By Dale Wills
Ask Captain Billy Black about his fondness with red bottom paint or saving a seven-year-old boys life from drowning ten feet under the ocean’s surface in choppy seas or running around Walkers Cay at wee hours hour in the morning with former President Nixon unbeknownst to the secret service or outfitting his boat dogs with sunglasses so they could spot fish from the bridge of the Duchess. For a captain who has invested over 50 years of his life to his sportfishing craft, these stories and countless others are worthy of a comfy dock box and your favorite beverage any time you cross paths with Captain Billy Black.
Remarkably, all of these stories and a boatload full of others can be traced back to memories on a single boat, a 1966 50’ Hatteras named Duchess, which Billy has manned the helm since 1972. This is a man who has arguably spent more time working on one single boat than anyone in sportfishing history. As you listen to Billy’s storytelling under his soft-spoken southern draw don’t be fooled as he can switch over in an instant to a thick island accent if the story needs some character. Obviously a result of spending some much time around the islands.
Billy Black is one of five children who at the age of 5 was separated from his parents and siblings and spent most of his childhood living with grandparents on a farm in Madison, Florida in the Panhandle. Billy recalls enjoying the freedom of being able to run around and play outside during a time when the farm had no electricity or running water. After completing his daily chores Billy would explore different lakes in the area wielding a cane pole and bobber. The beginnings of a love affair catching fish. In fact, Billy’s grandfather would let distant neighbors fish on his property and Billy would show them around to the best lakes but only if the guests would pony up a dollar for his efforts. You could say he learned to start guiding as a child.
At the age of 13, Billy was reunited with his siblings and mother in Sarasota, Florida. Billy continued to fish ponds and nearby rivers during his free time. After graduating from Riverview High School Billy started driving a Merkin’s Concrete truck in Pompano Beach, Florida at the age of 18 due to a strike. The Teamsters strike ended a few months later then Billy was told he was too young to drive the truck full-time but could run the dispatch radio in the office if he wanted. Billy accepted.
“I would see Mr. Merkin in the office and we would talk about his 38’ Chris Craft called the “Rock Buster.” He knew how much I loved fishing,” recalls Billy. It didn’t take long before Billy was working dispatch five days a week and running the “Rock Buster” on weekends. Billy recalls catching sailfish, grouper and snapper for the guests and how much everyone enjoyed it. Soon after Billy was able to garner enough sea time and passed his USGC Captains License test and has never looked back on his fortuitous career path.
Uncle Sam Needs You
In 1965 everything changed as a result of the draft, says Captain Billy. I wanted to go in the Navy or Coast Guard for my nautical interest but I was drafted by the Air Force and became an aircraft mechanic. In 1967 & 1968 I served in Nam and mainly worked on the Caribou – C 7A transport plane and Douglas AC-47 gunship, aka “Puff the magic dragon.” Capt Billy recalls some vivid memories of loading body bags and a near motar hit which cost him hearing in his left ear.
He still gets abrupt flashbacks to this day. But during those two years in Nam, Billy couldn’t help but dream about the purple gulfstream off South Florida. Finally, after his service duty ended Billy helped deliver a 50’ Hatteras to Grenada where he also accepted a full-time job maintaining the boat and working as a mate. Fast forward a couple of years and as luck would have it Billy was the new owner of the 50’ Hatteras he named Duchess. The year was 1972. Billy returned the Duchess to Florida the same year and accepted a charter opportunity running trips out of Walkers Cay. For 28 years Billy and the Duchess made history on the famous tiny Bahamas Island.
Captain Billy Black and his history fishing out of Walkers Cay is legendary. Thousands of clients have checked off bucket lists wrangling gamefish off the Northern Abacos from the deck of the Duchess. Captain Billy and the Duchess will forever be associated with Walkers Cay.
I recently told a colleague we are featuring Captain Billy in the publication and he quickly said, Billy gave me some of the best advice in my life during a dream trip to Walkers. For a guy in his 20’s with the wide-eyed temptation to live a similar life charter fishing full time on an exotic island, Billy said, “you only see the glamour part of the job when you are here fishing for 3 days, the economics of charter fishing will rarely yield any financial security. Some years you make a little and some years you lose a lot. You’re better off flying in, fishing for a few days and flying home.”
Paying it forward—Where to fish Walkers Cay
Captain Billy says anyone who sees the Duchess fishing the Bahamas can always reach them on vhf channel 73.”I’ll always be happy to give a report and let anyone know what action we are having. It goes both ways.” Captain Billy is quick to point out that he has caught marlin and tuna and wahoo in every month of the year off Walkers. With regard to seasons November through March are great for Wahoo and generally the big ones show up in February and March. Captain Billy has a Walkers Cay record wahoo he caught in March which weighed 124 lbs, was 7’ 3’ long and a 28” girth.
When it pertains to where to fish, Billy is quick to point out an area known as the Northeast Humps, which is 8-10 miles NE of Walkers. You’ll see the Abaco Wall drop off from 1200’ to 1500’ and then 3000’. “I’ve caught marlin all around there and even as shallow as 600’. Another good productive area is 15 miles Northwest off Walkers in a 1000’ or more and this area is known as the Northwest Humps.
If deep jigging is your discipline, Billy says get out into 150’ -250’ depth with an 8-10 oz jig and you’ll have some great action. Another tip Billy adds is try tipping your jig with a belly strip. “I like using a wahoo, bonito or even a dolphin belly on the end of my jigs. They produce great action and are tough. You can sometimes catch 3, 4 fish on one belly strip.
Trolling for grouper off Walkers is also very productive. Billy says try slow trolling a trolling plug in 30’ – 40’ of water. Again Billy says put a belly strip on your plug and you’ll get plenty of action.
Billy obviously loves his boat or he wouldn’t have kept it for so long. Her exterior lines and vintage Hatteras logo may show her age but step aboard the 50’ Hatteras today and the salon of the 1967 Duchess shows like a modern sportfish. She is spacious and covered in a fine Afromosia Teak. All of the refurbished work was done by family and friends including Billy’s two sons Allan and Jerry, who are also career captains. The Duchess’s front house windows were replaced with gorgeous custom cabinetry.. Everything including the staterooms and the three heads have been expertly updated.
As Billy turns on a light in the starboard bunk room, he points to a framed placemat from Grenada and mentions it’s a reminder of the early days, over 46 years ago, when the Duchess and Billy were first united. Following the tour, from the salon couch Billy says, “I’ve replaced the generator at least 5x’s and put 60,000 hours on the original set of Detroit 871 Naturals. I figured I’ve done close to 600,000 nautical miles on those motors alone. (60k hours x 10kts is the math Billy easily references) Today she’s repowered with a set of 500 hp Cummins 903 motors which cruise the Duchess at a comfortable 18 knots. Entering the engine room from the forward salon steps, you peek into the engine room and its obvious Billy takes pride in caring for the entire boat. As we looked around Captain Billy said, “she (the Duchess) is like a lady, she needs something all the time.” Even her engines are named after females- Sally to Starboard and Peggy on the Port. Situated in the cockpit is a vintage stainless Gin Pole on the port side. The Duchess does not have a tuna door but the Gin Pole is a distinct and refreshing reminder of sportfishings history.
When asked about looking back at his career Billy says, “my first instinct would be to talk about the big fish and records set from Grenada to the Bahamas and then adds “I think I am most proud of the fact that I have been able to be involved in my industry and my charter business for 46 years as an owner/operator. I am proud of the relationships I have built within the sportfishing world and grateful to everyone that has helped me along the way. I am proud that I have been able to put anglers on their first big fish and teach them skills of fishing. Many of them went on to become boat owners themselves. And finally I am proud that I have encouraged younger Captains to follow their dreams. Much like my two sons Allan Black and Jerry Gilpin.”
Age is life’s greatest gift and Billy’s long career holds the treasures that few men have ever seen. In fact, during my conversation with Billy, his Captains License recently renewed and he couldn’t be happier. He is still going strong well into his 70’s. “A pirate looks at 80” to rephrase one of Jimmy Buffets salty lyrics! Thanks for all you’ve done in sportfishing Captain Billy Black, you are a true sportishing legend.
Walkers Cay Today
As of this writing, Walkers Cay is being reborn with a new owner determined to bring the island back from years of neglect after Hurricane Gene destroyed most of it in 2004. BIlly and the Duchess have been given a permanent slip in the new Walkers Cay Marina. The new owner has welcomed Billy with open arms in an effort to maintain some of Walkers Cay historical fishing roots. As the renovated island begins to reopen in 2021, don’t hesitate to reserve a trip with Billy and the Duchess—captainbillyblack.com.
Capt. Billy Black’s Notable Catches Fishing out of Walker’s Cay
1978 // 125-pound white marlin (previous men’s 20 lb. test line class record)
1981 // 694-pound blue marlin (previous women’s 80 lb. test record)
1983 // 781-pound bluefin tuna
1993 // 124-pound wahoo
1995 // Released a grander blue marlin after an epic 11-hour fight