DESTIN — For nearly 50 years, Olin Marler was able to take what started as a side business on the weekends and grow it into what at one time was the largest individually owned recreational fishing fleet in Florida.
Marler’s business has stood the test of time and his name has been synonymous with Destin and the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.
“I can’t tell you how many boats will come up and go under,” said Greg Fisher, marketing manager for Olin Marler Charters. “It’s a hard business. Olin managed to do it for all those years. It’s not easy to do.
“I think Olin’s business had a huge impact on the growth of the industry down here,” Fisher added.
Marler, 78, has been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis as was not well enough to comment on this story.
Initially, charter boat fishing was just a weekend job. While he worked full time at Vitro Services, a defense contractor now known as BAE Systems, Marler’s friend Mike Destin urged him to get involved in the charter boat business.
Marler purchased his first charter boat in 1965 for $2,000, which is about the cost of a 12-hour fishing trip on one of his boats today. His wife at the time did not want him to give up the guaranteed income and insurance Vitro provided, and persuaded him to take fishing trips mainly on the weekends.
Two years later, he started to grow his fleet and built a new boat, the Sportmaster II. He added the Gulf Winds to his fleet in 1969.
Gulf Winds still is docked on Destin Harbor and takes on trips. The Sportmaster II is at Marler’s house, and he is considering donating it to the Destin History and Fishing Museum.
“Olin wants to leave a legacy here of his accomplishments and where (the company) came from,” Fisher said.
The 1980s brought a lot of growth to Destin and to Marler’s fleet. Starting in 1983 and continuing for the next nine years, he built a new boat every year.
Also in 1983, he met his second wife, Donna Marler, who went to work booking fishing trips for his boats and others.
“All the old fishermen would come to me and ask ‘Would you help me book my boat?’ ” Donna Marler said. “One thing I was good at was talking to people, and I would group people together and I would keep grouping and grouping until I had enough people to share with all the boats down the harbor, not just Olin’s boats. We all became like a family.”
At its peak in 2005, Olin Marler Charters had nine boats. The company started to downsize in 2009 with the economic slump, and today has have five vessels: two party boats, two charter boats and a dolphin cruise ship.
“There haven’t been too many days where we’ve had to cancel a trip due to the lack of participation this summer,” Fisher said. “We’ve had a really good summer with the boats. They’ve been really full.”
Probably the biggest change Marler has seen in his business over the years has been more regulations.
When he started fishing, there weren’t many rules, and anglers caught what they wanted. Nowadays, some fisheries remain closed for most of the year, bag limits are constantly shrinking and size limits for fish can be very restrictive.
Because of his health, Marler ran his last trip about two years ago.
“He doesn’t miss the fishing because of the regulations,” Donna Marler said. “How do you tell a customer, ‘No, throw that back because it’s a quarter of an inch too short. Nope, throw that one back because it’s too long.’ It frustrates your customers and that frustrates him. He likes to go to enjoy fishing and relax and not worry about if it’s a quarter of an inch too short or too long.
“He really pulled away from the fishing, but he really enjoyed the dolphin cruises and talking to people,” she added.
One of Marler’s goals has been to write a book about the early days in Destin and his life as a charter captain. Since his illness, the family has hired a writer who meets with him regularly to tell his story.
“We do want to keep the legacy going,” Donna Marler said.