Issue: September 2002
The Fussin' Captain

Whether it’s singing gospel or finding fish, Rappahannock River charterboat Captain Buddy Muse has a lifetime of experience to guide him.

 

     The 10 members of the fishing charter party, who have driven half the night to reach Locklies Marina on time, are busy busy busy. They are loading coolers with ice and sodas, buying bloodworms and squid up at the marina store, sipping coffee and, in some cases, beer, laughing and talking and ribbing one another. What they’re not doing is getting on the boat. The sun has been bronzing the Rappahannock River for half an hour. Daylight’s burning. Captain Buddy Muse, who has seen this before, ambles up to the helm of Ginger II and says under his breath, “I know how to get ‘em on.” He turns the key and Ginger II’s Detroit Diesel snarls under its engine box in the center of the boat’s long cockpit, water spraying from its exhaust pipes against the bulkhead where most of his party are dawdling. They leap aboard, and after a moment Muse turns the engine off. The captain has their rapt attention.

     “I am required by the Coast Guard to give you a brief orientation before we venture out onto the water,” he says gravely. He explains how to use the fire extinguishers. He tells everyone he’s sure they won’t fall off Ginger II because they will keep their feet right here, and he stamps the gray plywood of the cockpit floor for emphasis. He shows where the lifejackets are stowed. Then he explains how to use the VHF to call for help if something should happen to him while they’re out on the river. He does not smile. “All right,” he says after a moment, “I guess we can go fishin.’ ‘‘

     “Captain?” a voice pipes up from the back of the boat. “I have a question.” Ten heads swing toward Lena Reed, a legal secretary from Temple Hills, Md., with fingernails like gold-flecked talons and a monster bass leaping across her T-shirt. One hand already has a fistful of cold Bud and a cigarette. She smiles sweetly. “If something happens to you, can I have this boat?”

     Captain John “Buddy” Muse, 72, serious as a heart attack about his boat and everyone on it, bursts out laughing for a good long time. “Well,” he finally says, “you’ll have to talk to my wife about that.” He fires up the diesel, slips the lines and Ginger II heads out for a day of croaker fishing with her party, who might just turn out all right after all.

     All around Ginger II, a similar ritual is happening. It begins nearly every morning between April and December, well before first light, when the charter captains gather outside the store at Locklies Marina. By 5 a.m., the place is already humming, the low voices of the men telling stories and discussing the weather. One or two are already onboard, doing some last-minute cleaning or repairs. Marina owner Jack Mazmanian sips coffee and joins in the quiet banter that mingles with birdsong lifting on a warm land breeze, while Eleanor Cash, who you just know will call you “Hon,” prunes the potted geraniums on the deck with a pair of red bolt cutters almost longer than her legs. No one bats a lash at her choice of tool.

     The talk this morning seems to be mostly about the weather, which rumor has it was pretty wild with thunderstorms down near Gloucester and up to Richmond. The captains fret that their parties will cancel. “I had a no-show yesterday,” says Muse. “Called him at seven-thirty and he was still in bed.” The other men snort disgustedly. “So I got a special book I put him in.”

     Buddy Muse, Wynn Simpson, John Holmes, Bill Alestock, Joseph Thornton, Arthur Kidd, Grady Spring, John Miller, Gene Powell, John Augustine, Dall Cooke. Or is it Dal with one l? In this gentle quiet just before dawn, the ice machines humming and Eleanor’s bolt cutters snipping-the quiet before a small army of vehicles descends upon the marina and disgorges dozens of caffeine-jangled anglers-the men discuss the spelling of one of their brethren’s names for a good couple of minutes. “I think it’s two ls, isn’t it?” “The newspaper spelled it D-a-i-l.” “I been calling him Daryl for fifteen years.” Doesn’t seem to matter, overly. He’s one of them and that’s what counts, a captain who has spent much of a lifetime learning the secret spots of the Rappahannock River and the Chesapeake Bay, taking charter parties hunting for croaker and spot, rockfish and trout, filling coolers with fish, helping out the rookies, laughing at their jokes and watching over them like weathered preachers shepherding their flock.

     Captain Buddy Muse has been at it for about 30 years. His father was a fisherman and oysterman on the Rappahannock, and though employment took him north to Pennsylvania for 32 years, he never let the river go. He retired and came back home, starting his charter business in a 34-foot deadrise out of Robinsons Creek. In 1977 he hired Paul S. Green in Deltaville to build him Ginger II, 43 feet of hard-working Bay sweetness. He can carry up to 21 passengers on her, though after he hits 16 he has to take on a mate. Every year the Coast Guard inspects her equipment; every two years Muse hauls her so they can go over her inch by inch and check her fasteners. Muse is obviously proud of her; despite her workboat calling, she is immaculately scrubbed and tidy. Not many more being built like her, he says, shaking his head sadly.

     Muse holds a Coast Guard 50-ton master’s license, is past president of the Virginia Charter Boats Association, chairman of the board of deacons at his church (Macedonian Baptist in Center Cross, Va.) and is a member of the Zion Knights, a gospel choir in which he sings and plays guitar, which, in addition to fishing, he has done all his life. He sits at the helm station just behind the boat’s small cabin, dressed as if he’s going to casual day at the office: leather deck shoes, blue jeans, a striped shirt and undershirt tucked in neatly. A cell phone is clipped to his belt. His “office” is similarly businesslike-the wheel at center with throttles to its right, controls for the anchor windlass, the anchor line running next to him on a sheave so he can fine-tune it with his hand. Above the wheel, a fishfinder, GPS, VHF radio, compass. As Ginger II pushes into the early light, Muse puts on a pair of glasses, consults a small notebook, punches in some numbers on the GPS and removes his glasses again. Time to find some fish.

     This is not as easy as it sounds. There’s a knowing to it, and all the GPS coordinates in the world can’t bring fish into the boat. Today’s a day for croaker, and by listening to the dock talk and chatter on the VHF, Muse already has ruled out heading into the Bay. Nothing’s biting out there. He powers upriver to his first couple of choices, searching for swatches of hard bottom he has reconnoitered before. He can get extremely close with the GPS. But should he drift or anchor? And if he anchors, will the boat lay where he wants it to, or will the current or breeze pull her off the hard bottom? And once he has weighed all of these variables, will the fish show up? At first, it doesn’t seem so. Muse anchors Ginger II and watches carefully as his party works their lines. Lena Reed gets the first hit. Muse walks aft to help her de-hook the unfortunate fish. “Thank you, Captain,” she says, dropping the first of many croakers foolish enough to toy with her into her cooler and slapping it shut with one foot. “Now you guys can start anytime you want, don’t let me stop you.”

     “Women’s luck,” one of the men grumbles. “No such thing,” she says, flicking her line overboard and taking a pull on her Budweiser. “It’s skill. It’s skill. It’s called finesse. Oh, it’s so hard to be humble.”

     Muse smiles under his hat, takes his seat at the helm and resumes his watching, a toothpick poking out the side of his mouth. This is what he will do most of the day-watch quietly and help where needed. “Most of my parties call me the fussin’ captain because I see you do something wrong, I’ll tell you,” he says. “Because I like to see people catch fish.”

After a few hours of hunting for a busy chunk of bottom, Muse settles on a spot that’s productive today-in this case, in about 54 feet of water just off Carter Creek near a cluster of other boats. It’s not the way he likes it. “I like going off by myself,” he says. But the fish are behaving oddly, scattered and spotty, and this is the best place he’s found so far. The reels are spinning steadily, and coolers are slowly filling. Muse suspects the fish are traveling rather than schooling, which explains why the action comes and goes in waves. But he can’t know for sure. “I’m gonna tell you the truth, I don’t know,” he says. “They have tails and fins and you never know about a fish.”

     He must know a little. He’s booked nearly every day but Sunday and his parties come from as far as Philadelphia. “We each have our own clientele. Most of my parties are repeaters.” He pulls out his daybook, which is filled with precisely written entries as he flips through the weeks and months to come. “The man I have today will come again in May, twice in June, once in July, twice in August and twice in September. I like it that way because I don’t worry about getting a deposit. If anything happens and he can’t make it, he’ll call in plenty of time for me to get another party.”

     It’s an honorable way of doing business that appeals to Muse, same as throwing back undersized fish or not crowding another captain if the fishing is hot and heavy in one place. A captain has to be firm but polite, savvy but not pushy. And he should enjoy people and love his work, and Muse does love it. “You get people from all walks of life,” he says. “I’ve never had any problems with my parties.”

     The feisty banter, which has, like the fish, ebbed and flowed all day aboard Ginger II, has kept him laughing, but now it’s mid-afternoon. Time to go. Tomorrow’s first light will come soon enough. Once again, Muse fires up the diesel to get his party moving. “All good days must come to an end,” he tells them. He watches them pull their lines, and then turns Ginger II toward home.

     This story is adapted from Wendy Mitman Clarke’s forthcoming book Window on the Chesapeake: The Bay, Its People and Places, to be published in December by the Mariners’ Museum in cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.