“You’ll spot him easy enough,” Debora says to me from behind the counter. “He’s got a really big beard.”
I am in Orange Beach at the Zeke’s Marina charter office looking for a captain named Hollywood. Indeed, the Alabama Fishing Charter Association website lists the captain of Bligh Charters as Brent “Hollywood” Shaver.
I study an array of framed charter boat photographs, color 8 x 10s, hanging on the wall, and I spy a sleek, gray-hulled 24-foot Skeeter. At the helm is a bewhiskered man who looks more like he is on leave from the crew of the HMS Bounty, skippered by Captain William Bligh.
Hollywood later tells me he hasn’t shaved since 1977.
I walk out on the dock and make my way to the corner slips at the east end of the marina. I see two boats entering the harbor. Hollywood is expecting me and picks me out before I do him and throws up his hand from the helm of the second boat. But that is all he has for me. He has a job to do, the good and capable skipper tending to the business of docking his boat. His charter party is a young couple who follows the captain’s orders and don’t move from their seat in front of the console as he swings the bow of the boat around and reverses his boat into the slip, stern-to. A perfect landing. And in 10 seconds, Hollywood has snagged the dock line from a piling and whips it into place over a cleat on the gunwale, making his boat fast in its slip.
Hollywood raises a finger, his white beard brushing against the long sleeve khaki shirt, and says, “Give me 10 minutes.” I can’t see his eyes under the broad brim of his sun hat. But I can feel him giving me a quick once-over, sizing me up. He’s had his share of reporters after his story in the last 30 years and his name and face on television and in magazines and newspapers, sometimes from a national beat. Like when Ed Bradley from CBS’s “Sixty Minutes” counted on Hollywood to put him where he needed to be while covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Or with Katie Couric, on the BP oil spill story.
Hollywood bounces off the deck of the flats boat and onto the finger pier with a 5-gallon bucket in his right hand, today’s catch, on his way up to the cleaning table. He gets right to work with his filet knife and scaler on some specks and a pan-size black grouper, and he preps a nice whole 14-inch flounder for the folks in the kitchen at Wolf Bay Restaurant to cook for his charter party. The couple is excited that the dockside cafe will cook for them a fish that was swimming just hours ago. “Tell them Hollywood fixed it up for you,” he says.
“So how’d you folks pick out Hollywood?” I ask the pair from Las Vegas.
The man answers without hesitation. “We stood in there at the charter office and scanned the pictures on the wall, took one look at the captain with the long white beard and name of Hollywood, and we got the picture, if you know what I mean.”
And the picture they got was a man who looks like he belongs in a boat on the water. Neither would have guessed that Hollywood, a nickname he got from always wearing sunglasses in high school, grew up in Atmore working for his father in a chain of family-owned Piggly Wiggly stores, running from one to the other between six of them, helping to oversee the day-to-day business. When his father came home one night and announced he was thinking of buying some more stores, Hollywood told him that if he did that, then he would move on and find other work. A man of his word, Hollywood left the family business when the new stores were added.
He went directly to Gulf Shores and bought the beachfront amusement park, catty-corner to The Hangout, which came situated on an entire block with a string of stores that included a laundromat, a cafe and a waffle breakfast joint. He was 27, and keeping the amusement park and the other businesses going strong took all of his youthful energy, with workdays lasting from “can ‘til can’t,” as the old folks say. Then, two years in, 1979’s Hurricane Frederic busted ashore like some horror show wrecking machine and tore it all apart.
He built it back. And, when the construction was completed and Hollywood dusted off his hands, ready to reopen, an insight hit him like Saul’s on Damascus Road. He had no customers! The beachfront business dragged because the hurricane damage was still keeping away tourists.
The quick and resolute nature that took Hollywood out of the grocery store aisles dropped the answer on him. Sell it. All of it.
And he did. And got a 100-ton captain’s license and bought a boat. He would take people fishing. He knew how to fish. Growing up, his family always had a summer place on the Gulf, and he’d learned well how to find and catch fish, how to clean them, and Hollywood believed he could parlay those skills into a charter fishing business. His wife, Pam, believed in him, and so he went for it. This year they hit 48 years together, and for 39 of them he’s been that man coming home from a day fishing.
Hollywood finishes at the cleaning table, hoses it down, and stows his electric knife and filet blade. I walk with him back to his boat, as he puts away his gear. “Wanna grab a seat in the restaurant?” he asks.
“Sure.” And soon as we slide into the booth, I ask him, “Ever had problems from getting too much sun?” His boat didn’t have a T-top for shade; it would be in the way of casting.
“Nope,” he says. “I always wear my hat and these long sleeve shirts.” Hollywood respects the elements — the sun and water and weather. He knows the habits of fish and when they’ll bite a bait and where they might be found. Hollywood pulls a shrimp net before every day’s fishing to catch live croakers for bait. “You know, some of these new guys bait a hook with frozen shrimp,” he says. But he’s up before dawn and on the water by 5 a.m. to drag the net, then back at dockside with live bait for his charter party.
“It’s not like it used to be, though,” Hollywood says.
The fishing has changed. Lots more boats running charter parties mean not as many fish to go around, and Hollywood is also cutting back, although, he takes three calls for charters while we sip iced tea in the booth. In his heyday, he’d work March through September, five or six days a week. Now and again, seven. Then, in November, he’d head to Louisiana to guide duck fishing charters through the dead of winter until the end of January.
“You ever been scared out on the water?”
“Not so much in these protected waters,” Hollywood answers. “Lightning. I don’t mess with lightning.” When the weather app shows a strike within 20 miles, his boat is heading for the dock. “I’m not going to stay out there and get hit.”
But one stretch of eight years, Hollywood was hired out as a captain aboard a 52-foot Hatteras at Walker Cay in the Bahamas and spent three months a year there running out of that northernmost island. Things are different in the open ocean. Hollywood says only a half dozen or so locals lived at Walker Cay full time, and the charter parties came by boat from Grand Island. “There’s this condition of wind and waves I heard the Bahamians talking about. The ‘raging sea’ they called it, and it only happens at Walker Cay when the wind comes hard and steady from the direction of the Carolina Outer Banks.” Year in and year out, the weather didn’t build into that raging sea. Finally, in Hollywood’s eighth year, he awoke aboard the Hatteras one morning to a big hubbub and hurried excitement. “What’s up?” he inquired.
The answer came back, “The raging sea!” Hollywood climbed a hill and looked toward the open sea at 30-foot monster waves rolling in. But it was his boss’s last day in the islands, and he wanted to go fishing. They could’ve run the boat south down the backside of the island and around the end, but Billy Black, a legendary captain and fisherman, told Hollywood, “No problem. Follow me.” And Billy Black aimed his 50-foot Hatteras, the Duchess, northward into the open Atlantic.
Sixty miles down the reef, a freighter got caught sideways in a trough and rolled, killing three men. The Duchess was badly damaged, though Billy Black was unhurt. Miss Mindy, the 46-foot Bertram that Hollywood skippered, nosed through the savage surf and safely into open water.
“That was the stupidest thing I ever did as a captain,” Hollywood admits. He figures he was just lucky, and Black, not so much. Others who heard the story likely disagreed. Luck’s got little to do with handling a 50-footer in a wild, raging sea.
He tells of a calmer day out of Walker Cay, when he and a guest took their wives fishing. “Left the dock at 10:10,” Hollywood says, and a short three hours later, they were back dockside.
“Best fishing I ever did,” he goes on. “In that little time, we hooked and lost two blue marlins, then my guest got a big one on the line, and that one we killed.”
It was a 719-pound marlin, the biggest fish Hollywood ever maneuvered into a boat, and his wife actually gaffed it. “We hung him up at the dock, and I got a bottle of Dom Pérignon and poured down his gills.”
Then, Hollywood sets down his glass on the table, reaches and shakes my hand. “I’ve got a date with ‘Wagon Train,’” he says, allowing he loves to watch the cowboy classics on television. “Gunsmoke,” “The Rifleman,” “Have Gun – Will Travel,” shows without a single scene of open waters and boats, seem to me a kind of poetic balance for this captain, this man of the sea and boats.
Hollywood slides out of the booth, tips his hat and says he’ll see me and heads for the door. I can almost visualize a long-whiskered cowboy walking tall out into the sunlight through a pair of saloon doors, somebody whose stories you’d like to hear. Maybe somebody you wouldn’t want to mess with, too.
A preacher man once told me he was able to predict which of the marriages he performed were more likely to stick, to be good for the long haul. Those couples who had the best stories for how they met, he said, you could bet money on them.
I think that’s also a good measure of whether a man has found his calling, whether he’s doing his right work. Hollywood found his place, and it’s been good for Captain Bligh fishing charters.
Yeah, you oughta hear his stories. This captain called Hollywood could write a book.