The ‘Lure’ of Key West
When I’ve talked with customers about what brings them to Key West over and over again, they almost always describe something specific that acts as a “lure” to bring them back. Those “lures” are as varied as the people. They include, among other things, the weather; the convenience factor/lack of the need of a car; the multiple water sports available; the plethora of restaurants and bars; the friendly people and the tolerant, accepting lifestyle; the safe atmosphere; the great charter fishing captains (I just made that one up); and many, many more. All really good “lures” if you’re looking to have fun. Well, Key West now has another “lure” and you don’t even need to come here for it. That new “lure” is just that, a personally hand-crafted offshore trolling lure called the Painkiller, produced locally right here in Key West by long-time resident and fishing mate Steve Liberatore.
I’ve known Steve ever since I first moved here back in March, 2005. That’s because he’s worked that whole time just a few slips down the dock from me at the A&B Marina on another great offshore charter boat, the “Mr. Z,” a roomy 46.5 Bertram sportfisher. Over that time, I’ve come to respect Steve as one of the best and most unique fishing mates anywhere, let alone Key West. Steve is sort of a “one of a kind” mate for a couple of reasons. One, he’s had his captain’s license for many years, but just personally prefers being a mate, where he can be more of a hands on fisherman. Second, and even more amazing, he’s been on the same boat now for almost 15 years. Hell, hardly anybody in any job stays at one place that long and, in our industry, it’s pretty much unheard of. The fact that he’s been on the “Mr. Z” so long is a tribute to him in many ways. Obviously, it’s a tribute to his skill as a fisherman/mate, or they wouldn’t have kept him around for that long.
The boat has changed hands once in that time, so there has been a new owner and there have been multiple captains, but Steve still has remained the mate. It’s also a tribute to his loyalty because, believe me, when you are a well-respected fishing mate in this town – and Steve is nothing if not that – you are always in high demand when someone is looking to replace their own mate, which happens VERY regularly. The fact that he has some technical engineering skills that I’ll describe further below and can do some maintenance jobs other mates can’t doesn’t hurt erither, His longevity is also a tribute to his dedication to a profession he loves. He has the education, skills and career experience that would easily have enabled him to find himself something else, perhaps more lucrative, to do in the last 15 years but hasn’t done so just because he loves what he does so much. Steve even had major spinal neck surgery last year and was back on the job faster than any of us expected. (Caught some big fish right away, too!) Quite simply, he’s a “mate’s mate”and a real professional.
Steve is currently married to a real neat lady named Kasey, the daughter of local charter captain Jim Williams, and they just recently welcomed their first child, Maisy, on August 29. He also has a grown son from a previous marriage. Born in Ft. Pierce, Florida, he attended Kent State University as well as ATES Tech and obtained a degree in thermodynamic engineering. After that, he actually worked in a “real job,” first as a junior engineer for a government contractor at the Kennedy Space Center and then as Technical Supervisor for the service fleet of a major retailer for fifteen years. Then, in 1996, he built and began to run his own charter boat, the “Big Easy,” in Cape Canaveral, before deciding to sell it and move to the fishing mecca that is the Florida Keys. He arrived in Key West in January, 1998, and he’s been fishing here ever since. That old boat he built, by the way, is still operating out of Sebastian Inlet.
Because of his technically-oriented mind and skills, Steve has always looked for ways to improve his boat and equipment to increase their “fishability.” He long wanted to come up with a trolling lure that he could run in any conditions without spinning and without being a “grass magnet.” Constantly having to retrieve a lure to clear it of weeds is the bane of any Key West mate’s existence! Steve made his first mold in 2012, but he actually got the inspiration for the shape of the line of lures he currently produces while laid up in bed at his house recovering from his neck surgery – which also led to their current name: Painkiller Lures.
As one would imagine would be the case in a small-target business like custom lure-making, most of what Steve learned about how to make his lures was self-taught through internet research and good old “wingin’ it”. There just aren’t that many people who take the time and effort to try to make large, custom made lures and those that do are obviously reluctant to share their “secrets of the trade” with a potential competitor, especially someone they don’t know. So, Steve’s early efforts were, by necessity, trial and error. The big thing, of course, that will get you accepted quickly when you come up with a product like a new lure is success and Steve’s “Painkiller Lures” have definitely had that. Steve quickly caught a couple of marlin using his own hand-crafted new design last year and the word spread around our dock even more quickly. He was kind and wise enough to supply our marina’s other boats with a sample – we now have 2 ourselves that we run regularly when targeting big fish - and our mate, Jerry Pope, loves them and the way they run.
Once he came up with a lure that seemed to work the way he wanted and that actually produced results, Steve started to slowly become accepted in what he calls the “tight-knit custom lure-making community” and he began to be able to exchange information and ideas with others in the trade. He now has his own growing good standing and reputation in that community. That success and acceptance also convinced Steve to try to sell his lures commercially and persuaded our local tackle shop – Key West Bait and Tackle – to allow Steve to sell his lures through their store, which has exclusive local rights to retail them. (They can also be purchased at Jersey Tackle in Britt, New Jersey.) Steve, however, will still take an order directly from a charter captain or established fishing tournament team to custom-make a special lure for them.
His molds are made from platinum-based RTV – a silicone rubber - and the trolling heads they produce are made from UV-stable epoxy, to which Steve attaches plastic “skirts” purchased from a commercial supplier. He currently produces two standard models. The Painkiller SR is a flat-faced head that “pushes” water, creating a “commotion in the ocean” to tantalize the big predators. His other model, the Painkiller SL, has a slanted face to give it more “swimming” action. The color schemes - blue/silver and black/purple - are designed to, as they say in this trade, “match the hatch,” i.e., look like a native fish, such as the flying fish or skipjack tuna. Steve, however, can customize them in multiple ways such as changing the colors to suit individual preferences and/or including UV reflective or UV absorbent materials. He can also add such items as pearls, glitter, mirrors, glow or natural shells to give them more “sparkle”.
I can tell you from personal experience and first-hand observation that Steve’s lures are works of fish-catching art that really produce results. Remember, Steve’s a competitor of ours – he works on somebody else’s boat other than mine – and I have no financial interest in that boat or his lure-making business. So, I wouldn’t be touting his lures if I didn’t truly believe they work and if we didn’t use them on our own boat!
Sure, you can get relatively similar mass-produced trolling lures anywhere now with the advent of internet buying, but these are lures specifically designed and produced by someone who has caught probably every kind of fish imaginable in these waters and knows our local fish/conditions as well as anybody. So, with the holidays coming, you might want to think of adding a new item to your Christmas list for that fisherman in your life or for yourself – a hand-crafted Painkiller Lure from Key West Bait & Tackle. Think about it! What a unique gift that would be! A locally produced work of fishing art that can actually be used to catch some amazing fish. But heck, even if you don’t believe me about their fish-catching ability, if nothing else, they’re cool to look at and they’d be a great Key West souvenir “conversation piece.” Also, you’ll be “buying local,” knowing that your money is going to a hard-working Key West guy with a brand new family!
If you’re interested in purchasing one or more of Steve’s lures, call Key West Bait & Tackle at 305-292-1961, or stop in personally. They’re located right off the Harborwalk behind Dante’s Restaurant. The lures will look great stuffed in a Christmas stocking and even better on the end of your favorite big-game fishing rig! You won’t even have to thank me for the tip!
Here’s hoping everyone has a great Thanksgiving and that the fish are biting for all you!
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