By Jim Blount
In 2013 the offshore fishing community lost a true pioneer of the industry when Captain Emory D. Dillon passed away in Frisco, North Carolina at the age of 87. Captain Emory fished the offshore waters of North Carolina and Florida for over four decades on his boat, the Early Bird, until his retirement in the 1990s. His reputation as a successful charter captain stood out among all his fellow captains, anglers and mates. Emory’s dry sense of humor and likable personality combined with a natural instinct to perform as a charter boat captain earned him tremendous respect for those who spent time around him, especially his mates.
The late Chris Buie from Ocean City, Maryland helped me land my job with Capt. Emory right out of high school in May of 1987. I had little offshore experience as a mate but he could sense my desire to learn to fish and he took a chance on me. The first few weeks offshore were brutal as we fished every day and I struggled to keep up while making more than my share of amateur mistakes. However, Captain Emory’s patience and experience combined with his ability to coach allowed a smooth transition for me as I settled into my job on the Early Bird that summer.
I would sit on the bridge while watching the spread and he would tell me incredible stories about fishing in the 1960s and 70s with his former mates which inspired me to want to do a good job for him. We hammered the meatfish during the months of May and June while steadily picking off sailfish as well as white marlin up until I left for college in mid-August.
Looking back, mating for Capt. Emory was the best learning experience I could have ever encountered while growing up. After fishing several more summers in Oregon Inlet during my college years, I chose a career in national politics where I served on President Bill Clinton’s staff for six years at the Office of Management and Budget as well as the United States Treasury Department. I then moved into the private sector where I currently own and operate my own business.
To this day, I still use one of Capt. Emory’s “lessons of life learned in the people business” that I have taken with me through my career. No matter who the people are or where they came from—always treat them well on the boat. I thank Capt. Emory for the once-in-a-lifetime experience and for allowing me to join the group of mates who grew to respect him so much. His ability to mentor his mates benefitted them tremendously in their personal and professional lives long after working for him. As a result, the success of his mates, in whatever endeavor they pursued, was his greatest legacy.
After a successful agriculture career in Farmville, Virginia, Capt. Emory decided to move to Frisco, North Carolina on the Outer Banks in the early 1960s. Upon his arrival, he started a drive-in restaurant in front of his home that served hamburgers, shakes and fries to the tourists who visited the national seashore. It was during this period the early pioneers of sport fishing discovered the Gulf Stream waters off Cape Hatteras were fertile grounds for offshore fishing. Fishermen found an abundance of gamefish such as tuna, wahoo and dolphin, but the most popular was the blue marlin.
Not long after, the Cape Hatteras fishing community blossomed into one of the most popular offshore fishing destinations on the East Coast where it became known as the “Blue Marlin Capital of the World.” Private boats with world-class anglers visited the quaint fishing village where a world-record blue marlin was caught on the sportfishing boat, the Albatross, in 1962 which weighed 810 pounds. During this period, there were only a couple of local offshore charter boats large enough to make the trip to the Gulf Stream. This was Capt. Emory’s calling and a business opportunity to get in on the offshore fishing action.
In the mid-1960s he partnered with Bob Smirnow, owner of the famous tackle shop Fishing Stuff which was located directly across the street from the Texaco dock in Hatteras. The partners purchased a 44-foot custom Virginia-built boat with two straight 471s and named it the Early Bird. Smirnow helped booked the charters while Capt. Emory ran the boat with his mate, Bill Bazemore. The Early Bird sailed consistently to the Gulf Stream, proving the start of a successful business venture.
Captain Emory, like other successful charter boat captains, understood he had to run the operation like a business in order to grow. He approached his charter boat business in a very professional manner, wearing fishing khakis and a uniformed shirt with his name and boat name on the pockets. His technical skills shined when he purchased the first Loran A and fathometers of the time in Cape Hatteras which he soon mastered. He could locate a fishing spot, but more importantly, he could stay on it. It was during this era he was nicknamed “the Mayor of the Rock Pile,” a popular fishing location in the Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras.
Not long thereafter, sportfishing boats were being built larger and faster, capitalizing on short runs for good blue marlin fishing off Hatteras in April, May and June. However, no boats were more popular, nor produced more fish, than the Early Bird. Captain Emory realized early that earning repeat customers was the number one way to build up his business. He was determined to catch his charters more fish while giving them a great offshore experience. He insisted on always going the extra mile to give his party the best fishing day possible. Captain Emory called a spade a spade and had no patience for captains who did not try hard. He was a common-sense philosopher, always educating his party on the beauty of all that surrounds the pursuit of the offshore fish.
Captain Emory had a natural instinct for hiring mates that wanted to be good fishermen while representing him and the Early Bird well with his parties. He set high standards for his mates and required them to wear long khaki pants every day. For mates with offshore experience, Capt. Emory applied a basic no-frills approach to working on the Early Bird. For those mates who didn’t have offshore charter boat experience, he created a simple platform where they were taught the basics of charter fishing. His ability to coach his mates was an incredible strong suit that ultimately paid dividends in his daily catches. For instance, before he left the slip in the morning if it was not one of his repeat parties, he asked his mates to quiz the anglers on the ride out to the Gulf Stream on their offshore experience.
If the group had no offshore fishing experience, he made sure his mates gave the party a crash-course on how to bail dolphin. He stressed for mates to actively participate in conversations with parties to make sure they understood how to handle the tackle. Captain Emory made it clear to keep 30 to 35 rigged baits and plenty of dolphin chum cut and bagged before he slowed the boat down to fish.
All mates were taught to wire fish on the port and starboard side of the boat, never from the stern. In return, this taught them the ability to leader and gaff with the left as well as the right hand. He liked for his mates to use a shoulder tapping process with anglers moving to the outside port or starboard side of the stern, once they caught a fish when bailing dolphin. He felt this method increased efficiency and eliminated frustration or confusion.
Captain Emory liked to use examples of successful mates he had witnessed in the cockpit to provide a blueprint for new, younger mates to follow. For instance, Bull Tolson mated for him from time to time when he didn’t have a party on the Sea Whisper with Capt. Buddy Hooper. Captain Emory rated Bull as one of the most efficient mates in the cockpit. He said Bull was always constantly in motion when he stepped on the boat in the morning until the riggers were pulled up in the afternoon, Bull never stopped moving to take a break until he was totally caught up on his rigs and cleaned up. He was always working to get ahead and stay organized.
Captain Emory was not prone to yelling, but he had a tone in his voice that commanded respect and let everyone know who was in charge. In addition to sharing the successful habits of former mates, he had many of his own rules mates were expected to follow. He was adamant that all his mates gaffed a wahoo with two gaffs after removing the fish box lid. They were taught to wire a gaffer dolphin by keeping his head down in the water, a couple of feet from the leader before gaffing him. As a result of this consistent approach, Capt. Emory’s mates gained confidence while striving to do the best possible job for him. His training and keen observation slowly groomed his mates into learning an absolute economy of movement for an efficient cockpit.
Captain Emory was proud of his alumni whether they remained in the charter boat business or pursued other professions. A percentage of them went on to run charter boats, making significant contributions to the industry and earning accolades along the way. In addition, two of his former mates are currently industry leaders in building custom sportfishing yachts. Captain Chip Shafer, after coming home from Vietnam, decided not to return to Duke University to pursue his degree; instead, Shafer began charter fishing in Cape Hatteras on a local boat where he met Capt. Emory. After becoming friends he was offered a job mating on the Early Bird in the spring of 1974. Shafer and Emory, both methodical individuals, created a strong and successful offshore team in the Cape Hatteras charter boat fleet. After one season on the Early Bird, Shafer was offered the captain’s job on Monty Howell’s boat, the Temptress.
Not only was Shafer a good mate, but he quickly excelled as a captain, later purchasing the Temptress where he ran charters for over three decades in Oregon Inlet and Ft. Pierce, Florida. In the 1990s Shafer expanded his charter business to Mexico and Venezuela where he set several records for the number of billfish caught. He later sold the Temptress and began running private boats where he travelled to remote areas of the world setting several records on the Bayliss-built boat, Old Reliable.
As a result of Shafer’s success, he was inducted into the International Game Fish Association’ Legendary Captains and Crews Hall of Fame in 2012, where he credited his mates as well as his mentor, Capt. Emory Dillon. Shafer and Captain Emory had tremendous respect for one another and were very close friends through the years. They would have drinks and dinner that carried into late night conversations when the Temptress fished the spring months in Cape Hatteras.
Another Capt. Emory alumnus who decided to pursue the charter boat profession and went on to make a name for him was Cape Hatteras native Capt. Buddy Hooper. Hooper’s first full-time job as a mate was working with Capt. Emory on the Early Bird in 1970 after graduating from North Carolina State University. Hooper spent the next two years on the Early Bird before taking the captain’s job on Arnold Tolson’s boat, the Sea Whisper. Hooper and Tolson’s son Bull, who mated on the Sea Whisper, ran a very productive and successful charter business at the Texaco dock for several years.
In 1979, Hooper had a charter boat built called the Hatteras Fever, which is still in operation today, having recently won the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament in June of 2013. Hooper remained very close friends with Capt. Emory and they were dock partners at Hatteras Harbor Marina until Emory’s retirement.
“He was always a step ahead of everyone through his business relationship with Bob Smirnow at Fishing Stuff. This allowed him to have all the latest sonar technology, the best bait and the best fishing tackle,” he says. “While I was mating for him, we got the first Loran A in Cape Hatteras which is where I learned how to fish the bottom structures to this day. Emory was all about keeping it simple – he was the first charter boat captain that I know to pull all ballyhoo instead of a mixture of mullet, squid and mackerel. He was a tinkerer, always trying to figure out different ways to increase his catch,” said Capt. Hooper.
John Bayliss was introduced to offshore fishing through his father who chartered Capt. Emory on the Early Bird in the early 1970s. During these trips, Bayliss became interested in offshore fishing and was given his first job as a mate for Captain Emory in 1975. After two years’ experience, Bayliss moved to Oregon Inlet as a mate to get in on the white marlin fishing action. Not long after, he had a charter boat built named the Tarheel, which he operated out of Oregon Inlet from 1979 until 1996.
Bayliss transitioned his offshore experience into working with production sportfishing boat companies, serving as a consultant for marketing and design. After several years in this role, he launched Bayliss Boatworks in 2002 which he currently owns and operates in Wanchese, North Carolina. The two remained very close friends through the years and after retirement Capt. Emory visited Bayliss Boatworks to see his boats under construction. “He gave me a chance to pursue something I loved knowing full well I had zero experience when he hired me as a mate,” Bayliss reports. “He was a great teacher and mentor while having unlimited patience for all of the mistakes I made. That alone taught me how important it was to give a guy a chance while being patient as I moved to the bridge of my own rig five years later.”
“Captain Emory stressed common sense and efficiency of all movement in everything you did. Everything was calculated–from rigging baits to keeping the cockpit flowing smoothly to washing down the boat,” Bayliss adds.”He motivated all of us to do our best because we respected him so much. Those lessons were ingrained in me at an early age and have lasted all of my life. Captain Emory was a gifted fisherman and had an uncanny knack of identifying guys he could mold into being good or even great fishermen under his guidance. It was an honor to get that phone call one night asking me to join him and it’s an honor to be a part of the group of us who mated for Capt. Emory Dillon. I could go on but suffice to say that outside of my family, he was one of the top influences in my life,” he concludes.
In 1977, with his business thriving and the charter fleet in Hatteras growing each year, Capt. Emory purchased the 44-foot Sheldon Midgett, Stormy Duchess, which became the Early Bird until his retirement in the 1990s. The boat was faster and built better for offshore fishing, allowing for more range. As a result, Capt. Emory and mate Ross “Flash” Clark raised the bar for his clientele with the new boat. The previous years, he heard stories of high white marlin catches in August and September from Oregon Inlet captains Sam Stokes and Tony Tillet, two very popular captains he befriended when they fished the spring months out of the Texaco dock in Cape Hatteras. As the meatfish and billfish bite slowed off Cape Hatteras in July, he and his mate “Flash” moved the operation to Oregon Inlet for the white marlin bite.
Captain Emory leased a slip at Oregon Inlet Fishing Center during the months of August through October to offer marlin trips to his parties. The days were long as he would awake at 3:45 a.m. and drive an hour and half each way from Frisco to the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. However, the hard work paid off as his parties were able to participate in some of hottest white marlin fishing on the East Coast. “Capt. Emory was a real gentleman and very well-liked by everybody at Oregon Inlet Fishing Center,” said Capt. Bob Croswait, former mate and captain at Oregon Inlet. “I remember him for having a very distinct voice while talking on the radio, pretty unique sounding.
He would leave the fishing center a little later than the fleet because he drove in from Frisco every morning. One morning when I was mating for Captain Buddy Canady, Captain Emory found the sailfish balling bait outside the 102 Tower while we were all still running to the previous days bite further out,”recalls Croswait. “Captain Emory, with his calm cool voice, came on the radio and said he hooked and caught five sails on two passes near the birds. I thought that was pretty neat.”
When white marlin fishing, Capt. Emory kept it simple, as he did all facets of his operation. A natural-colored medium-sized daisy chain ran on one side and a Mumford-head teaser on the other side. He continued offering marlin fishing trips at Oregon Inlet until the mid-1980s after the boats began running 60 to 90 miles to find the fish. Captain Emory was always watching the bottom line and he couldn’t justify spending the additional money on fuel. His time at Oregon Inlet was well spent and he cultivated a lot of lasting friendships with fellow captains and mates.
In 1981, after three years on the Early Bird, “Flash” Clark decided to travel to Australia to fish for black marlin. Capt. Chip Shafer recommended a young mate from Ft. Pierce, Florida named Mark Willis to replace him. Willis, like many of Emory’s previous mates, was a little shy on charter boat meatfishing experience but he had the desire to offshore fish. Willis fished two seasons on the Early Bird which proved to be a positive experience for both. Captain Emory was instrumental in bringing Willis into the boatbuilding industry by introducing him to Buddy Smith at Island Boatworks in Frisco, North Carolina. Willis spent several years working alongside of Smith and later moved to Stuart, Florida where he started and currently owns Willis Marine Incorporated.
“While the 44-foot Sheldon Midgett was shy on amenities it was a wonderful fishing classroom for me under the tutelage of Captain Emory,” Willis says. “I think what I take away most from those years was his demeanor. No matter how frustrated or upset I might have been over a fishing incident, he always managed to put things in perspective. Captain Emory was an old soul that had a very calming influence over me and I’ve never forgotten it. Today, while at the boat shop, I often remember Emory and how he could defuse a situation like a United Nations negotiator. We caught a lot of fish together, he had a great business and our parties enjoyed fishing with us both. I credit him for helping me get started in the boat building business,” Willis says.
Captain Emory Dillon was truly one of those truly unique individuals who had a tremendous impact on those who spent time with him. He was a low-profile captain behind the scenes who will never be inducted into the IGFA Hall of Fame or written about in books but his legacy speaks for itself. Chip Shafer summed him up well in writing his obituary, “No man who fished with Capt. Emory is not better for it. Every time one of his alumni looks back at the markers astern to determine a drift, as well as the markers ahead, they will see his kind face and hear his unique voice.”