Lionel James has worn many hats. He’s been in the Air Force. He’s been a firefighter, and MMA fighter, and now he’s a business owner. He’s been an Alaskan and is now a Floridian. To some, this may seem like a lot of change, but to him, it’s the only constant—and he’s thriving because of it. As a guide and owner of Lion’s Tale Adventures in the crystal clear waters of Destin, he’s built an incredibly successful career by embracing social media, hard scouting tactics, and valuing people first.
“Nothing comes super easy. As a business person, you have to look four or five steps ahead, you know, and evolve with the times,” he told us. “That's a life lesson, period. If you're not willing to evolve with what's going on around the world, you stay stuck and you don't grow and you get old.”
We had the chance to catch up with Lionel to talk about his mindset and how he’s used it to be a successful guide, entrepreneur, and overall good person. He offered all sorts of insights that are valuable for anglers and anyone who’s looking to keep their head above water.
Here’s Lionel James.
Moonshine: Could you describe the fishery in Destin?
Lionel James: They call it the Emerald Coast. The water here rivals The Bahamas and really any other waters out there. In Destin, when it comes to our red snapper fishing, you don't have to travel far before you get to 70 feet of water. Once you get to about a mile, you're in 65 feet of water and in another half mile, you're in 70 feet of water. That enables everybody here who has a boat or a kayak to fish for red snapper, king mackerel, or anything cruising the beach. Right now, there's a lot of cobia moving around.
That's what makes our area unique. After that, you can go into the bay and get into the backcountry, in shallow grass flats with a push pole, and fly fishing for redfish. We have a great shark migration that comes through, black tips and spinner sharks, that spend the majority of their time right in the pass. We have a tarpon migration that typically takes place from June to mid August. This place pretty much has something to offer for everybody.
Other than the obvious, what’s the biggest difference between fishing Alaska and Florida?
I think Florida definitely has its own vibe; it’s a little bit more competitive. In Alaska, the people there were always genuinely friendly and willing to help with information or to help get you started. That goes along with the fly-fishing community. That's kind of the vibe and the culture of Alaska
It's such a wild place that you can't afford to be isolationist.
There weren’t really charters in Anchorage. Everybody fished on their own. You had to go to Homer, or Valdez, or Seward to get on a charter. For the most part, everybody that I knew on the river, especially at Ship's Creek, were just local folks. It's more of a family friendly atmosphere, versus, “Yo, who's that guy in the skiff? He ain't about to fish my spot.”
There's so many places to fish there, like Ship's Creek, which is somewhere a lot of tourists came to watch because it was also attached to a hatchery. Once they passed a certain line in the river, you weren't allowed to fish. So you could walk over this bridge and see all these different kinds of salmon. You look up and see the skyline of the city. It was really dope.
It's been probably seven years since I went back. It is my goal to get back because all of my high school buddies are still there. They have their kids and their families, and I’d love to see them. It's going to happen one of these days, when the time's right.
When did you know you wanted to be a guide?
When my dad was stationed in Alaska, he’d take me, my godfather, and a bunch of our friends on charters in the summertime for my birthday. That's how I figured out you could actually make a profession out of this. From that point on, it was always something that I wanted to do. When I moved back to Florida, I didn't start the business right away because while I was in Korea, I took up boxing.
So when I got back to Florida, I was getting started with MMA and started fighting professionally. I had a really good career until I tore my ACL. In between the time I started fighting and the time I tore my ACL, I was fishing redfish tournaments and exploring the local area, getting to know the different areas between Florida and Louisiana. The tear of the ACL really put things into perspective, you know? Once that happened, I started to focus on how to start this business. I started researching and fishing more and more.
What was the biggest difference between fishing solo and then scouting for your business?
It's a lot easier to put yourself on a fish than it is to put clients on the fish. When I'm scouting for myself, I’m trying to figure out where I can get one fish. For clients, I’m thinking about where I can get multiple fish off of this dock or out of this area. I'm okay covering a lot of areas and catching one fish two hours into the day. With clients, you feel a pressure on yourself to get to this one spot and hook a fish. It’s going to take a lot of pressure off of the day.
What was the key for building your business at the beginning?
It definitely took a lot of grinding. Nothing comes super easy. As a business person, you have to look four or five steps ahead, you know, and evolve with the times. That's a life lesson, period. If you're not willing to evolve with what's going on around the world, you stay stuck and you don't grow and you get old.
Well, my evolution came with the start of Instagram. I was kind of one of the first guys to grow my audience really quickly before “algorithms” took over, before the consumer got really smart. When I started, which was only like six years ago, everybody was still brand new to how Instagram worked, to what it was. I had a very good understanding about it right away. And that's how it kind of started.
The Instagram content was really just about me going fishing, me traveling around the south, chasing redfish, fishing on the pier, fishing on the beach. And one thing led to another. I bought a boat and people went on the boat with me. Then, they'd tell their friends, and their friends told their friends. And next thing you know, through Instagram, I get this opportunity to get on a show with a fellow named Blair Wiggins who's been producing Addictive Fishing, for years.
After that episode aired, things started to take off. I kept growing my business, taking as many people fishing as I possibly could. I still do a lot of traveling to fishing events, networking, anywhere that I can go and just talk to people.
Was it difficult to build out a team when you were used to being solo?
All the folks up here—Steve, Sean, Gabrielle, and Kolton—they've all been friends of mine. Outside of being friends, they all bring different values. Sean and Steve started fighting at the same time as me and always loved to fish. Sean has been a good friend of mine, I met him on the water. Gabrielle, I met her putting her boat on the water, five years ago, by herself. And Kolton, I did the same thing, we met at the docks.
These people gravitated towards me and the difference is that they already had their own businesses. It wasn't like I was hiring them, per se, but we were working as a team. They understood their own business, customer service, and how that works, and it made things really easy. I found that if we worked together, more can come out of that than working apart.
Gabrielle is great because she represents the ladies in the dopest way. She's out there doing her thing, every day, and out-competing a lot of the guys. Kolt, he brings a different side. He likes to do the shallow water stuff. Sean, much like me, likes to do the redfish and the tarpon thing. And Steve is our deep water guy. For me, I love the business side of things. I love to mingle. I also love video and photography. I’ll go shoot their photos for them, shoot their videos for them. We all help each other out in all kinds of ways.
Speaking of video, we noticed you had a YouTube package on your site. Where did that come from?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. One of the best books I've ever read was “Hustle Harder, Hustle Smarter” by 50 Cent. One of the chapters is evolve or die and it talks about changing with the times. So we put together a trip where we'll bring cameras, we'll shoot some dope photos, and we'll put a YouTube video together. I'll buy you lunch and a couple of shirts. It provides an experience, and has value in itself. Not only did we get to go fishing, but I’ll give you a two minute highlight of your trip with 10 photos taken by me. Sure.
And what angler doesn’t love a video of them catching a monster, right?
For sure. But, I was surprised by it. I'm actually editing the first video right now, and I didn't expect the first one to be what it was. I thought it was going to be somebody who would’ve subscribed to my channel or followed my Instagram. But, it actually was a gentleman whose family brought him because he has terminal cancer. They said he'd probably have two weeks at the most. So, we filmed his trip and he got to create something to leave behind for his family, and say some stuff on camera. It was pretty emotional. I didn't think the first one was going to be about that. It really made me think about what I want to do in the future.
Well, I've been running the business now for five years, and I've learned that I need to take some time to myself. I get to go fishing by myself or with my friends. For the last four years I have been just running, running, running. I really enjoy my health. I really enjoy lifting weights. I really enjoy fishing. I still want to be able to do all that. But, I know I'm not gonna be able to do 207 trips a year, 10 years from now. So, I'm working on a lot of programs that are going to prepare me to segue to where I'm still connected with fishing.
I have a huge space in my heart for non-profit work. I feel like it’s what I'm really supposed to be doing, and being some kind of vessel through fishing. I’m trying to get my non-profit started, which should be started by the end of this year. I just did a casting course for women this last Sunday. I’d love to get more women involved in fishing and get more kids involved in competition. That's where my heart is.
To be honest and straightforward, when I was growing up, I used to watch a lot of fishing shows, but I didn't have anybody I could relate to, anyone that talked
like me or looked like me. There are a lot of kids that I take fishing now and it’s their first time. I want to share those experiences with those kids that may not live on a beach in Destin, that have never been fishing before. I want to provide those new experiences, like my dad did for me.
When you take those kids out, do you see their whole world open up?
Absolutely. That’s what's so great about this place—it’s not just the fishery, there are dolphins everywhere. To these kids, you normally see these dolphins this close if you go to SeaWorld. There's a huge migration of sharks. In the heart of the summer, we'll go out a couple of miles, fish some reefs. You should see everybody's face when I say we're going to go closer to the beach to catch these sharks? They're right there. So that's pretty dope, man. Right there, that’s what I'm trying to do.