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During the past 54 seasons, my father fished from the decks of some of the most iconic hull designs in modern sport fishing. Built from wood, aluminum and fiberglass, these mid-30-foot-class sportfishing boats were powered by Detroit, Cummins, Caterpillar and Volvo Penta diesels, and each one punched well above its weight class.

If you were fortunate enough to join Stephen Rhodes II on the fishing grounds, you would have seen giant bluefin tuna, blue and white marlin, monster mako and thresher sharks, striped bass by the thousands, lights-out yellowfin tuna fishing and some of the most amazing sunsets in the Northeast canyons. My father customized his boats on a shoestring budget utilizing his extraordinary mechanical skills and the ability to design and create just about any boating and fishing solution using little more than his two hands. We remain an active fishing family.

Steve Headley (left), the writer and Stephen Rhodes II (right) prep for a giant bluefin tuna trip with fresh bluefish and a refuel of their 35-foot Bruno & Stillman.

Steve Headley (left), the writer and Stephen Rhodes II (right) prep for a giant bluefin tuna trip with fresh bluefish and a refuel of their 35-foot Bruno & Stillman.

My father had eyes for the far horizons of the offshore canyons. Bitten by the fishing bug at an early age, he and his two brothers — Richard and Ronald — as well as his father, Stephen, all worked multiple jobs to support their fishing habit. He joined the New York City Fire Department in 1959 and became a marine engineer on the largest fireboat in America — Marine Co. 9 based in Staten Island. My grandfather and Uncle Richard worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; Uncle Ron joined the New York Police Department. All four worked side jobs as they pushed farther offshore to pursue exotic species beyond their home waters of Raritan Bay.

Their passion for boating and fishing led to a series of wooden boats from 16 to 31 feet during the early to mid-1960s. In the late ’60s, the cod and tuna fishing 15 to 30 miles off New York had them running farther offshore and in need of a bigger boat.

They all fished and worked as part-time mates on one of the pioneers of party-boat tuna fishing on the East Coast — Teal, captained by Freddy Moore. This sparked the idea of building a walkaround flybridge sportfisherman that would function somewhat like a mini party boat, with the ability to work the entire deck and easily fight bluefin tuna at anchor. Richard worked with Olsen Boat Works in Keyport, New Jersey, to draw up plans, and the boat was launched in 1969, the year I was born. Little did my father know, but that boat would propel him to more than five decades on the water aboard boats in the mid-30-foot class.

Capt. Stephen Rhodes II watching the horizon. 

Capt. Stephen Rhodes II watching the horizon. 

The 36-foot Olsen walkaround was christened Pipp — named for Uncle Ron and his carefree attitude. Pipp travelled to Montauk, Point Judith and Gloucester, where she helped the Staten Island Tuna Club win the prestigious United States Atlantic Tuna Tournament in 1973 with a 310-pound bluefin. Pipp was a mainstay in the striped bass and bluefin tuna fisheries in the New York Bight, and stayed in the water all winter to chase the cod that were plentiful a dozen miles from New York City in the early 1970s.

Pipp heard the siren call of Hudson Canyon and was soon plying the waters 80 to 100 miles offshore. During an evening storm that saw winds top 70 mph, my grandfather and uncles decided they needed a boat that was better-suited for canyon fishing. Striker Yachts was starting to produce the aluminum 34-foot Canyon Runner around that time, and before long the Olsen was for sale and a new Pipp was launched — an aluminum battlewagon with a tuna tower, ready for bigger seas and farther travels.

Bluefin tuna reign as the Rhodes family’s favorite gamefish. They’ve chased them from the Outer Banks to Prince Edward Island. 

Bluefin tuna reign as the Rhodes family’s favorite gamefish. They’ve chased them from the Outer Banks to Prince Edward Island. 

The Striker exceeded my family’s expectations. Built in Holland, the boat cruised at 17 knots through just about any sea, and traveled as far south as Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to target blue marlin and north to Gloucester, Massachusetts, to battle giant tuna. Transitioning from wood to aluminum was a game-changer for the crew of Pipp, a pioneer of the Hudson Canyon fishery. White marlin, yellowfin, bluefin and tilefish hit the decks while my father, uncles and grandfather maintained the boat and kept the good times rolling.

It wasn’t easy to pay for the boat expenses on the salaries of a firefighter, police officer and two Port Authority mechanics, but they made it work for several memorable seasons. When my grandfather suddenly passed during the winter of 1976, they decided to sell the Striker. With a growing family of his own, my father, along with my uncles, could not afford the expense of running a twin-diesel, aluminum sportfisherman that required much more maintenance than a fiberglass hull.

My father decided to have his own boat built in 1978 and chose a single-engine Bruno & Stillman 35-foot Down Easter. Named after his favorite fish, the striped bass, Linesider was launched in May 1979. Like the other boats built for my family, this one would be finished by my father and his brothers. Electronics, lower helm controls, bow rails, helm seating, a fighting chair, and a custom aluminum radar mount and gin pole were installed by my father and uncles. On the ride home to New York from Newington, New Hampshire, the captain’s chair consisted of a wooden board laid across the flybridge — talk about bare bones.

A 748-pounder caught at the Mud Hole off northern New Jersey.

A 748-pounder caught at the Mud Hole off northern New Jersey.

My father earned his 200-ton master license and in 1982 started chartering Linesider. I spent my teenage years working as a mate and learned invaluable lessons about fishing and life on that boat. We had an interesting clientele from the New York area: Wall Street stockbrokers, gas station owners, doctors, lawyers, real estate tycoons and plenty of others. There was rarely a dull moment with the cast of characters who fished with us, and much could be written about the highs and lows of charter fishing in the 1980s.

The Bruno & Stillman was no speed demon, cruising at 13 knots and burning only 8 gallons per hour. As my father and I watched other boats fly past us, I realized that more speed had to be a part of our future if we wanted to consistently fish the Northeast canyons. However, we made the best of our boat, and Linesider tallied giant bluefin tuna to 750 pounds, bigeye tuna to 250 pounds and a never-ending variety of inshore species. Slow as she was, the Down Easter was a fantastic boat.

My father taught me the importance of taking care of a charter boat so it would run smoothly all season, including how to maintain the Caterpillar 3208 diesel. In the off-season, he demonstrated “MacGyver-like” engineering skills when he used a forklift to take the Cat out of the boat, then removed the twin 110-gallon aluminum fuel tanks that had developed leaks. He installed two new tanks and used a forklift to reinstall the engine. Forklift operator, diesel mechanic, fuel tank installer — who knew you needed all these skills before you ever put a line in the water the following spring?

I spent my teenage years on the ocean without a care in the world. The ocean provided a never-ending parade of memories for my father and me. We dodged drug runners in the fog off Montauk who mistook us for their pickup boat, battled 100-mph winds in a violent thunderstorm that sunk many boats off New York and New Jersey in July 1986, and were nearly struck by a Panamanian tanker in a fleet of 200-plus boats anchored overnight at the Bacardi wreck while tuna fishing in 1987.

The relative normalcy of my teenage years changed in an instant in 1988, when my sister Sandra — a senior engineering student at the U.S. Air Force Academy with dreams of piloting the space shuttle — died in a car accident. We were devastated, and my family decided to close the charter business and fish only with family and close friends. I was a freshman at the University of Notre Dame at the time.

In 1991, my parents decided to move up to a larger boat and purchased a used 38-foot Henriques convertible. That hull represented a quantum leap in speed and accommodations from the Bruno & Stillman and catapulted us into running many more canyon trips each year. With an enclosed flybridge sporting a Lexan windshield, generous interior accommodations, a 140-square-foot cockpit and fish holds that could take four, 200-pound bigeyes and 20, 50-pound yellowfin, the Henriques performed well above its size. With a nod toward my sister and our family’s history on the water, we named the boat Legacy — and that has since been the name of all of our boats.

The Rhodes family has fished together for more than 50 years.

The Rhodes family has fished together for more than 50 years.

My father celebrated his 54th birthday in 1991 in the Hudson Canyon with me on the first trip aboard Legacy, and we caught two bigeyes, 24 yellowfin and a dozen mahi-mahi. My friends and I spent our 30s putting up incredible catches with my father at the helm. Legacy was a top tuna producer and helped to pay for some of my wedding in 1997 when we won the Fisherman’s Conservation Organization tournament with a then New Jersey state record thresher shark of 588 pounds.

As the striped bass fishery recovered in the 1990s, my father rediscovered his love for making his own bunker spoons from sheets of aluminum. In time, the flybridge Henriques became tougher for him to operate. He and I would often fish alone, and when a striper hit one of the spoons, both of us had to descend to the cockpit to reel in the fish and retrieve the other line so it would not snag the bottom. My father had hurt his back years earlier battling fires from Marine Co. 9 and also injured his leg while fighting a blaze on the Governors Island Ferry, for which he received the Medal of Valor in Washington, D.C.

The author with a 250-pound bluefin.

The author with a 250-pound bluefin.

When we heard that Henriques was planning to build a 35-foot express based on the hull design of the 38, we took a trip to New Jersey and sea-trialed hull No. 1 in mid-January. My father brought a radar gun to the sea trial, not to measure the boat’s top speed, but rather how slow it could troll. He needed the hull to troll between 3.2 and 3.8 knots on one engine — the preferred trolling speed for his bunker spoons to perform their magic — or we were not buying the boat. I can still see the salesman shaking his head at our unique request.

We christened the second Legacy (hull No. 2) in May 1999 and have owned the boat for 23 seasons. My father knew exactly what he wanted in a boat after decades of experience on hulls in the mid-30-foot category, and Legacy has delivered. The crew at Henriques had a good laugh when they finished our hull and commented that it was one of the most bare-bone boats they’d ever delivered. True to form, my father wanted to complete the boat himself and told Henriques that we would install the electronics, outriggers, anchor winch, rod holders, fighting chair and a host of other options down to the two compasses. To this day, our boat remains the only Henriques delivered from the factory without a single compass.

The apple didn't fall too far from the tree.

The apple didn't fall too far from the tree.

The flexibility of an express layout has been ideal for my family, and my two teenage sons have literally grown up on the boat. My father is still able to fish, and he and my 78-year-old Uncle Ron went trolling for bluefin last summer when my son Hunter landed his first bluefin of 50 pounds. At 85, my father still enjoys the thrill of the ocean and going head to head with boats twice our size and speed. He also enjoys going down into the engine room and teaching my sons and me how to maintain the twin Volvo Penta 63P diesels. He has always prided himself on being able to fix just about anything in an engine room, and he has proven that time and again.

As he reflects on his fishing career, my father cracks a wide smile. “Son, for a family with limited means, we were able to do it all,” he says. “Win tournaments, compete with the best, catch giant tuna, marlin and sharks, and travel anywhere we wanted. Not too bad for a New York City firefighter.”

I have to agree. The sun may be setting on my father’s offshore adventures, but his love for the ocean and Legacy burns deep in my sons and me. He provided the blueprint for enjoying a lifetime on the water — work hard, have a vision for what you want to achieve, take chances and enjoy the moment you are living in.  

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