Billfish fishing in South Carolina has changed immensely over last 50 years

Henry Conner, Harry Johnson Jr. and Park Smith with a sailfish Johnson caught in the mid-1960s. Photo provided.

Chasing blue marlin and other prized bluewater fish today is a far cry from what it was 50 years ago. About the only thing that hasn’t changed is the passion of the anglers.

Today’s offshore anglers head out in speedy, comfortable boats, many of which are 50 feet or longer. The larger boats have air-conditioning, showers and comfortable sleeping quarters. Today’s on-board electronics include Global Position Systems (GPS), powerful depth sounders and radar. The reels feature lever drags so an angler can safely adjust the amount of tension he is putting on a fish during the middle of a fight.

It was much different when local fishermen like Buck Morris, now 93, Harry Johnson, 86, and Jim Johnston, 71, began venturing offshore in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. And they weren’t even the earliest offshore anglers.

An article in a program for the 1987 Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament said boats were venturing offshore and caught sailfish in the 1930s. The late Wallace Pate, one of the founders of the Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament, wrote that in 1961 it took 5½ hours to reach the Gulf Stream and six hours to return. They were able to fish for two hours but raised no billfish. Three years later, the first blue marlin was caught off South Carolina by Katherine Fitzgerald fishing out of Georgetown. The fish weighed 237 pounds and helped spark an interest statewide.

“My first boat was a 21-foot boat and we barely went to 60 or 90 feet,” said Morris, whose family now fishes the Major Motion, a 51-foot Monterey custom boat. The Major Motion has been in the boatyard for repairs this season, but Morris went offshore last year and said he last caught a blue marlin three or four years ago. “When I first started going, you might see one or two boats on a weekend. If you went during the week you didn’t see anybody. There weren’t that many boats fishing back then.”

Morris said he had a depth finder and a radio, but relied strictly on a compass for navigation.

“For years, all we had was a radio direction finder (RDF) and a compass. We relied on that compass. The Morris Island and Sullivan’s Island lighthouses, they were a sight for sore eyes when you had been out there fishing and were coming back.”

Johnson fishes today aboard his boat the Petrel, a 53-footer built by famed North Carolina boat builder Omie Tillet. He first began fishing in a 35-foot lapstrake Chris Craft, the Princess III, which he, Park Smith and Henry Conner purchased from Morris in the 1960s.

Johnson said fishermen would tune their RDFs to WTMA, an AM station with the strongest signal, and “that radio direction finder was not that precise.”

Johnson said many boats didn’t have depth recorders and he can recall hailing a friend on the radio to find out if they had reached sufficient depth to begin serious fishing. The friend would stop and extend his depth finder transducer, attached to a mop handle, into the water and give them a report.

“Ninety feet was our destination,” Johnson said. “The boats weren’t that fast. We started trolling when we left the C Buoy (a buoy marking the seaward edge of the shipping channel). We would drop a black and red feather (lure) over and start dragging. When we got to 90 feet, we just worked that area.”

The reason most fishermen didn’t venture further was because they were limited by their fuel capacity. Fuel cost, then 25 to 35 cents a gallon, was not a consideration. Fishermen often left the dock with a supply of jerry jugs or bladders to carry more fuel and increase their range.

Instead of the lever drag Penn Internationals and Shimano TLD reels favored by today’s offshore fishermen, the earlier angler used the workhorse 9/0 to 16/0 star drag Penn Senators spooled with 80-pound braided line.

The fishermen often trolled natural baits such as mullet, Spanish mackerel and squid. Ballyhoo wasn’t readily available. They used single strand wire leaders, sometimes referred to as piano wire. In fact, some fishermen actually used piano wire but it wasn’t stainless and would have to be discarded after a single use.

Johnston fishes from the Big Sky, a 59-foot Paul Spencer custom boat out of Georgetown. In 1967 he began chasing blue marlin aboard a 23-foot Formula.

He got his offshore start in 1967 aboard a 23-foot Formula with twin inboard-outboard engines.

“I had a paper (navigation) chart, a pair of dividers, a pencil and set of parallel rules and a compass. I bought the best compass money could buy. And I had a Rolex wristwatch,” Johnston said.

“When you got ready to come home, you would speculate where you were and use the parallel rules and dividers and figure out a compass bearing to run home. There are a number of buoys offshore…if you were anticipating seeing one on your right and you passed it on the left, you might have to go over and see what the number was. That’s where the paper chart came in because the chart had all the buoy numbers written on it.”

The invention of Loran (short for long range navigation) helped revolutionize fishing. Instead of poring over paper charts, anglers were able to determine their location by looking into a cumbersome electronic device and following several steps before finding your location on a paper chart. Later, Loran C came along and was much more precise and the equipment was more compact and affordable. Many fishermen today still use some of the Loran terminology and GPS units often will translate the location into Loran coordinates.

But the biggest change between then and now is the attitude of anglers. In the early days anglers would bring back every billfish they caught and hang them up for others to see. Today it’s rare to see a billfish hanging from the scales. Much of that credit goes to the South Carolina Governor’s Cup Billfishing Series.

Retired DNR biologist Don Hammond said the late Gov. Carroll Campbell, an avid offshore fisherman, called him in 1988 about developing a program that became the Governor’s Cup the next year. The series encouraged but didn’t require catch and release of the big blue marlin.

The numbers may not tell the whole story, because there probably are more boats out there fishing more days of the week today, but it is interesting to look at the difference in billfish catches reported to DNR in 1989 and in 2013. In 1989, anglers reported catching 33 blue marlin but only 14 were released. In 2013, anglers reported catching 171 blue marlin and all but two were released.

Johnson was one of the earlier proponents of catch-and-release fishing. He and his crew decided they would no longer kill a billfish. That decision was put to the test in the 2000 Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament when they brought a 500-plus pound blue marlin to the boat, a catch that easily would have won the tournament. But they elected to release the fish.

Johnson said the crew’s decision was reinforced when his nephew Robbie, who has since passed away, was asked by his child why they didn’t bring the fish in.

Robbie answered, “So there will be fish out there when you grow up.”

And that’s an attitude that is prevalent in today’s offshore fishing community.