By Capt. Jeff Waxman
Capt. Jack Morrow came of age in Palm Beach, Florida during the hey day of Cat Cay and as sportfishing in the Caribbean came into its own. After nearly 70 years on the water, Morrow shares his perspective.
There are hallmarks among the cadre of Top Guns in our sport. It’s a bit like the fishing version of “masculine measurement.” It often goes a bit like this….
Catch multiple blue marlin in one day? Check. Catch double digit sails in couple hours? Check. How about multiple giant tuna in one day? Check. Multiple sails? How about 54 in about a half day? Check. While these statistics have become somewhat common place these days – with all of the technology and communication, Captain Jack Morrow’s career began in the mid-1950s. As he says, “I am glad I did what I did, when I did it.” Growing up in Singer Island, Florida, Jack would ride his bike to the boatyard and marina to help clean boats while in grade school. He was paid 50 cents a boat then.
Quickly, a couple of realizations came about… First, he really liked being around boats and boat folks. Secondly, he was welcomed and treated very well in this new world. And of course, once he hung about, he was invited to ride out and see what it was all about…and he was fascinated. His first mate job was with Captain Dennis Killane aboard the Ho Hum, for which he was paid $2 for a half day and $4 for a full day. They were fishing with linen line and piano wire in those days.
At the age of 14, he cut school and went on his first true offshore foray to Walkers Cay, when Walkers was in its heyday. Morrow caught his first blue marlin on the trip with Captain Jerry Black aboard the Jolly Roger. And thus, began a truly exceptional life on the water…as a top-notch mate, graduating to wireman. Then on to charter captain and private captain. Jack grew up at a time in a place where bluewater sportfishing was coming into its own. These days there are sportfishers dispersed far and wide, in most every place you look. In the late 1950s, this was not the case. Morrow grew up near Bill’s Sailfish Marina in Palm Beach. The list of captains and boats he worked aboard reads like an IGFA documentary.
Captain Frank Ardine ran the Sail Ahoy – the first Rybovich charter boat. There was Captain Robert Rast aboard the Comanche. Captain Bobby Haines was one of Morrow’s most influential mentors. He was tragically killed when he was electrocuted in the engine room of his boat – Morrow carried him out. There was Captain Johnny Thomas on the charter boat Joker and the Wendy II owned by Al Nathan. Morrow was perfectly positioned (and endowed with all of the passion necessary) to fish the early Rybovich boats or Merritts. The boats and the folks were the best of the best. Everyone looks back on who influenced them. In Jack’s case, some of the names themselves qualify as pioneers – folks like Jerry Black, Bob Rast, Bobby Haines, Frank Ardine, Jack Stephens and Johnny Thomas.
Coming of age in such an influential place, it was not long before Captain Jack was himself fishing in some of the best places – and himself being recognized. Think about it carefully…and imagine being the top dog in St. Thomas during the blue marlin season. Or, of being top in New England catching giant bluefins. How about being the captain requested by both the top anglers and the rich and famous? Morrow was all of these things. “In the late 50s/60s, not many boats traveled. Walker’s and Chub Cay were really far in those days – most places beyond those two were seldom fished. Bimini and Cat Cay were the popular charter destinations. When I started going to St. Thomas, we were one of the first boats on the North Drop,” Morrow recalls. “Jerry Black owned the marina – the Lagoon Fishing Center.
If you saw eight or 10 boats on the North Drop that was a lot – a lot of days, I’d be the only one.” With the opportunity to speak with someone with so much depth and experience, it’s interesting to understand the drivers that push them to the top. In Jack’s case, the answers are clear. “I liked it all. I love the giant tuna bite, I love the blue marlin bite, but truth be told…I love it all!” This passion helps to understand how and why he’s earned his place…and The IGFA’s Tommy Gifford Top Captain Award as well. The Tommy Gifford Award, named after one of the world’s great charter captains, is a high honor awarded to recipients in “recognition of their extraordinary contributions to the advancement of sport fishing through innovation, outstanding catches or noteworthy examples of leadership in their trade.” Morrow is most proud, however, of the recognition by his peers.
In the course of being recognized for his body of work, Morrow was the first to win the Master’s Sailfish Tournament twice. He also won the legendary Cat Cay Tuna Tournament. Beyond the tournament successes, there was epic fishing. The trip with Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, when they caught seven giant bluefins in one day off Chatham, Mass aboard the Pretty Patti. These were all big weighing 600-800 pounds, but owner George Markham caught the biggest weighing in at 1025. Morrow also caught nine blue marlin in one day off the North Drop out of St Thomas…biggest weighing in at 825! How about 25 blue marlin in five days…that was a record that stood for 18 years!
And, note that these catches were big fish caught trolling dead bait (generally Spanish on long rigger) with single strand wire. This was very different from fast trolling lures around the FADs. Beyond the fishing, there was also the dock comedy. The policy of getting dunked after first billfish was always a fun scene. As always, Jack was the guy who did the push off the dock…owners, high flyers (singers Mel Tillis, Perry Como or Alan Jackson – he performed boat deliveries for Jackson), movie stars, all got the same treatment to everyone’s amusement. But, one in particular sticks in his mind. It occurred at Jerry Black’s Lagoon Fishing Center in St Thomas. A very pretty, well dressed young woman, perhaps best described as “prissy” – with perfect bowling alley hair and a very expensive matching outfit caught her first billfish.
It was also likely her last…because she got the same treatment from Capt. Jack…you can imagine the result. Jack chuckles about it to this day. But, dig a bit deeper into the funny incidents and they become what we all love about this sport. Good fishing with good anglers always makes for a day of fun and laughs! After more than 55 years of running Rybovich and Merritt boats, Morrow’s last job was running the Boys-R-Us, a 65-foot Viking owned by Greg Garvey.
These days he still travels on long trips aboard the boat, but his youngest son Kevin is the captain. “I was very fortunate to have both of my sons work with me, each for about eight or nine years,” Jack recalls. Captain Tom Morrow, Jack’s other son, mated for him aboard the Juro, a 65-foot Merritt, that fished the Northeast. Jack recalls how each of his sons were skilled mates who have grown into capable captains. “If you don’t have a good mate, you don’t have much. They can make you or break you,” he says. In addition to his sons, Morrow names Ted Tardonia (Pretty Patti) and Tim Sperling (No Problem), as a couple of the more memorable mates he’s worked with in his career.
But, as in the case with most folks who reach this level of success, the true essence of the man is not the accomplishments nor the specifics. Rather it is the man himself. And, though most of us can never reach his level of fishing accomplishment, we can all learn from Jack. When taking away from the story of Captain Jack Morrow, two lessons emerge: 1. Never stop both learning and teaching. They are one and the same. In his own words “If you think you know a lot, you’ve got a lot to learn.” 2. Treat everyone with respect and care…pay it forward.