Airboat captain gladly expanding, but lake health is key

BELLE GLADE — Life around Lake Okeechobee has been good to Captain Steve “MasterGator” Goyette, who’s been operating the business MasterGator Airboat Tours of Palm Beach County for the past two years, mostly from Torry Island.

It has been so great, he recently announced via his company’s social media pages, that he and his wife, Sherry — who pilots the business with their son Michael — had to go out and purchase another airboat because bookings have been so brisk.

Mr. Goyette is 58 and a native of Pompano Beach. He moved to Loxahatchee in 1987. He had a prior career in real estate management before starting this endeavor, but has been piloting airboats on Lake Okeechobee for a whole lot longer — several decades.

The family’s company Facebook page tells all the relevant details about what a trip on a MasterGator airboat tour might include. He works hard — especially lately, with water quality and water quantity challenges both, he says — to get visitors to the places they’d need to go to see or do the things they want on the vast inland sea.

They now have two 18-foot-long, nine-passenger, 700-horsepower airboats and promise to get visitors close to as much of the various wildlife that make Lake Okeechobee home as they can, safely. That list of all the lake’s prized wildlife includes its famous reptilian residents — the state-protected alligators and federally listed endangered American crocodiles — along with exotic species of resident and migrating birds, flocks of wild ducks and countless marine species of fish, aquatic plants, flora and fauna.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
A state requirement for airboat pilots is that they undergo regular safety training. Recently he took out a couple of guests during an FWC safety course. Clockwise from top left are Jason Freeman from Blackwater Airboat Tours out of Tamarac, Michael Goyette, Jason Finser from Airboat Rides Unlimited of Umatilla, and Captain Steve.

People of widely varying interests have taken MasterGator tours. Captain Steve said he’s had folks from all walks of life, not just those interested in seeing that variety. “I have environmentalists, conservationists and, mostly, my vacationers that come out, and I get them from all over.” But the region’s largest group of visitors (sportsmen) is well-represented among his clients. A quick look at the photos on his website and in his Facebook media reveals many pictures of the smiling faces of anglers as they show off their catches.

“We also offer bowfishing, frog gigging, bass fishing, duck hunts (in season), and alligator guided hunt (in season) trips! We supply 100% of the required gear,” says his site information.

Some of those bowfishermen are taking countless trash fish out of the lake in the evening at dusk or even at night, he has posted proudly on his Facebook page — making a dent in the invasive tilapia population.

He operates mostly just in the southeastern area of Lake Okeechobee, out of Belle Glade, but will travel to other locations such as Clewiston or farther at a higher cost.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
This is the second airboat that Captain Steve bought to keep up with increased bookings for MasterGator tours of Lake Okeechobee.

Mr. Goyette said the lake has definite water quality challenges that affect where he can take clients. “I’ve still got quite a bit to show them,” though, he stated. Yet with the lake level also so low this summer, he’s unable to get to many of his usual and favorite spots, safely, at least — and that’s a big issue to him. He has an impeccable safety record and wants to keep it that way, undergoing regular training to keep up his skills.

So what might he be doing if he weren’t here on Lake Okeechobee? He wouldn’t rather be doing anything else, he said. The best thing about living near the lake? “The quality of life, the quality of the people, laid-back living, not into the hustle and bustle of everyday life.” And, he added with a laugh, “I don’t think there’s anything that could make me leave, other than being six feet under!”

The MasterGator’s biggest worry about Lake Okeechobee and his livelihood “is the politicians getting too involved in something they know nothing about,” he says. “There’s not enough votes in Okeechobee or Belle Glade or South Bay or Clewiston to match the votes they get from the coasts.” So coastal residents have the government’s ear, to the detriment of lake region dwellers.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
Some of MasterGator’s clients prefer bowfishing and like to help remove so-called “trash fish” during night runs. These youths plus a friend visited again from New Jersey last week for a fifth time: Trevor (from left), Kent and Kathleen. On June 26, the trio took a few dozen tilapia, and in their other recent visit they speared 54. Their haul was 82 when they brought their buddy.

When it comes to the health of Lake Okeechobee, he believes: “Nobody knows more about the environment they live in other than the farmers. I don’t know one farmer over there, so I’m not speaking for them … and the same with a hunting lease. Who knows the land better than a hunter?”

Asked which voices he trusts concerning Lake O, Captain Steve said: “I absolutely put zero stock in what Brian Mast says.” He is the U.S. House of Representatives member from Stuart who’s relentlessly pressed for an end to Lake Okeechobee releases through the St. Lucie waterway to the east coast because he faults coastal algae problems on “toxic discharges” of lake water.

The MasterGator issued a heavy sigh. “The farmers. The farmers know what’s killing the property out there. They haven’t backpumped into that lake since the 1970s. To blame the blue-green algae on the farmers is a false narrative.”

Send suggestions for future installments in this ongoing series to Chris Felker at cfelker@newszap.com.

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