Captain Ann Johnston is something of a legend on the Texas sportfishing landscape. As Capt. Kerry Fritz puts it, “Everybody knows Ann.” In 1971, Johnston was just the second woman ever to be commissioned captain in the State of Texas. Since that time Ann has run charters out of Freeport, Texas and fished the Texas tournament scene for more than four decades. She fished Poco Bueno every year from 1972 to 2017 – an incredible streak of some 45 years.
While her dedication and love for fishing speak for themselves, were you to have guessed, she would have been one of the least likely people around to become a renowned saltwater captain. Growing up in the Texas panhandle outside of Amarillo, Johnston was raised driving wheat trucks and combines. “The first time I came to Houston it was with a friend who had breast cancer. She went to MD Anderson Medical Center. My husband and his friend decided they wanted to go fishing in the Gulf, so I came along. I grew up catching catfish in Lake Texoma,” Johnston recalls.
The experience made a lasting impact and soon Ann and her husband, Doug, moved to the Gulf Coast with their boat in tow. “The boat was 32’ long. I tell everybody that I fell in love with the boat and then I fell in love with him. On January 4th, we’ll be married 50 years,” Johnston relates. Upon moving to the Gulf coast, both Ann and her husband obtained their captain’s licenses. “Admiral Welty commissioned me. He must have been 90 years old at the time. I was sure he would faint and fall on me before we were through,” Johnston says with a laugh.
As a charter boat on the upper coast of Texas, much of Jonhston’s business was directed toward red snapper and king fish, with species like cobia (ling if you speak Texan), grouper and dolphinfish mixed in. In most years, she’d run three or four marlin trips. “We commercial snapper fished for a long time. We sold our permits about 15 years ago,” Johnston recalls. “When we started out there were no electronics or GPS like there are now – just the old Lowrance units you had to stick your head into. Boats used to follow us around because they thought we had the snappers numbers… and we did. We got our first snapper numbers from the shrimpers. We’d bring them out food and things and they’d tell us where the snags were.”
In describing her career, Captain Ann Johnston expresses the characteristic humility known to folks from west Texas. While she might not say it, her career leaves a legacy that influenced many on the Texas coast. Captain Kerry Fritz runs the Sea Dog, a 60-foot Hatteras, out of Galveston. He grew up in Freeport and has known Johnston for years. “Did she tell you about the time she was pulled over by a wahoo? She was fighting a big wahoo and the gaff man missed it and she was pulled over. She went down about 100-feet before she got out of the rod harness.”
“There are not too many lady captains as salty as her. Through the years, she’d run five or six days per week. One year at Poco, she had what could have been the winning marlin sharked at the boat. They brought in just the head,” Fritz says. Another year, Johnston finished fourth at Poco Bueno, weighing a whole fish on that occasion. More than just a great captain, Johnston is known for her generosity. “She’d help anybody… She has shown a lot of people the ropes.”
Captain Ann’s generosity and caring nature is reflected in her customer base as well. “The oldest customer I have has been fishing with me for 30 years. We have a lot of them who have fished with us for 15 years,” Johnston says. “Being a lady captain was tough at first. I’d have to keep the guests from jumping off the boat because they weren’t used to fishing with a lady captain. But once they fish with me, they stayed with me. I take really good care of my people. I can usually tell who’s going to get sick and who won’t when they get on the boat. If someone looks like they will get sick, I’ll bring them up on the bridge to sit with me. If someone does get sick, I’ll take them down and wash their face with cold water and let them sleep in the master bedroom. We also help our customers with their fishing technique.”
While any captain who spends more than four decades on the water has seen a prank or two, Johnston’s relationship to dock pranks is unique. “For the first few years, they were always pranking me! We’ve always had to park in the shed, so we’d have to raise and lower the outriggers to get in and out. They’d always tell me something was sticking up or a rope was hanging off, just to see if I’d get mad,” Johnston recalls of her early years on the helm. Even now, after boat deliveries to Mexico and fishing more than most will ever do, Johnston still gets a bit of skepticism about her being a lady boat captain. “The number one thing, every day, someone always says, ‘Let’s see how she does putting the boat in the slip.’”
As for a fishing story? When asked about her best day on the water, Captain Ann’s response is telling. “Every day is a good day as far as you get to fish.” This sentiment is one shared by Captain Ann’s family as well. “We are just a family that loves to fish.” In addition to Ann and her husband each holding captain’s licenses, their son and two of their grand daughters also hold their tickets. “My son runs a 110’ yacht between Florida and New York. He doesn’t fish as much as he used to, but he really loves it,” she says.
The latest iteration of Ann’s Dream is a 54-foot Hatteras. Ann ran the previous edition, a 46-foot Hatteras, for 32 years. She has caught her share of fish, but one trip stands out. “One time we had a two-day marlin charter. The guys didn’t show up with any food, so before we left the dock, I had to get groceries,” she recalls. Once offshore, Johnston and crew trolled around one of Texas’ most productive rigs.
“We were circling the buoys around Cerveza and hooked a 219-pound and a 515-pound blue marlin and caught them both in about an hour. The first one (the 219-pounder) was gut hooked so we brought it onboard. The second one, the guy hollered so much that we brought it in, too. I really didn’t want to, but he said he wanted to get it mounted. He sent the head off to Pflueger but he didn’t pay for it. That’s how I got stuck with a marlin!”