Reprinted and edited from Tradewinds Magazine, 2018, B. Garrity-Blake
“Guess what this is?” Captain Maurice Davis said, picking up a yet-to-be carved swordfish bill covered with faint circles. “Those are sucker marks from a giant squid, trying to fight off the swordfish!” We were in “A Captain’s Gallery,” the shop Maurice and his wife Jennifer opened last year to showcase his artwork, located across the street from the Fishing Center.
Students from Duke Marine Lab’s Fisheries Policy class were surprised when Captain Davis arranged to meet them in an art gallery instead of at the Captain Stacy Fishing Center. Glass tables etched with maritime scenes filled the room. Scrimshaw swords made of swordfish bills with handles carved from wood and shell hung on the walls.
“This is what we do with some of the stuff from the ocean,” he explained. “Turn it into art. I buy swords from the long liners – they make a little money, and the swords aren’t thrown away.” Maurice also had several of his paintings and drawings displayed on the wall, all sea-themed.
“Fishermen can’t make it full time on the water anymore,” he pointed out. “They need side jobs, and this is mine.” Fresh on his mind was a recent Marine Fisheries Commission meeting in Wrightsville Beach where an income requirement was proposed as a way to define a commercial fisherman.
“Teachers can’t make enough money anymore either, and they need to find side jobs. Are you going to take away their license to teach? No – that would be unconstitutional! Why would you do that to a fisherman just because he has to find supplemental income to survive?”
Captain Maurice, 56, grew up working in the family head boat business that his father - legendary fisherman Sonny Davis - started with his wife Joyce in the early 1960s. Sonny learned the trade from his father, Stacy Davis of Harkers Island. Maurice and his brother Joe worked as deckhands as boys, and his sister Loretta kept the books.
The business continues to be a family affair. Maurice has captained the iconic 83 foot head boat Captain Stacy IV since he was 18, with the help of his brother Joe and son Trey. His father Sonny, who has built several of their boats throughout the years, catches bait with his homemade cast nets, and is a fixture on the Atlantic Beach Causeway waterfront.
“We were raised different,” Maurice smiled. “Didn’t go to the playground - I’d go scrub the boat or I didn’t eat!”
The key to success for any head boat captain is knowing where to put customers, eager to drop a line and catch supper, on fish. The Davis family has local knowledge going back three generations. North Carolina waters are especially rich in good fishing spots.
“We got more bottom from Cape Lookout to Frying Pan Shoals than anywhere,” said Maurice. “Forty miles southeast of here you’re in fifty fathoms, go five more miles and you’re in one hundred.”
Captain Maurice said that his father gave him the location of hundreds of fishing hotspots, teaching his son not to overwork any one site.
“He taught me to farm it,” explained the captain. “Fish one spot and a month later you might come back to it. Give it time to recoup.” Maurice said that the head boat captains work together, coordinating their efforts.
“I call Terrell of the Carolina Princess to find out where he fished and I won’t go there,” he emphasized. “Dad always worked with Captain Woo Woo Harker. Commercial fishermen are the same way – what area did you work? Okay I’ll work north of you.”
A student asked Captain Maurice to define head boat fishing, and explain how it differs from charter fishing.
“Head boat customers pay ‘by the head’ to fish a day or half day, and pay about a hundred dollars for a full day. We’re licensed to take 100 people, but keep it to 80 or less.” He pointed out that there’s only a handful of head boats in North Carolina. “Charter boats, on the other hand, are numerous, and charge between 1,500 and 1,800 dollars a day for up to six people.”
Captain Stacy Fishing Center has several charter boats as well as the queenly head boat Captain Stacy IV.
“Carbon footprint of a head boat is a lot less than a charter boat,” Maurice stressed. “Head boat will burn 156 gallons of fuel in a day’s time, serving eighty to a hundred people. Charter boats with outboard motors burn basically the same amount of fuel to serve four to six people.”
Although head boats are categorized as recreational, not commercial, they have to undergo an annual Coast Guard inspection that charter boats do not, which takes up to a month and a half.
“We’re responsible for a lot of people, so we have meet Coast Guard requirements that include hull and topside inspections, lifejackets, man overboard drills, collision at sea drills. Fire drills. Our crew has to have CPR training and drug testing.”
Captain Maurice also pointed out that recreational anglers and six-passenger charter boat captains are off the hook when it comes to catch reports and certain conservation requirements.
“Head boat captains fill out daily reports called the boat survey, and that data goes to NMFS in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ve been doing that for thirty-six years, and we’re nine years into a pilot program using an ap. We need the data, but they don’t collect recreational data.”
Maurice said that vessels over 65 feet long are required to slow down to ten knots when crossing a designated whale zone as a protective measure for endangered cetaceans.
“Why aren’t outboards required to follow the same rules when crossing the whale zone? They’ve got meat grinders under their boat, going sixty knots – what do you think that’ll do to a whale?”
Because of the whale zone, large vessels like the Captain Stacy IV are required to have a “position indicator” onboard, allowing their speed and location to be tracked. Maurice said that anyone with a cell phone can pull up this data and see exactly where the head boat is at any given moment, and figure out where the fishing hot spots are.
“Thousands of miles of bottom, and here they come like mosquitoes,” Maurice said. “Sixty years of bottom we’ve worked for our whole life – if you find the place yourself, good, I honor you. But they get on their phone, track us, and show up with three outboards – then they sit there and burn the spot out.”
The Davis family has one foot planted in recreational fishing with their head boat and charter operations, and the other in commercial fishing, giving them a well-rounded vantage point.
“We do it all. We finish up head boat fishing around Thanksgiving, then get the boat ready for the commercial bluefin tuna season. After the first of the year vermillion snapper opens up – we’re scared the feds will take away our permit if they put an amount limit on it, so we’ve got to catch vermillions.”
Maurice Davis has a good relationship with recreational fishermen along the waterfront.
“We talk and argue all the time!” he grinned. His role as captain of a head boat includes educating customers about why various restrictions affect what they can or can’t put in their cooler.
“We need bag and size limits, although the snapper closure, they should have done that differently. You can’t catch them but two or three days out of the year.”
A student asked what kind of snapper is so restricted?
“We call them crying snappers,” Captain Maurice said with a straight face. “Because you cry when you’ve got to throw them back.”