The Drug-Smuggling Miami Mobster Who Fell in Love With Tarpon Fishing
Bobby Erra was second-generation mafia and a man with a volcanic temper. The only things that calmed him down were his girlfriend and fly fishing. And not even that was fail-safe.
One evening in the mid-1980s, Bobby Erra, a Miami gangster, took his married girlfriend, beautiful former Orange Bowl queen Marcia Valibus Ludwig, to the Jockey Club for dinner. The club, at the time, was just on the tail end of its heyday as one of Miami’s trendiest hot spots, the haunt of the rich and glamorous, of stars like Jerry Lewis and Charlton Heston.
When Erra and Ludwig arrived, the maître d’ informed them that their table wasn’t quite ready. Erra became incensed. His face reddened. “Do you know who the fuck I am?” he screamed. The maître d’ apologized profusely and led the pair into the restaurant’s bar area, seating them at a table and telling them that while they waited, the drinks were on the house. He summoned a waiter, who immediately placed a glass pitcher of sparkling water on their table, nervously took their drink orders, and hurried off to the bar. Erra was still seething, grumbling about the show of disrespect and how he should do something about it. Ludwig, as she always did, calmed him down with a smile.
Moments later, another patron of the bar, a chubby, middle-aged man who was clearly hammered, came lurching over to Erra and Ludwig’s table and stood over them, swaying. He leered down at Ludwig and pointed at her chest, saying, “You have the prettiest tits I’ve ever seen.” The sentence was barely out of his mouth when that glass pitcher of sparkling water smashed into the man’s face, knocking him to the ground. Shards of glass on the floor haloed the man’s bloodied face. The room went completely quiet. The maître d’ appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. “Mr. Erra, your table is ready,” he said.
Robert “Bobby” Louis Erra was born in 1945 in Astoria, Queens, the son of Pasquale “Patsy” Erra, a mid-level boss in the Vito Genovese crime family. After graduating from the University of Miami, Erra entered the family business, starting out with a bit of gambling and bookmaking. Soon, though, he was doing business with a Cuban-American drug kingpin named Alberto San Pedro and with the “Cocaine Cowboy,” Jon Roberts, who was a key cog of the Colombian Medellín drug cartel during the height of its most fruitful era of cocaine trafficking to the United States.
Outside of his life in the underworld, Erra—who was short and pear-shaped and had “thick, bushy hair,” according to Roberts—was a keen sportsman. He raced Grand National boats until he had an accident that cost him every finger on his left hand, save for the pointer and thumb. He then started fishing, spending years in Bimini angling for giant Bluefin tuna. But when that species was practically fished out, he turned his vast energies to fly fishing for tarpon on the Florida flats, which, to many fly anglers, is considered to be the apex of the sport.
Before he became an angling celebrity, Flip Pallot was the owner of a high-end fishing and hunting store in Miami known as Wind River Rendezvous. One of his best customers was Bobby Erra. “We sold Bobby thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of tackle,” says Pallot. When Pallot decided to shut down the store and begin guiding full time, his first customer was Erra.
“I want to hire you for June. And July,” Erra told Pallot on the day Pallot received his guiding license.
“Okay,” Pallot replied. “Which days?”
“June and July,” Erra said, then handed Pallot a brown paper bag filled with bound stacks of hundred-dollar bills. Pallot didn’t ask Erra about his life outside of fishing. He didn’t want to know.
Pallot taught Erra how to fish for tarpon, a species the gangster fell for, hard. The beautiful silver-sided fish—known for their spectacular strength and leaps—are a fifty-million-year-old species that can live up to eighty years and grow to three hundred pounds. What makes tarpon most interesting to humans, and particularly to anglers, is that they are denizens of the ocean’s great deep water—which remains 80 percent unexplored—that periodically comes into the shallows, like the Florida Keys, where anglers like Erra could fish for them.
Because of his marred hand, Erra always had some difficulty with fly fishing. He had to put the rod under his armpit after he cast so he could strip the line back with both hands. The real trouble began, though, when he hooked a tarpon. Erra would maneuver his rod so it was pressed between his forearm and chest. But there was almost always a glitch. The knob of the reel would catch his shirt and the tarpon would break off, or he would get slack in his line because he couldn’t reel fast enough and the hook would fall out of the fish’s mouth. These failures would often lead to frustration, and then to tantrums that would often entail the smashing of his rod and reel on his boat.
After a few seasons of guiding Erra, Pallot quit and left the Keys and moved up the Florida coast. By then, Erra was completely obsessed with tarpon fishing and all of the gear and tackle the sport required. He tied his own flies and leaders and fooled around with different fluorocarbon leaders in his pool at home, meticulously noting the sink rates of the different sizes. He hired a man who had made some poles for Olympic pole-vaulters and produced and sold composite boat push poles that were top of the line for their time. He cofounded the Mangrove Boat Company, which manufactured technically advanced skiffs. He even played a role in the launch of one of the world’s most famous fly reel companies.
Erra always had problems with fly reels for tarpon. The knobs were never big enough for his two fingers to grab, and the drags weren’t reliable. At a fishing show in the late 1980s, Erra met a man named Steve Abel, a machinist from California. He paid Abel to make a spec fly reel for him. Abel did and sent him a sample. Erra fished the reel, loved it, and then ordered 50 more, and Abel Reels was born. Abel says it was at this point that he started hearing rumors about Erra. “People told me he was a mafia guy, but I didn’t know any better. I was all the way in California and there was no internet then to check on things.”
He got an up-close taste of it, though, on a visit to Florida. Erra convinced Abel to allow him to become the East Coast representative for his company. Abel went down to see him one spring in Islamorada, and he was in Erra’s office one day when Erra was meeting with someone from his push pole company. “He told the guy that he was undermining him and right there in front of me, he took out a baseball bat and started beating him,” Abel says.
Back home, Abel got word that Erra was bending some arms to sell the reels and claiming to be the reel’s designer. It appeared that, as mobsters are wont to do, Erra was beginning to clamp down on Abel to try to take control of his company. “I called him and told him he was fired,” says Abel. “He was pissed. And then I hired a clipping service and read about him and got scared.”
But Erra wouldn’t get the chance to retaliate, at least not for a while.
Erra’s obsession with tarpon led him, inevitably, to Homosassa, Florida, the hallowed spot where, in the late 1970s and 1980s, the world’s best fly anglers—men like Stu Apte, Billy Pate, Tom Evans, and Ted Williams (the baseball legend)—had gathered together annually to try to break the record for the biggest tarpon ever caught on a fly. Though Erra arrived on the scene a few years after Homosassa’s heyday, he quickly became consumed with breaking the tarpon world record—and he quickly made a name for himself.
Evans, a former New York City stockbroker who had fished Homosassa since the late 1970s, remembers the first time he saw Erra. Evans and his laid-back guide, Al Dopirak, were on the flat at Homosassa one afternoon, and there was a boat nearby with two men whom Evans didn’t recognize. The man in the bow hooked a nice tarpon and fought it for just a few minutes before losing it. Then the man went absolutely ballistic, screaming and theatrically launching all of his tackle into the water.
Evans and Dopirak watched the entire episode in astonishment.
“Hey, you!” Evans yelled. “Throw some of that tackle over here!”
Dopirak was relieved that the man in the bow didn’t seem to hear him. “Dawg, that’s a mafia dude,” Dopirak said. “Don’t yell anything else. We ain’t touching that stuff.”
Erra spent just a few seasons in Homosassa before he was forced to leave when his other life finally caught up with him.
The Brooklyn-born Steven Grabow moved to Aspen in his 20s and became a ski instructor who had a taste for expensive cars and the high life. In December 1984, federal agents raided Grabow’s home and charged him with spearheading a local cocaine distribution ring that brought $4.5 million worth of the drug into Aspen every six weeks. A year later—and less than a month away from his federal trial—Grabow borrowed a friend’s Jeep and went to the Aspen Club to play tennis. After his match, he got into the Jeep, turned the ignition, and was instantly blown to pieces by the pipe bomb that had been placed under his seat.
In April 1991, just as tarpon season dawned, Bobby Erra and Alberto San Pedro, along with two other associates, were arrested. (Roberts, the Cocaine Cowboy, would become a government informant.) They were charged with money laundering, federal drug trafficking, and conspiracy to commit murder while running a drug pipeline from 1975 through 1986 from Colombia through the Bahamas and Miami to Aspen. Grabow, Roberts asserted, had been the terminus.
Erra and his lawyer, Roy Black (of William Kennedy Smith fame), decided not to go to trial and took a plea bargain. In March 1992, Erra pleaded guilty to drug trafficking, extortion, and money laundering and was sentenced to eleven years in prison.
Roberts believed that Erra had gotten lucky. Grabow’s murder, Roberts wrote in his book, American Desperado, got Erra off the hook for crimes that were much worse. “His [Grabow’s] arrest was a close call for all of us,” Roberts wrote. “I’m sure he would have talked had he lived.”
Erra was released from federal prison on January 27, 1998, having served nearly six years of his sentence. He went right back to Homosassa that spring, this time with a vengeance.
One day while Erra was fishing by himself, drifting with the tide near Pine Island, he spotted a red Silver King skiff running the far edge of the Homosassa flat that pulled to a stop some 75 yards away from him. Erra grew incensed, believing the boat was too close to his. He cranked up his motor, sped over to the other boat, and started doing donuts around it while yelling, “Motherfucker! Cocksucker! I’ll kill you!” over and over again.
Erra’s time in prison had not mellowed him at all. In fact, it appeared to have had the opposite effect. He became more open, more brazen, about who he was. He bragged to his fellow anglers that he had single-handedly quashed the movie version of Roberts’ book because he didn’t like the way he was portrayed in it. He wrote Steve Abel a letter that said “he should have taken care of me when he had the chance,” says Abel.
Anglers now returned to the boat ramp only to discover that their tires had been slashed. Erra theatrically started his car remotely, one hundred yards away from the dock as he came in from fishing. He threatened to kill a few local guides.
Erra was Jekyll and Hyde, charming one minute and insane the next. “It was like a light switch,” says Dopirak. “There was normal Bobby and there was berserk Bobby.” Erra still had trouble fighting tarpon. He’d be on the water, seemingly having a good day, and then he’d lose a fish and all hell would break loose. His favorite person to blame was the man above. “God, You motherfucker, why do You hate me?” he’d yell all the time.
Erra began to think of himself as the sheriff of the flat. He had no qualms about telling everyone else how to fish and to point out what they were doing wrong, even if they weren’t doing anything wrong. “He yelled at me once at the dock for running a trolling motor on the flat,” says Kyle Staton, a young guide in Homosassa. “I didn’t have a trolling motor.”
Erra hated the way the locals fished—how they made a ruckus on the flats, running their motors and scaring fish. In 2013, he rented out a conference room at the Holiday Inn in nearby Crystal River and called a meeting with all of the local guides, with the idea being that he would educate them about the proper way to fish Homosassa.
The locals, who had hired an undercover cop to attend the meeting, weren’t very receptive to being told how to fish their own water, and the meeting ended in an uproar—yelling and screaming, but no violence—and accomplished nothing other than deepening the divide between the guides and Erra.
The fall of Bobby Erra came rather swiftly. His enemies on the water at Homosassa became legion. And one by one, his few friends, or at least the people who tolerated him, fell off. Evans and Dopirak began avoiding him at all times, and Erra told them that they were “miserable, cocksucking motherfuckers, just like the rest of the bastards,” says Evans. Erra had some difficulty finding local guides to book.
Then, in late 2013, Erra learned he had brain cancer. After that, his behavior grew even more erratic. “He just got batshit crazy, cursing and yelling at God and everyone else all the time,” says his long-time guide, John Kipp, who had fired him by then.
On November 26, 2016, Bobby Erra passed away at his house in Homestead. He was seventy-one. He left behind a complicated legacy in the tarpon world. Many anglers and guides in Homosassa felt what could be described as a sense of relief after he died. “I hated that motherfucker,” says local guide Mike Locklear. “He robbed the joy of tarpon fishing here for so long.” Steve Abel says he “danced on his grave.” (Abel would later survive his own tough bout with cancer and sell his reel company, which, for a time, was owned by Andrew Madoff, son of Bernie, and is now owned by a Colorado company.)
There are some in Homosassa who are still afraid of Erra, even in death. “Don’t put anything about me not liking him in your book,” one guide told me.
And yet, Erra’s dedication to the sport—the hours and energy he put into it, his absolute, undying love for it—couldn’t be ignored. “A lot of people didn’t like him, but no one had a passion for tarpon fishing like Bobby did. He lived and breathed it,” says Ronnie Richards, who guided Erra a bit in his later years.
The spring after Erra’s death, Richards set up a memorial for him on the Homosassa flat. “No one else wanted to do it, but I thought he deserved it,” he says. Richards fastened two PVC pipes together to make a cross, secured the cross to a rock in the water with some concrete, and then stuck one of Erra’s custom-made rod and reel outfits into the hole of the vertical pipe. Erra’s Rock, as it’s now known, is in an area of the flat that he used to love to fish.
Erra’s rod and the horizontal pipe on the cross were washed away in a storm shortly after they were erected. The vertical PVC pipe is still there, though. It shoots up from seemingly out of nowhere on the vast flat, like a giant middle finger from the afterworld.
Adapted and excerpted from Lords of the Fly: Madness, Obsession, and the Hunt for the World-Record Tarpon (Pegasus), by Monte Burke, out September 1.