“No, we don’t mind you bringing your little dog in. Guy running one of my boats will be in here soon, and he’s got a big dog, Boo Boo. She’s real friendly, though,” Captain Morgan says, looking around for a spot for us to chat.
The captain’s place is called Fisherman’s Discount, down south of Fairhope on Highway 98 in the Barnwell community. His name is Daniel Morgan Henderson. You’ve probably seen the shop and might remember a tall pole standing outside with a long fishing net or two hanging from it. Might’ve also seen a Lafitte Skiff on a trailer outside, saw its broad beam and how the bow and transom sweep up in a graceful sheer with that telltale afterdeck hanging way out over the transom. A serious fishing boat, made for work, made for whatever the wind and water dish out, made for dragging a net that, on a good day, fills with shrimp. Captain Morgan’s got two Lafittes for catching bait.
If you’ve stopped by, just curious, you open the door and right away the briny, fishy smell makes it clear you’re in a real fisherman’s supply store. My dog Bobby is all over the place looking for whatever is putting out the aroma. I, on the other hand, take a quick look around, spying crab traps and pinfish traps, cast nets, flotation devices, lures and hook-line-and-sinker displays, fishing rods and reels, floats, bait buckets, worms, dip nets and gaffs. If you’re going fishing, you don’t need to go anywhere else.
“Yeah, there’s lots of talk in this place about fishing. Some big stories,” Captain Morgan says. The shop is open seven days a week, from around five in the morning until sometimes six at night. “And some of the fish tales are worth listening to real close. Some of the young men who work for me really want to learn something, and I’ll pull them aside and tell ’em when and who they need to perk up and listen to.”
Captain Morgan himself is a waterman who knows what he’s talking about. He’s a big man, broad-shouldered and more than six feet tall. His handshake is tough-skinned with a grip strong enough to haul in a line or wrestle the helm of a boat in a storm. “Standing on that deck, I’ll get to see the sun come up out on the water about 250 mornings a year and plenty of sunsets. And stars come out at night,” he says. This shop owner doesn’t park himself on a stool behind the counter or hole up in a back office someplace. This man sells live shrimp to his customers — shrimp that he went out on the water before daylight and dragged a net to catch. If one of the boats breaks down, the captain grabs his tools.
“We try not to go out on Sundays,” he says. He’s a man whose faith has got muscle in it, as strong as his two big arms.
“You see those two round signs on the counter when you came in?” he asks. He pats Bobby on the head. We’d gone into the back of the shop, past some tanks stirring with seawater and swimming shrimp, humming pumps moving the bubbling water, past Anthony Kramer, an older man like me seated on a low stool and tying a net, past God-only-knows-what-kind of fishing stuff on the shelves, to find a seat on either side of a desk in a corner. On the shelf right behind Captain Morgan, above his right shoulder, is a stack of small trawling boards and all that you’d need to drag a net behind a recreational center console.
“Yes, I saw two round disc-like signs with 14 percent on them. I figured it was a light-hearted way to spell out a fisherman’s chances of filling his coolers to the limit.”
Captain Morgan lets me know there’s nothing funny about the 14-percent signs.
“That’s what the doctors told me was my chance of surviving the cancer they found in me. Lymphoma. A big mass in my chest.” And that’s when he told me that 100 percent of his chances of survival are in the hands of somebody else. “Can I just say right flat-out, Jesus?” All right by me, I say. And then he gives his wife, Rose Mary, a lot of credit for being his rock in the storm.
“Right now, I’m sitting here talking to you, and I’m cancer-free,” he says. “But they don’t tell me I’m in the clear for good, just right now things look good.”
And things during the past year, in his bottom line at the shop, have also looked mighty good, outdoing most years in the past. “Think about it,” he says. “What else were people gonna do during COVID? They couldn’t go to movies. Or restaurants. Couldn’t even gather up with family. So, they went fishing.” And before they headed out into the fresh air, into the sunshine or the rain, they got their bait and gear from Captain Morgan.
“Don’t get me wrong, we can’t compete with Walmart and Bass Pro,” he says. “But people are willing to pay a quarter more for something here because we’ve got live bait for them. And we can make them a cast net. We can make them some crab traps.” The captain will also go outside into his parking lot and show a novice how to throw that net he just bought.
And before COVID, his customers could even stop by the shop on weekends and take home a mess of hot food. The sign out front advertises Captain Morgan’s boiled, spicy crawfish — with cut-up potatoes and some Conecuh sausage. Just how spicy? “Not explosive,” the captain allows. But memorable for sure. And right now, the boiled mudbugs are themselves only a memory. “I didn’t boil crawfish during COVID, and I’m not going to bring ’em back this season,” he says. He lets it go unsaid that his hands and head have been full minding his health. But it’s about a 100 percent chance that Captain Morgan will tie on the apron next summer.
Always and anytime, however, he serves his customers the benefit of an authentic waterman’s knowledge. Tips about where and how to catch fish, who to call for a guided trip. The fishermen who stop in this store can talk to the man who melts the lead himself and makes their sinkers, for heaven’s sake.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Captain Morgan says. He tells me how he worked in high school for Phelps in Foley, a net shop like his that’s no longer there. “I stayed on there, too, out of school for more than 10 years. Then, in 1988, I came here and opened up my own place.” The captain is closing in on 50 years in the business he loves.
And a man’s got to love it to handle the load of a shop like his. The captain talks about standing over a pot of boiling lead. “I work outside,” he says. When he’s melting lead, it might look like he’s frying fish, open pot on a gas flame. “You got to get it over 600 degrees to melt the lead, and a drop of sweat off your nose can boil the whole pot over.” Risky business. In the store, he shows me bins full of all sizes and shapes and weights of lead sinkers. Captain Morgan made them all. “But I let the guys work with small ingots, melt them down to make the split shot and smaller weights.”
He says he made nets right from the beginning. I tell the captain I have friends who used to hang out here and watch him tie nets. Captain Morgan nods. “Making a net might not be like you imagine it,” he says, telling me they don’t weave the net fabric itself. “We buy the net by the pound,” he says, explaining how it’s like a bolt of cloth a seamstress uses to make a shirt or a dress. “We cut the rectangle into circles and make it from patterns. We finish it out, tie on the lines and weights and such.”
I ask about custom cast nets, like for mullet or bait. “Oh, sure,” he says, allowing that his customers pay more than for factory-made nets. “But they’re buying a net that they’ll use for 20 years or more.” He says some fathers want to buy their kids a custom-made net to learn how to catch mullet and also how to take care of that first net as a keepsake.
I ask if his dad was a fisherman or a local farmer. “Neither,” he says. “My people are from Mobile County, and my dad was in civil service. He was at Brookley Field when it closed.” He tells me his dad found work in his field in Melbourne, Florida. Then, when they loaded up and came back to Alabama, it was to this stretch of Highway 98 in Barnwell. So, I ask him, you own this place, the land? “Yeah, it’s about five acres. Some on the road frontage, and it goes back a ways.”
Captain Morgan tells me he had the property bought and paid for by the time he opened, just 11 years out of high school. “My folks pressed me to spend my money on something besides mag wheels and loud glass-pack mufflers for my cars. It made sense,” he says. So, when the land became available that adjoined his parents’ property next door, the captain, as a young man, made an investment in his future.
“This — what I do — the boats and the water and the fishing,” he says, “it’s not a thing you can pick up reading about in a book.” I ask him about his sons. Do they have an interest in continuing his legacy here at Fisherman’s Discount? He wants them to make up their own minds about what they want to do.
And has he been surprised, I ask, how fishing in our area has changed?
“I think about it this way, do you remember Stauter Boats, when they were out on the Causeway?”
I say that I do and that over the years I’ve owned three or four myself.
“Well, those were mighty good boats. People bought ’em and worked in them season after season. They fished and shrimped out of them, and they fed their families from a Stauter. Even made some money working those boats. Now, people pay a lot of money to fix up a Stauter and keep it all pretty in a boatlift. And some of the fishing rigs that come in here nowadays are headed down to the Gulf on three-axle trailers.”
Just then, Kramer gives the captain a signal that lets him know his Lafitte is coming in with today’s catch. “Come on,” he says, “you can see how we work the shrimp right off the boat.”
He tells me he’s got the 25-foot and a 22-foot Lafitte. “Cap’n Mike runs the bigger one for me with a couple of different deck hands helping. Today, Joe Golden’s on the boat. The other one, the 22-footer, I take that one out myself four or five days a week.”
We walk to a side door that he opens, and the boat is already parked close, right alongside the building. Baskets are handed up to Joe. The skipper, Mike, his bare skin red as a cooked crawdad, head shaved, arms big as my legs, is down on the ground rigging a PVC pipe from the boat to the holding tank inside the bait shop. I ask about that.
“When I was trying to get my shop set up, I asked for advice about the sea water I’d need for the shrimp and bait, seeing as how I’m inland, away from the shore. An agent from Auburn Sea Grant told me I’d need to bring the water in with the catch. That’s what the pipe is for.” He tells me the boat can bring in as much as 200 gallons of water right from where the shrimp are caught down in the south end of Mobile Bay, or maybe over in Perdido Bay. The captain says they have a rig for pumping water up from about 20 feet deep, so it comes from down below whatever fresh water is at the surface.
“And, of course, the man who buys fresh bait shrimp is also going to take a few gallons of water. So, we have to replace the sea water daily, just the way we drag every day for shrimp.”
Captain Morgan shows me how they sort the few dead shrimp onto a floating screen in the tank, and those go into a cooler for customers who aren’t looking for live bait. Mike comes over with three or four pretty big squid he’s dropped into a plastic bag. Boo Boo didn’t come along today, but Bobby follows Mike, his tail wagging. He rolls the air out of the bag and sticks it in an upright cooler in front of the tanks. “Most people like the smaller squid,” the captain says. “They put the whole thing on the hook. Those Mike just put in the cooler would have to be cut into pieces.” Not for Bobby, I say. The captain grins.
With at least one boat out shrimping every day but Sunday, I ask approximately how many pounds of shrimp he sells a week.
“Not by the pound,” he says. “It’s by the count. But, you figure on a good day we bring in 3,800 to 4,000 shrimp. And we sell all we bring in.” Captain Morgan left me to do the math.
“So, you’re 63,” I say. “Ten, 12 years from now, will you sell the place? I mean, the acreage with highway frontage will be worth plenty enough for a good retirement.” The captain and I both know every square foot of Baldwin County dirt seems bound to have a contractor build a new house on it. And there’s only so much land for all the explosion of people into the county. I suggest that a man’s got to slow down some time.
“Not me,” the captain says. “All of that can happen when I’m gone. As long as the good Lord’s willing, I’ll be right here in this shop. I’ll be in that boat. I’ll be catching shrimp and sending them out the door with good fishermen.” Captain Morgan declares he will work at his work until he can’t work anymore, and he won’t try to manage the future with a hard hand.
Captain Morgan, who’s been in this business since high school, says if the day comes when he can’t take his boat out, he will still be able to sit and tell stories that are worth listening to. He sits on a stool in the back of the shop. Bobby takes up at his ankles, and the captain rubs him between the ears.
“Maybe I’ll print up some pamphlets or something,” he says, looking up at me. “I might put out the word folks could be a little nicer, be a little more willing to lend a hand at the boat ramps. They could have more patience out on the water. Don’t put a three-foot wake on somebody else.”
Captain Morgan has plenty of work to do. As he stands, Bobby watches him intently. “For me, fishing is a way of life, the only life I’ve ever known. I think it’s something that deserves the best from everybody who heads out to the water.”
We shake hands and I turn to go, saying I’ll be back.
“Bring Bobby with you,” he says.
Even a little dog knows there are some people who have stories worth hearing. And Bobby’s got big ears for Captain Morgan.