The Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year in May, and Jim Johnston plans to be there, just like he has for the previous 49 years. He’s won the tournament twice and come close on several other occasions, but what keeps him coming back is the thrill of the chase. And at 72 years young, the retired boat dealer has no intention of slowing down now.
Johnston runs his own boat, the 59-foot Spencer, Big Sky. Bill Church, Johnston’s longtime deckhand, handles the cockpit duties, his grandson Jackson Stacy is the second mate in the summer, and friends and family man the rods, even in the high-stakes world of the South Carolina Governor’s Cup tournament series. He’s leading a bluewater legacy and passing down those unforgettable memories to the next generation.
M: Your boat is named Big Sky. Any Montana connections?
I fell in love with elk hunting there in the 1980s and told my wife I was going to buy a ranch in Montana. Well, the “ranch” is a 59-foot Paul Spencer docked at Georgetown Landing Marina in South Carolina. I still love to hunt out West every year though.
M: Of all the boats you’ve owned, is this one your favorite?
I’d have to say yes. We built the boat from scratch and finished her in 2006. She has a conventional cockpit without a mezzanine — my sons-in-laws are the anglers, and I didn’t want them to be more comfortable than I am on the bridge.
M: What are some of your other memorable boats?
I owned a 31 Bertram and a 37 Merritt with my good friend Bony Peace that were both named Jackpot. We wore out the blue marlin, swordfish and tuna and had a lot of great days on both boats. In fact, our South Carolina state-record swordfish still stands at 500 pounds, which we caught on the Bertram.
M: Among your fellow anglers, who do you admire the most?
Wallace Pate started the Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament; he passed away over 20 years ago. His love of lure fishing for blue marlin made a lasting impression on me. Wallace made his own lures by hand, which I still use to this day. We caught our 460-pound blue marlin last year on one of his lures.
M: So, you’ve won the Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament twice?
Bony Peace and I won it in 1974 aboard our 31 Bertram, Jackpot, with two blue marlin around 200 pounds each when it was an aggregate-weight tournament. Then I won it again the next year, running a boat called Sugar Tango. The most memorable one was the second annual tournament though. We caught a 216-pound blue marlin, which was the first of nine that were caught that year. In the first year, there were no blue marlin caught, just one sailfish, so that was the first blue ever landed in the event. That year, we fished on a 23-foot Formula named Bonanza. We hooked the fish at 8:05 in the morning on the first day the boat was ever in the ocean, and I was the angler.
M: How did you get started fishing offshore?
I fished on Bezo with Capt. Sam Crayton back in the ’50s when I was 10 or 12 years old. My uncle caught a sailfish that was so old, it had barnacles on it. That really got me started — I couldn’t get fishing off my mind. Then I was mating on Wallace Pate’s boat, a 35-foot Prowler called Nautica II, and had a 4-pound dolphin rigged up as a skip bait on the left rigger. It was only in the water for a few minutes, and we had a big strike: a blue marlin. Wallace caught that fish, which was his first and weighed 208 pounds. I was more worried that he was going to burn through the Dacron line with his cigarette.
M: What’s your favorite style of fishing?
I have an ultralight 4-pound-test spinning rod that I use in my backyard pond, and an 8-weight Sage fly rod is a lot of fun on a bonefish flat. But give me two dredges, two squid chains, five marlin lures and two pitch baits at 8 knots in the blue water and I’m at home.
M: What goals are you still chasing these days?
I would love to have one of the anglers on my boat land a new South Carolina state-record blue marlin. The current record is 882 pounds and was caught on Norm Pulliam’s Rascal, which is tied up next to me at the marina.
M: Ever come close?
We had a good look at one two years ago. The marlin was in the spread for about 45 seconds, and everyone saw the fish. It almost swam up the exhaust pipe, but we didn’t have a pitch bait ready. From the tips of its pectoral fins, the fish was over 6 feet across, and the blue stripes looked to be about 8 inches wide. We had a big lure on the left side, and the fish charged in on that one, put the brakes on, switched to the rigger, then came back in but never bit. I’d like to see that one again one day.
M: What are some of your most memorable days on the water?
We’ve had hundreds of great days in the last 50 years: 200-pound tunas, 500-pound swordfish, multiple blue marlin releases. But a safe return to Boat Harbour in the Bahamas in a 20-foot center console from an afternoon at Nipper’s, Pete’s Pub or Cracker P’s is a pretty memorable day on the water.
M: What lies ahead for the next generation of offshore anglers?
I’m fishing with the next generation now, between my kids and grandchildren and their friends. Hopefully, with accurate scientific management, the game-fish stocks will be OK. The more young anglers we can get offshore, the better we all will be in the future.
M: If you weren’t chasing blue marlin, where would you rather be?
If we’re not at the beach house with our family and friends, then I’d rather be in the Rockies on a hunt. Things really start changing here around September with deer season, dove hunts and trips out West. But in the summer, it’s all about the fishing.