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Uncle Wesley’s Shark

August 31, 2009

When my grandparents visited the South Carolina coast, they didn’t rent an oceanfront house. In fact, they rarely saw the beach. They preferred Murrells Inlet.

In those days, the quiet fishing village offered few accommodations. The main attraction was the marina. Shrimp trawlers, charter boats, and a few privately owned vessels occupied the slips.

Black gnats and mosquitoes swarmed. The air was pungent with the smell of fish. At low tide, the pluff mud, alive with fiddler crabs, added to the odor. The aroma of Pappy’s cigar was like perfume mingled among the other smells.

The house that became Oliver’s Lodge was built in 1860, the same year South Carolina seceded from the Union. Now known as Oliver’s, it is the oldest restaurant on the Grand Strand.

Captain Bill Oliver operated a steamboat, ferrying passengers on the Waccamaw River between Conway and Georgetown and the Inlet. Captain Bill began a charter boat and deep sea fishing enterprise. In 1910, he and his wife, Emma, opened their home as a lodge for fishermen. They rented rooms and served family-style meals.
Oliver’s Lodge was where Mammy and Pappy stayed on the coast. Pappy rented a bateau, a small fishing boat. Mammy perched in a rocker on the porch of the lodge and crocheted receiving blankets for her ever-increasing number of grandbabies.

I remember the time when I traveled to Murrells Inlet with Pappy, Mammy, and Uncle Wesley, the youngest of their nine children.

The men were going fishing. Uncle Wesley was determined to catch a shark. At five years of age, I was thrilled to be included on this adventure with two of my heroes.

Mammy was concerned that I might get sunburned. She insisted that I wear a long sleeved-shirt and blue jeans. She prevailed upon Pappy to buy a straw hat for me.

Mammy’s charge to Pappy was to bring us all back safely.

Wearing the new straw hat, I sat in the middle of the small wooden rowboat between Pappy and Uncle Wesley. Uncle Wesley, a strapping teenager, positioned himself between the oar locks. He did the rowing. We tried our luck in a deep saltwater creek that was winding through the marsh.

Pappy was casting with a rod and reel. I was jigging with a short cane pole. We both used shrimp for bait. Uncle Wesley used a contrived casting rig with a large hook, a piano wire leader, a copper float robbed from a toilet tank, and a chicken gizzard.

I caught a few small spots. Pappy landed two nice flounder and several sea trout.
Uncle Wesley had no luck, but he was persistent. Finally, he hooked a shark. He fought for thirty minutes or more, until the exhausted predator came next to the boat. Only the ominous looking dorsal fin was out of water.

Pappy said, “Cut him loose!”

Uncle Wesley wanted to savor his fine catch. “Just let me look at him.”

Pappy relented, “Drag him in the boat and hit him in the head with that oar.”

My uncle did just that.

I don’t think any of us were prepared for the size of the shark. It was every inch of five feet long! Uncle Wesley grabbed his trophy by the gill with his right hand. Standing up in the small boat, he lifted the rod high with his left hand. Several hard tugs and considerable rocking of the boat brought the big fish tumbling over the gunwale, thrashing into the bateau. The rough tail grazed my leg which was protected by blue jeans. Thank you, Mammy!

The boat pitched from side to side. Uncle Wesley clobbered him with the oar, striking the animal’s head which was just inches from his captor’s bare feet.

The shark was perfectly still. Only his gills moved as he labored to breathe. A fish out of water, he seemed to be in his death throes. The fierce creature looked much bigger in the small rowboat than he had seemed in the black brine.

For good measure, Uncle Wesley slammed the oar into the shark’s head a second time. The fish reacted violently, furious at the insult. Uncle Wesley pummeled him again. The monster bared his formidable teeth, prepared to attack.

I was sitting between Pappy and the fish. My grandfather reached over me, accidently knocking my new straw hat into the water. Pappy grasped the shark’s tail with both hands. Like a Scot hurling a caber at the Highland Games, in one motion he flung the fish out of the boat into the deep. The boat rocked dramatically, teetering almost to the point of tipping over. The shark disappeared below the surface.

My hat drifted away, floating with the tide toward the open sea. I started to climb overboard to retrieve my treasure. Pappy grabbed me with the same strong grip that had expelled the shark.

“Wesley, let’s get the hat.”

I think Pappy had in mind rowing to the hat. Uncle Wesley had different idea. He ripped off his tee shirt, dived overboard, and swam with the current toward the straw flotsam. Pappy took the oars and rowed, following his youngest son through the same current into which the ferocious shark had so recently vanished.

Mission accomplished! I got my hat back. Uncle Wesley caught a shark. Pappy got us back safely in time for a seafood supper. Best of all, we shared a great fish story!

Kirk H. Neely
© August 2009

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