Captain Michael Perry comes from a long line of fishermen.
Story by Robyn Passante + Photography by Lloyd Wainscott
Far too few of us can say what we do for a living was what we used to love to do as kids. Michael Perry is one of those lucky few.
Perry, 43, is owner and operator of Papa Bear Charters, which leads inshore and offshore fishing tours from Hilton Head’s Skull Creek Marina.
“I love it, it’s great,” he says of his full-time gig, which he started in 2017 after leaving Palmetto Bluff, where he’d been the Palmetto Bluff Shooting Club director for nearly two years. “Physically it’s a tough game to be playing, fishing every day like that. But you gotta make hay. And the seasons here are great; we’ve got good fishing basically year-round.”
Perry grew up fishing and hunting with his father, a fishing guide in their native Tennessee, but moved to Hilton Head Island in 1996 when his girlfriend and her family relocated here.
“I came from a line of fishermen. My granddad was a big fisherman and so was my dad,” he says. But that long line was of the freshwater variety, so it took some time and a couple of generous Lowcountry captains to show Perry the ropes and rigging for the salt life — with which he quickly fell in love.
When his daughters were born, he took a more 9-to-5 job at Spring Island to lead its programs for fishing and shooting — his other childhood love — for 10 years. There he earned his naturalist certification and immersed himself with studying and teaching others about the area’s ecosystem. “I’ve always been infatuated with nature,” he says.
Eventually, he made his way to Palmetto Bluff to spend his days shooting clays and training others to do the same. But before long, the waters called again.
“I can’t seem to just be happy doing one thing. I don’t think it’s a problem, I think it’s kinda cool actually,” he says. “Luckily, I’m able to do things that allow me to follow my passions.”
Right now that means bringing people out to inhale the sea air and experience the fisherman’s high.
“Usually we can bend the rod. And that’s just because we live in a great place and we’ve got a lot of diverse fisheries and opportunities… so we can usually find a bite somewhere.”
Tiny Target, Big Shot
“The first memory I have of trick shooting I was probably 5, 6, maybe 7 years old. A friend of my dad’s had a pond at his house, and he used to break out a box of shotgun shells and say ‘Go down and shoot dragonflies over the pond.’ … It’s hard to see ’em, and to actually be able to hit a dragonfly … they sit still, they dart back and forth. But as a kid I had a good eye for it. I was literally shooting dragonflies over a pond, with a single-shot 28-gauge shotgun. So that kind of started the whole shooting passion.”
The best way to get better, Perry says, is to practice all aspects of the sport. “Don’t ever pass up an opportunity to go out and do what you love to do, whether it’s going with a buddy to the beach to throw the cast net to get some bait, or going to one of the ponds and going fishing—any chance you have to get out and practice your casting technique or practice rigging some baits or tying knots,” he says. “You’re only gonna be as good as the knots you can tie. An old captain told me that a long, long time ago. So you have to be able to tie a bunch of different kinds of rigs, and be able to be diverse with those rigs in different styles of fishing.”
Back to Basics
“Obviously, top-of-the-line gear is hard to beat, but a good old cane pole on the bank with a 5-year-old kid with a worm on the end of it catching bluegill is hard to beat. I’d take that over 10 blue marlin. That‘s where it begins, and that’s where it should always end—the simplicity and beauty of that.
“That’s what keeps me going. Being able to expose kids and families to fishing. I bring people out there who’ve never seen a hundred birds working over a school of mackerel. Never seen a loggerhead sea turtle, or they’ve never seen a manta ray swimming in the water, or a pod of dolphins, or a butterfly 40 miles offshore.”
A group of Perry’s clients experienced that one recently. “They said ‘What the hell’s that butterfly doing all the way out here?’ And I told them the story of the monarch, and they said, ‘That’s the monarch?!’
‘Yeah, man, that’s the butterfly that ends up in the rainforest in South America, that’s him. His next stop is gonna be South America. And we’re 40 miles out in the ocean.’ So learning that stuff and being able to expose people to those things, that’s where it’s at for me.”