South Carolina Marlin Fishing History

How the Palmetto State's big-game fishery evolved from humble beginnings

Silhouettes of sport-fishing boats with the sunset in the background.
A look at the past and present of the marlin-fishing scene in the Palmetto State. Cameron J. Rhodes

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Have you ever held history in your hands? There is a great power in ­visiting the relics from our past. I was lucky to hold a piece of South Carolina’s sport-fishing history today. I still feel its impression in my palms—the delicate edges, the weight.

The marlin bill I held in my hands is nearly twice my age. It is fragile and brown, like slick, aged wood that could crack with just a touch. A rusted hook is lodged in its base, a reminder of how the blue marlin that donned it was eventually bested. The bill didn’t belong to any ordinary fish. It belonged to the fish—one that forever changed South Carolina’s bluewater fishery. What can better inspire those with the itch to venture offshore than the storied wildness of a blue marlin? The only thing that carries greater weight is the hard proof that she was even there, and that she could indeed be caught.

South Carolina’s history with blue marlin fishing is rather young. And I was promptly confronted with this fact when I came to realize that some of the people who were there to witness it are still around to tell us about it. For those of us who find community here among South Carolina’s offshore fishermen, we have the incredible honor of still being able to touch our history, to physically hear the voices of those who saw it all unfold firsthand. They’re not echoes from the past; they’re right here on the docks, with a story to tell if we’d just listen.

Watch: A belly-strip teaser is a great way to raise marlin and sailfish. Learn to rig one here.

Georgetown, South Carolina: A Fishery Is Born

While much of South Carolina’s offshore fishing fleet is now located in Charleston, the birth of the state’s blue marlin fishery took place roughly 60 miles north, in another town dripping in Spanish moss and Southern charm. The third-oldest city in South Carolina, Georgetown sits at the confluence of five rivers. The tannin-rich waters surrounding the city are accented by the electric green of marsh grass in the summer months, sturgeon catapulting from the surface, and shorebirds on the wing.

A large billfish bill set into a trophy.
The bill of the first blue marlin ever recorded in South Carolina, the hook still lodged in its base. Cameron J. Rhodes

Georgetown was once the hub of indigo and rice production in North America. Following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Georgetown later turned to the lumber, steel and paper industries. While these businesses helped to support the city, there was another industry that thrived along the rivers’ edges. Commercial-fishing operations began netting sturgeon and shad as early as the arrival of the first settlers. Today, commercial fishermen, charter vessels and recreational anglers pursue countless other inshore and offshore species along Georgetown’s coast. Much of that offshore expansion is courtesy of a husband-and-wife duo who just couldn’t shake that itch.

The Pursuit

LK “Dinks” Fitzgerald and his wife, Katherine, known as “Cappy” to her friends, were both born and raised in Virginia. Before moving their young family from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the late 1950s, Dinks had befriended several charter captains in Morehead City, North Carolina, and had learned a lot about the developing marlin fishery there. He was instantly fascinated and, like most of the marlin-obsessed, felt compelled to catch one himself.

Dinks studied the techniques of fishermen in neighboring regions and relied on his own experiences fishing nearshore. He and Cappy were both natural and avid outdoorsmen and watermen. They loved to hunt and fish together. “My mother was an excellent rifle shot,” recalls Kenny Fitzgerald, Dinks and Cappy’s son. “She was a North Carolina skeet-shooting champion, and it would tickle the hell out of my dad to have her outcompete the boys.” The Fitzgeralds’ new home state happened to be a great location for many outdoor pursuits, but the blue waters off South Carolina—wedged between two burgeoning billfish destinations: North Carolina and Florida—remained largely undiscovered. Because it was already widely understood that billfish species are migratory, Dinks felt confident that blue marlin must also hunt the waters off the Palmetto coast. Turns out, he was right.

Although Spartanburg is an inland city, it’s ­fortunately one that provides easy access to the coast, and Georgetown soon became a favorite weekend destination for the Fitzgeralds. Dinks and Cappy brought Kenny and their daughter, Susie, along for these fishing trips, where they’d spend the night as a family on their boat called Tar Baby. In the late 1950s, Dinks purchased a series of outboards that shuttled his family and friends to various shipwrecks off Georgetown. They’d happily fish for king mackerel, but the call of the Gulf Stream whispered. Regardless of how much they wanted to venture farther offshore, the Fitzgeralds would need a faster boat to get them out there.

An angler standing next to a large blue marlin.
The state’s first blue was landed by Mrs. Katherine “Cappy” Fitzgerald in June 1964. Courtesy Lisa Fitzgerald

It wasn’t until the family purchased a 38-foot Post that they could finally pursue the fish that had long leapt through Dinks’ daydreams. While most fishermen were staying closer to shore, the Fitzgeralds and other South Carolina fishing pioneers, such as Sam Crayton, Wallace Pate, Bony Peace and Jim Johnston, were willing to go the necessary 60 miles. Although these fishermen were in a race to catch a blue marlin, they spent considerable time together on Georgetown’s docks, swapping stories and offering fishing tips. If you ask Johnston, now 77 and still running his 59-foot Spencer, Big Sky, about those days competing for the first blue marlin, he will morph into that 20-year-old kid again. A proud grin will sweep across his face, and he’ll ­rattle off some incredible memories, playfully ­calling himself and others an SOB all the while.

In 1962, Tar Baby made its first trek to the Gulf Stream. Dinks and Capt. JE “Biddy” Alderman used a compass and loran-A to navigate, where they caught dolphin and tuna—a welcome addition to their table fare. That same year in the heat of July, three sailfish were caught off South Carolina, the first ever recorded, although there are some reports that suggest sailfish were landed off South Carolina as early as the 1930s. Regardless of the date details, these three sailfish made for encouraging news, compelling Tar Baby and Nautica I, owned by Pate, to continue on in their hunt for a blue marlin.

Meanwhile, folks in North Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas were catching billfish with greater frequency. Another summer came and went in South Carolina, but both Nautica I and Tar Baby continued to make trips to the Gulf Stream in pursuit of blue marlin. They raised many fish over the next year and hooked numerous sails, but they were never able to successfully boat a blue. That is, until summer 1964.

As the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love” took over the radio airwaves, Dinks and Cappy, along with their children, their friend Ellison Smith, and Alderman, once again turned Tar Baby loose from Georgetown. As they had done almost every trip in the two years prior, the eager crew was heading for the warm, blue waters of the East Coast’s ­saltwater highway. What came next was truly a family affair. Shortly after Dinks rigged a Kona Head lure and sent it overboard, Tar Baby got a bite. Dinks handed the 80-pound outfit to Cappy and proudly sent her to work. The talented angler fought the fish for an hour and a half as her children helped to position the fighting chair and pour water on the gears of the screaming reel to keep it cool. Just as if she had caught numerous blue marlin before, Cappy handled the situation like a true professional, gaining line and wrangling the 230-pound marlin to the boat. Dinks gaffed the fish, the hook lodged deeply in its bill. The first blue ever caught in South Carolina suddenly hit the deck, and ­history was made.

The rear transom of a sport-fishing boat, with the words Big Sky painted on.
Jim Johnston, captain and owner of the 59-foot Spencer Big Sky, named his boat after an affinity for elk hunting in Montana, but his South Carolina fishing history spans nearly 70 years, and his program truly is a family affair. Cameron J. Rhodes

Making a Name

Once the news spread that a blue marlin had been landed in South Carolina, sport fishing in the state changed forever. “More and more fishermen began targeting blue marlin after that,” remembers Capt. Mike Glaesner, whose father, Fred Glaesner, was one of the earliest bluewater fishing pioneers in Charleston. “In the mid- to late ’60s, a 40-foot boat was a rarity. Most were gas-powered and did not have much range, so crews would leave around midnight and chug all night to save fuel. Thirty-one-foot Bertrams were very popular in the late ’60s and early ’70s, so as the boats got bigger and techniques improved, even more anglers began targeting blue marlin.”

During this time, avid fishermen such as Sumner Pingree (Roulette), Buck Morris (Sea Datsun and Major Motion), Harry Locke Johnson Jr. (Petrel), Dr. Tom Gibson and Dick McCaskill (Hang Ten), Ned Thornhill (Laf-A-Lot), and Dr. Dale Lackey (Panacea) started honing different techniques for catching blue marlin and other billfish off Charleston. They modified gear, played with different baits, and started to get a feel for how a blue marlin might think. The same ingenuity was occurring in Georgetown as well, with Johnston, Peace, Pate, Fitzgerald and Crayton leading the charge. All of these Charleston and Georgetown names are tattooed on the legacy of sport-fishing history in South Carolina. Many of them now have entire lineages of excellent fishermen who they helped raise and teach. Glaesner (Sportin’ Life) and Capt. Dale Lackey (Caramba and Game Changer), both extremely accomplished fishermen running highly competitive programs, are great examples of just that.

Glaesner grew up learning about these early days, about the men and women who proved that a blue marlin could be caught in their home waters. Now it was time to perfect the craft. “I remember hearing my dad and others telling stories about huge schools of sailfish and raising multiple blue marlin at one time,” Glaesner recalls. “The hookup percentages in the early days were not good. Most boats were using 6/0 and 9/0 Penn Senators, which were not the best reels for hooking billfish. There was a variety of Kona-style lures that were pulled by some boats; other boats pulled rubber Mold Craft squids.”

It didn’t take long for the baits to change as well. Although the first blue marlin was caught on an artificial lure, the tide eventually turned to the use of a variety of natural baits. “In the early to mid-’70s, more and more boats began pulling natural baits such as ballyhoo, mullet, and Spanish mackerel,” Glaesner explains. “As they changed techniques to include natural baits, the hookup-to-catch ratios began to improve. Back then, terminal tackle was comprised of Dacron fishing line and steel leaders; monofilament leaders and fishing line did not come onto the scene until the late ’70s. With the introduction of mono, the catch ratios improved drastically.” And, as expected, with improved ratios, the demand for bigger and faster boats, as well as more advanced electronics, grew. “I remember using an AM radio to find our way home,” Glaesner says. “The early fish finders—those used in the ’60s—were flashing-­type units that would just show your depth. In the early ’70s, the loran-A machines came out. They were large, bulky and hard to use, but they would give you your location. Then loran-C came out a few years later, providing a continuous location. Paper fish finders arrived sometime in the early ’70s, and they were a vast improvement over the flashers. With all these improvements in boats, electronics and tackle, marlin fishing in South Carolina began to make a name for itself.”

A large marlin breaking the surface of the ocean.
A feisty blue takes to the air during the annual season-long South Carolina Governor’s Cup tournament series. Hannes Ribbner

Tournament Development

It wasn’t just those tech and style advancements that helped put South Carolina’s fishery on the map. Local tournaments also helped pave the way for additional growth, and it’s only fitting that the first billfish tournament in the state would be hosted where it started. The first Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament was held in 1968, four years after Cappy had landed her fish. In a program for the 20th anniversary of the Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament, Bony Peace wrote: “The interest in marlin fishing was intense enough for Wallace [Pate] to start the tournament, and intense enough throughout the state to produce 25 entrants in the first event. The first tournament did not have an easy beginning. It was first scheduled for June, [but] because of bad weather, it was canceled and finally rescheduled for Labor Day weekend; two sailfish were caught in the tournament. What the first tournament lacked in weather and results, the second one made up for it. There were eight blues and two whites caught, and the Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament was off and running.”

The popularity of South Carolina’s Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament, which celebrated its 54th year in 2022, inspired even more tournaments, including those we see today. The South Carolina Governor’s Cup Billfishing Series in 1989, spearheaded by then-Gov. Carroll A. Campbell and other local greats, including longtime tournament director Marshall Truluck, was born from the efforts that took place in Georgetown. As South Carolina’s catch ratios improved and folks were regularly landing billfish, Campbell and others saw a great need to encourage conservation of billfish species while still promoting the state’s sport-fishing industry. The Georgetown tournament had already implemented some release rules in 1977, setting an example for other tournaments in the state. Once established, the series adopted similar rules, and now boasts a 90 percent release rate, which includes the annual Georgetown Blue Marlin Tournament.

A black and white image of a group of anglers standing next to a large marlin.
A young Capt. Mike Glaesner poses with one of his earliest South Carolina blue marlin, which was quite the accomplishment back in the day, when you relied on rudimentary equipment and long-range navigation systems to get you home. Courtesy Capt. Mike Glaesner

Setting the Tone

Today, South Carolina’s offshore-fishing community has some of the most advanced and beautiful boats in the world. Walk the docks in Georgetown, Charleston or Edisto, and you’ll see various builds in assorted colors. We’ve come a long way from those early days, but a few things remain the same. If you’ve spent any time sport-fishing in South Carolina, you’ve likely noticed that camaraderie comes first. Every tournament feels like a reunion, an opportunity to get families and friends together. Perhaps that’s not unique to South Carolina’s fishing fleet, but I’ve personally never felt it quite as much in other places. I like to think that this tradition of family first comes about honestly, as if it’s born from the way the very first blue marlin was caught here.

Read Next: Learn more about the Costa Offshore World Championship, including how to qualify to participate.

The Fitzgeralds set the tone for the rest of us. So, the next time you find yourself on a dock in South Carolina during tournament time, take a minute to observe everything around you. You’ll see glittering gold reels, lures that rival the rainbow, and a pile of shoes of every imaginable size. You’ll see captains and mates teaching the next generation how to rig a bait, good ol’ boys cracking jokes and slapping each other on the back, and little kids sitting in fighting chairs preparing for their soon-to-be battle. Once you’ve spent that minute taking in the scene, take a pause. Then offer a nod to Dinks and Cappy Fitzgerald for helping to get it all started.

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