Climb aboard and meet a few locals who have made the water their life, and their life on the water.
Story by Barry Kaufman & Photography by Lisa Staff
There’s a reason the sea calls to so many. The landlubbers among us may not understand the appeal of jostling back and forth on a boat, courting the odd mouthful of salt spray and burning under the unshaded sun. But to those who get it, there’s nothing else like it.
Beneath the surface lies the last frontier, a seemingly bottomless depth from which stories spring. Stories of the one that got away. Stories of the one that didn’t. Stories of the days spent out on the water, forging bonds of friendship amid the swaying waves.
These three locals have their share of each kind of story. Here are a few.
Charles Russo III
A third-generation fishmonger is continuing the family legacy.
For some, the art of fishing lies in the pursuit. For Charles Russo III, scion of Savannah’s legendary Russo seafood family, the true art comes in what happens next.
“I still buy fish from the same people in North Carolina whose grandfather sold fish to my grandfather for 60 years,” he said. “That’s what really sucked me in again, seeing the joy on those people’s faces.”
While Russo is continuing his family’s legacy, recently debuting both a wholesale and retail fishmongering operation just outside Old Town Bluffton, he wasn’t always destined for the seafood business.
“I chose a little bit of a different path in that I started out at ‘fish school,’ if you will, and then thought I’d try something else,” he said. That something else was the School for the Culinary Arts at Keiser University, where he learned the many ways that the seafood his family provides can be turned into epicurean art. His career as a chef would take him from the kitchens of Atlanta to Charleston before returning him to his hometown of Savannah as chef de cuisine at Alligator Soul.
“After a while, I realized I really love this; I just don’t see the longevity in it,” he said. “So I started slinging some fish on the side.”
Starting out with a small stainless steel table under an umbrella, Russo began building his own legacy. The business he built, Russo’s Fresh Seafood Bluffton, isn’t affiliated with the fish market in Savannah still run by his father, but it shares much of the same DNA and collective family pride.
“My forte is what was passed down to me by my grandfather. He wanted to work as local as he could, so he kindled relationships across the southeast from Florida to North Carolina and the coast in between. What I’ve done is taken what Grandpa showed me about how to treat people and continued to build upon it.”
His culinary background also informs his business, giving him unique insight into how his customers want their seafood. With early clients ranging from SERG Restaurant Group’s Executive Chef Chris Carge to Earl Nightingale at ELA’S On the Water and The Pearl, Russo quickly became popular among chefs. A fishmonger who values quality isn’t hard to find, but one who knows how to cut a fillet to gourmet specifications certainly is rare.
“Until they saw how I prepared it, most chefs would buy whole fish from me because they were used to others messing up the fillet so bad,” he said.
That culinary acumen also comes in handy at his new retail operation, where he will happily scale, de-head and fillet a whole fish for you, sell you a seasoning mix that works perfectly with it, and explain exactly how to cook it properly.
“People are so deathly afraid of cooking seafood,” he said. “The best way to do it is with the fewest ingredients.” An uncomplicated approach works in his recipes and his business.
This former psychologist might be the only River Pro in existence.
Somewhere in a parallel universe, noted psychologist Jason DuBose daydreams of what could have been. In this universe, DuBose grew up in western North Carolina developing a love for fishing on the freshwater lakes of Old Fort, North Carolina, with each bass and trout he reeled in. He would attend UNC Wilmington and discover the wonders of saltwater fishing.
In this other universe, he would choose psychology over fishing. Fortunately, in our universe, the young psychology student took a leap of faith.
“Three years into grad school at Chapel Hill I realized I liked learning about psychology more than the practical application,” he said. “So I took a leave of absence and moved to the Florida Keys to fish professionally. I knew if I didn’t do it then, it would never happen. If I got a job and a mortgage, it would always be a dream. Twenty-one years later, I still give myself another year every year.”
Our Jason DuBose spent the next few years in the Keys getting his feet wet, earning his captain’s license and amassing stories, like the 600-pound marlin he narrowly beat in a wrestling match. “I fought it for close to two hours from the cockpit. Finally, I got it close to the boat and grabbed it by the bill, and the thing proceeded to whip me around the boat like a rag doll.”
Wanting to return closer to home, he arrived in the Lowcountry where he spent a year working as a school psychologist while spending as much time learning the local waters as he could. When the opportunity came up to serve as Oldfield’s River Pro, he cast his line and hooked his chance.
“I think I might be the only ‘River Pro’ in existence. It’s not a common thing,” he said. Essentially, the role spun off of the traditional golf pro. DuBose’s job is to help residents and guests get out on the water safely and learn all the ins and outs of the tidal creeks and rivers that encircle the community. “A lot of folks in Oldfield come from other places and maybe didn’t grow up in this environment. With an eight-foot tide swing, even experienced boaters find it takes a little getting used to.”
And in sharing expertise and passion, he finds that every once in a while he puts that psychology background to good use. “Being a charter guide is kind of like being a bartender. You’re in a small space with folks and they tend to open up,” he said. “Out on the water, their guard comes down, and they’re relaxed and having fun. I get to see people experiencing this great moment.”
And 21 years later, he gets to experience that moment for himself, giving himself one more year of living the dream.
Fishing is a lifelong passion for this local captain.
For a pursuit designed to melt away stress, fishing can be an awfully aggressive pastime. For proof, you need only witness the boxing-glove logo of Jake Parker’s Payback Fishing Charters. Even the name itself leans into aggression, signifying revenge against any fish that dare get away.
It’s aggressive, but that’s kind of the point.
“If you fish, you’re going to lose some fish that would have been the fish of a lifetime, so it always makes you want to go out and get payback on losing that one fish,” said Parker. “Usually on a fishing trip there’s always going to be one — maybe it’s a red fish that gets you wrapped around a dock or a tree, and it makes you just want to get payback on them.”
If fishing is about getting revenge on the fish, then Parker has taken George Herbert’s advice. As the poet once wrote, “Living well is the best revenge.”
Being born in the Bahamas gave Parker a head start not only on his fishing career but on his pursuit of a life well lived. “The Bahamas has a lot to offer. They have great flats fishing and then they have really good big game fishing – tuna, dolphin and they get good blue marlin fish. One of the main differences is the distance. You’re a lot closer to deeper ground.”
His love of fish and fishing would bring him to the Hilton Head area, where he would mate for the legendary Captain Stratty Pollitzer aboard the “Hero.” When Pollitzer prepared to retire, he gave Parker a chance.
“He told me that if I got my captain’s license, he would have me on his boat, so I thought, ‘What a great opportunity. You get to go on someone else’s boat, and when it breaks, you don’t have to fix it.’”
After a few years he would go out on his own, opening up Payback Fishing Charters as a way to get back at every fish that ever got away. And he pursues them with a vengeance, stalking tripletail by sight in a pursuit that leaps from wave to wave and bearing down on rogue tarpon with all the ferocity of a prize fighter. “You get hooked into one of them and it is a fight,” he said. “They jump, they spin. If the line gets stuck on a gill plate, it gets cut. They literally do everything possible and test everything you have.”
In short, he gets payback. And he does so by living life to its fullest.
“Any day the no-see-ums aren’t biting, the sun’s out and you have a nice blue sky, you’re having fun if you’re catching fish.”