Pam Hanckel, offshore fishing pioneer
Pam Hanckel of John’s Island has worn many hats throughout the years — published author, math teacher, businesswoman, Sunday school teacher, wife, mother and grandmother, but one that is especially comfortable — as evident by the billfish decal on her mailbox — is that of accomplished female angler.
Pam recalls her early introduction to fishing: “As long as I can remember, my daddy and momma loved fishing. We moved to John’s Island when I was seven. There were no neighborhoods or friends to play with, so Daddy was my buddy — what he did, I did. We went gigging, trout fishing, sheepshead fishing and bass fishing (in the days when spottail bass were called bass and not redfish). I learned early how to throw a cast net and catch fiddler crabs for bait. I loved our adventures on the water!”
When Captain David P. (Buck) Morris wanted to graduate from a johnboat, his wife Princess negotiated terms: “Quit smoking and save your money and you can get a bigger boat. So he did,” says Pam. “He threw his pack of cigarette off the dock and never looked back. I think his first boat was a Renken inboard/outboard. He moved to a 28 Chris Craft and later to a 37-foot Egg Harbor, The Princess V.” Then came the Sea Datsun and Major Motion, which were christened as a nod to the family business, Morris Datsun, later Morris Nissan.
Billfishing began to get popular in the late 1960s and early 70s. Tournaments soon followed and the Morrises “had billfish fever.” When she was a student at the University of South Carolina, Pam frequently declined her gentlemen callers. “When I said I couldn’t go out that weekend because I was going home to go fishing, I’m not sure the boys believed me, but it was always the truth!”
Captain Buck tirelessly promoted conservation and billfishing. He was a founding member of the SCSSA (South Carolina Saltwater Sportsfishing Association). Through the years, he won many awards, including the Governor Carol A. Campbell Jr. award for Billfish Conservation and the Wallace F. Pate award at the Georgetown Billfishing Tournament.
“I never really considered myself a female angler,” Pam reflects. “When I first started fishing, there were very few female anglers.” Besides Pam’s mother, Ginga Pingree and Patsy Cooler were role models of an earlier generation. “We fished IGFA (International Game Fish Association) tournament rules, so I was used to hooking and fighting my own fish. There was no favoritism on the boat — we rotated rods every hour and my turn was my turn. We did not have paid mates, so I rigged my own bait, wired and gaffed fish or did what was needed; it was just part of fishing and I loved it!
“In 1978, I was the first female to catch a swordfish off the South Carolina coast. My greatest accomplishment was my 525-pound blue marlin in the 1984 Bohicket Billfishing Tournament. My two brothers, Bucky and David, both caught billfish that day. Daddy put all three of his children on billfish on the same day! I will never forget his smile when I looked up to the flying bridge. It was the greatest day ever!” Pam’s children tease her that their births should have carried a greater significance than landing a fish, but she proudly smiles … neglecting to retract her sentiment.
Since Pam considered herself a member of the crew and was ever-determined to carry her own weight, she was rarely challenged in the male-dominated sport of offshore angling. But after landing her record marlin, “many on the docks questioned how a female could hook and catch a fish like that. But I did and I am proud of it and thank goodness that day we took a spectator who just wanted to ride and get pictures.” The guest proved a reliable witness to Pam’s sole effort and success.
Pam describes her effective method of billfishing: “I would almost have to get a running start to get the rod out of the rod holder without being pulled overboard. I backed into the fighting chair, put my leg over the footrest and got the rod into the gimbal. Now, mates are allowed to hand an angler a rod without losing a point. A lot of women today didn’t have to learn the way I did.”
Though many boat owners hired professional captains and mates, the Morrises relied on the expertise of an experienced crew of family and friends. John G. Thornhill and Sherrill Poulnot made for some fun trips throughout the years. Tommy Lewis and Jimmy Lucas also regularly fished with Captain Buck. The dock parties on nights prior to fishing guaranteed a particularly good time. Pam always enjoyed a beverage or two, but she encouraged her brothers to partake more freely. After a number of sluggish mornings watching their sister catch all the fish, David and Bucky finally caught on to her scheme.
Throughout the years, Pam has witnessed many changes in offshore fishing. In the early days with the Princess V, the Morris family left the dock at 1:00 a.m. to wet lines by 8:00 a.m. “Many two and three day tournaments, we had to spend the night offshore. We would drift and catch bottom fish and have a very fresh fish supper.” The Sea Datsun allowed the family to leave the dock at 3:00 a.m. and the Major Motion would cut that time down to 5:00 a.m.
“Fishing was so much different back then,” Pam recalls of riding slow boats without air conditioning or generators. “The front window would open and we could let air in if it was not too rough. A bucket of salt water was the only way to cool down on hot days.
“We did not have GPS and all of the other electronics that are so popular today. We started with radio direction finders and graduated to Lorans. I remember as we headed home from fishing, Daddy would always take a ‘fix’ on the Loran that plotted the course. It was down in the cabin and when it was rough and hot, it was miserable trying to look into the eyepiece to plot the course. I was so proud and felt so important when I learned how to do it.” Years later, Pam discovered that Captain Buck always snuck down to recheck her course. “That was just who he was; he took no chances when it came to safety of his crew.”
Tournaments were more fun during a simpler time. “Most of the boats were local and you knew everybody. Everyone wanted to win, but you celebrated whoever won. There was very little money involved (maybe a side Calcutta), but the prize for winning was tackle.” Through tournament success, the Morrises amassed an impressive supply of tackle, some of which is still used today. Since the female award was a wristwatch, Pam went years without ever needing to purchase a timepiece.
As the popularity of tournament fishing grew, “prizes turned to money and a lot of the fun is missing from tournament fishing. Boats now come from Virginia to Florida with professional captains and mates allowed to hook the fish. Tournaments are more like a business and have become very competitive; the friendly camaraderie has disappeared,” Pam laments.
Offshore fishing actually introduced Pam to her husband Miles. He grew up sailing, but after fishing with Richard Hutson aboard the Oystercatcher, he was hooked. “Miles fished on our boat a couple of times and we became great friends. We would come in from a date and go straight to the boat to get ready to leave.”
On one memorable swordfish trip, they took along their son Milo, who was only three years old. When no one was looking, the boy emptied a can of WD-40 on the contents of the cooler. They had no choice but to consume the lubricant-seasoned food and drinks. “To this day, I can’t stand the smell of WD-40, but we it must have been good luck because we had the best night sword fishing we have ever had!” Pam laughs.
The Hanckels instilled a love of fishing in their children, Milo, Ryan and Hope. “I always said I created a monster in my daughter Hope as she loves fishing as much as I do and she goes whenever she can. I now seem to have become the babysitter while she fishes; history repeats itself, as my mom stepped back from fishing to babysit my children while I went fishing.”
After college, Milo captained Tommy Hancock’s Dem Boys. This experience led Milo to open Hanckel Marine, a family-run boat dealership that recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary. Hanckel Marine sells Sportsman Boats, which Hancock’s company manufactures. When the store opened, Ryan took his brother’s place in the captain’s chair.
The whole family either works, or has worked for the business. Miles’s background in yacht sales and marine supplies makes him an invaluable resource. “We have taken our knowledge of the water and we try and make this family business a place where people can come, learn, tell some stories and get what they need to enjoy our wonderful resources here in Charleston,” says Pam.
“I love fishing and I always will!” Pam declares. “I love that ‘catching’ has now turned a lot to ‘releasing.’ I want there to be plenty for many generations to come. It was a love that Momma, Daddy, my brothers, Miles and I shared and it kept us close as a family. I still get my feet wet every now and then, but I am now very spoiled from several trips to Mexico. Not leaving the dock until 8:00 a.m. and returning at 3:00 p.m. with a rigger full of flags is much easier and more inviting.”
For Pam Hanckel, offshore fishing is always a good time, even when the fish are scarce. “The quietness and the beauty of the sky and stars out in the middle of the ocean is one of God’s greatest creations and a sight that is truly unexplainable. I have always said saltwater runs through my veins; it runs through my children’s veins and I am now working on my grandchildren. I can think of nothing better to pass on to them — other than my faith!”
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.