This year, Capt. Chip Shafer will pass a significant milestone in his career: 50 years as a licensed captain. He says it will probably be acknowledged and then quickly forgotten because he’ll most likely be fishing along Mexico’s remote Pacific coast at the helm of the brand-new Bayliss known as Old Reliable, with boat owner Nick Smith in the cockpit. Together they’ve caught more than 6,500 billfish on fly, and Shafer is just as excited to catch the next one.
Shafer grew up in Statesville, North Carolina. Born May 12, 1947, he was named for his father, Dr. Irving Shafer, and was given the nickname Chip, as in “chip off the old block.” It was expected that he’d follow his physician father and grandfather into medicine, but he quit after his sophomore year at Duke University. The war in Vietnam gave him a reason to try something different; joining the US Marine Corps, he learned the importance of teamwork and taking care of others—life lessons he has never lost.
Wounded in Action
After two years of training, he left for Southeast Asia in 1969 as a new second lieutenant. Three months later, he was shot during a firefight in the Que Son Valley—the bullet entered and exited below his right shoulder. Medevaced out, he ended up at the US Naval Hospital in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and served with Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune for the remainder of his time in the Marines. Befriended by Capt. Paul Haddock on a boat named Edna, he started fishing offshore when not working at the base. “I discovered my avocation,” Shafer says. He earned his captain’s license in 1972. After mustering out of the military, he headed to Hatteras Village on the Outer Banks and took a job mating for Capt. Ivey Batten on Gulf Weed.
When Shafer arrived in 1973, the 20 vessels tied up at Oden’s Dock were single-engine 14-knot boats, including Gulf Weed. By the next year, he was working for Capt. Emory Dillon on Early Bird, which had twin engines, an Elac paper sounder and a loran-A navigational device. With his trusty sounder and loran-A, Dillon reigned for years as the “Mayor of the Rock Pile.” He taught Shafer how to pinpoint wrecks 30 miles offshore of Diamond Shoals Light where they caught wahoo. Shafer says the smell of burnt recorder paper became the scent of fishing.
The Migration Begins
In 1974, he got an offer to run Temptress to Stuart, Florida, for the winter season. “I first met Monte Howell when I was working on Gulf Weed,” Shafer says. “He had bought a single-engine 42-foot Sheldon Midgett boat and had lined up a captain from Virginia to run it, but the captain had died in a tractor accident.” That was the beginning of what Shafer calls his 20-odd-year migratory pattern of fishing North Carolina’s Outer Banks in summer and South Florida in winter and spring.
Shafer worked for Howell until 1978, when Howell offered to sell him the boat. Now a charter owner-operator, he was grateful for Howell’s wide circle of fishing friends such as Ray Temple, Larry and Sherry Greene, Waldo Roberts, Frank Creasy and Steve Miller, who became the nucleus of Shafer’s anglers in the Stuart Sailfish Club Light Tackle Tournament and mid-Atlantic events such as the White Marlin Open, which he won with restaurateur Phil Hauck in 1995. Along with being presented with the International Game Fish Association’s Tommy Gifford Award as one of the sport’s legendary captains, he considers the White Marlin Open win a career highlight.
Watch: Learn to rig a belly strip teaser.
Shafer’s first recorded tournament win was the 1975 amateur division of the Stuart Sailfish Club Light Tackle Tournament with Miller on the rod. Then, in 1981, he won first place in the team division and the first of eight overall titles with Howell, Larry Greene, Roberts and Temple.
Local speculation abounded about the hot new team. After riding along with Shafer one day, boatbuilder Richard Garlington declared that the boat was “sucking in sailfish like a vacuum.” Capt. Mike Brady says that the boat’s harmonics had nothing to do with it. “I worked on the original Temptress and also on the new boat that replaced it, which had twin engines,” he says. “The catch rates were similar—in fact, even better on the new boat. It wasn’t the boat but the guy driving it. Chip was a master at reading water. He took calculated risks when the rewards were high,” adds Brady, who spent five years in the Temptress cockpit.
Team Building and Attention to Detail
Shafer’s instincts are to improve all phases of fishing, Howell explains. “He would fish two daisy chains of jumbo fresh-caught mullet and a plastic squid as teasers, and a spread of seven proven baits,” he says. “[Shafer] insisted that the terminal tackle be checked and double-checked every day. He also fished smaller hooks and lighter leaders, which they changed after every catch.”
Shafer will tell you that his success boils down to team building. “My goal for every tournament is to find a group of fish on my own and make every bite count,” he says. But he also believes that many sets of eyes can see more than just two. Shafer has always relied on a network of friends who would alert him whenever conditions looked right. He was the orchestra leader, says former mate Capt. Mike Everly, who fished three years with Shafer. “He’d get on the radio with Capt. Sam Crutchfield and say, ‘Why don’t you drop a line inside and see what’s there?’ He was always good at getting information, and sharing it too.”
Shafer’s intelligence and a heightened sense of observation gave him a competitive advantage, Capt. John Bayliss says. “He has the ability to read the color and clarity of the water better than anyone else. I remember he’d say, ‘The water here looks cloudier than it did yesterday,’ where I would see nothing. He is very good at discerning those factors that suggest good fishing.”
In summer 1975, Shafer met his future wife, Terry, when she and her father chartered him in Hatteras. Terry was 19 and very pretty. Sparks flew. Later that fall, he phoned her. “The woman who answered in Brunswick, Georgia, was not receptive at all,” he says. “Turns out, it wasn’t Terry.”
Fast-forward to 1977, when Terry and her mom came to Palm Beach, Florida, so Terry could check on a special-education student of hers. On their way home, they stopped at the Fishin’ Hole Marina in Stuart, hoping to connect with Shafer. Informed he was no longer docked there, at her mother’s urging, she went back inside and was told he’d moved 20 miles north to Simonson’s Harbor House docks in Fort Pierce. Terry called, and that night they met for dinner. She ended up riding along with him the next day. The first time they fished together, Terry caught her first white marlin. While whites are common off North Carolina, they are anything but off Fort Pierce. Nonetheless, the pair caught a 102-pound white marlin that day “thanks to my white marlin lady,” Shafer says. Married two years later, they started a life that involved maintaining homes on Colington Island, North Carolina, and in Fort Pierce, shuttling two daughters, Julia and Georgia, along with Chip’s oldest son, John, and their “family” of 25 mates between two oceans. Their daughters benefited from the travel to Mexico, Venezuela and Costa Rica, where they fished and helped their mother volunteering. “We’ve relished the fishing, but our lives are better for the many friendships and experiences,” Terry says, “and the people like John Bayliss, who was one of Chip’s first mates and who built the boat he now runs.”
A greenhorn when they first met in 1977, Bayliss looked up to Shafer, who was already regarded as an astute billfisherman. “It was like going to a graduate school in fishing,” says Bayliss, who went on to have a successful charter career before running Hatterascal for Hatteras Yachts, which he did prior to starting Bayliss Boatworks in Wanchese, North Carolina.
Fine-Tuning the Fishing
This was the beginning of Shafer’s two decades running a charter boat out of Fort Pierce. At the start, they weren’t booked that often but fished every day. “Chip got better and so did I,” Bayliss says. “On our trips, he found that lighter wire and smaller hooks produced more bites. And he was the first I know of to use Sea Witch heads for his sailfish baits,” he adds.
Shafer’s arrival in Fort Pierce had a profound affect on local charter captains, explains Capt. Sam Crutchfield of Lucky Too. “He forced us to up our game,” he says. “We went from heavy wire leaders to light wire and then mono.” And while Shafer is credited with being the first to drop back to tailing fish before they strike, he says Crutchfield did it first. An invaluable technique to increase the number of bites, to do it right requires a certain amount of coaching, explains Capt. Jimmy Grant, who mated for Shafer between 1997 and 2000. “Chip excels at teaching people to fish in different sea conditions where you have to tweak things to get a hookup,” Grant says. But his coaching also landed him in hot water. After winning back-to-back top boat awards in the Masters Angling Tournament, they created a rule prohibiting captains from coaching their anglers. “He makes an angler the best they are capable of being,” says longtime client and Masters veteran Brad Watkins.
Analytical to his core, Shafer figured that if there’s one sailfish around, there are probably many more. So instead of taking the baits out of the water as soon as he got a strike, he’d leave them in, hoping to get a double, triple or quad, Everly explains. “That’s when he started directing anglers to put down one rod and pick up another. It’s commonplace now, but it wasn’t in 1979 when I fished with him.”
The era of the single-engine Temptress came to an end in 1991 when Shafer built a custom 53-foot Sullivan, allowing him to venture farther afield. “We started traveling to Cancun’s Hacienda del Mar in spring, to the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center in May, then back to Fort Pierce in late October. Then I discovered Venezuela. There were a lot of places to fish, which led to me taking a private job in 2001 that allowed me to do just that,” Shafer says.
Working for Charles Nichols on Liquidator, he was fishing the mid-Atlantic tournaments, along with Mexico and Venezuela, until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred. After that, Nichols sold the boat. With charters lined up and no boat, Shafer asked Ed Frock if he could use his 57-foot Spencer, Black Sheep. Nick Smith was one of those clients, probably the most competent sailfisherman who ever lived, Shafer adds. “He came down to fish with me in Cancun and was really enthused about catching sailfish on fly.”
Nick Smith and Fly-Fishing
The youngest angler to ever compete in the Masters Angling Tournament (he was 17 at the time), Smith is closing in on 13,000 billfish caught during his 80 years and is equally adept at running his own boats, customizing them for his style of live bait, light-tackle sailfishing in his home waters off Palm Beach and now Stuart, where he first met Shafer. They began sharing information on the radio about water quality and fish, and it grew into a charter-client relationship whenever Shafer was fishing in Cancun and Venezuela. Smith also chartered in other places, such as Guatemala, where in 1999, Capt. Bud Gramer on Intensity offered him a challenge. An unusually slow bite left Smith wanting more, so Gramer suggested he try catching a Pacific sail on fly. “Bud said, ‘Try it, you’ll like it,’ and I did,” Smith says. Absorbed by the technical aspects, Smith was eager to learn more.
Gramer’s team was highly skilled in fly-fishing techniques, but as Smith traveled to some of the world’s hotspots, he found a serious lack of the experience and skills that had been so well-refined in Guatemala. “I’m going to have to put together my own program in order to accomplish what I think is possible,” Smith told Shafer.
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Shafer’s response was: “The Black Sheep is for sale. If you buy it, I won’t even have to pack my bags.” In 2002, Smith bought the boat, but before taking it to the Pacific, he suggested that Shafer accompany him to Guatemala to master the finer points. Smith’s goal was to catch 15 sails on fly in one day. “Chip looked at me like I had come from Mars. But we caught 12 the first day, 17 the next, and then 16 the third,” Smith says.
It’s been 20 years and three boats since their partnership began. “Nick is very assured to the point of OCD,” Bayliss explains, “where Chip is the opposite. He’s proud of never losing a day of fishing to mechanical issues, but he tends to wing it, whereas Nick is a planner. I suspect it all goes back to Chip getting shot in Vietnam. He lives in the moment.”
The latest Old Reliable, a 72-footer launched in 2021, closely mirrors the 64-footer Smith and Shafer designed with Bayliss back in 2005. It features an additional guest stateroom and roomier accommodations for their crew of three mates. One big reason for the new boat was the addition of a pair of Seakeeper stabilizers, which Shafer says makes their overnight sea time at Magdalena Bay and the seamounts off Costa Rica much more comfortable.
A Legendary Run Continues
Delivered to La Paz, Mexico, just in time for the striped marlin run at Magdalena Bay, where they eclipsed their single-day record of 44 on fly with 72 out of 200 raises in 2018, they picked up right where they left off. Smith commands the cockpit and the mates while Shafer scans the seas and his electronics for signs of fish. “Fly-fishing is a little different than conventional because we first have to raise fish on a teaser, so Nick spends a lot of time on the bridge and still has time to get to his rod in the cockpit,” Shafer explains. “He’s become my second set of eyes, especially because I am focused on the bottom recorder, the sonar and the radar. So, we spend the time solving the world’s problems. Fortunately, we share similar views, in that we both believe in common sense, hard work and responsibility.”
At a time where most men in their mid-70s and 80s are slowing down, Shafer and Smith continue to compete and excel. Smith cites Shafer’s stability and dedication as the reason for their longevity—and the teamwork he’s developed with the crew. “His high standards are why his mates have become top captains,” he says. “He’s done it with our guys too. I consider Greysel [Moreno], Conejo [Chavez Batres] and Oscar [Roldan Cabrera] to be among the top five mates I’ve fished with.”
It’s clear that the two enjoy the banter. Shafer says that if you are still running boats in your 70s, then it’s good to be working for someone older, like Smith, while Smith’s retort is: “Just don’t try to coach me on how to hook a fish.” The reality is, both men still have a lot of fish to catch and a lot of ocean to cover. Chip Shafer just appreciates being there for it all.
This article originally appeared in the February 2022 print issue of Marlin.