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Guru of Gulf Coast fishing

Oceanographer Norman Gibbs Vick has located the place where the marlin roam, and now he is out to do as much for the amberjack

We keep zapping guys onto the moon, but we don't even know what's around the corner in the bay." N. G. Vick, marine biologist.

For Norman Gibbs Vick, admirer of marlin, amberjack and assorted porpoises, crabs and octopuses, it was a 19-word personality profile. The infinitive "to zap" is part of a vocabulary in which storms are "Walloons," fish are "animals" and misery is to be "on the hill" or stuck ashore, which is what provoked his strong sense of irony in the first place. The walloon that could easily have drowned him, he pointed out, was to the astronauts but an invisible swirl on a pea-sized ball. And, he kept thinking, why was everyone walking around moon-eyed anyway? Hadn't he felt that same sense of wonder nearly every day of his adult life just looking at the sea?

Since 1961 Vick's eyes have been open wide at the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City, Fla., where he is the Eastern Gulf Marine Laboratory, part of the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. Vick's work with a marlin-filled ocean river called the Loop Current is already a Gulf Coast legend. Two years before he came to Panama City little was known about the Loop, and only one marlin had been caught on rod and reel in the northeastern Gulf. Last year 1,510 were brought into Destin, Fla. alone.

To Vick, the Loop Current is a restless, living thing, a great liquid serpent that sleeps the winter curled around western Cuba, then starts northward in spring, a deepening inverted U, fed by warm expanding currents from the south. By early July it is 85 to 180 miles off the Mississippi Delta, sliding eastward over the walls of the continental shelf, its top and right leg roughly paralleling the shoreline from Louisiana to southwest Florida. And two days out of three, from mid-April to early November, Vick is probing its course. For four consecutive springs Vick has caught the first marlin in the eastern Gulf.

"It should be called Vick's Current," says Harley Howcott Sr., of the New Orleans Big Game Fishing Club, one of many such groups indebted to Vick for his gathered information. "He's out there in rough seas doing things that many scientists try to do behind a desk."

Despite his local fame, no one on the Panama City fishing docks knows any Norman Gibbs Vick. There he is "Guru" or "Ole Man," "Dr. Vick" or "Vick"—Guru because the term suggests knowledge and they are awed by his; Ole Man because most of his friends are younger than he (probably because few men his own age, 39, could ever keep up with his seemingly endless physical energy); and Dr. Vick, though it is technically incorrect, because he knows so much. He says he is just too busy right now to complete a doctoral thesis.

Vick's land base is four drab rooms full of charts and bottles of fish in formaldehyde in a one-story building a block from the marina in Panama City's St. Andrews section. He is rarely there. "I'm a held researcher," he says, "not one a those 8-to-5 sports-coat types, with nothing to worry about but whether their coffee pot's gonna bubble."

One rainy day Vick was on the hill, and he was violently landsick. He drove down to a waterfront fishermen's hangout to commiserate with his sidekick, Raymond Groom, whom for no particular reason Vick prefers to call Ralph. Groom works a midnight to 8 a.m. shift with the telephone company, leaving his days free to make trips with Vick. For months they had been daydreaming of broadbill swordfish, unknown in the Gulf until shrimp trawlers and longline fishermen recently caught more than 50.

"C'mon, Ole Man," Groom said, "you can't get swords sittin' here in the lounge. Why don't we just get down and start her up now. Why wait until tomorrow?"

Vick was deep in thought. "In the last three years I've had eight 12/0 reels emptied," he finally said. "They might've been tunas, but maybe they were swords." Minutes passed and no one spoke.

The door opened, and Vick's wife Melinda, or Missy, walked in. "Well, well, it's Ole Missy," he says. Ole Missy is 28 and pretty, 11 years younger than her husband. "Now, Missy," he cautioned, "don't you get me an' Ralph in trouble. If anyone calls jus' tell 'em we're 200 miles offshore an' won't be back for six weeks. Missy's a good example of the kinda wife who doesn't expect you home at 5 o'clock," he added in an aside. One Monday morning he headed offshore, promising to be back Tuesday for supper and a movie. He finally tied up at the dock at sundown the following Saturday. Missy and Ralph's wife Alma are a familiar sight pacing the St. Andrews pier, dressed up ready to go somewhere.

Vick met Missy when she was a student in his classical-zoology class at Sam Houston State College. It wasn't a promising romance. He was bringing up three children from a previous marriage and was recovering from a somewhat demanding athletic schedule. He had been riding bulls and horses bareback with the SHSC rodeo team, champions of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. He quit soon after meeting Missy, but he had already been thrown twice, breaking both collarbones and his nose, and then he was kicked in the mouth by a horse, losing 14 teeth, which is why today he has the brightest smile ever seen on a 39-year-old marine scientist.

As Vick spoke about Missy, the rain stopped and through the window a salmon-colored sunset appeared. Ralph was even more pleased than Vick, but not for scientific reasons. He is the local gourmet, and if they could get off the hill he would have an excuse to make a pot of crab gumbo, his specialty.

Next morning, at 8 a.m., Ralph was on the dock planning meals. First a gumbo. Then he would catch a rare black snapper—"the best eatin' fish of all." Vick was fueling up the 43-foot R/V Rachel Carson, formerly the Tally Ho but renamed by Vick in 1966 for his heroine, after its presentation to the bureau by millionaire sportsman Eligio (Jo Jo) Del Guercio.

Soon Vick was headed out to his 615,000-square-mile field office. The area to be fished was 110 miles to the southwest. We would sleep the night at sea, then continue on in the morning. Again the talk was of swordfish. In the great fishery of the North Atlantic swords are taken at the surface, where they come up from the cold depths to digest their food. But though they are rarely seen on top in the warmer Gulf, Vick has eyes for what is happening 600 feet down.

"We think we're gonna get that sword," he said. "If a long-liner can catch 'em on a cable with dead shrimp, we can certainly do it with a live blackfin tuna on monofilament line."

Suddenly off the bow a dozen or so flying fish left the water, followed by a bright male dolphin, who got the one he had his eyes on. "Yessir," Vick commented, "it's a vicious environment out here. All an animal has to do to get killed is just slow down a little. That's why sailfish don't live very long. They're frail anyway, an' when they start gettin' big they get unwieldly an', zap, somethin' gets 'em." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Suppose," he finally said, "you put five pounds of sailfish eggs in a bucket with the necessary quantity of sperm. Why, you'd spawn more sails than are born in the Gulf in a whole year."

As if this were enough to ponder for a while, Vick fell silent. When he spoke again he reminded Ralph of the time he bought a northern lobster on a trip to Rhode Island. "I nursed it all the way down here in seaweed," he said, chuckling, "brought it into the fish market and said I caught it out in the bay. Well, the guy went crazy. He got so excited he traded me his baby sailfish, and they're rare as hell."

Such frequent, unpredictable jumps in his thinking are just one of the things that make Vick seem ageless. At times he seems 50, at others 25 but, strangely, hardly ever 39. He just knows, and has done, too much for such a young man, and the deep crow's-feet and horizontal creases on his forehead give him a weathered look. But they add character to an otherwise youthful, tanned face. Always there is the quick smile, the hard, powerful body and the restless energy of the very young. Norman Vick is never bored. Maybe it is the uncertainty of his work schedule. Next time the old 6:08 is late, commuter, think about what happened to Guru that night: 50 miles at sea, too rough to go home in the dark, and the nearest oyster bar 400 feet away—straight down. Oh, there were ingredients for crab gumbo aboard, but at 45° angles the Rachel Carson's stove tends to reject pots and pans. Luckily the radar screen revealed a large head boat nearby "full of horns"—Vick's term for greenhorns, or landlubbers—and he tied up behind the big boat for the night. As bedtime approached, there was the persistent lullaby from the sister craft of seasick horns wishing they were dead. "Might as well turn in," Vick said, joking, it seemed certain, but five minutes later he was asleep down below. I stretched out on a bunk and seconds later was dumped to the floor, shielding my eyes from small objects that flew around like shooting stars. All night the head gurgled and every joint in the boat creaked. Vick slept like a baby, seemingly suctioned to his bunk.

Vick awoke at dawn, crept into the engine hatch to make an adjustment, and the hatch cover crashed down on his head. Brushing a trickle of blood from his brow, he exclaimed, "What kind of moron would get involved in something like this when he has a college degree and could get a job in industry for three times the salary?" He paused as he climbed out of the hatch. "Still," he finally said, "I'd hate to wake up tomorrow and have to go sell used cars."

At 7 a.m. walloon clouds to the east and south signaled more rough weather. It was also the signal for the end of our trip.

That night, at Vick's apartment, Ralph finally made his crab gumbo, and it may be the best in the world. After everyone had about 11 helpings Vick spoke of his career's inauspicious beginning. He'd never considered going to college and during high school cut enough classes to major in fishing. Two days before his June 1948 graduation he and a friend loaded up an old station wagon with tackle and camping equipment and headed for Alaska. They took an occasional odd job when money ran low, caught hundreds of big trout and wound up north of Fairbanks in October, before heading back. "I was afraid it was gonna snow on me," Vick recalls, a fear that still has him in awe of anyone who has lived through a winter north of the Mason-Dixon Line. He returned to Texas, where he might be a shrimp seiner today but for an old employer who provided funds to get him started at Sam Houston State College. "He thought I could read and write," Vick recalls, "and where I lived that was an unusual asset." Nine months into college, though, the draft threatening, he signed up for a 3½-year hitch in the Marines, fished in Puerto Rico and Mexico's Sea of Cortés and grew up. When he returned to college he had decided on his life's work.

Vick's primary concern today is the large migratory ocean fishes, but no one has yet complained when he comes inshore to do something that might make a lot of Floridians richer and happier.

Four times in the past two years he has transported two- to nine-inch striped bass from the North and helped plant them in nearby Choctawhatchee Bay and River, where a sea trout population had been failing. Vick had studied the environment, concluding that stripers might fill the gap and create a fishery so economically successful that no one would allow industry to move in. Sixteen months after stocking, excited natives were catching 13-inch stripers. "Those ole folks go out with their cane poles," Vick says grinning, "an" when one of 'em gets his butt torn off by a six- or seven-pounder we're gonna have some fine fishin'. Finally the people are benefiting from something the Government did."

Two days after the unsuccessful swordfish trip Vick got out again—this time for amberjack—to a Navy research platform 13 miles offshore. His work with amberjack is fishing insurance, plain and simple. Commercial net-boat captains have built an industry with kingfish, but some Commercial men are hauling in 30,000 pounds a day, and Vick says there may not be any left in 10 years. Since 1966 he has been catching and lagging amberjack, studying their movements to see if he can establish a fishery for them by building artificial reefs.

"There's gonna be a day when the amberjack is our main game fish," Vick says. "He's the man. Most fishermen in the U.S. have never been completely overpowered by a fish Well, an amberjack can accommodate them. If you want your damn pole bent and your string stretched the amberjack is the man to talk to."

On the way offshore Vick and Ralph trolled jigs on light rods and caught two dozen blue runners, the best amberjack bait. At the platform they trolled close to the legs, but time after time the blue runners were either shredded or brought back inside three- or four-foot barracuda, good lighters but not jacks.

Finally a reel screeched with a higher pitch. "Amberjack," Vick said. Against a tight drag with 60-pound line, the jack shot under the platform and broke off. "A little one," Vick said, "maybe 20 pounds." It happened three more times with the last of the blue runners, and that was it. Vick was right about amberjack. It might take years to hook one you get to see, but a lot of people would pay to try.

On the way back Vick relaxed in his chair on the Rachel Carson's flying bridge. "One of my secret desires," he said, "is to take some of those ole tankers in Mobile Bay an' sink 'em offshore. We already fish one 600-footer, but it's too far off for most boats. It's fantastic fishin': amberjacks, black grouper, warsaws as big as they grow, red snapper, kings, dolphins, an' the most thrilling thing is one of Ralph's black snappers. They don't occur very often in the Gulf. If you had that ship nearby it'd be worth millions in recreational fishing." Ecstatic at the prospect, he leaned back and closed his eyes. Finally he stretched and shook his head. "You know," he said, "it's a tough business being a man. But to be one you've gotta produce. You've just gotta turn something out. I don't care if it's chickens."