Most Florida Keys commercial fishermen are multispecies catchers, and Ernie Piton III is no exception. After riding along on his first commercial trip at age 2 with his dad, Piton, now 25, never wanted to do anything else. He’s also become an exceptional boatbuilder, having rebuilt four boats of various sizes since he was 15.
His latest refit — the 34-foot Trade Secret, completed in late 2017 — is a multispecies catcher’s dream, equipped for a two-person crew to pull crab and lobster traps, and reel in hefty grouper and snapper.
“I wanted a bigger boat so I could do more kinds of fishing,” said Piton. “Anytime I get a new one, I make it how I want it.”
Piton purchased the former commercial dive boat at auction for $14,000 in 2015 and put another $40,000 into it. Working seven days a week for seven months, he stripped it down to the fiberglass hull and rebuilt virtually everything.
Piton installed new stringers and added a new 3/4-inch plywood deck that he reglassed and lowered to gain freeboard. He rebuilt the old wooden keel and constructed a new fly bridge. He replaced the rotten wood in the cabin with composite materials, rebuilt the diesel engine, replaced the fuel tank and added hydraulic steering, trap pullers and fishing reels. He put in three pilot stations — one on the fly bridge and two on the deck, so that he could drive from anywhere. He repainted the interior and plans to repaint the exterior between fishing trips. The boat can hold 90 lobster traps and 180 stone crab traps.
The name is in keeping with the hard work he’s invested into his livelihood.
“If you ask the old fishermen something, they say, ‘That’s a trade secret; you’ll have to learn it on your own,’” Piton said, smiling and admitting that’s just what he does when others ask him for fishing intel.
He says the new old boat is working out just fine.
“I’ve caught everything out of it.”
Home Port: Key Largo, Fla.
Owner: Ernie Piton III
Builder: Crusader Boats, Key West, Fla.
Year built: 1978; rebuilt 2017
Fisheries: Stone crab, lobster, snapper, grouper, live bait (goggle eyes, pilchards and herring)
Hull material: Fiberglass
Length: 34 feet
Beam: 10 feet
Draft: 3 feet
Crew capacity: 2
Main propulsion: John Deere 300-hp
Gearbox: Twin Disc 2:1
Propeller: Single four-blade
Speed: 16 knots
Fuel capacity: 200 gallons
Hold capacity: 1,500 pounds
Electronics: Garmin 74 CV GPS/chart plotter/depth finder, Uniden VHF radio