Man for All Seasons and Sports
But a fisherman first and last
Most of the world is covered by water. A fisherman’s job is simple: Pick out the best parts. — Charles Waterman
By Tom Bryant
I started fishing at a very young age. It was said that when I was born, my dad put a baseball and glove in my crib, and shortly afterward, my granddad hung a bait-casting rod and reel on the side. My destiny was preordained. When I wasn’t playing baseball, I was fishing.
Over the years, I’ve met quite a few fishermen and fisher ladies, if there is such a term. I’ve fished with some, caught fish with some, listened to many tall fish tales, some of them true, and told many tall fish tales, some of them also true. My granddaddy often said that you could tell a man’s true character by spending an hour or two with him fishing. And I’ve done that. Most recently was with one of the most colorful fishermen friends I’ve met in quite a while, Bennett Rose, a fisherman’s fisherman. A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to have lunch with him.
Bennett could be a knock-off of Ernest Hemingway, or he could fit right in with Augustus McCrae and W.F. Call and their Hat Creek Cattle Company, as told in Larry McMurtry’s famous Western novel Lonesome Dove. Bennett is a medium-sized fellow with a shock of white hair and beard to match. He has the ease of movement of a natural athlete and walks like a cat. If the room were suddenly turned upside down, he’d land on his feet.
When two fishermen get together, the conversation always starts with the weather, then automatically turns to fishing. When I asked him at what age he started fishing, he looked at me with a baffled look and replied, “I don’t know. I’ve always fished.” Then he added, “Maybe 6?”
Bennett grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, with his two brothers, Porter and Jack, and a sister, Patricia. Like most Southerners, his parents leaned hard toward outdoor sports. Bennett was also encouraged by his grandfather, who had a beach cottage at Pawleys Island in the low country of South Carolina, where he spent many happy days surf fishing.
Bennett’s working life complemented his outdoor sporting life. I asked him how he got into the forestry service trade. “Most everybody living in Greenville worked in a textile mill. I sure didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be outside, so I was lucky enough to get started in a forest managing job; and eventually, I worked for Continental Can Company. I was with them for 13 years managing their forest investments that included over 70,000 acres. They wanted me to move to Raleigh to a desk job, though, and I didn’t want to do that, so I started my own company, Bennett Rose and Associates, Forestry Consultants. I did that for about 17 years.”
Bennett’s son, Smedes, and grandchildren live in New York. When I questioned him about his son’s unusual name, he said, “Smedes was named after my great-grandfather Aldert Smedes. He was an Episcopal priest and actually started Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh.” The conversation turned back to the outdoors. “You not only fish, but I know you love to bird hunt.”
“Yeah, Tom. You know the wild quail that we used to have around here are long gone, and shooting on preserves is just not for me. I was fortunate last year to go out to Texas with my brother Jack, and shoot quail just like it was in the old days. I bet we jumped 25 coveys the first day. What a great hunt. I want to do that again.”
“What other sports do you enjoy?”
“I love snow skiing. I try to go out West to Sun Valley every year for a week or so to see if I’m as good as I once was. And I used to skydive, or I did until it got so expensive.”
That answer took me aback. I had no idea that Bennett had ever done that. “Good grief! How many jumps did you make?”
He looked at me and grinned. “Five hundred thirty-two. It was loads of fun, but the cost finally cut me out of participating.”
“You certainly have done a lot in the outdoor sports category,” I said, “but your reputation that I know about, and the photos on the wall of your porch, testify to salt water fishing, for big fish, red fish, that is.”
Bennett’s porch with its stone fireplace looks like it could be right out of a Garden and Gun magazine feature, and the porch wall probably has 30 to 40 photos of friends and family he has guided on South Carolina fishing trips off the coast of Pawleys Island. In most of the photos, the lucky participant is holding a big red drum, and nearly all the fish are trophy size. “I’ve heard you named this the Wall of Fame.”
“Wrong,” he replied, laughing. “It’s the wall of pain. Tom, we catch and release all of our fish. I use circle hooks so we don’t hurt the fish when we bring them in. I’m sure most of the fish we catch survive.”
I haven’t had the opportunity to fish with Bennett lately; our schedules haven’t seemed to mesh. But there was one trip that Linda, my bride, and I made to Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, just a few miles north of Pawleys Island, when Bennett came over for the afternoon, and we did a little surf fishing. I say we, but Bennett did most of the work, bringing everything from his beach cart to the bait we used.
The beach was beautiful as usual, only one other couple fishing, and we set up a little way down from them. Bennett cast out the bait, and I kicked back in a beach chair to watch. After a while, I walked back to the Airstream to get some refreshments, and when I got back to the beach, Bennett was helping the neighbor fisherman pull in a trophy red fish.
I could tell that the fellow was a novice because Bennett was doing all the work. He even ran back to our set-up, grabbed his camera from his tackle box, and rushed back to the lucky fisherman to take a couple of snapshots. After he helped him release the fish into the surf, he walked back to our chairs. I couldn’t tell who was happier, the couple fishing or Bennett.
We watched as the pair packed up and left, heading back to their campsite. “Bryant, do me a favor and find out that fellow’s address, and I’ll send him the prints of his big fish.”
“I know where they’re camped. I’ve seen them down here several times, so I’ll do that tomorrow.”
Bennett was grinning from ear to ear. “That made my day,” he said.
You would have thought Bennett had just pulled in that big fish. Then I realized that what my grandfather said about character is true.
My friend Bennett Rose would have made my grandfather proud. PS
Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.