The Young Man and the Sea

The Young Man and the Sea

The Gulf Stream is a warm ocean current about 40 miles off-shore from Morehead City, NC where fishing has been great for as long as I can remember, and I'm sure as long as people have been able to get boats out to it. In the summer of 1970, when I was 13 years old, my friend Doug and I decided to go the Gulf Stream to go fishing aboard the Captain Stacy. Docked in the downtown Morehead City waterfront, it was a "Head Boat" which we thought was a funny name, but it was called that term because it charged a fixed fee per person, or per head, for regularly scheduled trips. I still think it's a funny name.

I'd made the trip one or two times before and it meant getting down to the waterfront early in the morning, around 6am, paying the fee to get onto the boat, and then off we'd go. I don't recall anyone worrying about our lunch although we probably had a sandwich or ate nabs and drank cokes on board. In those days parents didn't worry about kids falling overboard, getting kidnapped by pirates (we'd have been immediately returned), getting seasick or not having enough to eat. Like your garden variety junkyard dogs, we would survive just fine for one day-certainly on the Captain Stacy, or probably anywhere else. Times seemed different and less complicated back then.

The night before the trip, I asked my parents about getting the latest in Captain Stacy fishing equipment-the electric fishing reel. They were not interested in paying the additional rental fee but I quietly asked LuLu, my grandmother, for assistance and she slipped Doug and me the extra cash we needed for the upgrade - something she may have later regretted.

The trip out to the Gulf Stream can be smooth or rough or anything in between but on that particular day, the water was smooth, the cloudless sky was a brilliant Carolina blue, the sun was out and the trip was an easy two and a half hours. Having been raised boating with grandfather on many summer days, I had no issues with sea sickness or being on the open ocean, but I was a little bored. Where were video games when I needed them? We had cards to play and comic books to read for our entertainment but that was about it. The diesel engine smell permeated the entire boat as we sat with all the other fishermen and fisherwomen, all sitting quietly but inwardly as excited to see what the days catch would be as their two young fellow passengers. I had the feeling it was going to be a great fishing day.

The reason the electric reel was so important was we were bottom fishing and it takes a lot of time to reel a fish in from the bottom at the Gulf Stream. To push the button of an electric reel and zip a fish up to the surface of the water quickly was a luxury that would allow us to maximize our time and our maximize our catch.

Once the boat got to the Gulf Stream, it dropped its anchor and everyone dropped their lines and fished at the same time. Doug and I were fishing in what we considered the most efficient way possible with our electric rods and reels. We fished and caught the type of fish you'd expect to catch-red snapper and silver snapper and other typical warm water, bottom feeding fish. It was a good fishing day but then we hit a dry spell and didn't catch anything for quite a while. Still, the time was going by all too fast.

The large fishing clock on the front of the Captain Stacy showed only 2 fishing hours left before we had to head back into port. One hour and 25 minutes passed and nothing was biting when all of a sudden my large, thick fishing pole bent in half-almost doubled over- and I knew something large was on the hook. My imagination was going crazy with what it might be.

I tried to reel the fish in. No, I didn't reel it in at all.....I pushed the electric button (thank you LuLu) but nothing happened. The electric motor tried to pull in the monster I had on the other end but nothing happened. I hoped and prayed the line wouldn't break. I hoped and prayed the motor would start doing it's thing. I hope and prayed the pole wouldn't break. Nothing. Noticing the pole doubled over and seeing my struggle, a small crowd started to gather around me. Before I knew it, a first mate came over to assist a struggling 13 year old who had no idea what to do with a pole that was bent in half, with a reel that wasn't reeling and a fish that wasn't moving very much if at all.

I wish I could say the fish fought like hell and I fought like hell and the better of the two of us won. I wish I could say since we weighed the same thing it was a battle of equals and we fought hard until the better one won the battle. I wish I could say it was like the fighting fish experiences you see on TV and in movies and read about in famous books.

But the usual doesn't usually happen in my world.

I frantically kept pushing the darn button on the electric fishing pole with all my might. Nothing. I pushed it again. And again. There was nothing to reel because the electric motor wouldn't work properly so I didn't know what else to do. Then the first mate leaned over and whispered in my ear in his thick, down east brogue, "Don't worry, that fish is sittin' on the bottom and he'll event' lly tore out (translation: tire out) and then your reel 'ill work and you can reel in tha lion (line) as the fish floats up to the surface and we'll gaffe 'em and bring 'em on board."

It took a while, but when the fish starting coming up to the surface, not fighting at all, but floating up to the top on its side, it looked huge. It was huge! I couldn't see any details when it was 10-15 feet down from the surface, but I was hoping it was a beautiful blue marlin or a handsome, brilliant blue sailfish, the only large fish I'd ever seen or could imagine. These two types of large sport fish weren't bottom feeders, which was unknown to me at 13. I was stunned to see a big, fat, dark gray fish that I'd never seen before unceremoniously float to the surface.

"She's a Warsaw Grouper" the first mate told me. Who cared that it was possibly the ugliest fish I'd ever seen? Just as a father would be proud of his ugly baby, I was proud of this fish if for no other reason than its immense size. They pulled it on board and said it was the biggest Warsaw Grouper they'd seen in a long time-certainly that season. A few fishing lines had tangled and somebody tried to claim it as their fish but the first mate said absolutely not, it belonged to this young man and pointed to me. It was over. Doug and I high fived or did whatever was the equivalent of the day. Maybe we gave each other the peace sign? That was the last fish of the day, everyone pulled their lines in and the Captain Stacy headed back to Morehead.

When the Captain Stacy came back into waterfront that day, everyone's catch was hanging on the sides of the boat as it normally would except this one 125 pound grouper which was proudly displayed on the front of the boat, almost religiously.

My mother and grandmother had driven to the waterfront in my grandmother's brand new car to wait for the boat to come in. My grandmother was getting older, and since she was 62, she had splurged and bought the car of her dreams, a Buick Electra 225. Now I find it humorous because at the time she was a very youthful 62. She lived another 36 years and bought 8 or 9 more cars in a long and wonderful life but she thought this might be her last and said so over and over. (I'll have to see if that excuse works for me the next time I want a new car.)

When they saw the Captain Stacy round the bin by the Port Terminal and they saw the Warsaw Grouper at the very front of the boat, they looked at each other with dumbfounded expressions and said, "There's no way that's a fish Tom caught." They were crossing everything they had hoping it wasn't. As soon as the boat docked and I came running off board....yelling, "Look at the fish I caught!" They smiled nervously not sure whether to be proud or scared. They were probably feeling both emotions leaning more towards scared.

I ran up to my grandmother and before I could ask what I wanted to ask she said to me loudly, "That fish is not going home in the trunk of my car!" The best offense is a good defense.

Hardly deterred, I ignored her comment and asked what I had on my mind, "Can I please have it stuffed and hang it over the couch at the beach cottage? PLEASE?!" She quickly saw a way to save the trunk of her new Buick from fish annihilation.

"Maybe. Let's go back to the cottage and talk about it over dinner and see what we think. It may be a little too big to hang over the couch." She knew my attention span was short and in a day or two I would forget about taxidermy. She also knew it would never hang anywhere in her beach cottage.

Mother was standing over to the side looking at the fish and looking at me with her mouth agape. Somewhat proud. Very surprised. A little dazed. And for once, she was totally speechless. As always, she quickly gathered her composure and walked next door to talk to the owner of Davis Fish Market and spoke to him quietly. Meanwhile, the rest of us looked at the gigantic fish for a while and before much longer all of us left for home and dinner. We were all starving. It had been a big day.

Unbeknownst to me, the owner of the Davis Fish Market told my mother he would cut the fish into steaks after first letting it hang beside the market so tourists could have their picture taken with it (I'm sure for a fee). Several days later my mother went down to Davis to pick up the fish steaks and there was my Warsaw grouper in a wheel barrow, on its back with a swollen belly in the air, a tail flopped out of the bottom of the wheelbarrow and fins flopped out of each side. On top of its belly was a single cube of ice, hardly enough to chill a Coca-Cola, much less a 125 pound grouper.

"Hey, Mrs. Hackney! We haven't forgotten about the grouper steaks! Can you come back this afternoon and we'll have them ready!"

She quickly replied, "You know what? We're going home tomorrow and won't have time to eat all that fish. Why don't you find someone else who can use it and give it to them. But thank you so much!"

We weren't going to Wilson tomorrow or the next week and maybe not the following week. She's just quick on her feet. And gracious. When she returned to the cottage she told me her own type of fish tale-that Davis Fish Market had discovered that the fish was just too big to be edible. She also repeated the wheelbarrow and ice cube story (several times for emphasis) and I moved on.

When I caught it, the Warsaw grouper and I both weighed exactly the same thing-125 pounds. Today I'd have to catch a grouper that didn't really think I was going to answer that did you? Today, it's an endangered species from been overfished because it's such a gentle giant. I feel guilty that I'm responsible for the death of one so if you know of a Save the Warsaw Grouper Fund please inbox me so I can make amends. I'm beginning to wonder if I'm an endangered species also so if you'd like to make a donation to save me, inbox me on that too. I'm not sure what you're saving me from but I'll think of something. Be generous.

A lot of people have a fish tale. But I have the fish tale and a picture as a reminder of that one day back in 1970, when I left the Morehead City Waterfront on an adventure and caught this huge fish.....


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