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The Last Snapper Trip

In the face of a federal fishing shutdown, three long-time Georgia captains made a run to the Snapper Banks for what could be their last snapper trip to these famed hard bottoms.

Bill Shearin Jr. | June 30, 2010

Last September, I crossed paths with Robbie Massey at the Richmond Hill Country Club at breakfast time. Also known as the fast-food place at the crossroads of Ford Avenue and Highway 17, this is where a lot of Richmond Hill folks gather early in the morning to drink coffee, solve life’s woes and problems and also stare at the women who walk in and out with the to-go orders.

Robbie said, “Bill, let’s go red-snapper fishing,” and about this time in walked Bob Barnette. Bob wanted to go, also.

Bob Barnette, Robbie Massey and I have known each other since we were teenagers. Circumstances have made the three of us residents of Bryan County.

So I said, “What are we going to use for a boat to take the three of us 35 miles into the ocean to the Georgia Red Snapper/Grouper Banks?”

Robbie has a 14-foot aluminum boat that is suitable only for the Cannochee River’s bass and bream fishing. Bob’s boat is an Ossabaw Sound boat with 12-inch sides, so his wouldn’t do either. That left my 20-foot Pro-line with a 150 horsepower Mercury – marginal at best. I wasn’t keen on the idea of the three of us going 35 miles offshore on this spur-of-the-moment idea. Neither were these two ex-offshore-boat-captains. But remember, there are no fools like old fools (we are all in our mid 60s), so this boat it would be. As October is the best month for any type of saltwater fishing, Oct. 1 was our departure date from Fort McAllister Marina.

Now for some personal background on the three of us.

I am a former offshore captain whose job entailed carrying up to 20 anglers to the Georgia Red Snapper/Grouper Banks. My boat at that time was a 43-foot Morgan hull with twin Caterpillar diesels of almost 1,000 horsepower. It was as seaworthy a vessel as ever floated. All this ended 10 years ago for me, but it encompassed a 30-year stretch.

Bob Barnette, for a 22-year period, was working a second job as an offshore boat captain on 31- to 36-foot vessels — if you could call working 44 hours per week eight months each year as a second job. He never missed a single day’s work in all that time. This says a lot about Bob’s proficiency and work ethic. Anglers looked forward to fishing with him as the boat captain. I know this is so because we both worked at the same charter-boat docks on Wilmington Island, located near Savannah Beach.

Robbie Massey had many jobs in his early years, and one in Richmond Hill was as the skipper of a commercial red snapper/grouper fishing vessel. He spent a lot of three-day and three-night trips in the Atlantic Ocean, trying to catch enough fish to make a decent paycheck for his family. The way things were then, it was tough. Now, the federal regulations have made it impossible. The wholesale price of caught fish to the commercial fisherman was kind of like being a farmer. One just hoped for the best. Mostly it was just failed hope.

Ask Robbie. He can tell you about a lot of less-than-break-even working days. He probably won’t mention the sometimes horribly rough seas when he was anchored at night, hoping the boat’s bilge pumps were working and the boat wouldn’t sink.

Back to our fishing plans.

We met at Fort McAllister Marina on Oct. 1 at 6:45 a.m., and we loaded the boat with fishing gear, bait and ice. The weather forecast was for slight northwest winds, 5 to 10 knots, seas less than 1 foot. It was an absolutely perfect forecast. Seas were actually running about 3 feet, but they were still OK. However, that one engine for propulsion instead of two engines is an unspoken concern that lurked in the minds of all three of us. You can’t paddle a boat 35 miles with a busted engine.

Now I hadn’t been to the Georgia Red Snapper/Grouper Banks in more than 10 years, and neither had Bob or Robbie. However, we do read current publications, receive various government fish information sheets, and we watch the Discovery Channel on TV. So, we were aware of the government’s claim that there are just a few red snapper and grouper left in the Atlantic Ocean. I mean, if it’s on TV, it must be true. The South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council alleges fishing is in a state of collapse and must be regulated closely with strict size and number limits.

Just in case an error had been made and we could have a glimmer of hope for successful red-snapper and grouper fishing, I re-read one of my yearly fishing journals. I have 30 years of them. These log books are a record of every single daily fishing trip documenting when I carried anglers to the Georgia Red Snapper/Grouper Banks. They document more than 4,700 daily fishing trips. Each trip includes written information about sea conditions, number of anglers, and the number, size and species of fish caught.

Most important to the boat captain, however, is the LORAN/GPS locations of the thousand or so underwater live coral reef and spring locations that I have discovered using LORAN/GPS and fish-finder equipment. Think of a fish-finder as an underwater TV set. These locations have gradually been discovered and dutifully entered into these 30 yearly fishing logs.

These locations are important because each day’s anglers want to catch red snapper and grouper to take home. All reef-dwelling species of fish inhabit live coral locations as these produce food and cover for protection. The Georgia Red Snapper/Grouper Banks is 45 miles long and 14 miles wide. It’s mostly sandy bottom like the rest of the ocean floor, so it’s important for the boat captain to find these live reef locations. There is a lot of fertile fish-farm land within this 630-square-mile area. In other words, you have got to find where fish live in order for your anglers to have a successful trip. So the locations of many reef areas are of the upmost importance. It takes hundreds of reef areas to catch fish for thousands of anglers.

Accordingly, I picked three reef locations from one of my old daily logs. These were three locations that I carried anglers to on Oct. 1, 1997. Our catch that 12-year-ago day included 15 red snapper that went into the fish box from the first three locations I had chosen. Now the fishing trip.

We left Fort McAllister Marina in the 20-foot Pro-line, with a single 150 horsepower outboard, sped down the Ogeechee River, entered Ossabaw Sound and shortly thereafter arrived at the Ossabaw sea buoy. We set a course of 120 degrees for 35 miles, and one hour and 15 minutes later we arrived at the first chosen reef area. We were using Penn 4/0 reels, short and stubby rods and 80-lb. test line. Our terminal tackle was basic — one 8-oz. sinker and two 7/0 hooks. Bait was cigar minnows or squid.

I anchored the boat in such a manner that we were positioned directly over the live coral bottom. Action started immediately. Robbie got a bite, set the hook and reeled in a 10-lb. red snapper. Meanwhile, I pulled up a red snapper and a 2-lb. black sea bass, which is incidentally one of the finest food fish that lives in the ocean. Robbie, Bob and I had a lot of fish action, and the hookups continued. Thirty minutes later we had caught 15 red snapper, some trigger fish and some black sea bass.

We kept four red snapper and released 11. Sadly, all 11 red snapper floated away, mortally wounded. They were less than 20 inches long, so they had to be released. Our current federal fishing laws mandate this. Red snapper, along with other species of reef-dwelling fish, mostly die after being angled up from 105 feet of water. Somehow, waste and conservation have come to mean the same thing. This is why fishing angler numbers are in rapid decline. People hate needless waste. Twelve years ago, we kept these fish. Still, it was pleasant to recall that I fished this same reef 12 years ago and had the identical fish catch.

The physical size of the reef generally determines the amount of fish poundage that will be caught on it each season. The uncaught, smaller fish are rapid growers and reach mature size within a season. It’s almost like replanting a food crop each year. These statements are facts which are confirmed by my 30 years of meticulous daily fishing journals.

We pulled the anchor and motored a short distance to the next of my chosen reef areas. Re-anchoring, we caught a large variety of fish — trigger fish, vermillion snapper, black sea bass, sharks and small amberjack. We kept 10 legal-sized fish and watched the 40 or so we released float away, soon to die.

As we moved to the last fishing spot of the day, I saw a fishing vessel with a familiar silhouette. It was Steve Amick, Captain of the SCAT II. Steve has been plying this 630-square-mile area since he was 19 years old. Now he’s 50, and his job is in jeopardy. Shortly, all public fishing is to be banned in this and other areas from North Carolina to Florida. It will be open only to marine scientists and government researchers. Research vessels and law-enforcement vessels are currently under construction to implement this change in America.

Steve and I made small talk on the VHF radio for a few minutes, and since he had customers on board, he moved on to another coral reef.

We put out anchor for the third and final stop of the day. Robbie caught a 9-lb. grouper, and shortly thereafter Bob caught a grouper about the same size, and in rapid succession, he caught a nice red snapper.

Then I got into a small argument with Robbie. He had brought an egg sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil. He ate the egg sandwich and wadded the aluminum foil into a ball about the size of golf ball.

“Where’s the trash can?” he asked.

“Throw it overboard,” I told him.

“I can’t do that,” he said.

“Why not? It will sink to the ocean floor where barnacles and coral will attach, and new marine life will occur where none was before.”

Robbie replied, “You’re a victim of common-sense thinking, and that’s not the way to reason nowadays.”

I countered, “That state of Georgia sinks clunker cars, worn-out tires, school-bus bodies and shot-up Army tanks to the sandy ocean bottom, and this helps the environment.”

Robbie replied, “No, that trash is officially designated an artificial reef, so it’s OK to sink to the ocean floor. The aluminum foil my egg sandwich was wrapped in has to be recycled by burying it in a landfill.”

Scratching my head and trying to get up-to-date on my out-dated thinking, suddenly I realized the solution to the golf-ball sized wad of aluminum foil. I told Robbie and Bob, “I hereby designate this aluminum foil to be artificial-reef material” and promptly threw it overboard. It sank. And a new reef was created.

Robbie and Bob agreed I did the right thing. The barnacles and coral have a new home to attach to.

We pulled the anchor, started the engine, and settled in for the 2 1/4-hour ride back to the marina.

All’s well that ends well, as we made a successful trip into the past for three old boat captains. But somehow I’m still uneasy with the current mind-set of up-to-date thinking when compared with my out-dated thinking.

Since our trip, public fishing has indeed been banned for red snapper from North Carolina to middle Florida on the Atlantic. From south Georgia to middle Florida, no bottom fishing at all is allowed for a 5,000-square-mile zone. The employment and economic loss is endless.

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