After 31 years as a United States Marine, Hunter Ledbetter made a beeline for Key West and bought a Maverick poling skiff. The Augusta, Georgia native is a lifelong reeler, but in 2011, a new passion also focused his attention: Photography. Island life allowed Hunter to combine his passions.
He started hitting the flats, chasing bonefish, permit… and tarpon. He loves how the silver king aggressively hits the bait and then puts up a “big fight in small water.” Taking folks out on his boat and shooting them with fish helped him network and meet others in the tightknit Key West community of reelers.
“The South Florida fishing community is awesome. They’re extremely welcoming and everyone, for the most part, is always happy to help out somebody else.”
Word got out about Hunter’s photo chops and people started seeking him out. He launched his own photography business and an Instagram account — @keywestphotog — that’s currently followed by more than 15 thousand fans. These days, folks line up to have Hunter shoot for them: Charter boats, marine and fishing products, and — as you’ll notice from his Instagram feed — models and pro reelers.
Hunter is a devout catch-and-release practitioner who prefers to release his catch in the water. He loves to get in the water for release pics, usually with a lady reeler, and especially on the flats.
“Fish are designed for neutral buoyancy, not to be taken out of the water. So, we release them in the water. And crystal-clear skinny water makes for awesome release pics.”
As much as he loves small water, Hunter has cast his net a little wider, adding a Sea Fox Viper center console to his personal fleet, so he can fish offshore. With his own boat and his collaborations with charter captains, Hunter has been chasing the offshore species that lure reelers to the open sea.
Roosterfish, with their beautiful plumes, are his favorite finned subjects. But he also loves billfish. South Florida sees plenty of sails and swordfish in the winter when they’re migrating south for warmer waters, and in the spring when they head north again.
An occasional marlin may also ride the Gulf Stream to warm water and bait. But when Hunter wants to chase big blues, he usually leaves South Florida. Most recently, the hunt for blue marlin led Ledbetter to Los Cabos in Mexico.
They went out with Blue Sky Cabo, who put him, along with lady reelers Jacki Shea and Vicky Stark, on the some striped Marlin. Shea boated her first-ever marlin and then got in the water to release it, while Hunter shot the whole thing.
According to Hunter, the trick to taking such great fishing pics is preparation.
“Stop and think what everything looks like on the boat. Prepare your scene. Don’t want blood in your shot? Have cleaning supplies ready. Also, get your models ready. Make sure they have what they need before a shot, like a brush, ponytail holders, etc. And make sure your own back is to the sun.”
The trick, Hunter says, is not to take too many pictures, which is the temptation in this day of digital photography.
“Just take a few and make ’em count.”