By Bill McFadyen
Back in the days before sloshing across the deep blue sea in large boats made me turn various colors and then vomit, I fished about once a year with Watson Caviness and his dad, Dr. Bob Caviness. I would contribute a share toward entry fees and expenses in small tournaments that took place mainly out of Morehead City during the summers.
There would be seven or eight of us on the boat. Always Watson was at the helm, making the decisions of where the boat would go and at what speed it would travel. Page Robertson and Chris Cates were the deckhands. They were a legendary duo on the docks. It appeared to me that Chris was primarily in charge of what the fish would (hopefully) eat while Page was in charge of what the humans would (certainly) eat. There were usually two or three others like me, people who primarily just got in the way in high-stress moments and who reeled in the fish that had no bearing on the tournament’s outcome, but who made the entry fees less painful to the people who knew what they were doing.
It was usually a bargain-priced weekend of living life in the big time. Still, fishing with Caviness and crew on board their boat, “Salty Fare,” gave you a plausible chance of getting back some of that entry fee in prize money. If you won, then it was enough to merit a 1099 form from tournament headquarters.
On every trip was Dr. Bob Caviness, the extractor of many an impacted wisdom tooth during his 40 working years as an oral surgeon. Doc was always the keeper of the kitty. The kitty was a drawer in the salon where everybody who was being charged to participate put their prescribed knot of cash when first they stepped on board. From that cash, Bob paid for entry fees and purchased the baits and the provisions and paid the fuel bills. Beyond that, his primary role seemed to be that of Captain Emeritus and chief inventory-taker of Miller Lite bottles, both opened and unopened. He had his one place where he sat in the salon when we were steaming and he had his one place he sat in the cockpit when we were fishing. From both, he either observed or pontificated.
Everyone loved Doc. He was your swell pal, your adopted dad, your role model and your bartender all at the same time. He was the one who started the whole Fayetteville-based blue marlin thing in the ‘70s and he was the one who inspired all of us dit-dotters to try to battle a marlin before life and ability left us.
I probably fished without throwing up for ten years or so on “Salty Fare.” In all that time, I won only one tournament, the Band the Billfish Ducks Unlimited tournament in 2003. All billfish were released and you got points for each fish depending on the species. Size, for once, did not matter. Perhaps it sounds cocky to you for me to say that “I won it.” But read this again: I won it.
It was August and it was hot and it was past the peak blue marlin season. The more plentiful sailfish and white marlin were worth tournament points but only about a third as many as the scarcer blue marlin.
We left before daybreak after I watched Watson the night before pore over enough satellite and barometric pressure and water temperature maps to make Jim Cantore jealous. “Salty Fare” was a sleek beast with two giant diesel engines and perfectly tuned propellers that sent us across the ocean faster than about any other boat. On that muggy August dawn, we were well on our way to Portugal or at least to Bermuda with the majority of the trailing fleet wondering where we went. I climbed up to the bridge to watch for flying fish in the sunrise and to get some fresh air. There were two chairs mounted behind that massive console. I sat in the one Watson had left empty. I put my feet up on the dash and started talking about nothing as we headed toward the blue Gulf Stream water.
“Salty Fare” had an automatic pilot feature. So even an idiot like me knew that when she motored down all by herself and burped out a cloud of black smoke, it was bad. The problem started when I put the sole of my Docker squarely on top of the starter button for the port-side motor. I still do not know the actual mechanics of it all, but when Watson and Page emerged from below deck, the diagnosis was on their face: we were not going to the Gulf Stream after all, as my foot placement had shut down that engine for the foreseeable future.
Those formerly invisible trailing vessels that previously could not keep up with “Salty Fare” appeared on our stern and passed us at 20 knots, as we rolled in the pea-green water that says, “you are a long way from shore but you are not yet where you want to be.”
With a grim expression (and ignoring me completely), Watson stood before Doc and delivered the verdict: “On one engine, we are about five hours from port. We can turn around and head for home where we will arrive about 2 this afternoon or I guess we can slop around in here and maybe catch a mahi.” The remaining engine chugged at idle, awaiting an answer and preparing for its long day ahead.
Doc was in his cockpit seat. It was almost 9, start time for “lines in the water.” We had been awake a long time. Doc had eaten breakfast long ago, read his book from his salon seat and solved a few world crises along the way. He placidly reached over into the ice box and he extracted a Miller Lite. The ice chips were running down the sides of the bottle. He twisted to open. And then, without any change of expression or emotion, he said the words that sent me on the path to not only redemption, but also to tournament heroism:
“I thought we came to fish.”
At 9 a.m., in the pea soup that was the ocean all around us, and with nary another boat in sight, we set out our lines with a decided lack of enthusiasm. Watson pushed the one laboring engine into gear, chunked all those maps and charts to the bottom of the sea and started trolling to the east.
Voltaire once said, “God is a great comedian, playing to an audience which is afraid to laugh.”
At 9:15, Doc was finishing that Miller Lite and thinking about the prospect of another, when the pin popped on the left flat line and the reel started screaming to the tune of a big fish going the other way. Five seconds later, the left long line did the same thing. There is unique chaos when a fishing boat’s cockpit is jarred into action, when, as Doc used to say, “your whole world changes in one second.” This was double that chaos.
In 15 minutes or so, we released a 150-pound blue marlin. A few minutes later, we released his twin brother. 800 points by 9:30 a.m. Captain Watson, the smartest fisherman in the fleet, radioed tournament headquarters that we released the first blue marlin of the day, and then the second, from those verdant waters where no one else was fishing. Then he called in a white marlin release 45 minutes later. And then another.
About 11:30, the first boats appeared on the horizon, steaming to get to where we were. Then a dozen more. Before fishing ended at 3, we were dodging boats like bumper cars at a county fair. Me and my clumsy foot, along with Doc’s pronouncement of our having come to fish, won that fishing tournament.
This past December, I heard in the hushed tone of impending sadness that the doctors were not going to further treat the cancer growing in Bob Caviness. The strategy would be to bring physical comfort to squeak out another year with some quality of life. On January 6, 2018, I rode out to see the Marlin Fisherman Emeritus, the adoptive dad for all of us who wished to be adopted. He was bundled up against the winter chill and stirring a pot of canned soup. His wife Beegie and I prattled on about nothing. He listened and chuckled and sipped his soup. I told Doc that if he would call me in the next few weeks, I would drive us to Watson’s farm in Granville County with two bird dogs and more Miller Lites, the kind with chips of ice sliding down the sides of the bottles.
We never made that trip. Three weeks later, Bob went on a much longer journey instead, arm in arm with a Savior.
As I was rising to leave, I asked Beegie to take our picture. I got on my knees next to Doc and picked up the paring knife on the table, brandishing it at the camera, foolishly defying anyone or anything to try to abscond with my Companion Emeritus.
Had I only known, I would have wielded a bigger blade.