When as I was searching my gray matter for an angle for this column, a thought popped up: How much affect four individuals had on my life, specifically as a ravenous angler and outdoorsman. I had planned on writing another one of those “good old days” columns, but what put the “good” in that phrase were the lessons I learned from these folks.
My dad got the ball rolling when I was barely out of kindergarten. With three boys and two girls in the family, I reckon he played the odds that one of us would share his passion for fishing. I won’t go as far as to say my two older brothers weren’t interested, but I think since I was the youngest and hadn’t yet dabbled in girl watching, I took to fishing way more than algebra or schooling in general. Yep, my dad had his fishing buddy, and boy did we fish a lot together.
It didn’t matter if it was a freshwater pond or sixty miles offshore, I was his go-to kid. I caught my first sailfish at the age of six. Being that young and watching a fish twice my size skitter across the water’s surface at breakneck speeds sealed the deal for me. I was hooked. It was about that time when I decided freshwater fishing couldn’t touch the excitement of large saltwater fish and blue water. I made it a mission to learn every knot, rigging technique or strategy that the captains and mates we fished with might share me. If only I would applied myself that much in school I might have … but there’s no use crying over spilled milk.
It was during those first offshore trips that I met Capt. Al Mende, a grizzly old captain in Key Largo, Fla. Every year around Christmas, our family would head south for the holidays. I don’t know how my dad pulled it off with my mom, but he would have Capt. Mende’s boat — the “Blue Fin” — chartered every day while we were there. Always attired in all khaki and your standard captain’s hat and with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, he knew his stuff.
We always caught fish — lots of fish. Dolphin, grouper, sailfish, barracuda, mackerel. You name it and we caught it. Of all the children, I was the only one who never missed a day on board that diesel-powered, wooden boat.
My sisters Grace and Alice would often take days off to shop with my mom. But not me. Grace in particular had seasickness issues and Lordy did I feel for her. Alice, the second to oldest, was pretty darn hardcore when it came to landing big fish. One year, she won the Miami International Offshore Tournament when she brought in an 84-pound amberjack. Any of you that have ever tangled with an amberjack, otherwise known as a reef donkey, knows that one in the forty-pound range will absolutely kick your butt. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t want to tangle with one that big.
Back on the home front, my third mentor, Capt. Buddy Hester, rolled in from Virginia Beach aboard his boat the “Buddy I” to Palmetto Bay Marina, the island’s first marina. Regarded as the “pioneer of offshore fishing” here, he was something else. An ex-Marine, Buddy was gruff but in the same breath fatherly. Shoeless 12 months of the year and always wearing white coveralls, he busted the offshore fishery here wide open for just about every other offshore captain to follow. My dad became one of his regulars and, because of that, I was treated to countless trips while learning most everything I now know about blue water fishing.
Marlin fishing was big back then and Buddy sure as heck knew how to get them to attack our spread of baits. And bottom fishing? Using primitive navigational equipment, he discovered spots where the giants lurked. I don’t think we every came home without hundreds of pounds of big snapper and monster grouper.
When the “Buddy I” sadly sank during one of those trips, his new boat — aptly named the “Buddy II” — was followed by the “Cloud Nine” and finally the “Elizabeth.” That last boat was built right there on Hilton Head by Graves Boatworks.
I got to fish on every one of those boats, and each time I was able to hone my offshore skills.
Hester’s mate, Dean Jacobs —aka “Bulldog” —taught me some of the finer points about rigging baits like Spanish mackerel and split tail mullet. We didn’t simply have fishing trips but fishing “adventures.”
I still have dreams that replay some of those moments. That is quite amazing considering I rarely know what day it is. My dad, Al and Buddy are all gone, while Bulldog is lazing around in Costa Rica after years mating for local Bubba Carter, probably one of top five billfish captains in the world.
I guess it is who you know that counts. And folks, across the board I knew the best. Each of these three folks has left me a life long debt I can never hope to repay.