History - Our Legacy of Outer Banks Fishing and Boatbuilding
The Fishing Tilletts
By Neal, John and Jim Conoley
The North Carolina Outer Banks is a unique environment defined by narrow inlets, shifting shoals, and wave-tossed waters. This region is recognized around the world as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic," but the features that make the Outer Banks foreboding also make it a fisherman's paradise. Stretching far into the Atlantic Ocean, the Outer Banks reaches toward the Gulf Stream, where rich, cold currents sweep in from the North Atlantic and collide with warm, tropical waters flowing up from the south. Offshore anglers know this spot as "Gamefish Junction."
Outer Bankers are no less diverse than their environment. For generations, residents have adapted to life on this narrow strip of sand and their tenacity and resilience are renowned. Oregon Inlet, the northernmost inlet along the Outer Banks, serves as a gateway to the Gulf Stream. It is also the homeport for a legendary family of charter captains, "The Fishing Tilletts."
Since the 1920s, Sam, Chester, Omie and Tony Tillett have provided leadership to one of the world's top charter fleets. A local saying succinctly acknowledges their accomplishments when it professes: "If you ain't fishin' with a Tillett, then you ain't fishin'."
I share a passion for the outdoors and a love of the Outer Banks with my two sons, Jolm and Jim. As we made plans to spend time together on a billfishing trip at Oregon Inlet, we inadvertently stumbled across a great idea. You know the kind, one that clicks the moment you hear it. In retrospect, we experienced a revelation, maybe even an epiphany, because our brilliant flash transformed a long-awaited fishing trip into a journey that led straight to the heart of North Carolina's sportfishing heritage.
Having already booked Captain Tony Tillett and the Carolinian for the full moon in August, we wanted to share our prime time excursion with three like-minded fishermen. As we pondered our short list of candidates, John suggested that we invite Captain Omie Tillett, Tony's older brother, who retired from charter fishing in 1997. Good idea, Omie would enjoy a day on the water with Tony and we would get to fish with two friends and sportfishing icons.
Not to be outdone, Jim quickly proposed that we also invite Captain Sunny Briggs and Captain Bobby Scarborough to join us. Now we had a great plan. Just think, over 175 years of sportfishing experience on one boat and, better yet, all good friends. Even if we didn't catch a fish, imagine the stories.
Word was spread among the four captains that we were planning a fishing trip in their honor, jokingly called the "Legends of Sportfishing." Everyone seemed excited and final arrangements were made. Only one detail remained: who was going to bring the traditional bucket of fried chicken? When Captain Briggs volunteered for this important task, we were set.
On the day of our trip, we were up VERY early and determined to be first on the dock. What were we thinking? Somehow it felt more like late night instead of early morning but when we got to the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, it was already rocking. Captain Tony Tillett and his hard-working mate, Jordan Croswait, were onboard the Carolinian and busily preparing for the trip.
As if on cue, Captain Briggs and Captain Scarborough appeared out of the darkness. Within moments, calls from other captains and mates began to ring out. "Mornin' Sportsman," and "Welcome back, Captain," signaled that Omie was once again where he belongs.
Around these parts, Captain Omie Tillett is known as "Sportsman" after the boat he fished for forty years. He had not been offshore since his retirement and we were overwhelmed as we watched his return. Omie humbly acknowledged every person that greeted him and it was easy to see why he is a revered member of the fishing community.
No one knew quite what to say until Sunny asked his good friend and mentor, "Well Captain, how does it feel to be back?"
His reply was classic Omie. "Ya' know Sunny, all fishermen are brothers and it feels like I'm home."
After a few hugs and quips about the fried chicken, the Carolinian was loaded and we slipped out of the harbor just ahead of the fleet. As soon as Tony made a sharp turn around the first channel marker, we were treated to a spectacular lunar eclipse high over Pamlico Sound. We marveled aloud at our good fortune and at the incredible wonders of nature.
Upon reflection, the eclipse might have been a harbinger that this day was going to be special, one that we will cherish forever. It no longer mattered that we were with four of the best captains ever to fish along the North Carolina coast. We were among friends and we were going fishing. It didn't get any better than this.
As Tony steered his beautiful Carolina sportfishing boat under the Oregon Inlet Bridge, we talked about the early days of boatbuilding and charter fishing. A lifelong friend of Tony's and a superb boatbuilder from Wanchese, Billy Holton, crafted this Carolinian. She is Tony's fourth boat by the same name and she advances a sportfishing tradition that began in the early-1960s. My, how things have changed.
Unfortunately, our discussion was interrupted as we began to sway in rapidly building seas. Even in the dim pre-dawn light, we could see white water all around and we knew we were in the heart of Oregon Inlet. Thankfully, the weather was calm and we quickly crossed into the rolling swells of the ocean.
As we settled in for a two-hour ride to our fishing destination some 50 miles to the northeast, we prodded Omie to talk about his family. In order to fully appreciate the Tillett's impact on the history of sportfishing, we asked him to begin in the mid-1920s when the Outer Banks was isolated and sparsely populated. He described how visitors faced a challenging journey filled with ferry rides, narrow wooden bridges and sand roads. Once on the banks, driving on the hard sand beach between high tide and low tide was the fastest way to travel. For the adventurous sportsman who made the trip, their reward was excellent waterfowl hunting in the winter and fabulous fishing in the summer.
Omie reminisced about his dad, Sam "Sambo" Tillett, who began his remarkable sportfishing career in 1925. Like other young men on the Outer Banks, Sam grew up hunting and fishing in the vast marshes and tidal flats around Oregon Inlet. He developed a reputation as self-sufficient, resourceful and hard working and he quickly learned the subtle rhythms of life on the water.
Sam's brother, Chester Tillett, was also a hunter and fisherman. Like most in the Tillett family, he had an innate understanding and appreciation for life on the Outer Banks.
Chester began his sportfishing career as an inshore guide taking parties around Pamlico Sound in search of striped bass. Omie recalled many days spent fishing with Chester on his square stem boat, the Sam and Omie. Based on Omie's recollections, Chester was not only a great fisherman but he was the ultimate practical joker and a fantastic storyteller.
During the early 1930s, word spread about the enormous schools of huge channel bass that "turned the waters red" around Oregon Inlet. In 1928 a local fishing guide, Captain Horace Dough, distributed a series of articles to newspapers in Norfolk, Baltimore, and New York proclaiming Oregon Inlet as the "Red Drum Capital of the World." He included photos of fishermen with one-day catches of channel bass weighing over 2,000 pounds. Soon fishermen started arriving on the Outer Banks for a chance to catch these "bulldogs of the sea."
Local hunting guides were pressed into taking fishing parties even though many thought it was a waste of time. Sam and Chester Tillett however, saw the potential of charter fishing and they were among the first to advertise their fishing guide service.
Sam modified his round stem shad boat, Waterwitch, by adding "parlor chairs," hand-lines, bamboo rods and reels with thumb drags to his assortment of crude trolling spoons and jigging feathers. In addition to the Sam and Omie, Chester also fished on the Spur and the Tony. Their fee for a party of six, including bait, tackle and ice, was a whopping $10 per day.
Omie Tillett was born in 1929 and he also expressed an interest in sportfishing at an early age. When he was only 10 years old, Omie baited hooks, tended lines and cleaned fish on his dad's boat. He acknowledged, however, that his most important lessons were learning about people.
In 1937, Sam Tillett opened a small restaurant in Nags Head called Sambo's. Patrons could enjoy an early breakfast, book a charter fishing trip and relax after a day on the water. Sam also saw the restaurant as a way to generate interest in fishing and to consolidate the booking process.
In 1949, Sam included Omie in his business and he changed the name of his restaurant to Sam and Omie's. It was a big success and it continues to operate by this same name in its original Nags Head location.
After World War II, the Outer Banks became more accessible and charter fishing began to evolve. In 1949 Omie started taking fishing parties on his round stem shad boat named Jerry Jr. He realized that charter fishing could provide a living during the summer, but what about winter? The answer was simple.. . build boats.
Charter captains were venturing farther offshore and they needed larger and faster fishing vessels. To compound this challenge, their boats needed to be economical to construct and to operate.
Captain Warren O'Neal and Captain Omie Tillett responded when they collaborated on the first North Carolina built charter boat that incorporated a flared bow, broken sheer line and a deep-vee forward hull. With the launching of Sportsman in 1961, the Carolina-style was born.
Omie talked about the early years and their approach to boatbuilding. "When something broke, we fixed it. When we needed something, we made it. We had no other option.. ." This utilitarian philosophy is fundamental in the evolution of Carolina-style sportfishing boats.
Tony Tillett, the youngest of Sam's three children, was born in 1940. He carried his first charter party in 1949 and he remembers that day well. "Daddy made me stand on two drink crates, one stacked on top of the other. I could barely see over the wheel but Daddy said to follow him and to fish close by. All day we yelled back-and-forth as he checked to make sure I was okay. I had already been out with him many times so I knew what to expect."
In 1951, Sam Tillett helped lead the small, fledgling charter fleet from a narrow canal along the road between Manteo and Nags Head, called Dykstra's Ditch, to a tidal creek much closer to Oregon Inlet. This new location is now the site of the famous Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. Sam and Chester Tillett provided much of the leadership and vision that are important to the heritage of sportkishing on the Outer Banks. During their - lengthy careers, they built a remarkable legacy that has only been enhanced by Omie and Tony.
We were so engaged in our discussions that we lost track of time. When Tony slowed the Carolinian, we realized we were in the Gulf Stream and we remembered why we were there. Jordan already had the baits rigged and suddenly we were fishing.
A teaser dredge of ballyhoo and soft plastic swimming baits was situated in the aft rodholder and a chain of green squid was deployed on each of the long outriggers. Skirted ballyhoos were positioned in a short, medium and long-range pattern to complete the spread. Our plan, if we were lucky, was to tease a marlin to the boat and then drop a rigged ballyhoo back to the excited fish. We were prepared for stand-up fishing with light tackle. The table was set. C'mon fish!
In a flash, Captain Scarborough was on the bridge. With all these captains onboard, the possibility for a mutiny was real. Fortunately, Captain Scarborough and Tony only sat and reminisced about the good ol' days as they intently scanned the ocean for signs of fish.
When Omie joined Tony and Bobby on the bridge, Captain Briggs leaned over and whispered, "That's six of the best eyes on the East Coast. They have seen it all. Why, I bet they can pick out a counterfeit bill at a hundred yards."
Seen it all is right. Captains Omie and Tony Tillett have arguably caught more fish in their combined 100 years of charter fishing experience than almost anyone. In fact, we were all set to hear first-hand accounts describing unbelievable catches of marlin, dolphin and tuna when we asked Omie to talk about his personal bests.
He leaned back and paused while he silently measured his career. His answer was shocking, "You know, I wasn't known for catching many fish ...
What? Captain Omie Tillett not known for catching many fish? Sure, when did that happen?
What Omie said is that we asked the wrong question. The real contribution of the "Fishing Tilletts" cannot be measured in numbers or sizes of fish caught. The thousands of fishermen who have enjoyed an offshore trip on the Spur, Sportsman or Carolinian can judge their impact. The hundreds of mates trained by Sam, Chester, Omie and Tony that are now charter captains all over the world can attest to their talents. The Oregon Inlet fleet, ranked among the best anywhere, has evolved because of their leadership. And, the beautiful Carolina-style sportfishing boats can be traced to their skills as craftsmen and boatbuilding innovators. Lesson learned.
We trolled and ate chicken and trolled and ate more chicken. Omie and Sunny were wound up as they shared some of their fondest fishing memories and legendary practical jokes.
Sunny described an "epoxy glue" trick he played on fellow fisherman, Lee Perry; the unlucky bananas someone strategically hid all over his charter boat, Sea Fever; and, the proverbial hot-foot Chester gave anyone who tried to take a nap while fishing.
Omie innocently told about how he once rigged a freshwater washdown switch on the bridge of the Sportsman so he wouldn't have to climb the ladder so much. His mate, now a well-known captain, enjoyed playing practical jokes on others and Omie wanted to teach him a little humility.
On a return trip from offshore, Omie watched from the bridge as his mate rinsed the deck, turned off the water and neatly coiled the hose in its place. He realized this was the perfect opportunity and he flipped his washdown switch. The hose promptly sprang to life and sprayed everyone on deck. The startled mate eventually regained control of the hose and as soon as he did, Omie turned the water off.
Puzzled, but undaunted, the mate meticulously coiled the hose-monster back in its place. When he finished, Omie switched the water on again and the hose erupted. This time the mate dove on top of it and looked up at Omie in disbelief.
"Must be a faulty switch," Omie hollered. "Try hitting the gunwale to loosen it up." The mate obliged and, sure enough, it worked.
All summer the mate ceremoniously slapped the gunwale before and after he used the hose, often having to explain the odd ritual to inquisitive fishing parties.
At the year-end Captain's Banquet, the mate was recognized for his outstanding efforts and he was awarded a section of water hose. Everyone roared but he still didn't get it until he was told about the switch on the bridge. Even though Omie apologized, the mate still recalls this lesson and how it changed his perspective about practical jokes.
The stories continued to flow with one leading to a string of others and we laughed until our sides hurt.
In an instant, it was three o'clock and time to head for port. We were all on deck to enjoy the last few minutes of fishing and, as Jordan pulled the teasers onboard, we took one long last look at the beautiful blue waters. We knew that this opportunity might not come our way again and we wanted to savor each moment.
The ride back to Oregon Inlet was amazingly quiet as everyone reflected on the day. We learned a lot about fishing, boatbuilding and history but we especially learned about people. Honest, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people with rich family traditions.
We gained a first-hand appreciation for the integrity and character of the Tillett family and we understood why they made such a tremendous impact on North Carolina's offshore sportfishing heritage.
Our return was bittersweet even though family and friends were at the dock to greet us. As soon as the Carolinian came to rest, we were assaulted with a verbal barrage. What did you catch? What did you catch?
They didn't get it either. Like us, they were asking the wrong question. Even though we did release a blue marlin and two sailfish, our catch was not an adequate measure of the trip. We knew it was much more than that. It was about people. It's always about people and the "Fishing Tilletts" are definitely the right kind of people!
Marlin Mag 2001
Captain Buddy Cannady
The Outer Banks has its share of colorful seafaring characters. Buddy Cannady definitely qualifies as one of them. A charter captain and former duck-hunting guide, Cannady has a shop in Manteo that builds one boat per year - built his way.
Cannady's boats take about 25 weeks to build, and the process provides employment for a number of charter crews that don't fish over the winter months.
The method of construction is called jig building - one of the oldest shipbuilding methods known to man. Cannady sinks heavy posts into an absolutely level floor and takes all the levels from that. His plans, sketched on grubby pieces of plywood at a simple 1-inch-to-1-foot scale, sit in a pile on a sawdust-laden shelf.
Though it may not sound like a sophisticated operation, Cannady's boats are in huge demand. Of course, Cannady doesn't care. He's still going to build just one per year and fish during the summer. No one dances to the beat of his own drum better than he.
Cannady's boats are meant for charter work. They're not fancy or flashy. But anyone who can recognize real beauty in stark simplicity and functionality will instantly fall in love with Cannady's hulls. Boats like the 56-foot Easy Rider, Cannady's newest model, have enormous room below with plenty of storage for rods, tackle, bait freezers and the like. Open interiors offer little privacy except for the head.
Easy Rider boasts twin diesel power since her captain and owner, David Graham, plans to fish the Bahamas and other exotic locales when not after Oregon Inlet's tuna and white marlin. However, most Cannady boats get a single diesel. When you fish 150 days each year, the cost and operation of a boat must be a nickel-and-dime affair. For that reason, the design and construction plays to the pocketbook. The keelson fits inside the hull instead of outside for less drag and better fuel efficiency. The hull consists of juniper frames and normal marine plywood. The bulkheads all go in while the boat is being framed so it all locks together. Then the planking goes over the outside, rather than putting the walls in last and having to tab them in.
Everything is simple, clean and functional - there's no mistaking that this is a workboat. As Cannady says, "They're good enough for those who use them."
Marlin Mag October 12, 2001
Captain Omie Tillett
Starting each day en route to the fishing grounds off North Carolina's Oregon Inlet without Omie Tillett's daily prayer just won't seem right. For years, the 68-year-old charter skipper and boatbuilder has seldom missed leading a sunrise invocation over the VHF, thanking the Lord for another day on the water and praying for everyone's safety. Tillett's daily prayer has held fleet-wide attention since 1990, but his influence on the region's fishermen goes back half a century.
Now, however, Tillett is retiring.
Tillett's accomplishments are many and varied. He's been a restaurateur (built in 1950, his seafood restaurant is still named Sam and Omie's), built sport-fishing boats (still in use and considered outstanding) and, of course, ran charters, seldom missing a day on the water. Superseding those accomplishments, though, has been the skipper's mastery of the sea, gentle nature and genuine care for those around him.
One of the Outer Banks' best-known and -loved skippers, Tillett made a lasting impression on a generation of anglers, mates and captains. Someone may come along and take over his 6:30 a.m. prayer service, but no one will replace Omie.
Brochure by Captain Horace Dough advertising the excellent channel bass fishing at Oregon Inlet, 1930.
Captain Sam Tillett cleaning a channel bass on the stem of his charter boat, Waterwitch. Wanchese, 1939.
Author and legendary fly fisherman Lee Wulff with 30 lb salmon from the Serpentine River Newfoundland. Captain Croswait's great grandfather Jack Young was his guide, 1940.
The Spur was a charter boat operated by Sam Tillett. Dykstra's Canal, 1947.
Tony Tillett holds a dolphin with help from his brother, Omie. Dykstra's Canal, 1947.
Omie, Tony, Sara Wynne and Sam Tillett pose in a family photo. Manteo, 1948.
Sam Tillett poses with fishermen and channel bass in front of his restaurant. Nags Head, 1950.
Sambo with his youngest son Tony, 1950.
Sam and Omie's Restaurant. Nags Head, 1953.
Captain Omie Tillett with a nice wahoo caught on his charter boat, Jerry, Jr. Oregon Inlet, 1953.
Sam and Tony Tillett pose with two marlin caught on the Spur. Oregon Inlet, 1957.
Tony Tillett. Oregon Inlet, 1950s.
Captain Tony Tillett on his first charter boat Carrov. He changed her name to Carolinian and a long charter fishing career began. Oregon Inlet, 1962.
Omie Tillett backs the Sportsman into her berth beside Chester Tillett's charter boat, Tony. Oregon Inlet, 1963.
Captain Omie Tillett, left, and mate Sunny Briggs, right, with a marlin caught on the Sportsman. Oregon Inlet, 1963.
Captain Tony Tillett brings his first Carolinian to the docks at the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. 1964.
Captain Omie Tillett, right, and mate Sunny Briggs with a marlin caught on the Sportsman. Oregon Inlet, 1964.
Captain Omie Tillett, back left, and Captain Chester Tillett, back right, pose with a fishing party and their catch of striped bass. Manns Harbor, 1965.
Tony Tillett, front left, and Omie Tillett, front right, with marlin caught on the Carolinian and the Sportsman. Oregon Inlet, 1972.
Originally named the Mary I, the Barbara B is the last boat built by Omie Tillett. Oregon Inlet, 1974.
Omie Tillett, left, and Tony Tillett, right, pose with the Carolinian they built. Wanchese, 1979.
Captain BC Buddy Cannady and Captain Bobby Croswait 1981
The legends.. . Captains Sunny Briggs, Omie Tillett, Tony Tillett and Bobby Scarborough. Oregon Inlet, 2007.
Captain Omie Tillett
Boatbuilder and Captain BC Buddy Cannady
Captain BC at Cannady BC Boatworks
Boatbuilder and Captain BC Buddy Cannady
BC Boatworks framed up crab boat
Captain BC Buddy Cannady
Buddy Cannady Boatworks
Captain Buddy Cannady Captain of the Year 1982 with son Captain Bobby Croswait
Captain Bobby Croswait
Captain Bobby Croswait
Captain Bobby Croswait with son and future Captain Jordan Croswait
Captain BC Buddy Cannady with grandson and future Captain Jordan Croswait
Left to right: Captain Bobby Croswait, future Captain Jordan Croswait and Captain BC Buddy Cannady,