distinguished graduates of Dartmouth College, class of '32, Charles Atkins Mayo
Jr. of Provincetown, Mass. is singularly blessed. He goes to work each morning
in his bare feet and returns at night smelling like a tuna fish—for which he is
paid $100 a day. A poet and philosopher by training, a scientist by instinct,
Charlie Mayo is a fisherman by birth and chance and choice. His is not a
calling that is guaranteed to reward one unduly in worldly goods—savings in
shoe leather and psychiatric fees aside—but Mayo is amazed and more than a
little humble over the fact that he has made a living for 30 years doing
exactly what he wants to do.
Charlie Mayo is a
charter boatman and a good one, perhaps the finest tuna skipper on the Atlantic
coast, although this is not a statistic that lends itself to the same precise
measurement as Mickey Mantle's batting average, being more on the order of how
many clams make a chowder. In song and story the northern tip of Cape Cod is
famed for many things—Eugene O'Neill, lobsters, the Provincetown Players and
the kookiest collection of beats, Dad, this side of San Francisco's North
Beach—all of them tending to obscure the fact that big, hungry tuna inhabit the
waters just offshore. As a result, a charter boatman seeking fame would be
better advised to concentrate his energies on better-known tuna grounds, such
as Wedgeport's legendary Soldier's Rip or Cat Cay in the Bahamas or the open
Atlantic off Point Judith, R.I., to mention a few. Or better yet, forgo tuna
altogether and fish for marlin off Hatteras and San Juan or for broadbill off
Cape Breton and Montauk. This, despite invitations from his clients, Charlie
Mayo has refused to do. The reasons are simple enough. Mayo's passion for fish,
once encompassing virtually everything in fins short of a 1949 Cadillac, has
narrowed through the years until it now flares over only one species, those
great brutal bullets of the sea, the giant bluefin. Beyond that, Charlie Mayo
is a Cape Cod man and you couldn't pull him away from Provincetown with a 12/0
As a result,
Mayo's fame has never spread far beyond Boston and Gloucester to the north or
past the Cape Cod Canal to the south. But in the magic expanse of Cape Cod Bay
no one can match Charlie Mayo's record for putting anglers on big fish. He
caught the first giant tuna on rod and reel in Cape Cod Bay back in 1937, and
in the years since has guided more fishermen to more tuna than all the Orleans
and Brewster and Barnstable men lumped together. Five times in the last seven
years his customers have won the Governor's Trophy for the largest tuna taken
in Massachusetts waters. In local tournaments, before Mayo withdrew from these
clamorous affairs altogether, his wake was often so full of other boats that
the progress of Chantey III toward the fishing grounds resembled the maiden
voyage of the Queen Mary. His lures and baiting devices have been the object of
espionage tactics more suited to a piece of Philip Wylie fiction than to actual
fact. His charter book is so full that Boston executives consider themselves
favored at finding a spot on the boat without making reservations a year in
"I like to
think that I could have been equally successful wherever I might have
fished," says Mayo in his cultured Yankee voice, "but that would have
meant becoming a drifter. I love the Cape and I love tuna and both are here. I
have a home and a family and a good life. What more could a man ask?"
could no more escape the sea than a squid. His family, on his father's side,
were Grand Bankers and whalers; on his mother's, Yankee ship captains and
Azores Islanders. An ancestor named John Atkins once toppled from a whaleboat
into a whale's mouth. Spit up faster than Jonah went down, the old man was back
fishing next day. A Mayo brought his schooner to port singlehanded, surrounded
by the bodies of passengers and crew, every man jack dead of smallpox. The
family goes back in America to Governor Prence of Plymouth Colony, and an early
progenitor was the Rev. John Mayo, first pastor of Boston's Old North Church
and a man who could fish as well as he could preach. "Maybe better,"
As a boy, Mayo
spent the summer months aboard his father's schooner, a drag fisherman under
sail. Before he reached high school he was collecting 50� a head from tourists
willing to take a chance in Charlie's sailing dory in order to view the wonders
of Provincetown from the harbor side. Later his parents helped him buy a
28-foot sloop that he chartered for both cruising and the pursuit offish.
"We hand-lined for striped bass," says Mayo. "Sometimes we even
caught a few."
With the money
from his summer business, Charlie left the dazzling beaches of Provincetown and
went off to Dartmouth and the hills of Hanover in the fall of 1928. Immediately
he fell in love with the place. He learned to ski ("But not very well,"
he says) and became a disciple of Sidney Cox, an authority on Robert Frost.
There was a time when Mayo thought that he might become a writer himself.
" Dartmouth was good for me," he says now, "but, Lord, how I missed
the sea. I would wake up at night and hear the waves on the beach—only they
turned out to be dishes rattling in the commons." He tried his hand at
fiction after graduation in the spring of '32, but finally gave it up. "I
couldn't stay away from boats," he says, "and boats and creative
writing don't mix."
The boat in 1932
was a 41-foot Maine yawl named the Istar. Becalmed aboard her one night in
Provincetown Harbor with 20 tourists threatening to feed him to the sharks,
Charlie decided that it was time to see the world. He put an engine in the
Istar. found a charter and set out for Florida. In the next five years Mayo
cruised up and down the Atlantic coast, beyond Cuba and the Dry Tortugas and
Grand Cayman to the south, first in the old yawl, then in a catboat, then in a
ketch. Once, forced into port by a storm at Georgetown, S.C., and desperately
in need of a crew, Charlie called up a girl he knew in New York named Isabel
(Ing) Stahl and asked her to marry him. "I would never have made it back
that time without her," he says. "She turned out to be such a good hand
that I kept her on." Wherever Charlie went, with or without Ing, under
power or sail, he fished. He caught dolphin and barracuda and wahoo and
kingfish and billfish in the south; on the Cape, in the summers, he became an
expert on bass. But the more Mayo fished, the more fascinated he became with
the idea of taking a giant tuna on rod and reel.
These were the
days of Mike Lerner and Kip Farrington and Tommy Gifford in Wedgeport, of Ben
Crowninshield in Ipswich, but Charlie Mayo didn't know Mike Lerner from a
lobster, and he had to make all of the mistakes for himself. The only thing he
knew was that the tuna were there. For years they had been caught in the traps
of the Worthington Fish Company, sometimes huge ones weighing 600 and 700 and
800 pounds; once a fish that weighed more than 1,000 pounds was dumped
ingloriously on the dock at the packing plant. So in the summer of 1937 Mayo
bought a secondhand 12/0 Penn reel, filled it with 39-thread linen and hung it
on an ancient bamboo pole. There is no record that the tuna fled in fright.
were trying to catch big fish, too," he says, "but they always missed.
The bait was wrong, the methods were wrong or something. I missed, too, for a
while. But John Worthington encouraged me to keep going—and one day we hit.
John and Ing and I were out in a little double-ender when a tuna struck a
trolled squid. The fish weighed only 200 pounds, and we had it aboard in 20
minutes, but I never had so much fun in my life."