We Call them Crying Snappers: Maurice Davis of the Captain Stacy Fishing Center, Atlantic Beach, NC

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.”

Captain Maurice Davis shows Swordfish Bill to Duke Marine Lab’s Marine Fisheries Policy Students

Captain Maurice Davis shows Swordfish Bill to Duke Marine Lab’s Marine Fisheries Policy Students

My Father the Pepsi Cola Man: Rudy Gray Recalls Growing up in Waves, NC in the 1950s

Edited excerpt of oral history recorded by B. Garrity-Blake for Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s “Ethnohistorical Description of the Eight Villages Adjoining Cape Hatteras National Seashore,” 2005, IAI Inc. Map drawn by B. Garrity-Blake.

My father started working for Pepsi Cola, hauling Pepsi Colas out of Elizabeth City down here on Hatteras island.  I can remember when we would leave real early in the morning around about 5 o’clock to go up to catch the ferry out of Oregon Inlet.

At that time it was a wooden ferry that they take over Oregon Inlet, and they would have a chain hoist rig that would raise up the front of the ferry. They would drop a wooden ramp down on the beach. You would drive your truck up on the ferry real slow on this rinky-dink thing. 

 He would cross the inlet and go to Elizabeth City and that’s where he would pick up the Pepsis. The paved highway never started until what we call Whalebone Junction. 

It was an all-day affair from the time he left here and went across the ferry, drove to Elizabeth City, and back. My dad would stop and drop some Pepsis off there to the fishing center in Oregon Inlet.  It’s not like it is today.  It was just a small fishing center.

My father distributed Pepsis on all of Hatteras Island. He had lumber, boards, 2 by 12s or whatever he could find on the beach, and kept them shoved up underneath the truck. We’d be going along and the sand would get real soft like it does in the summertime. He would get stuck in the sand, and he’d have to pull those boards out from underneath that truck and start boarding his way.  He’d drive on the boards a little ways, then get another board.  It wasn’t real easy getting down here like it is today with the highway.              

I’d go with him to deliver the Pepsis. At one time I felt like I just about knew everybody on Hatteras Island except the people that was here in the Navy or Coast Guard.

In the olden days back when I was a kid the grocery stores is where all the older men would hang out in the afternoon.  It was a gathering place. At my grandfather’s store, A. H. Gray General Merchandise in Waves, there would be 10 or 12, 14 men sitting around talking, some of them playing dominos, checkers, and stuff like that.  People had more time to visit and socialize more than they do now.  Everybody’s got to hustle and bustle today.

Map 7.2 Waves.jpg

NOAA's Voices Oral History Archives

The Voices Oral History Archives - https://voices.nmfs.noaa.gov - is a central repository for consolidating, archiving, and disseminating oral history interviews related to commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishing in the United States and its territories. The program seeks to document the human experience of our marine, coastal, and Great Lakes environments.

The database contains recordings and transcripts of eyewitness accounts from fishermen, their spouses, processing workers, shoreside business workers, scientists, marine resources managers, and others. These stories expand our knowledge and enrich our understanding of the nation's fisheries and their impacts.

The program works with prospective oral history practitioners to add interviews to our growing digital repository and the public to use and interact with our content for educational and research purposes. The Voices Oral History Archives database is a powerful resource available to the public to inform, educate, and provide primary information for researchers interested in our local, human experience with the surrounding marine environment.

Everything We Have Comes from the Water: Elbert and Sandy Gaskill of Harkers Island, NC

Reprinted rom Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake; photograph by B. Merkley

“Everything we have, everything we eat, our whole livelihood has come from the water,” Sandy Gaskill observed. She and Elbert grew up together on Harkers Island and have been making a life together for more than fifty years. 

“We borrowed 1,500 dollars to get started,” said Elbert. “Bought an 18-foot boat, motor, gillnet, and waist boots. Soon as we started making money we paid it off.” 

Elbert has built boats, made his own clam rakes, and done his own engine repair. 

“I know a little bit about carpentry, can fix my nets, rigging, wiring, welding - you got to know a little bit about everything,” he points out. “When all else fails, you can grab your tub and rake and go clamming. Eat Vienna sausage, crackers, keep clamming til your back gives out, but you can pay your light bill.” 

Elbert has a low-key, humble demeanor. You might not guess that his fellow fishermen count him as one of the hardest-working, innovative members of their community. For example, Elbert was the first in North Carolina to try the “fish eye” in his trawl net, a type of finfish excluder device. 

“We were working back of Cedar Island - me and Buddy Gaskill, who later drowned – we studied it.” The men sewed the excluder device, which Elbert had built based on one he had seen at a fishing show, into a tail bag, while a second tail bag served as a control. They made a tow and checked their results. 

“When I hauled back, the bag with the fish eye device was smaller, and right red looking. Dumped it out and it was shrimp. It worked.” He emphasized that fishermen do not want to catch small fish and other bycatch because “that’s our livelihood!” 

Elbert thinks that Turtle Excluder Devices, called “turtle shooters” by fishermen, were a good innovation as well. “Turtle shooters was the best thing (managers) ever done,” he emphasized. “I shoot the whifferees (rays) right on out, and skates, grass, bycatch, jellyballs, turtles, and other stuff you don’t want to be bothered with.” 

“Right now,” he added, “if they said ‘You ain’t got to use a TED’ I’d still want to use it!” 

Sandy and Elbert maintain that the key to their success was working together and being prepared to switch gears and fisheries to adapt to conditions.  

“We’d get set up for channel netting,” Sandy said, “And he’d go floundering while I fished the channel net. He’d go scalloping from Harkers Island to Sneads Ferry in the wintertime and I’d open scallops.  Built a big boat for shrimping, but a hard freeze killed every spotted shrimp that season – had to leave the new boat to the dock and go hand clamming. During red tide we went offshore, sink netting.” 

In the early years Elbert apprenticed with Claude Brown of Marshallberg, setting pots in the wintertime for black sea bass in the ocean. Today Elbert is one of the few permit holders from this region who can participate in that fishery. 

“He’s been a hard worker and a good provider,” Sandy said, nodding her head. “He tends his own business and we don’t bother nobody.” 

“You have to act like it’s the last dollar to be made,” Elbert added.  

For all of the deck time Sandy has put in, she has worked just as hard on land sticking up for the fishing industry. “If it hadn’t been for the women,” Elbert declared, “fishing would be all be closed down.” 

Although always the backbone of fishing families, women became increasingly organized and vocal in North Carolina fish politics in the 1990s. “Ladies auxiliaries” formed to support the North Carolina Fisheries Association, and women sponsored fundraisers, protests, and trips to the state capital to appeal to lawmakers.   

“We’d go to Raleigh and sometimes we’d leave there laughing,” Sandy recalled. “Sometimes we’d leave a’crying. Most times we’d leave a’praying.”   

In the Gaskill’s living room hangs an award to Sandy from the North Carolina Coastal Federation for her efforts in stopping a large marina from being built on Harkers Island, which would have destroyed adjacent shellfish beds. Sandy also served on the county harbor authority and successfully fought to keep dock space affordable for commercial fishermen. 

 She, along with Karen Amspacher, Pam Morris, and the late Janice Smith, was instrumental in making the North Carolina Seafood Festival’s Blessing of the Fleet what it is today. 

 “It’s been 20 years we’ve been doing this Blessing,” Sandy said. The women elevated the event to a truly sacred experience, with a procession of boats big and small blessing lost loved ones with wreaths that are tossed into the water. 

Honoring ancestors is important, but so too is looking ahead to the next generation of commercial fishermen. Sandy and Elbert have hope in the future because they see young people entering the fisheries, and they hope more of them will participate in management. 

“I was on the state's crustacean advisory committee for eight years,” said Sandy. “I said, no, I’m not going back on - I want the young ones to take a turn, take part, and take an interest in it.” 

Sandy shared a story about a young fisherman who asked her about the North Carolina Fisheries Association, the state’s largest trade organization for the seafood industry. He was wondering if the organization cared about small fishermen. 

“I said, let me tell you something. We can’t make it without them, and they can’t make it without us. We have got to work together or we’re going to lose it all.”

Sandy is known for speaking passionately at fisheries and legislative meetings. “When everything you have comes from the water, you go to a meeting and speak from the heart. You go there to tell them the truth.” 

Her advice to the next generation of fishermen and fisheries warriors? “Don’t be afraid to speak up. You know what you’re talking about." 

Elbert concedes that young people have new challenges to face. “More than anything, our fish are going north.” He notes that greentail shrimp are now filling the Chesapeake Bay, sea mullets are appearing off New York, and trout and croaker are frequenting northern waters. 

“And sharks are coming up from the south. I’ve worked 12 o’clock shoal my whole life never bothered by a shark, but now they eat the tail bag!” 

At 73, Elbert is not deterred, and he and Sandy continue to rise to the challenges on land and sea alike. 

“All the income we’ve ever had has come from the water,” Sandy reflected. “Nothing else, just the water. And we’ve made it.”

Elbert & Sandy4.2012 BMerkley (1).JPG

Can't Sit Home and Be Still: Tim Millis and Buddy Davis, Humble Patriarchs of Sneads Ferry, NC

Reprinted and edited from Tradewinds Magazine, 2017, B. Garrity-Blake

Sneads Ferry, North Carolina, located at the mouth of New River Inlet, was a beehive of activity one recent November morning. Every fish house was jammed with trawlers waiting their turn to pack out colossal green tail shrimp, also known as white shrimp. I found 85-year old Tim Millis chatting with fishermen and truck drivers at B.F. Millis, the seafood company his father started around World War II. 

“My daddy caught fish and sold fish all his life,” Mr. Millis explained.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, as a young Tim Millis spent every minute possible around boats and fish boxes. He quit school at a young age because he preferred the water to a classroom. 

“I just wanted to be in the river,” he smiled. “My boy was the same way – he’d rather dig a ditch with a spoon than go to school!” 

Mr. Millis regrets that he didn’t stay in school. “I feel like if I had an education I’d a done better.” He shook his head and added, “But we got by, all this time.”

“Getting by” is an understatement, considering that B.F. Millis Seafood is a major supplier of North Carolina seafood, especially shrimp. 

Tim Millis’ daughter, Nancy Edens, runs the office and keeps on top of fish politics, serving on the Southern Shrimp Alliance as well as state and federal advisory committees. Mr. Millis’ son Timmy helps run the fish house and drives one of their three tractor trailers. His grandson Jeremy helps pack seafood and drives a truck, and grandson Steven is skipper of the trawler Davis Seafood. Even his school-aged great grandsons help shrimp during the summer. 

“We’re getting a steel boat built right now in Louisiana,” Tim Millis added, pulling out a photograph of the vessel. The 68-foot trawler will be fished by his son Timmy, and christened Captain Ben. “Named after my daddy, Ben Franklin Millis. He was born in 1903 and died in 1992.” 

Obviously retirement is not in the cards for the octogenarian. “I’m not going to set home and do nothing,” Tim Millis said softly. “I love every part of this business.”  

Mr. Millis noted that last year’s shrimp season was the best he’s ever seen, and this year’s season was showing no signs of letting up for the winter. 

“We might be heading for a year ‘round shrimp fishery,” he mused, given the warming trend. “That would be better than a seasonal fishery.”

In times past, before the days of federal permits, quotas, and closures, Sneads Ferry fishermen quit shrimping in the fall and targeted black sea bass during the winter months.  

“Used to, when we were done shrimping we’d all go black fishing,” he recalled, using the local term for black sea bass. Sea bass helped fishermen earn Christmas money and make it through the harsh months until spring. 

“We just caught black fish in crab pots, and there weren’t no limits or permits,” he said. 

On Christmas Eve in 1959, Tim Millis was hauling in pots of black sea bass about ten miles offshore in his vessel The Pal. His friend E.N. Lockamy was fishing nearby in his vessel Lane L. They worked along a ledge that came to be known, from that day forward, as Christmas Rock. 

“We done pretty good I reckon,” he reflected. “People still call it Christmas Rock.” 

William Theron “Buddy” Davis, standing on the dock at nearby Davis Seafood Company, smiled at the mention of Christmas Rock. 

“I been there many a time. Christmas Rock is a ledge that fish like to feed at, about three quarters of a mile long, and drops straight down. We’d quit shrimping and go black fishing there.” 

He said that the appearance of more white shrimp, also known as green tails, has helped Sneads Ferry make up for the loss of access to black sea bass. 

“It’s gotten good, white shrimp. We used to have mainly brown shrimp, summer shrimp, and we’d have go to South Carolina in the fall for white shrimp,” he explained. “I know a fella from McClellanville who’s up here right now shrimping because it’s not as good in South Carolina!” 

Buddy Davis, like Tim Millis, is the eldest member of a fishing clan.  His ancestors came to Sneads Ferry from Davis Shore in Carteret County. 

His connection to the area continues with his several Harkers Island-built boats: the 58-foot long Captain Davis was built by Jamie and Houston Lewis. The 60-foot long trawler William Michael was built on Harkers Island by Lloyd Willis in 1968. Hauled out and retired in the yard is the Henry Lewis, a 1955 Brady Lewis-built boat. 

“I wanted to fix it but seems like time is running out.”

His largest boat, the 70-foot-long Davis Seafood, was also built on Harkers Island by Jamie and Houston Lewis. It’s run by Tim Millis’ grandson, who is married to Buddy Davis’ daughter. The vessel packs out at B.F. Millis Seafood, an example of the family ties in a tight-knit community. 

Buddy Davis and his sons are building a 72-foot-long steel trawler across the road from the fish house just to “have something to do in the wintertime.” He confided, “I can’t be still.” At age 76, Mr. Davis still shrimps on a regular basis and shows no signs of slowing down. Two of his sons run family trawlers, and his youngest son Jody runs the fish house with his wife Vicky. 

Much of their seafood is sold retail, and in recent years the company purchased a peeling and deveining machine so that customers can buy ready-to-cook shrimp. 

“If you catch too many shrimp and can’t feed them off around here, you send them to the breader in Alabama,” Mr. Davis said. Surplus shrimp is transported south on B.F. Millis’ truck, and then breaded, frozen, and distributed all over. 

A steady flow of customers carrying coolers to Davis Seafood was a testament to the retail market’s popularity. “It’s really busy here with people coming to buy shrimp. Jacksonville is right up the road, and the beach is right here,” he said. “It’s nerve wracking through the week. I prefer to be out shrimping.” 

When asked if he was proud of how successful his family business was, Buddy Davis shrugged and said, “I don’t pay it much mind.” 

Tim Millis at B.F. Millis Seafood, Sneads Ferry

Tim Millis at B.F. Millis Seafood, Sneads Ferry

Buddy Davis on his trawler at Davis Seafood, Sneads Ferry, NC

Buddy Davis on his trawler at Davis Seafood, Sneads Ferry, NC