An orange moon is setting over Charleston when Lee Craig steps out of the sportfishing boat cabin. It's more than an hour before dawn, and the Top Pryority is more than ready, but the mate checks the rigging supplies, the hold, the bait ballyhoo on ice.
Down the line of boats in the slips at the Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina, other mates are doing the same. The restlessness rumbles like the big sportfisher that's running generator power. The diesel smell hangs. In little more than three hours, the Carolina Billfish Classic will begin with a radio call, "Lines in." The boats need to be more than 40 miles offshore, in the Gulf Stream.
The rumbling dock has the feel of a safari lodge and NASCAR pit. The people aboard 50 boats in the competition have paid thousands of dollars each to enter different categories in the tournament with payoffs as high as $20,000 for a first-place finish.
They paid thousands more to get into pools of extra cash awards, with payoffs that could be more than $100,000 for a lucky boat. Hooking a state record blue marlin, yellowfin tuna, dolphin or wahoo could bring in a $2 million cash prize. There is, in other words, money on the line. Enough that filling a boat with more than $300 of fuel for a day's run, is nothing.
This is the third leg of the Governor's Cup, the premiere sportfishing series in South Carolina, run by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. The pricey pleasure boats that soon will dot the deepwater horizon are a new generation in a centuries-old lineage of ketches, schooners, sidewheelers and the like that are the heritage of the Lowcountry.
From the moment the first keel cracked onto the oyster shoals of Charles Towne, the sea has been the Lowcountry's reason for being. People made their lives and living out of its coastal waters. Today, as the coast changes, so do those faces.
Listening and fishing
A big marlin is like a lion. That's how Jim Moore heard it from an older fisherman. The huge fish with the spear-like bill and sail-like dorsal fins stalk along just outside a school of bait fish, like the big cats prowl outside a herd of gazelle. Anglers will troll through bait fish for hours without a nibble, then the marlins will attack, as if on cue. Nobody really knows when or why. They just get hungry.
Moore, the owner of Moore Construction, is aboard the Top Pryority as a guest of the owner, David Wertan, because the boat he usually goes on tore up an engine. Moore has been deep-sea fishing for nearly three decades, fishing the Governor's Cup since its inception in 2002. He's a steady man with a deep laugh, a tournament winner, and a voice the others aboard will heed for advice. That's how he learned.
"It's listening and just fishing," Moore says. "So much of it comes with just doing it. It's so hard to teach somebody how to throw the bait back, set a hook."
Outside the cabin, the skies are graying. The boat kicks its way out to sea through 5-foot swells, pitching and rocking, the ride so jarring that moving around requires a duck walk. The boat plunges at one point, and the people sitting in the cabin get suspended a moment in midair. Nobody minds. Rough water makes for better fishing, hiding the lines from the fish.
The Top Pryority is headed for its spot, a GPS coordinate where every recent trip hooked sailfish. Marlin are "suck feeders." They don't bite their food but suck it into their toothless mouths. That makes them tricky to fish. But a lot more of them can be found offshore of South Carolina than there used to be, Moore mentions. Biologists say that's because the waters off Florida are warming, gradually pushing them north.
The fish appear to be one among many species of animals and plants shifting range in response to climate changes, a concern that's been whispered for the past decade among wildlife and plant watchers in the Lowcountry. Nobody aboard mentions that.
Dolphin fish are "ram feeders." They attack the bait.
"They're like Palmetto bugs out there, all over the place. You'd have to be lost not to catch one," Craig says. Craig is a land surveyor who runs his own inshore charter fishing business, Captain Lee Craig. He's naturally restless, keeps a coffee table full of lures and riggings at home where he ties and re-ties rigs.
Like the others aboard the boat, he is an adept, experienced angler, a longtime mate, but to make ends meet he holds a full-time job that's not fishing.
Sportfishing is an expensive pursuit, the jingling in the cash register of what is said to be a $600 million per year industry in the state, dollars that tourism businesses and the state pursue.
Meanwhile, the offshore catch drops and some species have become rare catches. Nowadays, a lot of tournament fishing is catch and release.
Recreational anglers have blamed the fish depletion largely on the longline hooks and tons of catch by commercial fishing boats. The shrinking number of commercial anglers point out that there are more than 100,000 licensed sports anglers in South Carolina alone. Regulators keep tightening restrictions on the catch of both.
The Top Pryority is up against pros in this tournament, paid crews who fish year-round. They have boats with intricate gear like pairs of electronically controlled dredges -- fan-shaped riggings that will be hooked with ballyhoo, dragged spinning behind the boat to resemble a feeding frenzy of bait fish as a tease for the marlin.
In fact, one boat in the tournament is up from Louisiana. The crew moved two months ago, expecting the BP oil spill would shut down tournament fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. They will work East Coast tournaments all summer.
Aboard Top Pryority, the anglers set a lone, small dredge by hand. The boat is no slouch, a 1996 Ocean Yacht, a 48-footer with a fly bridge, a tuna tower and twin 525 horsepower diesels. It's as roomy as a studio apartment and tools along at 20 knots or more. Even at that speed, other boats headed offshore pass it one by one.
But it's not so much about beating the pros, because in fishing, "there's an extreme amount of well-prepared luck," says Paul Kemp, the Top Pryority's captain.
And on the boat today, there's a pinch more on the line. Another guest on the boat, Amy Little, wants to catch a sailfish for her birthday.
'Maybe by noon'
Little has worked in finance and now works for a Summerville building supply company. The day is her 33rd birthday. A friend of Wertan's, she was invited along to get her sailfish. And not by whim.
Little landed a 37-pound dolphin to win the ladies division in a 2008 tournament. She's an inshore spottail bass angler who took second place in a Charleston Harbor Resort and Marina tournament the week before. Her friend Becky Accolla took first place in Little's boat under her tutelage. Accolla is aboard for this trip, too.
Little loves deep-sea fishing, she says, but "bass is less expensive." She wears a fishing visor with her blond ponytail tucked behind. The other anglers aboard wear old tournament T-shirts with marlins on them for luck; she wears her lucky camouflage shorts.
Aboard the Top Pryority, fishing is about having fun, and after a few hours under the searing sun the humor gets ribald. Mate Joey Tuk has the job of prepping the rigs and hooking the bait ballyhoo. After one slimy batch he holds his hand up for Little. "It's your birthday, you have to lick my finger," he kids. That, she says right back laughing, would take a lot of liquor.
The boat has been fishing awhile now, following a "weed line" of sargasso. The only other boat in sight is a tiny dot on the horizon. It's mid-morning, the Gulf Stream current is running hard, most of the boats are reporting trouble staying where they want to fish. But four sailfish already have been caught. Game on.
When Craig and Tuk flung a web of lines overboard at 8 a.m., Craig spread his fingers out at the lines like he was casting a spell. "Eyes down," he says, telling everybody aboard to watch the bait for a "blue stick," the bill of a marlin coming up. They were right over the sweet spot. Everyone watched for that sudden strike.
Now, a few hours later, they're talking fish stories, football, making fun of Tuk watching World Cup soccer. There's no feeding birds, no flying fish coming out in ghostly white flurries. Moore sits back on the mezzanine in the shade, the sun reflected in his sunglasses. "Billfishing," he says. Kemp climbs the rocking, 30-feet high tower and edges back down. "Nothing," he says.
Then one of the reels spins, whirring out a live, smooth peel of line. "Definitely a sailfish," Wertan says on the fly bridge. But they lose it. Not a lot of other boats are having that much luck. A voice crackles over the radio, "Maybe by noon."
Wertan leaves the fishing mostly to his guests and shares the piloting with Kemp. He pores over the charts and the electronic gear to plot out trolls, tosses suggestions about putting out new fishing lines. He runs a real estate company, The Wertan Team, for which Tuk works. Wertan bought the boat from previous owners named Pryor, then got a laugh in Hilton Head when another boat owner stopped him to say his previously owned boat had the same name.
For Wertan, it's about going to sea. "You're just out in the middle of nowhere. No cell phone, no nothing. It's an escape. You never know what kind of day it'll be or what you're going to find. There's always something different, sea turtles, whale, dolphin," he says. "It's just such a different world, such an experience to catch a fish as big as you."
An hour later, the same reel whirs again. Little jumps in but the line goes dead. "Well, damn," she says.
"Tackle failure," Craig says.
Tuk says, "My bad," and takes some ribbing about his rigging. Moore and he use a cigarette lighter to melt the ends of the cinch lines, so the binding won't give.
At noon, Craig says, "We're one quarter of the way through the tournament. Don't freak out. There's a lot of comeback time left." He takes up the syncopated clapping of a football cheer.
"Go, fish! C'mon!" Little yells. She wants to fight one in. "It's the thrill, the rush. It's a good adrenaline rush when you get a fish on your hook," she says. Then the birthday girl laughs. "At my age, that's all we have."
'An off button'
It's after 2 p.m. In less than an hour, the radio will call "Lines out" and the sportfishing boats will turn back to Charleston for the weigh-in. A few beers have come out. The crew is fishing to loud thumping rap for luck, the play list looping over and over.
"We had one. They were there," Kemp says from behind the wheel on the fly bridge. Moore has the binoculars on a research ship in the distance. He tells Kemp to set a course for it. Maybe they'll scare up a fish the ship has spooked. At least they'll move to a little deeper water. A few minutes later, a dolphin hits the line. Craig snares him and quickly reels him aboard. It's a little one, but it's a fish. Ceviche, he says, enough to feed the boat tonight.
"All right, lines back out," he says quickly.
Even at 3 p.m., when Kemp calls to pick up the lines, Tuk says to wait for the official call. It comes a few seconds later. The lines come up, Kemp throttles up the engines and heads home, leaving the rolling seas under rolling clouds, the weed line they thought would pay off. It's doesn't matter. He loves it all. The environment, the challenge.
"Everything's got an off button, but as humans we don't seem to be able to turn it off," he says. "Out here, you don't have a choice."
Reach Bo Petersen at email@example.com or 937-5744.