Grab the latest copy of InTheBite Magazine! September issue is hitting the docks now..featuring lessons from a world traveling operation, a captain’s medical guide, boss man chronicles and so much more!
Old Salt 2: Captain Chip Shafer
A Legacy in Fishing
by Capt. Dale E. Wills
“I was going to medical school, so probably a doctor,” says Captain Chip Shafer when asked what he would have been if not a boat captain. While the title Captain may have won out over Doctor, Shafer’s medical aspirations manifest themselves while fishing. Chip orchestrates the many moving parts of a sportfish program—anglers, crew, and spread presentation—with the same calm, precise demeanor of a surgeon in the operating room. The result is clear. Ask anyone who has had the privilege of fishing with Captain Shafer at the helm and they all say the same thing: “He’s one of the best there is.”
Impact and Profile
Shafer needs very little, if any, introduction in our sportfishing circles. When it comes to fishing, Shafer has been there and done that. A charter captain for almost four decades, Shafer now runs a globetrotting private venture. Chip’s exploits in the captain’s chair would be right at home in a Hemingway novel. In addition to the truck load of tournament titles from his charter days, Shafer has guided fly angler Nick Smith to incredible numbers of billfish on fly – 18 blue marlin in a single day and two and half times that many striped marlin in a day, to name a few…
Perhaps even more impressive than his fish numbers is the long line of deckhands who were mentored under the overhang of Captain Shafer. Captains Mike Brady, Mike Everly, Arch Bracher, Dave (Big Wave) Warren, John Bayliss, Bull Tolson, Charlie Griffin, Jimmy Grant, Keith Biggs and Lawrence Rowland—and that’s just the beginning. You can’t find another captain who has had the incredible impact on this number of deckhands– many of whom continue to enjoy a prospering sportfishing career today.
Early Life and Career
Born and raised in Statesville, North Carolina, fishing has been a lifelong passion for Shafer. Chip recalls fishing backcountry ponds and lakes for brim and bass early in his youth. “I loved fishing in the ponds and just fishing for anything.” Eventually, like most of us, Shafer found the nearby saltwater- fishing coastal North Carolina.
After a year and a half at Duke University, Shafer joined the United States Marine Corps in 1967. In 1969 he was wounded in Vietnam. While recovering at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Shafer made the best kind of friend—one with a boat. They would often fish together off the beach for drum and mackerel. Eventually the two traveled offshore in search of pelagics.
After completing his military duties, Shafer was offered his first paying job as a deckhand by Captain Ivey Batten on a boat called Gulf Weed. That was in spring of 1973. “Fishing out of Odens Dock in Hatteras, I made $25 a day. The charter only paid $175 for a full day.” Reflecting on his early years in the business, “We had absolutely no laws of fishing in the ocean.”
The following season in 1974, Captain Emory Dillon on the Early Bird asked Shafer to be his mate. After a season with Capt. Dillon, Chip traveled south to Florida to expand his charter career.
In 1975 Monty Howell, father of current builder Ritchie Howell, bought a 42-foot Sheldon Midget boat to charter out of Stuart, Florida and Hatteras, North Carolina. In a tragic accident, the captain who was initially hired to run the boat was killed. Monty Howell then asked Shafer to run the boat. This turned out to be Shafer’s first captain’s job on the Temptress.
In 1976 he moved from Stuart to Fort Pierce, Florida and ran the boat for four years prior to purchasing it in 1979. In 1991, Shafer built a new Temptress—a 53’ Bobby Sullivan boat. He would fish the charter circuit—alternating between Fort Pierce and Chub Cay in the winters, Cancun in the spring and Oregon Inlet in the summer. Shafer charter fished until 2001.
“In 2001, I made the decision to go a private job, as I had always been in the charter business. I worked for Charles Nichols on the Liquidator. Two years later in the fall of 2002, I began working with Nick Smith on Old Reliable (first a 57 Spencer) then a 2005 64’ Bayliss. I still with Nick today,” says Shafer.
Lessons Learned from a Life on the Water
When asked about a lesson that has been particularly impactful, Shafer is reflective. “You have to give to receive, it’s something Omie Tillet instilled in me early in my career. You need to offer information in order to get information. If you look at the top captains, the willingness to share information with one another and having good open communication among their peers is inherit in each of them,” says Shafer.
“However, the mates are really not much different. I’ve always found that a good quality person, with good morals and intelligence will do well in this industry. It’s important to immerse a mate into fishing and then let them figure most things out for themselves. Mates share information with other mates and the crew network can really work to your advantage. Again, you have to give to receive. The biggest change is not long ago a majority of mates would work on a charter boat prior to working on a private boat. That’s not common anymore.”
Living a life around a dock, you can’t help but see some shenanigans go on among the crews. Capt. Shafer recalls that Lee Perry on the Deepwater was on the wrong end of a lot of dock jokes. “Every now and then Lee would open up his fish box and find a two-day old stinking shark inside. He’d get so mad he would say, ‘If I ever find out who did this, I’m going to cut their heart out with a watermelon knife.’”
Another silly prank was one Alan Foreman played on Lee. During the off-season Lee would work in the boat shop. Alan jokingly told Lee that the epoxy they were using looked so good that he was going to taste it sometime. One day, Alan showed up for work with a custard that resembled the epoxy and in front of Lee said, “Watch this, I’m going to try the epoxy today.” After taking a big spoonful, Lee was yelling at Alan in a panic “You are going to die! You are going to die! You can’t eat that…”
The Modern Captain’s Job
When asked about the challenges ahead for boat captains of today Shafer says, “Today the most difficult aspect of being a boat captain is the complexity and increase in the number of systems onboard. Everything is electronic and when something is not working, it can be a challenge to fix, especially if you are out of the country.”
Another change in the sportfishing industry relates to the charter dock. “Charter fishing is becoming much more challenging with the depth of fishing regulations. Charter jobs are not as common as before. I do think billfish populations are fine. The striped marlin fishing off Baja is as good as ever. I haven’t seen much change in blue marlin populations. Tuna fishing is cyclical like it always has been, and the only decline I see has been the dolphin populations. They are not as prevalent as years gone by. But also thinking back to what many call the good ol’ days, we had many days when we caught very little or nothing, too. Overall, offshore fishing is in great shape.”
When not fishing with Nick Smith chasing marlin around on fly, the IGFA Hall of Fame captain can be found walking a beach or fishing a pond when time permits. “It’s funny how I’m making a full circle in my fishing pursuits. I’m finding myself enjoying a bent rod on a bluegill or bass- just like when I was a kid,” says Shafer.
We also ask the featured captain in this Old Salts Rule to call out the next one – Captain Buddy Hooper you are on deck.
InTheBite Inside The Lines – Episode 8
Bringing you the latest information on all things bluewater!
-White Marlin Open Update
-Upcoming Old Salt Sneak Peak
-Hatteras Yachts Factory Tour
InTheBite Inside The Lines – Episode 6
Bringing you the latest information on all things bluewater!
-Kable Keeper: Product Showcase
-Old Salts Rule: New Feature
Captain Mike Merritt: 50 Years in Fishing and Still Going Strong
by Capt. Dale E. Wills
While at the helm of the 52-foot Irvin Forbes-built Billfisher, Captain Mike Merritt had a young deckhand named Arch Bracher. One day Bracher asked if he could try something different when it came to leader material. Capt. Merritt, in his easy-going style said, “Sure go ahead as long as it doesn’t cost us any fish.”
Weeks later the Billfisher was steadily doing just a little better than the remainder of the Oregon Inlet charter fleet. It was evident something was going on when one day as they approached the marina. “I’ll be behind your boat when we get in,” radioed Capt. Bull Tolson. That evening when the Billfisher backed into its slip at the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, Capt. John Bayliss helped with one stern line and Tolson helped tie up the other. The impromptu meeting and the tackle inspection that ensued changed white marlin fishing to this day. The year was 1988.
Prior to the Billfisher’s experiment, the entire North Carolina fleet used wire leader with ballyhoo. Bracher’s decision to use mono leader and dink ballyhoo baits, similar to his Mexico sailfishing spread, brought about change in the fleet. Bracher’s eagerness to catch more fish and Capt. Mike’s willingness to change is one of many contributions Merritt and his crews have developed for the sportfishing industry.
A Life Spent on the Water
Capt. Mike “Bubble Gum” Merritt, is 50-year fishing professional. Growing up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, he was destined to live a working life mostly on the water. “At the age of six, I had a bicycle and a fishing pole and every day I could, I would ride down to the water and fish. One day a thunderstorm blew in and my mother got real worried and hopped in her car and came looking for me. When she found me, I was unphased by the storm and continued to fish. From that day on, my mother would tell anyone who listened, ‘That boy is going to be a fisherman when he grows up.’”
In 1968, fresh out of high school, Capt. Merritt’s first full-time job came as a mate on a 48-foot Manteo-built boat named Germel with Capt. Dan Lewark. “I made $90.00 a day for an offshore trip,” says Merritt. After seven years as a mate, in 1976, Merritt stepped up to the bridge on his own 40-foot Warren O’Neil, the Billfisher. “I only had a VHF radio, a compass and a Flasher for electronics. We would use landmarks for navigation. Upon returning to port from offshore, at the first sight of land, if we saw cottages, a water tower and/or a lighthouse, we were five or ten miles north of Oregon Inlet. If we just saw beaches, we were south of the inlet,” recalls Merritt. From 1976 through 1991, Merritt was a fixture in the Oregon Inlet Charter fleet along with the Billfisher boat name. Boat builders, such as Sheldon Midget, Billy Holton and Irvin Forbes each had a Billfisher name on the transom through the years. “The 52-foot Irvin Forbes was my first twin motor boat in the late 80s,” says Merritt.
“One day in 1991, while getting fuel for my charter boat, a man asked me to run his boat. At that point, I wanted to give the private gig a try. It didn’t take long before I was traveling the world. I fished Bermuda, St. Thomas, Mexico (Puerto Aventuras) and the Bahamas.” Asked about his biggest catches, Merritt reflects on some large fish. “We weighed in a 958-pound marlin in Oregon Inlet, released a bigger blue in St. Thomas and a big one in Venezuela. I’ve seen a lot of big fish in my career,” says Merritt, humbly.
When asked about his role models, Merritt reflects, “Tony and Omie Tillett come to mind, but I have just too many to name.” It turns out that the fishing is only one of the things Merritt cherishes from a life on the water. “It’s been the dock comradery and the people who make up the fishing community which have made my career so blessed. I’ve had some great times around the dock.” In a chuckle Merritt says, “The Oregon Inlet Charter Fleet is home to some of biggest pranksters you’ll find anywhere. I could go on and on about the stuff we would pull on each other.” Here is one of Merritt’s favorites.
“In the early 90s, we were fishing a tournament when a small outboard decided to try to drive through the middle of the fleet. As luck would have it, the outboard hooked up with a nice marlin. It didn’t take long before the outboard gets on the radio telling everyone how big his marlin is.”
“As time passed any boat remotely pointed in the outboard’s direction was given instructions to deviate course. The outboard continued drifting with the current and miles from where it first hooked up when the situation took on another dynamic. The captain began desperately trying to communicate with a big Japanese tanker ship.”
“’Japanese tanker, this is the outboard with the twin motors, please alter your course, we are fighting a marlin….Please turn left.’ After failed attempts to reach the ship, the desperate outboard called anyone asking if they knew what channel the tanker was on. ‘You have to use channel 13’, I responded.”
“Seconds later, with the entire charter fleet tuned in… ‘Japanese tanker, this is the twin outboard, can you please turn, you are going to run over my fish. Merritt, in his best broken accent responded, “‘Ahhhhh, twin outboard, no can turn ship.” In disgust, the outboard radioed one of buddies saying “I can’t believe he won’t turn and every one of my radios onboard were made in Japan.” Eventually, the tanker passed, and I’m not sure if the outboard ever caught the fish, but us charter captains sure had a good laugh after that,” says Merritt.
Today, Capt. Merritt has returned to the charter business and can be found at Pirate’s Cove running the Sandra D. When asked about the difference of captains and crew compared to days gone by, Merritt says candidly, “Electronics and dredges.” So what advice would you give a future captain or mate? “Choose this industry because you love meeting people and you love fishing. It takes a certain character trait to do what we do as a career. I’ve never thought about doing anything else.”
You can charter Merritt by visiting www.sandradsportfishing.com or call 252-305-2825