The fishing community in Georgetown thought he was crazy.
L.K. Fitzgerald, a Spartanburg textile executive and avid offshore fisherman, was relentless in his quest to do what no one had done before — catch a blue marlin off the South Carolina coast.
Anglers in Georgia and North Carolina were reeling in blue marlin in the early 1960s, but none had been caught in South Carolina waters. Still, Fitzgerald, or Dinks to those who knew him, kept trying. He reasoned that if blue marlin were being caught off Georgia and North Carolina, they must be swimming past South Carolina.
After several years of fishing out of Georgetown, Fitzgerald finally succeeded. He helped his wife Katherine, who went by Cappy, reel in South Carolina’s first blue marlin on June 4, 1964. The fish weighed 237 pounds. On board that day were the couple’s two children — 11-year-old Susie and 7-year-old Ken — along with Capt. Biddy Alderman and mate Ellison Smith.
Fitzgerald was prepared for the moment. He had a flag signifying a blue marlin catch and attached it to the boat’s antenna as they came in through Winyah Bay. By the time they got back to the Esso Dock in downtown Georgetown, word had spread.
“I didn’t realize the significance of what had just happened, at least I didn’t until we got the fish back to the dock,” said Susie Fitzgerald Carter, who now lives on James Island. “We hung it up on the Esso sign and people flocked by the hundreds to come look at this fish.”
It would be three years before another blue marlin was landed off South Carolina’s coast. Virginia Pingree caught a 395-pound blue marlin fishing out of Beaufort in 1967. The first blue marlin caught out of Charleston was a 325-pounder by Ned Thornhill in 1968.
None of those anglers knew it at the time, but they were pioneers in what would become a billfish boom in South Carolina.
Much has changed since Cappy Fitzgerald — who died last year, 30 years after her husband passed away — caught that first blue marlin a half-century ago. Today’s offshore anglers head out for deeper water in bigger, faster and more expensive boats, many of which have air-conditioning, showers and comfortable sleeping quarters. The on-board electronics include a Global Position System (GPS), powerful depth sounders and radar.
It was much different when local fishermen like Buck Morris, now 93, and Harry Johnson, 86, began going offshore in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
They didn’t venture too far offshore because their smaller boats had limited fuel capacity. At 25 to 35 cents a gallon, gas costs weren’t a major consideration. The problem was fuel storage on the boats. Anglers often left the dock with a supply of jerry jugs or bladders to carry more fuel and increase their range, allowing them to fish in deeper water where the big billfish — blue marlin, white marlin and sailfish — could be found.
“My first boat was a 21-foot boat and we barely went to 60 or 90 feet,” said Morris, whose family now fishes on the Major Motion, a 51-foot Monterey custom boat. “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. His first boat was a 35-foot lapstrake Chris Craft that he and two friends, Park Smith and Henry Conner, purchased from Morris in the 1960s.
Johnson said fishermen would tune their RDFs to WTMA, an AM radio station in Charleston that had the strongest signal at the time, and “that radio direction finder was not that precise.”
The boats and technology aren’t the only things that have changed offshore fishing along South Carolina. There’s been a major shift in attitudes about conservation and protecting the fishery.
For many years anglers kept every billfish they caught and proudly displayed them at the docks. 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.
Don Hammond, a retired biologist for the S.C, Department of Natural Resources, said the late Gov. Carroll Campbell approached him in 1988 about developing a program that would help protect billfish. The Governor’s Cup, a series of tournaments that encourage catch and release of the big blue marlin, was started the next year.
The statistics might not tell the whole story because the number of boats fishing has increased over the years, but it is interesting to look at the billfish catches reported to DNR. In 1989, anglers reported catching 33 blue marlin with 14 of those released. In 2013, there were 171 blue marlin caught and all but two were released.
Johnson was one of the early proponents of catch-and-release fishing. He and his crew decided they would no longer kill billfish. That decision was put to the test in the 2000 Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament when they caught a blue marlin that weighed more than 500 pounds, a fish that easily would have won the tournament. They elected to release it.
Johnson said the crew’s decision was reinforced when his nephew Robbie Johnson, 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.”