Hatteras Charter Fishing: The Pioneer Years
By ERNIE FOSTER
there were paved roads, before there were bridges, even before there
was electricity on Hatteras there was charter fishing. And men named
Vernon Willis, Nelson Stowe, Luther Burrus and Ernal Foster took
anglers to the Gulf Stream without benefit of radio, Loran, or sonar.
men were the pioneers and the business they began has evolved into the
economic backbone of Hatteras village, rivaling and perhaps surpassing
commercial fishing in its importance.
began in earnest in Hatteras in the 1930s. During those times large
tracts of land throughout the Outer Banks were owned by "hunting clubs"
whose members were primarily wealthy sportsmen from the northeast. The
Gooseville Gun Club, for example, had its clubhouse at the site of the
present Hatteras Inlet Coast Guard Station and owned all to the land
from the present ferry docks to the inlet -- land which was off-limits
to locals. These sportsmen and others not only hunted for sport, they
also had an interest in an activity known as "angling."
the time, the economy of Hatteras consisted primarily of commercial
fishing. In the sounds, there were pound nets and set nets, and there
was also a flourishing drop net fishery in the ocean. Boats of local
design, with round sterns and a work platform on that stern, were built
in several locations in the village and more than 30 of them were
fished in the ocean. Typically such a boat had a single gasoline car
engine with no clutch --no reverse -- unless some enterprising captain
installed the engine with car clutch assembly intact.
handful of tourists who visited would occasionally persuade one of the
commercial fishermen, such as Vernon Willis, to take them
"sportfishing" in his boat, the Willis. The anglers supplied the tackle
and sat on wooden fish boxes. Outriggers were unknown and rod holders
were non-existent and the "catching of fish for fun" was viewed with
great skepticism by the local populous.
Diamond Shoals Lightship was only 21 miles from the inlet, and, along
the way, were the No.2 buoy and the shipwrecks of Diamond Shoals. The
lightship was a perfect dolphin magnet, and the amberjacks on the
wrecks were more than a match for the limited tackle available at the
time. Inshore waters teemed with bluefish and mackerel and, in the
spring and fall, channel bass. It was an angler's paradise, but in a
village where even a meager living was difficult, the idea of catching
fish for any purpose other than the market or personal consumption was
a strange, strange notion indeed.
was during this hesitant beginning that a young man named Ernal Foster
returned to his native village, forced "back home" from Long Island by
the desperation of the Great Depression. With no job and no options but
a breadline, he chose to leave a place he had grown to love and
returned to his family and fishing. However, a family with a father and
four boys, of which Ernal was the oldest, is too big for one boat and
Ernal decided to have his own.
IN THE BEGINNING
voyage in the family boat was made to Buffalo City (near East Lake on
the mainland) and wood was purchased. The juniper planks were cured for
more than a year before construction began on the Albatross at Willis
Boat Yard in Marshallberg, N.C. Ernal had an absolute idea about the
design for his boat and it was to be built his way or no way. Five
builders turned him down before Milton Willis accepted the job. That
negotiation was finally resolved when Ernal argued, "Look, it’s my wood
and it’s going to be my boat, and if it doesn't work, it’s my
In the spring of 1937, at a cost of $550, the Albatross was launched and is still sailing charters today – after 75 years.
Ernal had an advantage. As a 13-year-old, while his family lived in
Beaufort, N.C., he had used the family boat to ferry "Sunday
beachgoers" between Atlantic Beach and the Morehead City docks. He knew
you could make money from tourists. So why not mix tourists and
that first summer of 1937, he and his 16-year-old brother, Bill, ran
four charters at $25 per trip. Serious charter fishing was launched in
made Ernal different was his belief that charter fishing would work, a
belief that was strengthened when the next season brought more
business, including groups of fishermen needing more than one boat.
Getting their business required a commitment from other captains, but
those commitments were occasionally broken when it seemed that a
commercial trip might be worth more than $25 a day. In his mind, you
still needed to commercial fish in the off-season, but sportfishing
would always come first, no matter what. And if you gave your word that
you would take some angler fishing, then commercial fishing would have
to take a back seat. To avoid broken promises to his customers, he
needed more boats.
this time frame, sportfishing was growing dramatically in Florida and
the Bahamas. Capt. Tommy Gifford of Florida, who is credited with much
of what now is considered standard boat equipment from fighting chairs
to outriggers, was being watched and imitated by other captains. Not
only were fellow Florida captains taking notice, there was also a
handful of captains from Ocean City, Md., and Montauk, N.Y., who would
fish "up-north" in the summer and "down-south" in the winter, and they,
too, were paying attention.
Florida guides had also paid Hatteras a visit. It was these travelers
who provided the local fishermen with the information and equipment
they needed. Outriggers made of bamboo imported from the Orient to
Miami in great bundles as deck cargo and ultimately carried up the
coast on the northbound sportfishing boats made their way to Hatteras.
Rod holders were introduced. Bait rigging techniques were shared.
"Knucklebuster reels" gave way to star drag systems. And crude domestic
bamboo fishing poles gave way to split bamboo works of art.
the summer of 1939, an experienced angler named Hugo Rutherford came to
Hatteras. Fishing on his private boat, he landed the first two marlin
ever taken off Hatteras, one a 590-pound fish. But 1939 was a troubled
time with the first stirrings of the winds of World War II gusting
about. In such times that little piece of angling history was mostly
another season the fishing continued. Ernal caught the first sailfish
ever taken off Hatteras, a seven-foot specimen, which was caught in an
area now known as "the bad bottom" and then the war came.
AFTER THE WAR
was 1946 before any sense of normalcy returned. The Albatross had been
forced into military duty by the Coast Guard, numerous ships had been
turned into fabulous artificial reefs courtesy of German U-boats
operating off the coast during the early stages of the war, the public
was looking for recreation, and Ernal had plans to build a fleet of
fledgling clientele of anglers wishing to fish Hatteras prior to the
war returned with friends. In the summer of 1948, the Albatross II was
put into service, and the charter fleet of Hatteras included the Jackie
Faye with Capt. Luther Burrus, the two Albatross
boats with Capt. Ernal and his brother Capt. Bill Foster, the Ursula
with Capt. Nelson Stowe, and the Willis with Capt. Vernon Willis.
Business was brisk.
tackle was a limiting factor in the good old days. The linen fishing
lines required regular drying to avoid rot. Bamboo fishing poles were
still the norm, and artificial lures (feather jigs) were used.
Occasionally croakers were used to catch amberjacks, and the favorite
lure for catching Spanish mackerel was the hollow bone of a loon's leg.
Technology has since moved angling far, far away from the early days
but, even though much of today's equipment is superior, feather jigs,
though not durable, still out catch nylon jigs, and in those days in
Hatteras, shrimp were very abundant and cheap. It took a picky dolphin
to turn down a fresh, peeled shrimp folded around and completely hiding
boats could cruise at 8 to 10 knots -- which meant they were always
trolling -- and the radios weighed 50 pounds. No one had any other
electronics. With no Loran, no depth recorders, and no radio direction
finders, navigation was accomplished with a watch, a compass, and dead
reckoning. The fishing grounds ranged from what is now the 40250
Loran-C line southwest to the area of the oil slick wreck. Diamond
Shoals Lightship was anchored around the 40230 line in 30 fathoms of
water and four miles away was the "watch buoy." Both the ship and the
buoy were superior fish attractors, especially after they became
slightly fouled with marine growth.
The oil slick wreck was
easy to find. Torpedoed in 1942 by a German submarine, the oil tanker
Lancing gave off an oil slick four to six miles long. The local
fishermen simply found the slick and then followed it up current until
it ended -- over the wreck where amberjacks and king mackerel seemed to
always be hungry. (This wreck still seeps oil but rarely produces
anything close to the catches of the late ‘40s and ‘50s.) To the west
of this wreck lies the Empire Gem or "smell wreck" -- so named because
it gives off a pungent odor of gas which, when detected, could be
followed upwind to its source. And, by geographic good fortune, this
was the general area where the edge of the Gulf Stream is found with
its lines of sargassum.
were the easy places to fish. Immediately after the war, the new
shipwrecks, created by the U-boats were marked with buoys and they
teemed with amberjacks. It was the older wrecks of steam vessels and
sailing ships wrecked down through the ages on Diamond Shoals that
allowed some of the local captains to demonstrate dead reckoning skills
of a very high level. Using ranges from the barely visible beach and a
seeming sixth sense they could find seven or eight wrecks in all but
the most adverse weather conditions. When trolling was slow. they
fished for sea bass -- the wrecks on "the shoals" and the sea bass were
CAPT. ERNAL’S BIG FISH
looking at a history of the pioneering days of sportfishing in
Hatteras, there may not be any event more significant than the fish
caught by Ernal Foster on June 25, 1951.
this time, he had begun to spend more and more time in the deeper
waters out beyond the lightship, and he had begun to have consistent
encounters with marlin -- marlin too strong for the tackle used to
catch the dolphins and the amberjacks that his customers wanted. His
solution was to simply get a bigger rod and reel of his own and,
independent of his customer's wishes, he would troll a larger hook
baited with a Spanish mackerel.
this particular day, he decided to fish his new 9/0 Penn Senator with
its 24-thread linen line (72-pound test), even though his customers
protested. His youngest brother, Gaston, was working as mate. Having
seen a marlin on the previous day, they were ready. And it was good
that they were because the hoped-for marlin did not keep them waiting.
Ernal, who happened to be in the cockpit at the time, hooked the fish.
At this point, with the great fish jumping and Gaston at the helm, the
charter customers once more let their resolve not to catch the fish be
known. The crew then had two choices -- either catch the fish
themselves or cut it loose.
Having never seen a piece of line
he wanted to waste by cutting, Ernal began the fight that changed the
face of fishing in Hatteras. After 2 1/2 hours of struggle the
475-pound blue marlin was in the boat, and the Albatross II headed for
port. The news of the catch spread up and down the Outer Banks, but
that was only the beginning.
Aycock Brown, who had recently been hired as the publicist for the Dare
County Tourist Bureau in Manteo. Aycock had the perfect talents for the
job he had been given. Blessed with an unending supply of enthusiasm
and energy, he arrived in Hatteras the next morning, having taken the
first possible ferry across Oregon Inlet. Aycock's photo of the angler
and his marlin made big news. It wasn't just a local story. The picture
was picked up nationwide and suddenly big-game fishing had arrived in
bit of angling fame was enlarged upon the following summer when the
husband and wife team of Ross and Betsy Walker arrived in Hatteras with
the intent of fishing exclusively for marlin. And fish for marlin they
did. Betsy Walker became the first woman to land a blue marlin in
waters north of Florida. It was another first for the Albatross II and,
again, with the help of Aycock Brown, marlin fishing in Hatteras made
was a pivotal year, for in that spring two brand new charter boats
arrived in Hatteras. Until that time the charter fleet consisted of
boats built for the dual purposes of both sport and charter fishing.
But both of these boats, the Albatross III and the Twins, began service
exclusively as charter boats.
arrival of the Twins is particularly notable for it marked the entrance
of Capt. Edgar Styron into the charter fishing business of Hatteras,
and he was to have a major impact. Capt. Edgar operated out of the Blue
Marlin Restaurant and Docks, the present site of the Hatteras Marlin
Club, and in 1954, he added the Twins II to his charter business. In
adding the Twins II, he introduced the first diesel-powered charter
boat to the Hatteras fleet.
Edgar was an outspoken man, given a bit to deering-do, and he was a
great fisherman. He caught marlin, lots of marlin, and he caught some
of them very quickly, maneuvering the boat in what was then considered
to be a bit of a reckless manner, but what is now accepted as standard
maneuvering technique for fighting big fish. He popularized fishing on
"the rocks," an area which is now known as the "230" rock. He caught
bluefin tuna in March. And he developed both a national and
his captains were Capt. Clam Stowe and Capt. Elmer Balance, and it was
during the years that the Twins and Twins II ran charters that the
pioneering days of charter fishing in Hatteras reached full bloom. (It
is also worth noting that Capt. Edgar was a crew member on the Jersey
Devil when she caught the only 1,000-pound marlin ever brought into
Hatteras -- a 1,028-pound fish that was the 80-pound line class record
for a number of years.
THE 1950s WERE EXCITING TIMES
the pieces were now in place, and the 1950s were exciting times to be
charter fishing in Hatteras. Among the captains not previously
mentioned who established themselves during these times were Capt.
Ronald Stowe, who began operating charters in the Ronnie in 1951 (and
later the Capt. Squid), and Capt. Oliver O'Neal, who was to captain the
Albatross III for 25 years.
And it was during this decade that
a fledgling industry began to mature. In the beginning, all the
Captains were local watermen, men who were the sons of sons of
fishermen. All of these men were commercial fishermen, and they
understood the waters and the weather of Hatteras. It was this
background knowledge that allowed them to adapt quickly to this "new
fangled "rod-and-reel fishing.
However, the Gulf Stream is not
a static fixture. From day to day, indeed from moment to moment, it
presents an ever changing face. These changes result from many factors
-- prevailing winds, changing water temperatures, changing strengths of
the currents of both the Gulf Stream and its constant opponent off
Hatteras, the Labrador Current. Into this mix must be added the
changing seasons and migratory patterns of the fish, which seem easily
altered by the availability of baitfish -- an availability which itself
is influenced by factors having little connection to the meandering of
the Gulf Stream.
task facing these pioneer charter captains was the same task facing all
fishermen. First, find the fish. Then devise a technique for catching
them. Both tasks require skill and perhaps even more important,
knowledge. For the pioneers of Hatteras charter fishing, the first
task, finding the fish meant predicting which fish would be where and
when they would be there. With no past history or base of knowledge,
each season and every day was a new adventure. The second task is what
technique to use to produce the best catches could be learned, in part
from the few anglers from other places who came to visit. Such
knowledge was of great help, but most of the lessons came from trial
and error. Through one missed opportunity after another, through one
bit of blind luck after another, and through day after day of
searching, the secrets of successful Gulf Stream fishing off Hatteras
any navigation equipment beyond a compass, a watch, and a radio
direction finder, they began to accumulate a body of knowledge which
made the "where and when" part of the fishing equation something much
different than just luck. With practice and the native skills of a
waterman, they quickly mastered the techniques of how to catch them. By
the late ‘50s monofilament leaders, cable leaders, swimming mackerel,
deboned mullets, squid rigs, strip baits, belly baits and double lines
-- along with flying gaffs, fighting chairs, and both the bucket and
kidney harness -- were all standard procedures. And this knowledge and
skill produced results.
Albatross Fleet, the Twins boats, the Ronnie, the Jackie Faye, the
Escape and the Ursula now comprised the local charter fleet and a
growing trend, a sign of the future, was set in motion as a number of
"outside" private boats made Hatteras either their semi-permanent home
or a major spring and early summer destination.
future began to take shape even more clearly with the establishment of
the Hatteras Marlin Club, which immediately developed the first of
North Carolina's billfish tournaments, the Hatteras Marlin Club
Invitational Tournament. This tournament cemented Hatteras' position as
a major billfishing spot.
A CHALLENGE TO THE FLEET
was during this time that a fishing club in San Juan became concerned
that Hatteras was receiving some of the fishing limelight previously
reserved for Puerto Rico as the world's number one blue marlin hot
spot. That club issued a challenge to the Cape Hatteras Billfish Club,
a challenge that would decide the debate as to which port could claim
the title of "Blue Marlin Capital of the World."
Cape Hatteras Billfish Club had been founded by a dentist from Norfolk,
Dr. J.C. Overby, and was located at the present site of Hatteras
Village Marina. The format of the proposed challenge was straight
forward. Two competitions would take place, one in Hatteras the other
in San Juan. Each club chose what it believed to be the best date to
fish its respective port and a four-day event was then scheduled at
each port. The host club provided seven boats and seven anglers (one
angler per boat) with the visiting club's seven anglers fishing as
guests on each of the host boats. Each angler fished one pole and the
cumulative team total for blue marlin would determine the team
addition, the total number of marlin caught in the Hatteras tournament
would be compared with the total caught in the San Juan tournament to
determine the title of "Blue Marlin Capital of the World." Although the
anglers from Puerto Rico prevailed in the team competition, the bumper
tags proclaiming Hatteras "Blue Marlin Capital of the World" are
testimony as to the port in which the most marlin were landed.
August of 1958, an angling event occurred that had a major impact on
the sport of billfishing. The two principal participants were Capt.
Bill Foster and an angler named Dr. Jack Cleveland. Dr. Cleveland and
his new bride, Ellie, both serious anglers, were in Hatteras in pursuit
of blue marlin. Blue marlin fishing was still a rare activity in those
days. Fish of such size with strange bills and unusual fins so stirred
the population that, whenever a fish was caught, it was hung up for
photos and then left for several days to be observed by one and all. I
still vividly remember the night in church when it was announced that
my father, having battled a marlin for over four hours, would be
getting to the dock not long after the service ended. It seemed to me
that the whole village was there when he docked. His smile was the only
illumination needed to insure that we all could see the wondrous
those days, conservation and ecology and environmental issues were not
part of any public concern. If you caught a fish you kept it -- period!
such an atmosphere it probably is not possible to convey the surprise,
the shock, the absurdity of what Capt. Bill and Dr. Cleveland did on
that August day. First they caught the biggest prize in the Atlantic, a
blue marlin and then they let it go -- alive! Everyone was stunned to
learn of what that crazy group on the Albatross II had done. Captains
smirked and writers wrote stories. The concept of releasing billfish
had found its way to Hatteras as two men, one a highly skilled captain
and the other a sportsman in the truest sense of the word, began a
trend which is so entrenched in today’s sportfishing culture that no
one now gives such an action a second thought.
pioneers were doing their work quite well. By the early 1960s, Hatteras
was known far and wide as the place to go to catch a blue marlin. The
Hatteras Marlin Club's annual tournament was attracting international
anglers and the fishing guides of Hatteras were recognized as men who
knew how to catch blue marlin.
final piece of the early puzzle facing these pioneer captains was put
in place by Capt. Bill Foster. The sport had had its beginnings in
Florida and the northeast. Hatteras had been a bit of a "new boy on the
block" and the usual regional rivalries as to who was the best were
floated back and forth from Florida and its sailfish, and Ocean City
and its white marlin, and those new guys in Hatteras.
CAPT. BILL’S BIG FISH
Captain Bill Foster did in June of 1962 was catch a blue marlin that
weighed 810 pounds. It was the new all-tackle world's record. When the
Albatross II returned to port that afternoon, she was greeted by all
the participants of the annual Marlin Club tournament, which was to
begin the following day. From that point on, Hatteras and its fishermen
were accepted as a fixture in the world of sportfishing.
reflection on that first generation of sportfishing captains, it is
clear that a changing of the guard began to occur in earnest during the
mid-‘60s. After 20 years --one generation -- the pioneer captains had
done their work. An industry had been taken from its infancy to full
who had no choice but to learn through trial and error had taught
willing mates these hard earned lessons. Twenty-five years of knowledge
acquired by trial and error could now be conveyed to a good mate in
three. Captains who had learned where and when to go to certain "spots"
were simply followed to those spots by captains who were moving to
Hatteras from other places. The development of improved electronics --
from depth finders to Loran, to temperature gauges -- allowed for much
easier continued exploration of the fishing grounds.
charter fishermen who began fishing Hatteras in the mid-‘60s were free
to refine fishing techniques, expand the fishing grounds with faster
boats, and take advantage of improved technology to insure more
consistency in the fishing than was possible before.
charter fleet of Hatteras is bigger and better than ever. The second
generation of captains expanded and improved in every way. But each of
us who now fishes owes this opportunity to the captains who preceded us
-- the ones who went where no one had gone before.
(Ernie Foster is the son of Capt. Ernal and now runs the Albatross Fleet with his wife, Lynne. The fleet celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and the pioneering captains were honored at a celebration at the Albatross docks on Sept. 29.)