It'll be One Big Company Before it's Over: Legendary Captain Joe Rose of Beaufort

Reprinted and edited from Tradewinds Magazine, 2018, B. Garrity-Blake

Captain Joe Rose of Beaufort is a rare breed of fisherman. He is one of the few remaining owner-operators in the Atlantic Coast fleet of ocean-going draggers that ply the waters from Cape Hatteras to the Grand Banks near Nova Scotia. He talks about underwater topography and place names unfamiliar to the average landlubber: Hudson Canyon. New York Gully. Monster Ledge. Baltimore Canyon. 

Nearing his 72nd birthday last December, Captain Rose was preparing to hang up his oilskins. He took his last trip before Christmas. He sold his 86 foot steel trawler Susan Rose to The Town Doc in Port Judith, Rhode Island, a wholesale seafood company whose motto is Holding Squid to a Higher Standard

Independent trawler captains like Rose are becoming fewer in number for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the increasingly prohibitive cost of federal fishing permits. Permits, traded on the free market, are typically sold with the boat, and can far exceed the vessel’s value. 

“You get three times more for the permits than you actually get for the boat,” Captain Rose remarked.

“I’ve tried to mix my fishery up so that I can be into everything. Whatever was good at the time.” His permits included summer flounder, sea bass, porgies, monkfish, dogfish, and skates. 

As few individuals can afford to buy into federal fisheries, the image of the independent fisherman plying the seas is giving way to the reality of hired captains working for companies who can afford the hefty price tag.

“It’ll just be one big company before it’s all over with,” Joe Rose mused. He counted on one hand the number of owner-operator captains from North Carolina who still participate in mid-Atlantic and northern fisheries. 

It wasn’t always this way. Captain Rose recalled when independent fishermen were the norm, and small wholesale buyers were everywhere. 

“We’d pack out at Billy Smith’s in Beaufort and you’d see pickup trucks all the way to Morehead bridge," he said. "Right behind the other – getting fish and going all over the state with them. You don’t see that no more – now it’s tractor trailers, and four or five plants from here to New Bedford take it all."

He added, "That’s what quotas do.” 

Joe Rose was born in a fishing family. His father, Clarence Rose, fished out of Beaufort, Vandemere, and even Greenport, Long Island. 

“That’s where we grew up summertime,” he said. “Daddy lobstered out of there.” 

One of eight siblings, Joe Rose and three of his brothers – Kenneth, Benny, and Bickle, became full-time commercial fishermen. Joe began fishing with his father at fifteen. 

“And I never earned a full share on Daddy’s boat until I was married two years! He told me, when you know it all, you can get it all.” 

Captain Rose and his brothers participated in a great variety of fisheries, including the flynet fishery off North Carolina. Flynets don’t drag the bottom but fish higher in the water column for pelagic species like gray trout.  

“One morning I packed out at Ralph Taylors on Core Creek,” Joe Rose recalled. “Got ice and stuff, and was back out the inlet by two o’clock.” He rounded Knuckle Buoy at Cape Lookout Shoals and noticed something strange. “I seen brown water come up - what in the world? It was fish, kicking the mud up in eleven, twelve fathoms of water.” He spun his vessel around and set his net. In no time he was steaming back to the dock with 40 thousand pounds of trout. 

“I called Ralph, and he said, Naw you’re just joking! You ain’t got no fish on that boat that quick! I said, have the gang down there. I’ll be there in an hour.”

Fly nets were banned south of Cape Hatteras by state managers in the early 1990s in an attempt to recover gray trout stocks. In Captain Rose’s view, the closure had little impact.  

“All the species are going north,” he shrugged. “And we go where the fish are.” He pointed to the unusual abundance of shrimp off the North Carolina coast this winter, and the growing quantities of trout, sea mullet, and spot caught up north, as examples.  

“A man caught 3,000 pounds of spots in one tow last year off Point Judith, Rhode Island,” he said. “He wouldn’t take them to the dock until he found out what they were – he had never seen them before!”  

Since the Government implemented state-by-state quotas of summer flounder in 1993, North Carolina has received the largest share of the fishery on the Atlantic Coast, reflecting decades of high landings by Tarheel fishermen. Trouble is, summer flounder populations are trending north, and the bulk is now caught off New Jersey and New York. So fishermen permitted to land flounder in North Carolina find themselves catching fish up north, only to steam south to Beaufort Inlet to unload their catch. 

“Our fuel expenses last trip was $3,800, to steam two and a half days from New York to Beaufort Inlet, two and a half days back to the fishing grounds, Captain Rose explained. “Five days, just to unload your fish.” Although Oregon Inlet is the closest entry for boats steaming from the north, it is all but impassible due to shoaling.  

“Every time I went in Oregon Inlet I’d tear something up and it would cost me 15, 18 thousand dollars,” said Rose. He thinks one solution to the summer flounder quandary is to allow fishermen to unload their fish in whichever state is most convenient, and count the poundage against the quota of the state that issued the permit. 

“Give the boat a break - let us pack ‘em where we caught ‘em and credit it back to North Carolina,” Captain Rose said. He acknowledged the downside of this scenario: North Carolina fish houses would lose valuable winter business, which could threaten the state’s seafood infrastructure. There is no easy solution to this management problem. Rose did hold out hope that summer flounder may once again occur off North Carolina, if the Gulf Stream moves further offshore and waters cool. 

“This year, summer flounder have started to move back down. They’re all the way down to Baltimore Canyon now.” 

Joe Rose and his brothers have unloaded fish in every major fishing port along the eastern seaboard, from Gloucester, Massachusetts to Cape Canaveral, Florida. He favorite port is his hometown of Beaufort, but he also has fond memories of the people and communities of Port Judith, Rhode Island and Chincoteague, Virginia. He recalled a not-so-positive experience in the historical whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts.   

“One night we went into New Bedford and had to wait until morning before they could start unloading us,” Rose said. He and his crew hit their bunks for the night, and the next morning they awoke to find the hatches off the boat. 

“Some of the guys on the dock had come aboard in the night and stole part of the fish while we were asleep. I said, Now this is cute.” The police never found the thieves. “They had security cameras on the dock – just so happened one was broken.” 

Captain Rose had an unusual experience when he steamed toward Browns Bank between Georges Bank and Nova Scotia. “Had a light gray line on a map with little fish on it - I didn’t know what it meant.” Turns out it marked an International boundary that was not to be crossed.  

“Here come the Canadian survey boat. He led us into Shelburne Harbor, Nova Scotia.” The next day Captain Rose went to court and faced the judge, explaining that they didn’t intend to break the law – they simply got across the line. 

“The judge says, ‘Son, how much money you got on you?’ I said, sir, I don’t know! I reached into my back pocket and pulled out one dollar.” The judge took it and said, “That’s your fine today, but the Queen says don’t be caught across that line no more.” 

Captain Rose has seen a lot of changes in the way fisheries are managed. Although regulations have increased, he says he’s never felt “boxed in” or defeated. “You got to work around the challenges if you’re going to stay in it,” he stressed.

He goes above and beyond what’s required to conserve fish. For example, the commercial size limit for black sea bass is four and a half inches, but he makes an effort to target five and a half inches and larger. 

“I don’t want to see the small fish anyway - if I can’t sell ‘em I don’t want to see ‘em.”  He has the Susan Rose rigged with a water trough and conveyor belt system to help keep small fish alive. “We don’t pick them up with our hands – juvenile fish go overboard just flipping.” He thinks more fishermen should do the same. “That would help the fishery a lot.” 

Rose is required to deploy a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) that allows NOAA to track the Susan Rose’s whereabouts. The U.S. Coast Guard boards their vessel regularly. They abide by gear restrictions and regulations specific to each permitted fishery. He reports his catches in a timely manner, and if packing out in two different states he must punch in “steaming with product onboard.” Although ocean-going trawlers are not yet subject to video monitoring like long-line vessels, Captain Rose believes that cameras are coming.

“I don’t know how much more they can spy on us,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re going to catch you at.”

A longstanding tradition in the commercial fishing industry is for fishermen to set aside a “mess” of fish to give to friends, neighbors, and family. Fishermen are generous in donating larger quantities of their catch for community fundraisers.

“I used to give like a thousand pounds to the fire department or to the church for fish fries about every time we got down this way,” said Captain Rose. But those days are gone for fishermen participating in federally-permitted quota fisheries. 

“We’re not allowed to bring fish to the dock to give away,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s against the law because everything’s on quotas and has to be documented and sold. You can’t even help people no more.”

Joe Rose tested the limits of this system just last year, and paid a price. 

 “Last year I saved some slippery ling and whiting for a friend up in Chincoteague who used to run a clam boat. That’s a species he likes, nobody else probably don’t.” A federal agent approached him on the dock and wrote him a ticket for $500 because he failed to list the handful of fish on his vessel trip report.

“He kept mouthing, mouthing, mouthing. I said, man, I save a man a mess of fish – just write the ticket and go away!” 

Captain Joe Rose loves the independence and challenge of fishing. He and his crew prefer to locate fish on their own, steering clear of other vessels. While dragging he's pulled up wooden blocks from old sailing ships and stray anchors. He’s raced with porpoises and seen his share of whales, as well as stranger beasts like the wolf fish.  

“You catch wolf fish east of Georges Bank,” Rose said. “He’s got teeth like a human and he’s mean – comes hissing right at you.” 

The Susan Rose has weathered rough storms and quick-changing conditions. “You take The Mistress, just went down off Rhode Island,” Rose said, shaking his head. “Went from light winds to 60, 70 mile an hour just like that in five minutes – that’s the way they do sometimes.” Two men were lost at sea. “I knew the captain,” he added. “He was a good fisherman. That’s too bad.” 

Captain Rose stressed the importance of staying calm and having confidence in yourself when conditions get dicey. “Take care of the boat and the boat will take care of you.”  

Joe Rose has earned the respect and confidence of his crew, some of whom have stuck with him for several years. Others sign on temporarily, earning sea time to qualify for tug boat jobs. A few are saving money for school. “One boy went to flight school and is now flying airliners.” 

Captain Rose has mixed feelings about retiring after almost six decades on the water. On one hand, he knows it’s time, and he’s ready to hand over the helm of the Susan Rose to a new captain. 

“Some young kid I hope. With lots of energy! I’m getting a little age on me – I can climb the rigging and stuff but I don’t feel safe like I used to.” 

On the other hand, life on shore has its own uncertainties. 

“My last trip was kind of anxious feeling. What’s next?” He smiled at his wife Susan, the boat’s namesake. “We’ll see how mama treats me. I can’t give orders no more, I got to take ‘em.”

Joe Rose said he looked forward to spending time with his grandchildren, as he was often away when his own children were growing up. He also looked forward to getting back to his hobby: building radio control airplanes. 

 “I’ve built over thirty airplanes - that’s what I used to do on the boat when we docked,” he said. While his crew took off for the nearest bar, Joe would break out his tools and get building. “They’d wake up next morning with a headache and no money, and I’d be sitting with my airplane, all my money in my pocket.”

“No,” his wife smiled. “All your money was in your airplane!” 

Fishing can be a family affair. Captain Joe’s wife and two children have spent time with him on the Susan Rose while squid fishing off Cape May.  

“I have a picture of my daughter, about five years old, picking up butterfish and there’s a squid trying to crawl up her hair!” Rose laughed. 

In the family’s living room is a portrait of the extended family next to the Susan Rose. Also on display is the vessel’s original wheel inscribed with a poem written by his daughter Lisa, expressing just how proud the Rose family is of Captain Joe’s legacy as a commercial fisherman.  

Love can be shown in many ways

For others to see and feel

But you’ve proved your love to all of us

in the turning of this wheel.

Captain Joe Rose and his Wife Susan

Captain Joe Rose and his Wife Susan

These Nets Ain't Gonna Hang Themselves: Down East's James Gordon Salter

Reprinted and edited from Tradewinds Magazine, 2018, B. Garrity-Blake

You can find James Gordon Salter on most days standing before a gillnet in his father-in-law’s shady yard across from the Straits United Methodist Church. One end of the net line is attached to a trailer winch nailed to a pecan tree. 

 “I’m too old to grab and pull by hand,” said the 66-year-old on an overcast November afternoon. “Used to use a hammer handle, but a fisherman brought me that winch.” Scattered in the yard were piles of gill nets, boxes of corks, leads, and lines. Leaves, sticks, and twigs - remnants of hurricane Florence - were everywhere. Hurricane season put James Gordon more than two thousand yards behind in his work. 

“I’ve been telling some of the fellas I’m making camouflage nets now, adding oak leaves and pecan limbs in so the fish can’t see them,” he joked. “See that little route where I walk and stomp down the grass? I came out here one day and there were white caps in it!”  

James Gordon has hung net at the Straits site for only one year, but there was indeed a rut in the ground where he walks back and forth along the net line.  

“Curtis Guthrie from Harkers Island said I have run a marathon, six inches at a time,” he said, bending over to straighten the net while putting his hand over his breast pocket so his spare needles didn't fall out.  

A rope hung parallel to the cork line held a short length of PVC pipe that James Gordon slides along to help him space his ties. The pipe is marked in multi-colored stripes in intervals that denote mesh sizes for flounder, spot, mullet, trout, and mackerel nets. 

“This is my scale,” he explained. “It’s what I hang the net by – this color is for six inch stretched marsh, that one is five and three eighths - the marsh size of the net determines what kind of fish you catch.” The word “mesh” is often pronounced “marsh” or “mash” along coastal North Carolina.  

James Gordon put the finishing touches on his second net of the day. 

“I’m putting a head line in it. That goes from the cork line to the lead line so you can pick up your cork line and not tear your net up.” 

He explained that he makes the top line – or cork line – as tight as possible so it doesn’t stretch when pulled. 

“You leave your bottom rope or lead line thirty inches longer than your cork line, so when you pull up your lead line, your cork line don’t twist up.” 

James Gordon surveyed his completed net and decided to start a third one. He picked up a bundle of pre-woven monofilament netting in pink. The netting, which was manufactured in Vietnam, also came in blue, green, and white. 

“Some people say the pink catches better than the green, some say the blue catches better or the white. Just different preferences,” he explained.  

 Net makers too have different preferences, right down to the types of knots they tie. 

“I tie with a back hitch,” James Gordon noted. “I put two half hitches and then one behind it to lock it in so it don’t slide so bad. Some people tie with three half hitches, or a rolling hitch.” 

Fewer and fewer people practice the art of hanging net. James Gordon called his work “play” because his customers are mostly family and friends. 

“When a truck stops here or blows the horn, my heart stops,” he said. “I’m afraid someone’s coming after me to do something!”

The net mender’s work has changed with the times. He’s branched out to assist some of the fishermen trying their hand in oyster aquaculture. 

“I helped a fella in Gloucester make oyster sacks. He showed me how.” 

James Gordon said he’s had many jobs, including at UNC Institute of Marine Sciences, the state Division of Marine Fisheries, and almost 30 years at Cherry Point.  

“My daddy told me if I ever worked on a dredge boat or as a commercial fisherman he was going to kill me.” 

These days he sticks mainly to his net mending and hanging.  

“If it’s got a tear I repair it,” he said. He even dreams about hanging net. “Night before last I hung net all night long. Woke up yesterday and my hands were swollen!” 

His father, Lennie Salter, was a commercial fisherman. He taught James Gordon how to work with nets. 

“When I was seven or eight years old, Daddy put me on an old wooden fish box in our yard, and put me on one side of the line,” James Gordon recalled. “He was left-handed and I was right-handed. He told me to copy everything he did.” 

Before the modern era of ready-to-hang, pre-woven monofilament mesh, fishing families wove their own nets out of cotton. A stand of net might be strung through the center of a house, attached on either end to a nail in the window sash. 

During the winter, James Gordon’s father wove nets by the wood stove using a hand-carved cedar fid to help him gauge the mesh size. 

“Daddy used that fid to measure half a marsh.” 

When the fishing season began, net mending took place as part of the work day. 

“We went to the Cape to set nets, and on the way back we’d have to dip those nets in lime to keep them from rotting. Somebody would be on the back of the boat mending nets and patching holes, what time the other one drove the boat home. Most of the time when we got home the nets were pretty much mended.”

The shoreline along Harkers Island was once draped in white cotton nets that fishermen hung on wooden frames called net spreads. 

“Net spreads were posts in the ground with a rack across the top about three-foot high. We’d put the cotton nets across that and let the sun dry them so they wouldn’t rot.” 

Although nylon multifilament nets made an appearance when James Gordon was a boy, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that he saw his first monofilament net. 

“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” he exclaimed. “Monofilament would catch as good in the daytime as it did in the nighttime because the fish can’t see the net – it disappears in the water!” 

Although James Gordon has built himself a trawl net or two, he mainly worked on gill nets. The gill net, he maintained, is a selective gear that gets a bad rap. He bemoaned the fact that fishermen also get a bad rap in the public eye, while most seafood consumed in the United States is imported. 

“If it’s raised in a pond it’s not seafood,” he declared. “It’s pond food!” 

James Gordon’s favorite seafood is fried hard crabs with brown gravy. 

“Mama use to take a glass Pepsi bottle and roll it across the crabs to smash their backs a little,” he explained. “Lightly fry them. Take an onion and some flour to make a gravy. Then put the crabs back on the gravy and let them stew.” 

As fall turns into winter, James Gordon Salter will surely be standing between pecan trees, hanging net in preparation for the upcoming fishing season. 

"Somebody asked me how I can be out here all the time doing this. Well, these nets ain't gonna hang themselves!" 

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When the Sound and Ocean Met: Ocracoke Villagers Recall the '44 Storm

Edited excerpts of oral histories that informed 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.

“Most hurricanes, you’ll get winds from the southeast, from the ocean, and it fills up the west side of Pamlico Sound, the rivers,” said Thurston Gaskill, born on Ocracoke in 1902.

“Then a sudden change as the wind goes to the northwest and pushes the water in the opposite direction,” Gaskill explained to Lawrence Earley in 1986. “If it happens on an incoming tide, you have two walls of water coming together - the incoming tide and the rush of that excessive side.”

The “bathtub effect” of storm-driven water sloshing to the west side of Pamlico Sound and then surging to the east helps explains why the village of Ocracoke experienced a seven-foot storm surge during Hurricane Dorian on September 6, 2019. Except the flooding from Dorian occurred near low tide.

“Unprecedented,” said residents, devastated by the rising waters that flooded homes, businesses, and vehicles. Some older villagers compared Dorian to the ‘44 storm.

According to a storm journal found written on the wall of an abandoned house - reprinted in the 1973 Ocracoke High School yearbook - the 1944 hurricane hit on September 14, bringing 100 knot winds and 14 foot tides. The island was “completely under water.” The account described a house with three feet of tide inside, its windows and doors blown out. Boats were tossed ashore and countless animals were drowned.

“Far worst storm to ever strike Island,” the journal stated. “No lives lost.”

The day before the ‘44 storm, according to the account, “14 fishboats came into lake for shelter.”

Ocracoke native Nathanial Jackson, now deceased, said that fishermen received storm warnings from “hurricane planes” that dropped canisters into the water that contained a message.

“I pulled along to it, hooked it and pulled it up. Had a cork stopper in the end. Had a note in it. ‘Hurricane, Latitude and Longitude…seek harbor at once.’”

Ellen Cloud, whose father ran the mailboat Aleta between Ocracoke and Atlantic, said that she could hear a storm approaching.

“The ocean makes a completely different sound when a storm is coming.  It crackles and talks to you.”

Before the ‘44 storm hit, Navy personnel stationed on the island warned villagers to prepare. Folks living in especially low-lying areas took refuge at the lighthouse or Coast Guard station. Islanders secured their boats, and put household belongings and valuables on tables or upstairs.

“My furniture’s been up and down more than Humpty Dumpty,” Elizabeth Howard told Amy Glass in 1988. She recalled getting 12 inches of water in her house during the ‘44 storm.

Many prepared for the hurricane by removing plugs or boards in the floor of their homes to keep houses from floating off the foundation like a boat.

“Most everybody had what they called a scuttle on the floor,” recalled Henry Ballance in a 1988 oral history recording. “Let the water come in. Hold it on the blocks. One board that they would take up.”

As children, Ellen Cloud and her brother Murray Fulcher were more thrilled than terrified during storms.

“We would slide down the banister into the water and have the best time,” said Cloud. She recalled that her mother would grab a mop and keep the water stirred up in the living room so that the mud would flow out with the falling tide.

“In the ’44 hurricane the sound and ocean met, I think, on this corner!” said Elizabeth Howard. She experienced rushing waters so fierce that it tore the straps off her white sandals.

Map 7.8 Ocracoke.jpg

The Last to Know the Names of Creeks: The Hoopers of Salvo, NC

Edited excerpt of oral histories 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.

Salvo resident Leslie Hooper, now deceased, said that the tiny creeks along the sound side of Chicamacomico, where Salvo, Waves, and Rodanthe are located on the northern end of Hatteras Island, were special to him.  

“I spent a lot of happy hours up there in them creeks, hunting and fishing,” he said. He sailed a sixteen-foot skiff, catching fish and crabs.  His favorite area was called Jenkins Island and No Ache Island.

“That’s where I practically lived!  Everyday I went down there fishing or hunting.”

He knew all the names of the creeks.

“The first creek on this end is Brick Creek.  The next creek up is Opening Creek.  Then Horse Wading Creek.  Crooked Creek is next.  After that is Ben Peters Creek.”  

Leslie Hooper lamented that the younger generation might not bother to learn the old names.  

“I’m the last generation that’s going to know what the creeks are called. The generation that is growing up now, they don’t hunt, they don’t fish.  They could care less what the name of a creek is.”

His cousin Burt Hooper, also deceased, shared Les’ concern about the loss of local creek names. He pointed out that visitors are surprised to find so many creeks on the sound side of Hatteras Island. He could not recall the stories behind some of the names, but did recall a few. One landing was called Percy’s Net Rack:

“He was a man that lived to Avon. He cut everybody’s hair years ago for a dollar a head.  But he used to fish up around Gull Shoal and he had a net rack that he put there, and that’s why they called it Percy’s Net Rack.   

He mentioned Kannigy’s Pond, drained so that “they could get the terrapin turtles out of it,” and a point called “A Man’s Grave” where somebody was buried.  Another interesting name is “Hen Turd’s Creek.” “Cross Shoal” where Coast Guardsmen used to meet and “clock in” with one another on patrol.  

“The Coast Guard used to have a little house here on the beach that was called the Cross House.  That’s where they met from Avon and Gull Shoal, to check their clocks, and the guy from Gull Shoal had a key for the clock that was in Little Kinnakeet, and the guy from Little Kinnakeet had a key for the clock for Gull Shoal. Gull Shoal men had the key to Rodanthe clock, and Rodanthe had the key to Gull Shoal clock, and that’s how they would strike ‘em, and that’s they way they knew that they met.”   

Burt Hooper attributed his knowledge of the old creek names from “growing up in the sailing days” and his adventurous spirit as a boy.

“There was no engines here.  They were all sailboats.  Later on as I got up to 15, 16, 17 year old, they started getting’ these little Briggs and Stratton engines in their boats, and then when I got in my 20’s they started buying outboards. But when I grew up it was all sailboats.  

He said that many of the skiffs of Salvo were about eighteen feet long and four and a half foot wide, with  home-sewn canvas sails and a jib.

“They’d build ‘em theirself.  They’d just set up a place and buy the juniper and build ‘em a boat.  They pulled ‘em up every Saturday morning, cleaned ‘em off, and put ‘em back overboard on Monday morning and they’re setting their nets again.”

Villagers of Chicamacomico sailed the skiffs to Avon for fellowship meetings. They sailed up and down the sound side Hatteras for fishing, waterfowl hunting, trading, and social visits. With its myriad of creeks, points, and islands, it’s no wonder place names were important.

Map 7.3 Salvo.jpg

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