All About the Fishing
BY Anne Barnhill
A Poem In Four Words
So begins the New Hanover Fishing Club’s 1929 Annual Prize List publication. The poem perfectly sums up the philosophy of the organization — it was all about the fishing. For the better part of the 20th century the club encouraged and rewarded sportsmen who liked nothing better than to wrestle a big catch from the water.
The club was founded in 1915 by several prominent Wilmington-area businessmen including Theo G. Empie Harry H. G. Latimer George T. Clark T. I. Watkins and George B. Canady. The club did a great deal to stimulate the fishing industry in the area as it attracted members drawn to its ideals of good fellowship skillful angling and the sportsmanlike catching of fish. In later years it helped secure legislation for the protection of game fish.
The club quickly grew until membership was in the thousands drawing from the entire area as well as internationally. The covers of its annual publication proclaimed it to be the largest in America. In its day some claimed it was the largest fishing club in the world.
“Back then everybody who fished joined the club ” says Kit Taylor who became a member in the ’60s when he was 16 and is now the defunct organization’s unofficial historian. “The dues were only $2 at the beginning and they had monthly contests with prizes.”
Woodrow Wilson was president and Babe Ruth had just hit his first home run when the club came into being. It was a time before fishing rods and reels were in common use when only a handful of boats could be found and before cars cluttered the roads.
“When the club started the men fished with hand lines. They’d have a weighted line with bait and throw it into the surf. They’d unwrap it from a wooden spool and the line was cotton back then ” Taylor says. “Getting enough bait was the hardest part of fishing back in the day. They had to use a hand-sewn net to catch the bait.”
Even in the early years the club attracted attention beyond the Cape Fear region. It earned a mention in the book “The American Angler Volume 2 ” published in 1917 in a chapter on surf casting: “Many of the anglers around Wilmington average around 175 to 200 feet while fishing and do better under tournament conditions. During the annual casting tournament of the New Hanover Fishing Club held at Wrightsville Beach the record cast was nearly 250 feet and this made despite adverse wind conditions.”
Things were different in the nascent part of the 20th century when the club began. Many fishermen dressed in suits and ties when they cast their lines into the water usually from above or alongside the ocean.
“Most folks fished off the piers or from the surf ” Taylor says. “There were only a few boats around and you had to charter those.”
No restrictions were enforced; you could catch as many as you were able and keep them all. You could enter as many contests as you wished. Unless of course you caught the fish on a Sunday — anything caught on the Sabbath was disqualified from competition.
In those days there was no access to Topsail Beach and the only access to Wrightsville Beach was the Beach Car trolley that ran on a rail system from downtown Wilmington to Harbor Island then known as the Hammocks. Fewer people lived in the area and joining the club was part of life at the beach.
Retired Wilmington attorney George T. Clark Jr. remembers his father’s love of the club and of fishing.
“My daddy was very involved and a hard-core fisherman ” Clark Jr. says. “He loved fishing off the jetties for sheepshead. We used crabs — we called ’em sea fleas — for bait. You had to be very accurate in your casting because you had to land about a foot from the end of the jetty where the fish were feeding on barnacles.”
Following in his father’s footsteps Clark Jr. became an avid angler and club member. Dad and son both served as president.
That’s typical of fishing. The love of the sport and the best techniques are passed down through generations.
“There was a lot of that ” says Tripp Brice who like his friend Kit joined the club in the ’60s when he was a teenager. “I learned from the gentlemen who came before me.”
Taylor the youngest member when he joined also recalls the education he received from the veteran members.
“I paid attention every day to the old-timers ” Taylor says. “I always learned something new.”
When Taylor and Brice joined in the ’60s the club still attracted the serious anglers even without advertising.
“Everybody who fished a lot was in it ” Brice says. “I was one of the ones from out of town. We lived up at the north end of Topsail. I was always fishing for king mackerel. Somebody said ‘If you’re a good fisherman you ought to join.’ It was word of mouth.”
The members became a close-knit community united by a love of fishing and the desire to land the big one at the club’s periodic tournaments.
“Everybody knew everybody else ” Taylor says. “There was lots of friendly competition to catch the biggest fish you could. There were two categories: freshwater and saltwater. They had a women’s division and a youth division. There were 34 kinds of saltwater fish and 13 freshwater.”
Monthly prizes consisted of a patch that you could sew onto a jacket but the annual prizewinners received money. Each year the club held a meeting to give out cash and other awards to those who caught the biggest fish and to elect officers for the next year.
“It was about bragging rights ” Brice says. “Almost all good fishermen are competitors. There was a little monetary award to it but you wanted the trophy. You’d be there in front of all your colleagues. It was the ego thing. You wanted to get your name in the yearbook. That was the big thing.”
Many of the awards were donated by local businesses.
“I don’t think the club would have been as successful if we hadn’t had great support from our local businesses ” says Butch Martin who served as club secretary for 17 years. “They were so responsive to the club’s annual publication — they placed lots of ads. They also donated prizes — stuff like rods and reels tackle boxes coolers — anything a fisherman might want or need.”
By mid-century the club also selected a Miss New Hanover Fishing Club and she gave out the trophies during the annual meeting. She also posed for that year’s magazine.
In order to be considered for a prize a fishermen’s catch had to be witnessed. There were 25 official weigh stations in the area so the exact weight and time of the catch could be recorded. This was very important because the competition was fierce.
“It was all about the competition — the fishermen wanted to show off their skills and their catches so everything had to be recorded ” Taylor says with a grin.
As a member for more than 30 years Taylor had his share of winning.
“I had the club record for the largest channel bass — 54 pounds 8 ounces ” he says. “Rudy Wallace caught a 150-pound tarpon in the surf. And a 705-pound blue marlin was caught in 1972.”
There’s a story that goes with Taylor’s club record for channel bass that illustrates the fellowship and the fun members often had with each other.
“A couple of days after Kit caught his big fish which was displayed at Atlantic Marine I caught one that I thought was even bigger ” Martin says. “It looked about 5 pounds bigger than Kit’s. So I had it weighed but it wasn’t nearly as big as it looked — Kit still had the record. But I brought the fish up to Mike’s [Atlantic Marine owner Mike Merritt] and we decided to have a little fun with Kit. Mike put my fish up and said it was bigger. We let the joke go on for about a week. Kit was crushed thinking his record had been beat. When we told him about the ruse he went nuts! We used to play pranks on each other all the time — it was part of the fun.”
Martin tells about another adventure that ended with a laugh.
“Kit Rudy Wallace and his brother Sandy J. W. Johnson and I used to go on all kinds of fishing trips ” he says. “We’d camp out overnight and fish as long as we wanted. Once we went to Elmore’s Inlet. It was late midnight or after. Rudy and I were standing in knee-deep water with our lines cast. Rudy felt something rub against his leg. He reached down and it was another fishing line. We couldn’t figure out where that line was coming from so we followed it. Somehow the line had caught a 40-pound channel bass. We kept following the line and it led to Sandy who was sound asleep on the beach his line right beside him. We just took that bass on up to the camp and pretended we’d caught it. Finally after a couple of days we told Sandy the bass had been on his line. We had a good laugh about that.”
Besides the shenanigans and the competitions club members hosted an annual fish fry at Legion Stadium as a fundraiser. They also participated in community events like the Azalea Festival.
“We had a float every year in the parade and the first thing every visiting dignitary got was an honorary membership in the club including former president Ronald Reagan ” Taylor says.
It wasn’t just about fun and camaraderie. The club took its role as protector and promoter of fishing very seriously. Martin says the organization helped to establish what is now the Onslow Bay Artificial Reef Project a nonprofit organization headed by former fishing club member Rita Merritt that provides habitat for marine life.
“The club helped people become aware of problems with the natural habitat and they established the first Wrightsville Beach King Mackerel Contest which in turn founded the artificial reef project ” Martin says.
The club was instrumental in establishing the channel bass (red drum) as the state fish of North Carolina.
“A bunch of club members used to go to Rich Inlet to fish for channel bass and we caught some big ones ” Martin says. “We helped promote the channel bass as the state fish. The club did a lot of good and we had a lot of fun too.”
The New Hanover Fishing Club claims responsibility for the preservation of Sutton Lake one of the favorite recreational fishing spots in the area.
“A bunch of us were fishing over there and we noticed somebody was dredging Catfish Creek. We checked into it and found they didn’t have a permit to dredge so we brought an injunction against the company that had hired the dredging — Carolina Power and Light — and they had to agree to maintain the lake and make sure there was public access to it ” Martin says. “We were able to save the area for striped bass crappie and brim.”
Things have changed in the sport of fishing over the years. Now there are restrictions in the number of fish one can catch and each species has its own limit. The number of fishermen has increased with the population of New Hanover County and the region. This has put pressure on the industry because more anglers mean fewer fish.
“The fishing is not nearly as good as when we were kids without a doubt ” Brice says.
These days many fishermen have their own boats so surf and pier fishing are not as popular as they used to be.
Taylor says one reason pier fishing isn’t as successful is because the piers are in much shallower water than previously.
“Back then the fishing was great from the piers because there was no renourishment of the beaches. When they did that it ruined the natural habitat for the fish ” Taylor says. “It ended great pier fishing.”
The New Hanover Fishing Club came to a close in the early ’90s.
“The club just fell apart ” Taylor says. “It had been instrumental in boosting the local economy and it was sad the way it ended.”
Taylor says other contests offering bigger prizes horned in on the club’s original turf.
“There were a bunch of new contests that offered great prize money more than the club could match ” he says. “These big dollar contests were for king mackerel and channel bass.”
In a way the demise of the club symbolized the end of a simpler time in America when people were less busy and children delighted in a day spent with a rod and reel in hand.
“You pedaled your bicycle went fishing for the day and then went home ” Brice says. “You didn’t have a whole lot going on.”
The club might be defunct but the living members are still fishing.
“My husband Mike goes way back a long ways with the club ” Wrightsville Beach resident Rita Merritt says. “At this point in life it is the camaraderie so many of them had. To this day any of them can bump into each other and they start reminiscing right away about some of the same people who were with the club in probably the ’50s and ’60s. They reminisce about the older ones that have passed and things they learned from them. I find that so warming to listen to the stories of the older members and the times they had.”
Brice is the dockmaster at the Bridge Tender Marina at Wrightsville Beach and now that he’s an elder statesman he passes on tips and techniques and his love of fishing just as the older club members did for him.
“It’s something I still do passing on things that we did in the old days ” he says. “And there’s still a lot of storytelling.”
Taylor and Martin are charter boat captains. At 87 Clark Jr. still goes fishing a couple of times a week. At one time he owned more than 100 rods and reels. Now he’s down to maybe 50. And he always has a few in his vehicle — just in case.
Fish Are Bitin’!
Drop your business cares and worries let your troubles slide!
Never mind life’s little flurries — kick ’em all aside!
Smooth away those wrinkles showin’ on your anxious brow!
Grab your rod and let’s be going — fish are biting now.
There’s an awful restless feelin’ rompin’ out and in
Summer fishin’ fever stealin’ through your tinklin’ skin
Drat it man why should you worry? Clear your troubled brow!
Follow me — I’m in a hurry! FISH ARE BITING NOW!
This poem printed in the 1929 New Hanover Fishing Club annual booklet written by E. A. Brininstool captures the feeling most of the members of the club shared. They really would ‘rather be fishing.’