our customers, a lot of them, they'll maybe never see the ocean again. But they have their fish, and they can hang it on the wall and some day their children will have it. And they can say, 'My dad caught this, in the ocean.'"
At 7 each night trucks from Pflueger and Fin 'n' Fur arrive at the dock, and they hoist the bloody shark and sailfish carcasses onto the beds and cart them away.
The mates are already working their trade, calling in the tourists for the next day.
"Hey, pal, wanna go fishing? We got monster sharks, barracuda, tuna, kingfish, wahoo..."