Charleston’s original Captain Harry
By Ford Walpole
Captain Harry Johnson in 1954 with Charles “Scholey” Pitcher, fishing writer for the News & Courier, and an 82-lb. tarpon caught at the Charleston Jetties by Pitcher on 8-lb. test while fishing for trout. Images provided.
Every Mercury reader knows the story of The Old Man and the Sea. A fortunate few of us got to know him, and his story is no fish tale. Harry Locke Johnson, Jr., known affectionately by generations of locals as Captain Harry, was born in Charleston in 1929. He grew up downtown on Lowndes Street and spent a great deal of his youth at his family’s beach house on Sullivan’s Island. And unsurprisingly, most of his childhood memories revolve around fishing.
“We loved fishing! A lot of my early fishing was using a cane pole and fiddlers to catch sheepshead. We used to stand on the rocks where the jetties end and go into the harbor,” he recalls. “Dad and Uncle Cussie Johnson also took me on fishing trips to Bulls Island and Capers Island. We caught channel bass in the surf; they call them redfish now. My grandfather Arthur Campbell would come down from Florence and go fishing with us on Sullivan’s Island. He would wade out until he was waist deep, swirl a handline around his head and cast it out in the surf.” Indeed, Captain Harry would not acquire his own first spinning rod and reel until some years later.
Then he adds, “Unfortunately, we did not release very many fish back then.”
This is something Harry sought to change with his legacy of fishing. Park Smith III, grandson of one of Captain Harry’s lifelong friends, says, “What I am always reminded of about fishing with Harry is his commitment to conservation — well before really anyone else was doing it. Looking back, he was way ahead of his time in promoting catch and release. He is a great sportsman and conservationist and one of the kindest people you will ever meet.”
Captain Harry Johnson is a member of a prolific family that includes his brother Robert (wife Scottie), his sister Barbara Baker (husband Archie), seven nieces and nephews, 20 great nieces and nephews, and three great-great nieces and nephews. Of course, the fishing family Harry has cultivated throughout the years is indeed innumerable.
Bulls Island: "Dad," Owen Geer, Gilly Dotterer, Buist Rivers, Will Middleton and Harry.
Harry and Park Smith, Sr., who grew up on nearby South Battery, were lifelong friends. From his father, Smith inherited a Piper J-3 Cub plane, which he flew back and forth to college at Washington and Lee. Park, Harry and Archie Baker often flew the plane to Bulls Island for surf fishing trips. Park landed it on the beach, and they had to head home once the tide began to cover their runway.
A few years after graduating from The Citadel, Captain Harry joined his father and uncle — and later his brother Robert — at Johnson and Johnson Insurance, a company now run by Harry’s nephews. Harry, a lifelong bachelor, was very successful in business, but his real passion was pursuing the teeming life beneath Lowcountry waters. “That boat and fishing were what he really cared about!” laughs Park Smith, Jr.
“If Harry wasn’t working, he was fishing. And if he wasn’t fishing, he was talking about fishing!” adds Thomas Wynne, who has fished with Harry since the early 1980s and is the current co-owner and captain of the Petrel, Captain Harry’s first major boat purchase.
To catch bigger fish offshore, Captain Harry and Park joined friends Henry Conner and Huger Sinkler in purchasing the Petrel, a Chris-Craft. The friends later bought Captain Buck Morris’s Egg Harbor, followed by a Scottie Craft and later a Bertram. “We had a lot of boats over the years!” Harry says. “We had so many, we eventually stopped numbering them!”
“We came up with the name Petrel on our way to pick up that first boat,” recalls Jeanne Smith, who frequently fished with Harry, her husband and her three boys: Park, Jr., Cantey and Champ. Since petrel refers to a family of sea birds that spend the majority of their lives on the ocean, the name is quite fitting.
Family of Jeanne and Park Smith. On flybridge from left to right: Jeanne, Cantey, Park “Peach” Jr., Park Sr. with Champ on the ladder. Sally and Louisa Geer are in the cockpit.
“Harry and Daddy were fishing pioneers when they started going offshore in the early 1960s,” Park Smith, Jr. remarks. “Back then, you had an RDF (radio direction finder). You tuned in to WTMA in Charleston and WAPE in Jacksonville, and you used those signals to get back home. Later, Harry had one of the first Lorans around. I remember him getting in the bow and banging on that Loran, getting the coordinates and plotting the course back home.
“We were also one of the first boats to catch swordfish off South Carolina,” Smith continues. “One day back in the mid-1970s, we came in from fishing, and it was so calm it was slick. We bought squid and headed right back out and fished all night. We caught three swordfish that night.”
Captain Harry’s detailed and colorful logbooks offer insight into those early days of offshore fishing. He narrates a Charleston Yacht Club Tournament in the fall of 1969 with his brother, Robert, Park and Jeanne Smith, Park “Peach” Jr., Rocky Stelling and J. Stewart Walker. “Underway 0510. Out 150’. Southeast breeze, seas moderate. Began fishing 0800. Approx. 80’ Sailfish plentiful. Two hooked and jumping. Both threw hook. Three others raised — struck —missed! No other action at all. Ended up with NO sails. One dolphin. One king mackerel 17 lbs. Secured 1800. Topped tanks 106.9 gallons. Peach won CYC largest king with this fish, which he brought to gaff like a veteran and which brought forth favorable comments from J.S.W. and Rocky (actually Rocky’s comment was ‘That little bastard! I was reaching for that rod!’) Won second place boat (tie with Panacea) trophy.”
Another trip from that same year included Owen and Eleanor Geer, Park and Jeanne Smith and Rocky Stelling. “At appx 0745 a bonefish skipping happily along was assaulted by a BIG BLUE which, in spite of frantic instructions shouted by an excited Johnson, was battled into submission by Master Rocky Stelling. The fish was brought into the boat in a professional manner by the cockpit crew of Geer, Smith and Smith again in spite of shouted instructions from Johnson. Fishing was about over after that. Everyone but Rocky was thoroughly exhausted and faced with the thrilling prospect of a six-hour wet and wild ride home! Secured basin 1745. Topped tanks 174 gallons. Trident leader in class at this writing.”
A true sportsman, Captain Harry practiced and promoted conservation. “We started tagging fish early on,” Harry says. “I convinced my crew that we needed to start tagging and releasing fish, and that it is fun and rewarding when you get a return. When we started billfishing, we had a goal to tag as many fish as we could. I’m a little embarrassed we brought back those two I have mounted on the wall, but we really didn’t kill many fish; we tried not to kill anything that could not be eaten. Through fish tagging, we got to know Don Hammond [of South Carolina Department of Natural Resources] very well, and we contacted him any time we had an inquiry as to the identity of a fish.”
Harry’s records reveal cards from tagged species such as red drum, wahoo, sailfish, dolphin, swordfish, blue marlin, white marlin, little tunny and barracuda. He has tagged fish from South Carolina’s inshore and offshore waters to the Bahamas to Mexico. His letters always instructed that the T-shirt reward be mailed to the specific angler who caught the fish.
One particularly interesting tagging story was written up locally as well as in Gulf Coast newspapers. In 1971, Harry tagged an approximately 22-pound amberjack off Charleston. After two years, gaining 30 pounds and traveling 1,800 miles, the fish was recaptured 40 miles off Freeport, Texas, by Fred Garrett of Houston.
Never far from a fishing rod.
The selfless heart of a true conservationist is committed to preserving natural resources for ensuing generations. Thus, Captain Harry likewise believed in sharing his love of fishing with children. “For Harry, fishing is all about the kids! There is a long list of extremely good fishermen in Charleston who all learned how to be anglers because of Harry,” says Thomas Wynne. “Harry and I are tight. He is a traditional, fine Southern gentleman with a quiet manner. He is a friend and a father figure to me, and he is a grandfather to my boys!”
“My first time offshore fishing was with Captain Harry,” says Thomas Morrison. “Literally hundreds of young people were introduced to offshore fishing because of the kindness of Harry Johnson. Later, when I was fishing boats out of Toler’s Cove, almost every time I walked down the gangway, Harry was always on the boat and ready to talk fishing; I don’t think I have ever seen him in a bad mood.”
“I think Harry is wonderful, and I always have,” says Jeanne Smith. “He really taught my children all they know about fishing. As children, all of the boys idolized him. Harry is godfather to my youngest son, Champ,” who has traveled the globe pursuing fish and has spent much of his life as a sportfishing captain and fishing guide.
Park Smith, Jr. agrees: “Harry is such a blessing, and he was always so generous. He is the one who indoctrinated us all into fishing. We fished all the billfish tournaments, but because Harry is so conservation-minded, we never entered the calcuttas. We could have won a lot of tournaments and money, but Harry would much rather see the fish go back in the water.”
Smith recalls a particularly exciting time they were fishing the Georgetown Tournament, back when owners ran their own boats, and before anyone hired professional captains. “I was running the boat, which had an enclosed bridge, and we had a bridge rod that we fished way back behind the boat. The minute a fish hit that rod, I grabbed a rod belt and fighting harness and fought it from the bridge for three hours; it was a big blue marlin of about 400 pounds. Of course, we released it — since we were fishing with Harry!”
“We have caught some fish and won some tournaments,” Captain Harry humbly recalls. “We liked it when they started the tournaments; they made the fishing even more fun!” Trophies and awards line the shelves of Harry’s nautical-themed office, which includes a saltwater aquarium and in which boat cleats and shackles serve as drawer pulls on the desk.
Among his major fishing accomplishments is a South Carolina state record. In 1986, while fishing with Thomas Wynne, Captain Harry landed a 53-pound longbill spearfish. In 2014, Harry fished with Captain John Thomas and nephews Fran Johnson and Harry Johnson II. That year, the Petrel won the Carolina Billfish Classic, catching and releasing two blue marlin and four sailfish. In addition, Harry, always a fan of light tackle, won a number of Trident Tournaments.
Captain Thomas Wynn, Justin Conder and Harry hold a dolphin caught on Harry’s last fishing trip at age 90.
“Harry taught us that it’s more about the fishing than the catching. People thought we were crazy for releasing all those fish!” Wynne explains. He recalls “multiple nights of catching and releasing as many as seven swordfish.” One New Year’s Day, they released four sailfish and hooked a whale shark on a swimming mullet in 90 feet of water. Some years ago at the Georgetown Tournament, the Petrel fought and released a blue marlin that likely weighed 600 pounds. When they got back to the dock, the tournament winner walked over to the boat and said to Harry and the crew: “I just want to shake your hand. I saw that fish y’all caught and released, and I know it was bigger than my fish! Way to go!”
Don Hammond, retired biologist for DNR, recalls Harry’s remarkable selflessness at the tournament. “Harry Johnson is the example I always use of what a true sportsman is. He absolutely was a leader in conservation,” he says.
Though Harry is still in good health at 92, his doctor encouraged him to retire from going offshore. He last fished at age 90, though he frequently walks down to the boat and recently accompanied Wynne on an inshore pleasure ride.
Captain Harry misses fishing, but from the bedroom and deck of his upstairs condo at Toler’s Cove Marina, he has a spectacular view of the Petrel, tied to the dock and ready for its next adventure.
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 email@example.com.