Charleston’s Original Captain Harry

Every Mercury reader knows the story of The Old Man and the Sea. A fortunate few of
us got to know him, and his story is no fish tale. Harry Locke Johnson, Jr., known affectionately
by generations of locals as Captain Harry, was born in Charleston in 1929. He grew up
downtown on Lowndes Street and spent a great deal of his youth at his family’s beach house on
Sullivan’s Island. And unsurprisingly, most of his childhood memories revolve around fishing.
“We loved fishing! A lot of my early fishing was using a cane pole and fiddlers to catch
sheepshead. We used to stand on the rocks where the jetties end and go into the harbor,” he
recalls. “Dad and Uncle Cussie Johnson also took me on fishing trips to Bulls Island and Capers
Island. We caught channel bass in the surf; they call them redfish now. My grandfather Arthur
Campbell would come down from Florence and go fishing with us on Sullivan’s Island. He
would wade out until he was waist deep, swirl a handline around his head and cast it out in the
surf.” Indeed, Captain Harry would not acquire his own first spinning rod and reel until some
years later.
Then he adds, “Unfortunately, we did not release very many fish back then.”
This is something Harry sought to change with his legacy of fishing. Park Smith III,
grandson of one of Captain Harry’s lifelong friends, says, “What I am always reminded of about
fishing with Harry is his commitment to conservation — well before really anyone else was
doing it. Looking back, he was way ahead of his time in promoting catch and release. He is a
great sportsman and conservationist and one of the kindest people you will ever meet.”
Captain Harry Johnson is a member of a prolific family that includes his brother Robert
(wife Scottie), his sister Barbara Baker (husband Archie), seven nieces and nephews, 20 great
nieces and nephews, and three great-great nieces and nephews. Of course, the fishing family
Harry has cultivated throughout the years is indeed innumerable.
Harry and Park Smith, Sr., who grew up on nearby South Battery, were lifelong friends.
From his father, Smith inherited a Piper J-3 Cub plane, which he flew back and forth to college
at Washington and Lee. Park, Harry and Archie Baker often flew the plane to Bulls Island for
surf fishing trips. Park landed it on the beach, and they had to head home once the tide began to
cover their runway.
A few years after graduating from The Citadel, Captain Harry joined his father and uncle
— and later his brother Robert — at Johnson and Johnson Insurance, a company now run by
Harry’s nephews. Harry, a lifelong bachelor, was very successful in business, but his real passion
was pursuing the teeming life beneath Lowcountry waters. “That boat and fishing were what he
really cared about!” laughs Park Smith, Jr.
“If Harry wasn’t working, he was fishing. And if he wasn’t fishing, he was talking about
fishing!” adds Thomas Wynne, who has fished with Harry since the early 1980s and is the
current co-owner and captain of the Petrel, Captain Harry’s first major boat purchase.

To catch bigger fish offshore, Captain Harry and Park joined friends Henry Conner and
Huger Sinkler in purchasing the Petrel, a Chris-Craft. The friends later bought Captain Buck
Morris’s Egg Harbor, followed by a Scottie Craft and later a Bertram. “We had a lot of boats
over the years!” Harry says. “We had so many, we eventually stopped numbering them!”
“We came up with the name Petrel on our way to pick up that first boat,” recalls Jeanne
Smith, who frequently fished with Harry, her husband and her three boys: Park, Jr., Cantey and
Champ. Since petrel refers to a family of sea birds that spend the majority of their lives on the
ocean, the name is quite fitting.
“Harry and Daddy were fishing pioneers when they started going offshore in the early
1960s,” Park Smith, Jr. remarks. “Back then, you had an RDF (radio direction finder). You tuned
in to WTMA in Charleston and WAPE in Jacksonville, and you used those signals to get back
home. Later, Harry had one of the first Lorans around. I remember him getting in the bow and
banging on that Loran, getting the coordinates and plotting the course back home.
“We were also one of the first boats to catch swordfish off South Carolina,” Smith
continues. “One day back in the mid-1970s, we came in from fishing, and it was so calm it was
slick. We bought squid and headed right back out and fished all night. We caught three swordfish
that night.”
Captain Harry’s detailed and colorful logbooks offer insight into those early days of
offshore fishing. He narrates a Charleston Yacht Club Tournament in the fall of 1969 with his
brother, Robert, Park and Jeanne Smith, Park “Peach” Jr., Rocky Stelling and J. Stewart Walker.
“Underway 0510. Out 150’. Southeast breeze, seas moderate. Began fishing 0800. Approx. 80’
Sailfish plentiful. Two hooked and jumping. Both threw hook. Three others raised — struck
—missed! No other action at all. Ended up with NO sails. One dolphin. One king mackerel 17
lbs. Secured 1800. Topped tanks 106.9 gallons. Peach won CYC largest king with this fish,
which he brought to gaff like a veteran and which brought forth favorable comments from J.S.W.
and Rocky (actually Rocky’s comment was ‘That little bastard! I was reaching for that rod!’)
Won second place boat (tie with Panacea) trophy.”
Another trip from that same year included Owen and Eleanor Geer, Park and Jeanne
Smith and Rocky Stelling. “At appx 0745 a bonefish skipping happily along was assaulted by a
BIG BLUE which, in spite of frantic instructions shouted by an excited Johnson, was battled into
submission by Master Rocky Stelling. The fish was brought into the boat in a professional
manner by the cockpit crew of Geer, Smith and Smith again in spite of shouted instructions from
Johnson. Fishing was about over after that. Everyone but Rocky was thoroughly exhausted and
faced with the thrilling prospect of a six-hour wet and wild ride home! Secured basin 1745.
Topped tanks 174 gallons. Trident leader in class at this writing.”
A true sportsman, Captain Harry practiced and promoted conservation. “We started
tagging fish early on,” Harry says. “I convinced my crew that we needed to start tagging and
releasing fish, and that it is fun and rewarding when you get a return. When we started
billfishing, we had a goal to tag as many fish as we could. I’m a little embarrassed we brought
back those two I have mounted on the wall, but we really didn’t kill many fish; we tried not to

kill anything that could not be eaten. Through fish tagging, we got to know Don Hammond [of
South Carolina Department of Natural Resources] very well, and we contacted him any time we
had an inquiry as to the identity of a fish.”
Harry’s records reveal cards from tagged species such as red drum, wahoo, sailfish,
dolphin, swordfish, blue marlin, white marlin, little tunny and barracuda. He has tagged fish
from South Carolina’s inshore and offshore waters to the Bahamas to Mexico. His letters always
instructed that the T-shirt reward be mailed to the specific angler who caught the fish.
One particularly interesting tagging story was written up locally as well as in Gulf Coast
newspapers. In 1971, Harry tagged an approximately 22-pound amberjack off Charleston. After
two years, gaining 30 pounds and traveling 1,800 miles, the fish was recaptured 40 miles off
Freeport, Texas, by Fred Garrett of Houston.
The selfless heart of a true conservationist is committed to preserving natural resources
for ensuing generations. Thus, Captain Harry likewise believed in sharing his love of fishing
with children. “For Harry, fishing is all about the kids! There is a long list of extremely good
fishermen in Charleston who all learned how to be anglers because of Harry,” says Thomas
Wynne. “Harry and I are tight. He is a traditional, fine Southern gentleman with a quiet manner.
He is a friend and a father figure to me, and he is a grandfather to my boys!”
“My first time offshore fishing was with Captain Harry,” says Thomas Morrison.
“Literally hundreds of young people were introduced to offshore fishing because of the kindness
of Harry Johnson. Later, when I was fishing boats out of Toler’s Cove, almost every time I
walked down the gangway, Harry was always on the boat and ready to talk fishing; I don’t think
I have ever seen him in a bad mood.”
“I think Harry is wonderful, and I always have,” says Jeanne Smith. “He really taught my
children all they know about fishing. As children, all of the boys idolized him. Harry is godfather
to my youngest son, Champ,” who has traveled the globe pursuing fish and has spent much of his
life as a sportfishing captain and fishing guide.
Park Smith, Jr. agrees: “Harry is such a blessing, and he was always so generous. He is
the one who indoctrinated us all into fishing. We fished all the billfish tournaments, but because
Harry is so conservation-minded, we never entered the calcuttas. We could have won a lot of
tournaments and money, but Harry would much rather see the fish go back in the water.”
Smith recalls a particularly exciting time they were fishing the Georgetown Tournament,
back when owners ran their own boats, and before anyone hired professional captains. “I was
running the boat, which had an enclosed bridge, and we had a bridge rod that we fished way back
behind the boat. The minute a fish hit that rod, I grabbed a rod belt and fighting harness and
fought it from the bridge for three hours; it was a big blue marlin of about 400 pounds. Of
course, we released it — since we were fishing with Harry!”
“We have caught some fish and won some tournaments,” Captain Harry humbly recalls.
“We liked it when they started the tournaments; they made the fishing even more fun!” Trophies
and awards line the shelves of Harry’s nautical-themed office, which includes a saltwater
aquarium and in which boat cleats and shackles serve as drawer pulls on the desk.

Among his major fishing accomplishments is a South Carolina state record. In 1986,
while fishing with Thomas Wynne, Captain Harry landed a 53-pound longbill spearfish. In 2014,
Harry fished with Captain John Thomas and nephews Fran Johnson and Harry Johnson II. That
year, the Petrel won the Carolina Billfish Classic, catching and releasing two blue marlin and
four sailfish. In addition, Harry, always a fan of light tackle, won a number of Trident
“Harry taught us that it’s more about the fishing than the catching. People thought we
were crazy for releasing all those fish!” Wynne explains. He recalls “multiple nights of catching
and releasing as many as seven swordfish.” One New Year’s Day, they released four sailfish and
hooked a whale shark on a swimming mullet in 90 feet of water. Some years ago at the
Georgetown Tournament, the Petrel fought and released a blue marlin that likely weighed 600
pounds. When they got back to the dock, the tournament winner walked over to the boat and said
to Harry and the crew: “I just want to shake your hand. I saw that fish y’all caught and released,
and I know it was bigger than my fish! Way to go!”
Don Hammond, retired biologist for DNR, recalls Harry’s remarkable selflessness at the
tournament. “Harry Johnson is the example I always use of what a true sportsman is. He
absolutely was a leader in conservation,” he says.
Though Harry is still in good health at 92, his doctor encouraged him to retire from going
offshore. He last fished at age 90, though he frequently walks down to the boat and recently
accompanied Wynne on an inshore pleasure ride.
Captain Harry misses fishing, but from the bedroom and deck of his upstairs condo at
Toler’s Cove Marina, he has a spectacular view of the Petrel, tied to the dock and ready for its
next adventure.

Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the
outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of
Charleston and may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..