Before Chris Robinson became a Lower Keys fishing guide, he co-owned the All-Breeds Hot Dog Pound, tended bar for some 20 years at Key West’s landmark Chart Room and Louie’s Backyard, and shared adventures with Jimmy Buffett and other notables.
In fact, when Chris arrived in Key West in 1972, the 24-year-old from St. Augustine, Fla., found himself in a renegade seaport town. Politicos ran the government largely from the Chart Room Bar (where Chris captured a coveted bartending job), hobbyist pot smugglers were admired as romantic outlaws, and local treasure hunters drank rum with Pulitzer Prize–winning escapees from the literary mainstream.
Tall and spare, with long hair and a luxuriant moustache, Chris displays a storyteller’s wit, easygoing attitude and lively enjoyment of the absurd. During his early Key West years, those traits served him well in an offbeat venture begun with buddy Tommy Hicks.
“We opened the world-famous All-Breeds Hot Dog Pound on Greene Street,” said Chris. “Our motto was We Relish Your Buns.”
The business didn’t last long, but old-time Key Westers still wax nostalgic about the “pound’s” juicy hot dogs nestled in soft Cuban rolls.
At that time, Key West’s ramshackle charm and end-of-the-road atmosphere made it a magnet for writers, actors and musicians fleeing the “real world.” Among them were novelist and poet Jim Harrison, “Ninety-two in the Shade” author Tom McGuane and struggling singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who later memorialized the Key West lifestyle in song and earned enduring fame.
“He was not a star then,” said Chris. “He used to sit with his little guitar and amp and play in the Chart Room.”
The two became friends when Buffett moved into the oceanfront apartment above Chris’s beside a bar and restaurant named Louie’s Backyard.
By 1986, Chris was tending bar at the Afterdeck at Louie’s, an open-air cocktail deck on the edge of the Atlantic, whose clientele combined local fishermen, upscale tourists and visiting celebrities. It was a position he would hold for 18 years.
Yet while he enjoyed the Keys’ partying pursuits, Chris also was drawn to life on the water. An angler since his childhood, he bought a boat shortly after arriving in Key West and learned flats fishing tips from Tom McGuane.
Eventually he got his captain’s license and began guiding. In 2004, he retired from Louie’s Backyard and began chartering full time on his 18-foot Action Craft, fishing the flats for tarpon, bonefish, permit, barracuda and the occasional shark. He called his business Big Kahuna Charters.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Chris enjoys guiding novice anglers as much as he does seasoned pros.
Poling through the shallows, he also shares his love of the diverse and vibrant Keys environment with his clients — pointing out sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, stingrays and manatees.
“I tell people it’s an eco-tour with a chance to catch a fish,” said Chris.
It might be a long road from the bartending high life to the natural realm of the flats, but Chris Robinson has traveled it with grace — and few regrets.
Some years back, while guiding a Chicago office worker on a February fishing escape, he realized just how lucky he was.
“It was about 80 degrees, the water had three different colors and the sky was that big, high-pressure clear deep blue,” said Chris, “and he looks at me and he goes, ‘Nice office’.”