I gave away my fishing boat last year. I gave it to charity because it was falling apart and they promised me a tax deduction. It was a 16-foot Thunderbird that I bought from my father. My father used it fish the creeks around Edisto Island. He sold it to me and it I dragged it up to Bethesda, Maryland where I used it to fish on the Chesapeake Bay.
Since I was a boy I have fished the saltwater of South Carolina. I fished with my Dad. I fished with my brother. And I fished with my mother's second husband. I no longer live in South Carolina, but I go there as frequently as I can to fish with my brother or father or mother.
After I moved away from South Carolina, I found it a great disappointment to try to fish anywhere north of Oregon Inlet on the Atlantic Ocean. When you go North of Cape Hatteras, the Gulf Stream swings offshore and the ocean is dominated by cold water that flows down from Canada. So instead of catching mackerel, wahoo, marlin, and dolphin, the fisherman up North only catch bluefish or sharks. In the South we consider such fish a nuisance. While people in Massachusetts or New Jersey considered bluefish edible, I would always select grouper or flounder, with their absolutely white meet, over the green oily flesh of the bluefish. As for catching sharks, except for the Mako they are not much sport. Most sharks simply roll like an alligator when you hook them and ruin your tackle. There are other fish to catch which offer more sport.
There's just no comparison with fishing up North and fishing in the South. South Carolina where I grew up is teeming with a great variety of fish that prefer warm water. The water up North is too cold to swim in and filled with fish that I hardly recognize. So go with me as I tell you of some of my experiences fishing on the high seas off Charleston, Georgetown, McClellanville, and Cape Hatteras.
My dad's grown older, so he doesn't venture far offshore anymore. He sold his 35-foot Bertram, which he named the "Fishing Fever", to a charter boat captain in Savannah. So when I want to go offshore now I go with my brother. His boat is named the "Rowe's-A-Lure".
My brother Andy is a tugboat captain in Charleston. He works mainly in the harbor now but for many years he worked on offshore tugs. Its a rough life being away from home for months at a time. Yet when he is home, he's home for extended periods, so he has time to go fishing a lot.
My brother has spent far too many hours peering in to the sun from the windswept wheelhouse of a tugboat. His skin is burned brown. He has wrinkles around his eyes from squinting into the horizon. The sun on the ocean is much brighter than on land--after all, on the ocean there is no shade. My brother and I both have freckles on our back from the years when we were burned by the sun playing on the beach at Litchfield Beach or fishing with my father in Georgetown. This is always a concern, for my dad now has skin cancer. Surgeons have cut away parts of his nose and ears. He says the pain is with him constantly. My first cousin, David Hiott, is a boat captain as well. He is captain of the sailing ship the Kalmar Nyckel. Having fair skin and moles, he suffered from the more dangerous form of cancer: melanoma. He is O.K. now and cancer has not bothered him for years. As for us, my father and brother don't venture outdoors without wearing skin block. I try to remember to do that as well, but still find myself getting burned in the sun on my farm in Rappahannock County, Virginia.
The boat that my brother has now is a 22-foot center console outboard. My father complained that it's a bit small for serious offshore fishing. I know that my brother wishes he had a few more feet on the bow and wants to buy something bigger. With a 22-foot boat, you cannot go fishing when the seas are too rough. When there's a small craft advisory, with 25-knot winds, a 31-foot boat can handle the weather although it will still be rough. But with a 22-foot boat you would have to run too slow to ever get where you are going. You would have to run so slow that the boat would not get up on a plane. So it would wallow in the troughs, which is an uncomfortable way to ride.
Most of the time that we fish out of Charleston, where my brother keeps his boat, the ocean is rough. It's a rare day indeed when the Atlantic Ocean lays down flat. Most of the time that I have gone fishing, I am used to hanging on tight. Occasionally the ocean gets calm and often remains that way for an entire week. But whenever I have time to fish, invariably the breeze kicks up again.
The water off the South Carolina coast is brown to green. The reason for this is there are many rivers that carry sand and silt into the sea. While there are plenty of fish to catch close to the beach, to catch really big game fish, you have to travel 30 or even 60 miles offshore. Depending on the wind, you have to travel at least 20 miles offshore before the ocean becomes clear. (If the wind blows from the Southeast for a while the blue water of the deep ocean will move closer to shore. Clarity does not have as much to do with the presence of fish as water temperature. Blue water is warmer during most of the year since it comes from the Caribbean.) Heading offshore, the ocean first turns green and then as you go even further it turns absolutely blue. This denotes the edge of the Gulf Stream.
If you lived in Miami then you would only have to go a few miles offshore to get into ocean water that is 1,000 feet deep. But the continental shelf of the Southern Atlantic is a gradual decline. If you go just off the beach of, say, Pawley's Island, the water is only 10 to 15 feet deep. Travel a few miles out further and the water is 20 to 30 feet deep. But to get to what we call the 100-fathom curve, which is 600 feet deep, you have to head at least 50 miles offshore. That is still not very deep if you consider that the ocean off San Juan is almost 5 miles deep.
With a small fast boat you can make the trip to the Gulf Stream in a couple of hours. But with a larger, slower boat it can take three. But sometimes a larger boat is needed because a small boat cannot handle the rough seas.
My brother likes to fish in the many King Mackerel tournaments that are held at the marinas around Charleston, Georgetown, and Wilmington. I like to go as well, but given a choice I prefer to just fish for fun rather than competition. For these tournaments are sort of like work--it takes a lot of the pleasure out of fishing. When you fish for trophy-sized king mackerel, you tend to use live bait or other techniques that result in catching larger fisher, albeit less of them.
The most fun I have is when we head offshore to catch dolphin. Dolphin are green or yellow fish. People in the restaurant business have started calling them "mahi-mahi" so that concerned animal lovers won't confuse them with the bottle-nosed dolphin, which is an air-breathing mammal. Rest assured that we are not fishing for flipper. The bottle-nosed dolphin we call "porpoise".
Small dolphin hang out in schools while the larger fish can usually be found swimming by themselves. The way we catch them is to race across the ocean until we find what is called a "weed line". These are weeds that break free of the ocean bottom in the Sargasso sea and then clump together as they make their way up the Gulf Stream on their way to Europe. When the wind has been blowing in the same direction for a while, and the ocean is not too rough, you can find weed lines that are several miles long. The dolphin hang out in schools under the weed line. They do that because small baitfish hang out there as well. One fish seeks shelter. Another seeks food.
Dolphin in general like to swim under any floating object, so sometimes you can find them under whatever debris man has tossed overboard. I have seen them swimming under floating planks or even a floating refrigerator.
Dolphin when hooked will flip out of the water and jump in the air like a billfish. But they are usually quite small when you catch them in large schools. The larger fish, weighing up to 50 pounds, are loners. The smallest dolphin we call peanut dolphin. They weigh anywhere from 1 pound to 10.
The most remarkable thing about a dolphin is its brilliant luminescent color. Like most saltwater gamefish, the dolphin changes color with its mood. When it is aggressively pursuing game or fighting the hook, it glows almost neon. No one standing on land at a marina has even seen that color, because the fish loses its almost instantly when you bring it on board and it begins to suffocate and die.
I learned to fish from my father. He used to take me along as we fished for fun and competition. On more than one occasion I heard people at various competitions complain that he should be disallowed because they said he was a "professional". He really wasn't that--he just had a lot of practice. While other people went to work, he was usually out fishing for his business gave him lots of free time.
My father has owned various boats over the years. Now he owns a 25-foot Boston Whaler with a friend. That boat has been a disaster. It has been in the repair shop more than it has been on the ocean.
The boat he owned before that was a 35-foot Bertram called "The Fishing Fever". My dad sold the Fishing Fever in 1996 saying that he had grown too old to fish on the ocean. So it was a shock when some friends and I charted a boat in Savannah, Georgia to go fishing for tuna. For when we walked down the dock, the vessel that we had chartered was The Fishing Fever. You can imagine my surprise. But then things got uncomfortable and ugly when the make, smelling of beer at 4:00 o'clock in the morning, and the captain complained to me that the engines on the boat had blown up soon after my dad sold it. Since those guys were such jerks, they deserved the fate that was dealt them.
My dad used to enter Marlin fishing tournaments either in Georgetown, Charleston, or Cape Hatteras where he kept his boat for a few years. This sport is definitely expensive. I have largely quit fishing for Marlin except for the years when I used to take my clients out on the ocean. Then I could charter a boat and deduct some portion of it from my taxes. Still it costs some $2,000 per day. It's cheaper to go to a foreign country to fish for Marlin than fish in the United States. (I've done that several times.)
To go Marlin fishing you need a big boat, for you have to travel out to the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream flows up from the Caribbean and passes within just a few miles of Miami. But off Savannah it is 80 miles offshore and off Charleston it is 50 to 60. (It's position varies with the prevailing winds.) But it comes fairly close to shore again off Hatteras, North Carolina which is the reason that is perhaps the best fishing location on the East Coast.
Fishing for Marlin is perhaps like combat in that there are, as the clich頧oes, hours and hours of boredom followed by a few moments of excitement. We would troll for Marlin offshore sometimes for three solid days without even seeing one fish. The baits that we used were so large that hardly anything would grab hold of them. Hours would go buy as you stared at the baits looking for the tail-tale sign of a fin or a bill indicating that a marlin was in the baits. It was hard to stay awake as the constant rocking of the boat made you sleepy on some days and sea-sick on others.
But when a Marlin swam into the baits it was an excitement like no other. I caught my first marlin off Cape Hatteras on a boat belonging to my father's frineds. I was so excited, I was cursed, much to my father's embarrassment. The fish leapt out of the water and walked on it's tail. Sometimes they do airborne like that. Sometimes they do deep. Either way it is a thrill.
To catch Marlin we would troll 6 or line sterns behind the boat. Each would be rigged with a mullet or ballyhoo that had been wired onto an oversized lure. One lure we used was called the "Hawaiian Eye". It has a silver-colored, bullet-shaped head and a skirt of bright blue nylon. You fit this over the head of a dead bait and the whole affair is supposed to entice Marlin to strike.
So boats are said to be better at others at raising fish. This means that the down-turned exhaust of the shall of the hull is such that the sound of the boat causes Marlin to come close to investigate. The Fishing Fever was good at raising fish.
Beside the trolling lines we put out two teasers. These are over-sized lures that contain no hooks they are so large that you ties them to the boat with nylon rope. One type of teaser is called a daisy chain. This is a whole school of squid wired together and towed astern.
My grandfather was a boat builder but he seldom went fishing. But once he did go fishing with us on a 25-foot Mako outboard we had called "Never Satisfied". We were quite close to Hatteras Island so we did not expect to see any Marlin since they would normally be further offshore. We were toying ballyhoo baits that were rather small hoping that we would catch king mackerel or dolphin.
But we were also toying a daisy chain. Looking to the stern I looked back and noticed a black shadow swimming under the baits. Then a huge bill of a marlin poked above the waves. This was and still is the biggest marlin I have ever seen. It was even bigger than the 650-pound blue marlin that I one of my customers caught in Ocean City, Maryland.
This giant marlin was not interested in the small baits that we had trailing aft. It swam right by them and headed to the daisy chain of squid attached to their rope with heavy-gauge wire. My dad and I were so excited that we could barely contain ourselves. We reeled in our lines and put our small baits in front of this large fish, but it was not interested. With a head several feet wide it raised up out of the water and then took hold of the squib on their cable attachment. The fish pulled hard and the boat listed to starboard as the heavy fish tried to swim away with this plastic meal. Something had to give. Either the cleat would tear out of the deck or the cable would break. It broke. The marlin actually broke in half a cable of several millimeters, swam away, and disappeared under the waves.
My dad owned a bunch of different boats over the years. One boat that he had leaked. When we took it to North Inlet we would tie it up next to the houseboat that we kept anchored there. (To read about the time I spent at North Inlet click here.) On more than one occasion that outboard started to sink. The way you bail it out is to crank up the engines, pull out the plug, and then run the boat until all the water drained out. Another time we put it in the water at a marina near my grandparents house in Swansboro, North Carolina. We went home for lunch. When we came back the boat was flipped upside down. The motor and keel were pointing in the air and all our tackle was lying on the bottom. He fought with the company but was never able to get his money back for this leaky craft.
Another of the boats that my father had was a wooden boat that my grandfather built. Being wooden it tended to pound the waves. My brother and I sat in the bow and bounced up and down on our young arses as we sailed over the seas. We caught lots of Spanish mackerel from that boat. It wasn't big enough to take us far offshore so we fished near the beach where schools of mackerel were plentiful.
Another boat that we had was a 25-foot Mako called the "Never Satisfied". I believe that the boat already had that name when my father boat it used. The Never Satisfied was a center console open boat with twin outboard engines. It had two outriggers on board and a live bait well.
The Never satisfied was that type of outboard which is somewhere between a small-sized sportfisherman and an oversized small fishing boat. With a 25-foot deep-V hull it could take heavy seas. So we took it far out into the ocean.
Once my father and his friend Fred Inman and I went 70 miles offshore to troll for wahoo and dolphin. The ocean was rough that day and it is the only time in my life I have even seen my dad get sea sick. A coast guard cutter must have wondered what such a small boat was doing so far offshore so it tried to board us. The big ship pulled along side, turned on its police light, and hailed us from the loudspeaker. But it was obvious to everyone present that there was no way the coast guard could have come on board because it was too rough. He had ship pulled along side we would have collided. And had the coast guard put out a rubber dinghy their crew would have been tossed about roughly. So we just ignored them and then they ignored us.
We caught lots of fish on the Never Satisfied. Often we were the smallest boat in view as we fished far offshore where the 65-foot sportfishing boat fished.
My favorite fish to catch was wahoo for the violence of their strike. We used to use silver-colored swivels to attach lures to the line. But wahoo are so excited by flashing color that sometimes when we had one fish on line, another would strike the leader and cut the wire in have with its razor teeth. We learned that to catch wahoo we had to use black colored swivels because we kept losing fish when we used silver ones.
Wahoo get quite large. They are like a king mackerel except larger and with vertical stripes. A fellow I knew in Georgetown had caught the state record fish at 98 pounds. He told a funny story how he boated the fish. He was fishing only 20 miles or so offshore. At this water depth he should not have found any wahoo. So it was quite a surprise when he hooked onto this monster. He fought it for an hour or so on light tackle line. But when he got it up to the boat it would not fit into his landing net. Since he was not planning to catch large fish he did not have a gaff. (A "gaff" is a long-handled hook that you use to stick a heavy fish in the side and then haul him on board. You cannot simply pick up a fish with the fishing line for it will break.) So lacking no other alternative this idiot jumped overboard and pushed the wahoo up to the boat where his partner put a tail over the worn-out fish and hailed it onboard.
This was absurd behavior because the wahoo has razor sharp teeth. They are so violent when you throw them on board that you have to quickly get them into the cooler before they slash you with their sharp fins or teeth. Once I took a fellow to the hospital after he had been fishing for wahoo with my dad. This guys name was Ray and he was a stevedore in Georgetown. A stevedore is a company that arranged cargo for ships. The company that he worked for was called Ryan Walsh. Ray had been fishing when he let a trashing wahoo that my dad had just thrown on the deck get to close. It flipped it's head to one side and sank buried the hook that was in his mouth completed through the calf of Ray's leg. My dad wanted to go home and take this fellow to the hospital. But ray did not want to ruin everyone's fun and insisted they wait until the afternoon to make the 4 hour trip home.
The other fish that we caught were sailfish or marlin. It was quite exciting when I hooked my fish sailfish. I only had it on for a few minutes when it tossed off the hook and swam to safety. We had been trolling all day without one single bite. We had flat lines out and lines from the outriggers. "Flat lines" are lines they are simply stuck into a rod holder versus being held aloft by the outrigger. The "outrigger" is a long aluminum pole with a rope and clip. You use this to hold the line far out away from the boat so that it does not get tangled with the other lines. Another advantage with the outrigger is that when a fish hits the outrigger the pin opens with an audible snap.
On this day I had spent hours looking at the wake behind when suddenly 5 sailfish came into our baits. They zipped back and forth sticking their bills and tail fins above the water. Suddenly one of the outrigger pins snapped open and the line on the Penn fishing reel began to peel off the drag. I picked up the pole and let the fish run a few seconds. The my dad pushed the throttles ahead and I jerked hard to set the hook. The ocean erupted in a splash of water as the fish took to the air. It jumped a few times, peeled off some hundred yards of line, and then it was gone. There is no worse empty feeling than losing a fish like that. Still I was exhilarated at the few minutes I spent fighting this fish.
Mal du Mer
Rough water and heavy seas do not usually bother me when I go fishing. I have fished when the water is so rough that you can barely stand on the deck. But I do tend to get seasick when I go fishing on boats that neither my father, brother, nor I own. And I also dont like to ride on really big boats that roll in the waves.
The reason for this rather curious phenomenon can be explained by science. When you are on your own boat, your hands and mind are kept busy by the task of piloting the boat or working the fishing lines. But when you charter a boat then someone else is in charge. Then you are simply along for the ride. So if the fishing is slow all you can do is watch the gunwale of the boat rock up and down against the horizon. Looking in the green or blue seas that loom large overhead your stomach begins to feel queasy, your head feels dizzy, and then you feel like laying down. Soon you are throwing up over the side. There is no worse feeling and I feel sorry for anyone who suffers this fate.
But when you are 3 or 4 hours from home no matter how sick you get, none of your shipmates are going to want to take you home. I have taken my ex-wife and children fishing a few times out on the ocean. My ex-wife used to get sick practically every time that we fished. But she was a trooper and did not complain. I took my boys fishing in Mexico when they were 3 and 7 years old. Both were sprawled out on the deck, their tiny stomachs and lungs heaving up and down as they breathed in between fits of vomiting. On that particular day even the Mexican deckhand got sick. The Mexican captain and I just smiled at each other as we kept eating sardines and other noxious smelling food. I caught 7 king mackerel that day, so overhaul it was a success. As for my boys, getting sea sick is just a rite of passage.
Another time that I fished with my dad, my ex-wife was with us as well. We were on the 35-foot Fishing Fever far off the coast of North Carolina when suddenly both engines went dead. This is a rare event on a diesel-powered boat: diesel engines are far more dependable than gasoline. The ocean was quit rough and my father and I climbed below the deck to make repairs. We drifted for hours while I reattached an exhaust line that had come loose. It was quite miserable on deck for my ex-wife as she threw up several times. Down below under the deck, crawling on my knees and breathing diesel fumes in the sweltering heat I did not get sick because--as my previous theorem applied--my hands were busy and my mind occupied.
I also took my ex-wife with me when I went fishing for Marlin in Ecuador. She did not want to go but was afraid to let me go alone with a crew of Spanish-speaking men. (Spanish is her first language and Ecuador was her home.) Perhaps she thought they would cut me up and toss me over the side. She got seasick yet again although this time the ocean was not rough. (I wrote about that trip extensively in an essay called ecuador.html.)
My brother's two kids Annie and Alex are only 9 and 12 but already that have become old salts. I have never seen them seasick the times that we have been out on the ocean. Their mother does not appeared bothered by seasickness either, although she does not like to go out when it is rough.
The Hatteras Marlin Club
I am not sure why my father joined the Hatteras Marling Club. It was a club for millionaires, which my father was not. Other fishermen came there by airplane. We always drove.
But the allure of this area for a fisherman is irresistible. It seems like whatever we fished for we caught all that we want. We used to jig for trout in Hatteras inlet and catch plenty. It was amusing to watch each trout that we brought to the surface be chased by small sharks which wanted our catch.
Ocracoke likewise was covered with flounder, scallops, and clams. We dug many clams there using the technique called "keyholing". When a clam digs itself into the sand its mantle makes a hole in the surface that looks like an old fashioned keyhole. This is a tell-tale sign that a clam is underneath. We also dug scallops there. Scallops are like clams except they can swim. When you reach for them they flap their shell open and close and swim away.
North of Hatteras is the Oregon Inlet fishing center. It's a state park, so the fishing fleet there leases the marina from the state and they all fish together as a fleet. The charter boat captains make a big show of backing their boats rapidly into the slip without bumping into the pylon. If they've had a particularly good day at sea--and celebrated by drinking too many beer--on occasion one captain will crash into the dock and knock a whole in his boat.
In a glass case there is a 15-foot long marlin that was caught out of that marina. It did not count as a record because it died of a heart attack before it could be reeled up to the boat.
My father built a house at the Hatteras Marlin club and sold it years later at a profit. If you go inside the gate their it is the first one of the right. It had cedar wainscotting so smelled pleasantly of cedar after it had been closed up for several weeks.
My mother's second husband was Allen Inglesby. She's divorced from him now. Allen or "A.J." Inglesby was voted the most popular boy in school in his senior year of high school at Christ School in Greenville. He had more friends and knew more people than anyone I have ever known. His was a big fellow with a big girth. He had been a wrestler in school. His hair was black. His friends called him "hook nose" because of his prominent beak.
Allen liked to drink liquor, shoot doves, duck, and deer. But his affinity for vodka was such that he named his boat "Popov" after the Russian brand.
He had a 200-acre farm on the intracoatal waterway near McClellanville. This duck hunting club was called "Windfall Plantation." (I wrote a memoir of the caretaker who worked there. To read that click here dickstoll.html. ) There he and his friend Brodus McGill parked their boats. Allen's boat was a 21-foot WellCraft. Brodus's boat was similar in size. There was no way to launch the boats from there so they took them to the boat landing in McClellanville when they wanted to go fishing.
To get from McClellanville to the ocean you can either take Five Fathom Creek, which is marked with buoys, or go another route which will take you into the ocean at Cape Romain. That way is not marked, but we learned how to navigate the tidal creeks there without running aground.
From there, Allen, my brother, Allen's son, Jervey, Broadus, other friends, and myself would head out to the Georgetown wreck 9 miles offshore or another wreck which was 18 miles. Looking back I was sort of a fishing snob having gone to sea with my dad many times. He was a more experienced fisherman having grown up on the water and been a tugboat captain. So I always found myself comparing Allen's fishing technique to that of my father's and found the former to be somehow inferior. But I was wrong. Allen just fished for different type of fish. He had a smaller boat and did not go as far offshore so we did not catch the same type of fish.
Allen Inglesby is like so many people I have known who were born with money. They are incredibly miserly. Nouveau riche people tend to wear their wealth of their sleeve. But Allen was old money. He owned a rather small boat when he was rich enough to have bought a suitable offshore sportfisherman. Further he was too cheap to pay a marina to tie up his vessel preferring to haul it in out of the water and to and from our home in Greenville, South Carolina. This behavior ran in the family. When Allen's half-brother Frank used to buy gasoline, he would shut off the gas pump and then lift the hose making sure that every drop drained into the tank.
The best time I had fishing with A.J. was when we went for Cobia at the Georgetown Wreck. Cobia are rather ugly fish that like to hang around reefs or pylon where they eat crabs. Armed with a bunch of live crabs, we drifted baits down to the Cobia who gobbled them up mightily. Cobia are big, reaching 50 pounds or more, we caught quite a few that day.
Before Allen bought Windfall Pond we used to spend two weekends per month at a house that my mother owned at Litchfield Beach. There we were often joined by Allen's Friend Johny Austin. In additon to a son Jervey, Allen had two daughter's Molly and Amy. We all five joked when Johny came down for he always was at the helm of whatever apparatus we found ourselves. If we were in the car, Johny was driving. If we were in the boat, Johny as at the helm.
We used to fish on a reef located off Litchfield Beach. It's a great annoyance to me that now such reefs are often covered with scuba divers. Once they put out their diving flag boaters are supposed to keep clear. Yet the reef is where the fish congregate. South Carolina should relegate scuba divers to certain wrecks and reefs and let fishermen have the rest.
On one particular day we were fishing off Litchfield catching a steady stream of blackfish and other bottom fish. They are called "bottom fish" because you drop your line to the bottom then catch the fish there. This is in contrast to trolling where you tow your lines aft and wait for the fish to grab hold. While bottom fishing in the creeks and bays was the best way to catch small fish, on the open ocean it bothered me because it made you feel seasick. A boat in motion rides the waves better. But when you bottom fish you either drift or drop the anchor if the water is not too deep. Either way the boat is tossed about at the mercy of the waves since it is not moving forward in the water.
On that day, my step-sister Molly had just caught an octopus--it let go of the line when she lifted it in the air--when we heard someone yell "help". A large scuba diving boat was anchored rather far away but we looked out to port and saw this woman wearing a scuba gear waving her arms. The current was strong she was at risk of being swept away. She was unable to make headway against the rough seas and was going to drown. We rushed over to her in the boat and my step-father and I reached overboard and grabbed her by the arms. We helped her take off her scuba tank before we lifted her on board. I did not tell his woman at the time, but the whole time that we were helping her a nurse shark was circling the boat. It once even brushed the lady's leg. There was no real reason to worry because nurse sharks live on the bottom. They eat small fish and pose no threat to man (nor woman). So without telling her anything we picked her up. Then we fetched he companion who was snorkeling back to the scuba boat and dropped them both off. I am sure we saved that ladies life. (This was the first time I have saved someone. I also pulled someone out of a crashed car at Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. Another time I gave a man CPR.)
Marlin and Tuna Fishing in Ocean City
I used to own a computer software company called "Rowe Consulting". It made money for a few years and I landed a few important clients including the Bob Dole for President campaign. Most of that money is gone now, having been well spent to buy the farm that I own, paid to my kid's private schools, or, less graciously, given to my ex-wife. All that lingers are memories including fishing trips with my clients.
I chartered the Waterdog three times to take clients deep sea fishing. The first time I went I took one of my employees, Dan Reilly, a friend, Paul Beck, and a client Bill Wenker.
The Waterdog is the perfect sportfishing boat. It did not have any luxurious stateroom, laundry, or the other usual amenities that have nothing to do with the pursuit of fish. It had no flybridge, so the captain sat on the same deck as did the fishermen. The boat is 51 feet long and "all bow" meaning its bow is so long and high that it cut readily through the waves.
Normally when you head offshore to fish, you steam in an easterly direction. But on one particular trip we headed due south out of Ocean City, Maryland to a location off the Virginia coast. Fishermen talk to each other on the radio and at the marina. Together they had figured out that yellowfin tuna had begun to congregate in this particular corner of the ocean.
Yellowfin tuna and smaller than their cousins the giant Bluefin. Bluefin have been over fished for years and this year the season was closed. I have seen yellow fin run in large schools at sea. They leap out of the water and make a terrific splash.
On this day we were going to chum for fish. This meant that we would put out a chum line. This means you take ground up baitfish and spoon them overboard slowly. This causes an oil slick to form on the surface that trails for hundreds of yards behind the boat.
The deckhand on the Waterdog was a surly character. His name is Scott. He had that bleached-hair, sunburned look of so many ne'er do wells who hang around the docks. But this fellow was a capable fisherman and sailor albeit with a sarcastic wit.
The captain of the Waterdog, Tom Henry, lived in Saint Michael's, Maryland. Being the captain he had to be more presentable than his deckhand. So he was affable and cordial. He had been an outfitter before buying the Waterdog taking sportsmen out to hunt ducks and geese.
The mate put out a kite that trailed far behind the boat. It served as an outrigger of sorts expect it was far from the boat thus extending her reach. The other lines we let drift away from the transom out into the chum line.
Within an hour or so a whole school of tuna descended on us en masse. You could actually see the hungry leviathans as they rolled under the stern. We soon began to hook lots of tuna and bonita. (The bonita were not edible so we promptly tossed them back. Their flesh is so bloody that they are only suitable for sushi.)
We caught 8 tuna each one weighing 50 pounds or move. Everytime we hooked one there was much screeming and cursing as the mate barked out order. He shouted "keep the tips together" meaning he wanted us to put the tips of two rods together so that he could see the lines and keep them from tangling.
When you hook a tuna it tends to go deep. Unlike a marlin or dolphin it does not break the surface. Rather it peels off line as it heads for the depths trying to toss off the hook.
Everyone's back soon began to ache as we reeled in the heavy fish. I complained to the mate and captain that the line we were using was too light. We lost as many fish as we caught because the line kept breaking. The captain insisted that the fish would not bite a heavier line as they would be able to see it in the water.
When we got back to port I insisted on cleaning the fish myself. I am an expert at doing this and did not want to pay the woman at the dock who did this for the other fishermen. Plus I wanted to show off my skill with a filet knife.
We had all driven down from Bethesda in Dan Reilly's new Lincoln Town Car. Dan worked for me and had bought this car used from an uncle. But now we had no where to put 400 pounds of tuna fish except in Dan's new car. We went to the local convenience shop and bought every cooler that they had. Dan said that it took him months to get rid of the smell.
The next time that I went fishing I took Bill Norden from my client Philips Lighting Company. I also took his assistant and her husband. We again went on the Waterdog. This was my third trip on that boat.
We ocean was rough that day as we trolled for White marlin. We were using light tackle since we did not plan to catch big fish. But suddenly an enormous blue marlin took hold of the line. Since Bill was my client I told him to sit in the fighting chair and he fought the Marlin.
When Bill set the hook, the fish reared up from the ocean, leapt above the waves, and showed up his girth. Tom Henry snapped a fuzzy picture.
There was no way that we could have landed such a large fish with the light tackle that we were using. In the old days people would gaff such a fish and then bring them home dead so they could take pictures. But since such fish were growing more rare, due to overfishing by longliners, the modern practice was called "tag and release". This means you stick a tag into the fishes back, let him go, and then give the tag number to the fisheries department. That way if the fish is caught later, scientists can track its migration.
Bill fought the fish for an hour or so and then we decided to break off the line since there was no way we could even get the fish close to the boat. So the mate cranked down the drag and promptly the line broke.
For Bill's gracious gesture of letting the fish go alive the state fisheries people gave him a certificate. If youre wondering whether the fish lived I am not sure. But hooks are designed so that they rust. So eventually it would have come free of the fish's mouth.
I have seen a few Marlin and the crew of the Waterdog have seen many more. They estimated that fish to be 650 pounds. It is certainly at least twice the size of the 350 pound fish I have seen caught.
Tom Henry told me that that fish got his revenge. For on the way back to port, the seas grew to 12 feet and were coming over the bow. I got so seasick that I threw up all the way home.
Swansboro is a small fishing village located 24 miles east of the Camp Le June marine base on highway 24 and the White Oak River. It used to be a quiet fishing village, but now beach development and a widened highway have added some noise to the otherwise bucolic atmosphere there.
My grandmother, Thelma Rowe, was born in Swansboro, North Carolina. She moved in with her Aunt Daisy Jones after her mother was killed in a kitchen fire. Then she married my grandfather and raised both my father and his sister in a house that my grandmother still lives in today. Aunt Daisy was a religious woman who wrote poetry. She died at 103 years of age.
My grandfather is no longer alive, but for many years he was a fixture in Swansboro. He used to head down each morning to the caf頯n the main street to argue politics with the people there. He was a Republican in this generally Democrat town. Now the whole South has turned Republican so my grandfather's views have become the dominant views.
My grandfather retired to Swansboro around 1978 and died in 1994. He was a boat builder and built quite a few boats in his front yard or down at Casper's Marina. He built houses as well and built the Cape Carteret Baptist church, which he founded with some friends.
My grandmother's house sits on the water in Swansboro. Water Street runs across her front yard. Years ago it was sand. Now it is paved. For many years my grandmother's house had an unencumbered view of the Intracoastal Waterway and the White Oak River in front of her house. My grandfather and I would sit there and watch yachts, tugs, and barges go back and forth in front of the house. The only building that in any way impaired the view was a red fish house that sold seafood.
The man who owned the fish house had a rugged, pock-marked face, with a hole in his nose. Rough fishermen who had moved down from Long Island, New York would drop their clams there where he would pay them twenty-five cents each. They had left Long Island when all the clams were fished from those waters. Those fishermen usually smelled of beer and lived in rented trailers at the edge of town.
My grandfather built a long dock in front of the house. My grandmother is far too nice to some people, for strangers would ask her permission to tie their heavy boats to the dock. The wind would tug at the dock and loosen the pylon. Since my grandfather died, she has no one who can repair her dock. So it was with the promise to do this that she let her neighbor build a towering house where the red fish house had been. She could have complained to the historical society and blocked its construction. That tall house is three stories tall and now partially blocks my grandmother's view. It sits right on the water. It won't be long before a hurricane comes along and knocks it off its foundation I am sure.
Hurricane Fran destroyed my grandmother's house. And the year before that another hurricane ripped of its roof. When I got out of college in 1984 I moved in with my grandparents for a while until I could figure out what I wanted to do. That year yet another hurricane came to Swansboro. It rained so heavily for so many days that the doors of the house swelled up and we could not open them.
Like many coastal towns, Swansboro has a festival. The festival in Swansboro is called the "Mullet Festival". Mullet is a vegetarian fish, so you can only catch it with nets. I enjoy it fried or made into stew. Perhaps no where else beyond Swansboro have I seen white people eat mullet. In McClellanville, South Carolina black people I knew liked to eat it.
You cannot write about North or South Carolina without mentioning race. As much as revisionists would like to paper over our history, the violence of the post Civil War reconstruction is still written into our legacy. My grandmother sayss there used to be a sign at the edge of Swansboro that said "N---, don't let the sun set on your head in this town." I asked her what would happen if a black person was caught in town after dark. She said, "the boys would run them off".
I used to fish with my Uncle Earl Stanley. He owned a junkyard at the edge of town and had been on disability for many years. He claimed to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan but I am not sure if this is true. He used to get on the radio and hurl racial epithets across the CB radio. He was a lonely old man with no friends nor family. My grandmother took him his meals when he became disabled and was the executor of his estate. I used to fish with him frequently. Since he had no one else to hang out with, going fishing with him must have made him happy. Like my Uncle Willy, he too fished in a wooden boat that my grandfather built.
My grandmother Thelma's brother Willy Canady was in the merchant marines for many years. He served as a mate on cargo ships from the Second World War to the Vietnam War. But then he settled down and got married at something like 75 years of age, bought a shrimp boat, and moved back to Swansboro.
Willie and I spent countless hours fishing the White Oak River around Swansboro for bottom fish or trout. He had the patience of an alligator as he cast lures into the water for hours on end. Willie also liked to go flounder gigging. You do this at night and use a spear rather than a fishing pole. I would help Willie load his outboard engine from the back of his truck and then attach it to the transom. Hooking up underwater floodlights, we would head off in the dark. We only went when the wind was still. When the wind blew hard willing, in a bit of raunchy humor, would say "it's blowing a pop-cod. She blew so hard she popped your cods."
Willie had been an alcoholic for many years while working on the ocean. But he found religion, solace, and sobriety in his wife Kathleen. Kathleen lives at Pawley's Island along her husband having died this year at 97 years of age.
When Willie bought a shrimp boat he bought it for fun. (My dad also owned a shrimp boat. A big 65-foot one, but he sold it when I was a baby so I remember nothing at all.) Willie would set out in the creeks to shrimp and I would go with him to work as his striker.
Being a striker is much work. It is great fun as long as you don't have to do it for a living. The striker's job is to haul in the nets, dump the contents on the deck then cull through the results. It as always a surprise to see what other fish we would haul up beside shrimp. There were sand sharks, stingray, pinfish, croakers, and others. Of course Willie hoped that the net contained shrimp.
My boys like to go to Swansboro to see "Grandmother Thelma." Nathaniel and Walker love to empty the crab trap that she hangs from their dock and then carry a bucket of blue crabs up to her house. I clean the crabs while Thelma picks out the meat. We sit there with Thelma eating Bogue Sound watermelon and salted boiled peanuts.
Thelma is a religious person. I am not. For a long time she would ask me, "Elliott, are you a Christian" Being someone who is direct and opinionated I would say "no". But now that her eyesight and hearing are failing I simply answer "perhaps".
My boys and I like to fish from my grandmother's dock where we catch endless strings of croaker, flounder, puffers, mud fish, and pinfish. Pinfish are a nuisance. Their dorsal fins are sharp and they will stick you in the hand. They are inedible so when we catch them we toss them into the crab trap. Puffer fish are interesting. When frightened them close their mouth tightly and then gulp enormous amounts of air inflating themselves to treble their size. You can force them to do this by putting them on their back and then rubbing their stomach. Mud fish are slimy horrible looking creatures with a ferocious bite. If one clamped down on your hand you would be in trouble. We also sometimes catch sea robins which are fish that have wings. Unlike the flying fish that we often see far out in the ocean these fish cannot sail across the waves. They just look as if they could.
Fishing for Catfish at the Catfish Farm
The rural South of my youth was laid out in the apartheid-like form under which for many years it had been arranged under segregation. I was born in 1961 so I was too young to actually remember "whites only" signs or segregated schools. But there were and still are all-black villages away from the white towns. One of these was Chopee, South Carolina.
If you go beyond Chopee on the highway toward Conway, you cross the Black River. Then turn left and go ten more miles and you come to Rose Hill. There is no town here. It's just the name of a place. For many years my father had a 500-acre farm here. On that farm he raised cattle, hogs, tobacco, corn, and catfish.
The catfish that he raised lived in 40 acres of ponds. The water to fill these ponds we pumped from the Black River. The catfish that we raised were called Channel Catfish.
The fish were so dense in these ponds that you could actually toss in a hook with a piece of paper attached and catch a catfish. My brother and I did that on many occasions.
From our farm our closest neighbor lived some 2 miles away. Beyond that it was at least 5 miles to any other house. There were a few old colored grave yards out in the woods there and some homes where blacks had lived. The houses were simply abandoned. The families who lived them left in such a hurry children's toys were laying on the floor.
My father lived there with his second wife, Faye Ann. When they divorced my dad sold the farm to pay her off. I recall one day when Faye Ann and I were driving along the road between rows of corn and our catfish ponds. I guess the local blacks thought this was a public fishing pond for 30 of them were standing there with their cane poles catching our fish. But these fish my dad was raising hopefully for profit. Nervously she drove off and called my father who presumable told them to leave.
Fishing Fresh and Brackish Water
Fishing on the open ocean is not the only sport I enjoyed with my father and brother. We also spent a lot of time fishing the muddy waters of Winyah Bay.
The Winyah Bay is where the Pee Dee, Sampit, Waccamaw, and Black Rivers come together at the port of Georgetown, South Carolina. It's brackish on one end and salty toward the other. In the harbor of Georgetown itself, my brother and I used to spent countless hours fishing off the dock at my father's tugboat company at the foot of Hazard Street. There we caught eels, catfish, or crabs.
Since the water at that time was considered polluted--because of output from the International Paper Company--we tossed back whatever we caught. But still it was great fun.
Eels in particular were a nasty fish to catch. They are prehistoric creatures somewhere between a snake and a fish. Their skin is coated with horrible goo. When you catch them they wind themselves up into a slimy ball. Then it becomes almost impossible to get your hook back because the hook, line, sinker, and the eels are all one tangled up mess.
Another prehistoric fish that we caught was the Alligator Gar. These are sort of a cross between a billfish, a ballyhoo, and a shad. They are ugly and scaly and have a long snout that is filled with teeth. Since they supposedly only eat plants we caught them by happenstance--they would get snagged by a hook when we were fishing for other types of fish.
A genuinely prehistoric fish that was once plentiful is the American Sturgeon. These of course are used to make caviar. Frank Marlow owned a store at Pawley's Island grocery where he made caviar, aged it for three years, and then sold it for $80 per quart. Frank was a character who hunted doves with a double-barrelled shotgun. His store is gone now and Frank Marlow is dead. As far as I know, no one in Georgetown is catching sturgeon anymore to make caviar. I think they are now an endangered species. We never caught any by hook. Fishermen would catch them in their nets and then take them to Frank alive where he would sliced them open and them take out their eggs.
My father took us to catch channel bass on quite a few occasions. In Texas they call these redfish. They are like a regular fresh-water bass except much, much large growing up to 60 pounds. We caught them in the surf at Debordieu Beach. And we caught them in Winyah Bay. It takes much patience to fish for these monsters and people always wondered how my father could catch them. He would anchor his boat where the ship channel met Muddy Bay and fish in the rip that is formed by the falling tide. We would put our lines on the bottom and then wait for the tell-tale tap of the fish down below.
My father also took me to catch striped bass on Lake Moultrie near Monks Corner. On a rainy day when the clouds moved in front of the sun the striped bass would pop up in schools at this sudden darkening of the sky. With my feet hanging from the bow of the boat, we would race to this school of fish and ride through with our trolling lines and catch a few. We often caught monster alligator gar this way as well.
This was also the way that we caught spanish mackerel. We would troll off the beach of North Island or DeBordieu and look for birds. When spanish mackerel were feeding birds would descend on the baitfish that the mackerel chased to the purple. The surface of the water would actually turn purple as baitfish grouped together to avoid being eaten. Mackerel would then jump out of the water in pursuit of this fish. The mackerel chased the baitfish and we chased the mackerels.
When we saw all this action my father raced his boat over to the school of fish. We then tossed out clark spook lures and dragged them through the feeding frenzy. Often all 4 lines that we put in the water would bend over with fish. We caught so many fish that we quit fishing when the cooler was full.
The Santee Gun Club is a 23,000 acre private duck hunting club on the South Santee River. Now it is owned by the state, but when I was a boy my father took me there a few times to fish in the cypress swamps.
We put small wooden boats into the cypress pon and used an electric motor to move through the alligator and snake-infested water to cast for bass. Ben Walker, who worked for my father as a tugboat captain often went with us and my dad's second wife. We used cane poles or telescopic fishing rods that are called brim busters.
On the cypress ponds at the Santee Gun club we caught brim and bass while osprey and bald eagles sometimes circled over head. Occasionally the normally quiet waters would erupt when we hooked what was called a "mud fish".
I have often made fun of bass fishermen. I wondered, "Why would anyone get exciting over a 5 pound bass" When we go Marlin fishing, the bait that we use is often bigger than that. But I took my boys recently to fish for bass on a pond at the 8,000 acre hunting club where my dad is a member.
It had been many years since I fished for bass. I had often tried to catch bass but not without much luck. I always told myself that I was a saltwater fishermen.
But this day we caught lots of brim and bass in irrigation ponds on this hunting club. The farm here was a vegetable farm with acres and acres of watermelons, cantaloupes and 60 Mexicans to pick the harvest. The farmer used these irrigation ponds to irrigate his crops. The ponds were not more than narrow ditches but were absolutely brimming with bream and bass.
I caught lots of brim using earthworms. I also landed maybe a dozen large mouth bass. I was particularly happy that my boys caught some fish.
When we got back to the hunting cabin we cleaned all the fish except for one bass that my older son Walker insisted on playing with.
The Chesapeake Bay
Having moved North I cannot get saltwater out of my system, so I bought my father's old boat and parked it in my yard in Bethesda, Maryland. I moved out of that house in 2001 when my ex-wife and I got divorced. The year before I gave that boat to charity because, as I said, it was starting to fall apart. But before that I had some good times fishing on the Chesapeake Bay.
From Bethesda the Chesapeake Bay is 44 miles. This is where the famous Chesapeake Bay bridge spans the bay for a length of almost 7 miles. Here the bay drops off to 110 feet deep in certain places. From here to Baltimore it is perhaps 50 miles by water. From here to Norfolk it is more like 100 miles.
The Chesapeake Bay is supposedly the largest estuary in the world. Lots of people around the Washington, D.C. area have embraced the dogmatic albeit noble phrase "save the bay". They mean they want to curtail the discharge of nitrogen into the water. This has resulted in algae blooms and even fish disease. While their goals are laudable, I would venture to say that many people who embrace this theme have never been on the bay in a boat.
For me the Chesapeake Bay reminded me somewhat of fishing in South Carolina because I caught similar, warm-water fish there. I did not like to fish off Rehobeth Beach because, as I said before, the water there is cold and the fish that you catch are not the same variety found in the warmer south. Worse, Indian River Inlet is sort of stereotypical in that the small inlet there is so chock-a-block with boats that they are literally bumping into each other. I tried surfcasting there a few times and twice took my small boat 10 miles offshore to catch bottom fish at a wreck. While I caught quite a few fish I gave up making this 110 mile trip and decided to explore the middle section of the bay.
The Chesapeake Bay is cut in half by the border of Virginia and Maryland. There is actually a buoy floating there to mark the boundary. While these two states are next to each other they are miles apart in politics and culture. In Virginia, where I live, we respect the right to hunt and generally favor lower taxes. Maryland has onerous taxes, a divorce court which does not favor males, and numerous silly rules like no smoking outdoors (that one was tossed out by the courts.)
Perhaps no other episode illustrates better the different outlooks the two states have toward government than the recent fish kill epidemic. Like the Pamlico River or the ocean off New Orleans, too much nitrogen in the water has snuffed out fish in certain areas that are subject to agricultural runoff. Twice in recent years menhaden fish suddenly began to suffer lesions. The worried public wondered if fish caught from these waters might be toxic to persons. So Maryland sent scientists into the water wearing space-suit like equipment while bemused water-skiers looked on. Only miles away officials from Virginia simply donned short pants and sneakers and waded into the water to take samples. Maryland closed part of the bay to fishing. Virginia did not. The whole episode was typical of Maryland's excess.
Near this border between Maryland and Virginia are two Islands called Tangiers and Smith Island. I used to put my boat in the water and head out 21 miles or so to the other side of the bay to fish there. Tangiers Island has a small airport but no bridge. The only way to get there is by boat. So the insular people living there have gone a little nutty over religion. You can't buy a beer on the island and "Jesus saves" signs are hanging from most of the fishing piers along the creek that flows into the center of town.
When I fished in the bay I mainly caught croakers but occassionally caught striped bass, flounder, spanish mackerel, or bluefish. The croakers that I caught were enormous. They were much larger than anything I had seen further south. And when the croaker were feeding, they fed voraciously. If you caught one fish you would catch one dozen. I usually quit fishing when I grew tired of reeling them in.
The main fish which sportsmen catch along the bay is the famed striped bass. But for me I never found this a lot of fun because there were so many rules. When I was a boy fishing in South Carolina there was no limits and you needed no license. In Maryland and in the Virginia sections of the bay, the striped bass seasons was severely limited. Since you could only keep large fish every time I caught a small one I tossed it back overboard. But these fish rarely lived defeating the whole purpose of the law. So on the weekends, dead striped bass floated everywhere. Here is another example of a government law with good intentions and ridiculous results.
I had a business for 6 years or so which gave me the freedom to fish during the week. So I would put my boat into the water at Cheasapeake Beach and head across the bay. I trolled for striped bass or Spanish Mackerel in the deepest part of the bay and generally enjoyed the sunshine and being outdoors. There in the middle of the bay on a hazy day you could not clearly see the other side. Further down the bay toward Smith Island the bay was more than 20 miles wide so you could not see all the way across.
I always enjoyed when a tugboat or oil tanker came sailing into view. I have always been fascinated by tugs, ships, and barges, since that was the business that my father, brother, and grandfather pursued. (If you want to read about my experiences with tugboats and ships click here tugboat.html ) I would take out my binoculars for a close look and adjust by heading to bring me close to the ship.
Often the bay was quite rough. I took a friend Dr. Christopher Unger fishing once. He and I had been activists in local politics. He raised money for Republican candidates for governor. He was the only doctor I had ever had who came to my house to look after my children. Alas, HMOs and PPOs have ended my relationship with my fee-for-service friend.
On that day Dr. Unger and I went far across the bay to catch croakers. We were so far out that we could not see either shore. The water was rough and Dr. Unger got a little nervous on the way home. After pounded across the waves for more than one hour he suddenly decide to stand up and walk toward the bow. He almost slipped and fell. Then I would have had to, ironically, give first aid to the doctor.
Another time I was fishing with an old business partner Rick Gardner. Rick was sort of an annoying chap. He was one of those fellows who nervously drink coffee all day long and eats nothing at all. He was a long-distance runner which might explain his anorexic-state. I enjoyed fishing with him, but our time as business partners was short-lived for many reasons.
Rick had a nice large boat for fishing for striped bass. He had more patience and experience than me and caught more fish. I fished with him a few times. But Rick also liked to fish in the winter. Winter in my opinion is for hunting and sitting in a warm house. I takes all the fun out of fishing to go out in a boat when ice is hanging from your nose.
One day Rick and I were near the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant when we noticed a red flare go off nearby. A fishing boat was sinking and two panicked fellow were getting ready to jump overboard as their boat sank to the gunnels. They called the Coast Guard and we told them that since we were close and could see their flare we would pick them up. Rick and I picked these two fellows up from the water and took them to the closest marina where an ambulance with flashing light was waiting.
I took my boys out on the bay a couple of times but they hardly remember. I put Nathaniel, the youngest, in a crib because he was so little while Walker sat in the bow. The sun used to bother Walker so he would lie down on the deck and wrap himself up in a lifejacket. Now both boys and my girlfriend want me to buy a new boat. I think that is some years in the future as I have other hobbies which keep me busy. Beside, I live too darn far from the water now.
My father is retired now and spends his days hunting turkeys, shooting ducks or doves, and fishing the creeks around Edisto Island. He catches lots of trout and drum using live shrimp.
My boys and my girlfriend want me to buy another boat. I think if I buy one it will be a 14 or 16 foot john boat, a small boat that I can haul to the Potomac River and fish for small fish.
If you like to read fishing essays and stories I suggest that you pick up Ernest Hemingway's "Islands in the Stream" or any of the many collections of fishing stories by Zane Grey, the writer of western novel.