Story & photos by Phil Hudgins
Some people in St. Marys, Georgia, call him “MacGyver,” because, like the star of that 1980s television series, he can fix things with a piece of aluminum foil or a paperclip. But most people just call Dargan Eugene Hope a simple “Gene.”
Gene Hope may be the Forrest Gump of his era because he’s meandered through so many businesses and jobs. Unlike Forrest, though, he doesn’t doubt his intelligence and he talks faster than most people can think. He likes to quote Ulysses Everett McGill, the escaped prisoner George Clooney played in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
“I know every nook, every cranny, every shortcut, every everything between here and Jekyll Island,” Hope says, knowing it’s not bragging if he can back it up.
We’re sitting, he and I, at his supper table in picturesque St. Marys, the gangplank to Cumberland Island National Seashore, the largest of the Georgia coast’s barrier islands. His wife, Emily, is busying herself at the kitchen sink.
“Tell him to slow down if he talks too fast,” she says. “He gets excited and talks fast.”
It’s late Friday afternoon as we talk. At 8 o’clock tomorrow morning, Gene Hope, his right-hand man and I will meet at a boat ramp on the North River, one of six rivers in coastal Camden County, and motor out through a chilly, March wind to Hope’s latest business venture, one he’s pursued for 11 years.
Gene Hope is a commercial fisherman. He’s a crabber.
“I used to shrimp, but now it’s just crabs,” he says. “I would like to do both, but there’s not enough time in the day to do both.”
Actually, there are many things Hope used to do. He used to work at Gilman Paper Company’s mill in St. Marys, where both his granddaddy, Elliott Eugene Hope, and his daddy, Billy Hope, worked. Gene was a welder there, and he was once called away to help shut down a coal-fired power plant in Mesquite, Nevada, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week for three months. The Gilman mill in St. Marys closed in September of 2002 after a new owner went bankrupt.
Hope also used to run a pawn shop. He used to run a wrecker service. He used to sell waterfront lots. He built a cabin in Wayne County and owns a pine-tree farm.
He used to be a volunteer diver for the county sheriff’s search and rescue unit. Actually, he was “a very experienced saltwater diver,” says Chris Sears, once a deputy with the unit and now a lieutenant in charge. Hope and Sears found the remains of a woman with Alzheimer’s who drove her car into the St. Marys River and remained undiscovered for about seven years. Other divers had not considered how the tides might have affected the car’s location and were looking in the wrong places, Hope says.
Sears has witnessed Hope’s MacGyver qualities, too.
“Yeah, he can put something together, I can promise you that,” he says. One day, the two came across a boat broken down on a local river. Hope determined the main fuse for the motor was blown.
“We can cut the wires and wire them together, and you can drive home,” he told the boat owner.
“I don’t want to cut my wires,” the man said.
“OK, you got a sandwich? What’s it wrapped in?” Turned out, it was aluminum foil, which Hope used to wrap the fuse, allowing the boater to make it home.
“That guy wanted to keep fishing. ‘No sir,’ I told the man, ‘You need to go get your boat fixed.’”
“Stupid is as stupid does,” Hope says, quoting Forrest Gump’s mama.
A commercial fisherman in the St. Marys area has got to know how to repair things on the water, he says, because if he’s stranded, it might take a long time to get the needed part.
“We’re in a geographical oddity,” he says, this time quoting Everett McGill. “We’re two weeks from everywhere.” He says he learned most his mechanical improvising from his daddy.
Hope is credited with finding an anchor from a ship that probably dates back to the War of 1812. The anchor is exhibited in the museum of the Cumberland Island National Seashore in St. Marys.
“This anchor was discovered in 2006 by local diver Gene Hope while untangling a sailboat anchor in the St. Marys River,” the inscription reads. Researchers believe the anchor, which before deterioration would have measured 12 feet long and weighed more than 2,400 pounds, came from “a sloop of war, possibly the HMS Erebus or HMS Primrose, part of Sir George Cockburn’s squadron which occupied Cumberland Island and St. Marys from January to March of 1815.”
It’s not bragging if your name is displayed in a museum.
“I don’t know what he told you,” Hope’s daddy says by phone, “and it may sound far-fetched. But you can book on it. … He was Deputy of the Year one time and didn’t even work for the sheriff’s department.” Gene, who was working at the paper mill at that time, was recognized for his volunteer work with the search and rescue unit. (Outstanding service obviously runs in the family. Rosanna and Billy Hope’s other son, Shane, was once named “Peace Officer of the Year” for the whole state, Billy Hope says.)
Gene Hope used to do other things to put food on the table, but he’s happy for now catching and selling blue crabs. After all, fishing comes naturally to this rugged, ruddy-faced 47-year-old with a story to tell after hello. He was going fishing with his daddy when he was still in diapers. By the time he was 13, he had his own boat and a commercial license to sell fish and shrimp. He lives in St. Marys, where he grew up, but sometimes travels with Emily to the Altamaha River in Wayne County, where his folks lived before moving to St. Marys to work in the paper mill.
Some people would say Gene Hope is a man’s man — he’s outdoorsy, he hunts deer and alligators, he fishes, he fixes things — but he admits readily that he’s also a househusband. Emily, who put herself through college netting and selling shrimp, leaves early five mornings a week to work as a technical administrator at the Rayonier paper mill near Fernandina Beach, Florida. Gene usually gets his work done before Emily does and has supper on the table when she gets home in the late afternoon.
“And if we need bread or buttermilk, I try to take care of that,” he says.
Hope is a cordial guy who’ll “do anything for you, as long as he likes you,” says Jason Carter, a friend who took up shrimping after his construction business practically dried up during the last recession. Hope was there to help Carter during his first year as a shrimper.
“Gene had more connections moving (selling) shrimp,” he says. But after recent hurricanes disrupted the shrimp population, Carter also turned to crabbing.
Hope is cordial to most people, just as Carter says, but don’t try to push him around. He spent about $5,000 fighting a minor fishing violation he thought was wrong and unfair. He could have paid a $130 fine and gone about his business, but “I’ll stand up for what’s right,” he says fast and excitedly.
“What’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong, and I’ll stand up for what’s right because this is America.”
He hired a lawyer and requested a jury trial. He presented no witnesses at the trial. After about 10 minutes of deliberation, he says, the jury found him not guilty.
It’s 8 o’clock Saturday morning, March 2, and Gene Hope and his helper, Adam House — “not a better dad in St. Marys,” Hope says — show up right on time, ready to launch the 24-foot Carolina skiff into the brackish water of the North River, a tidal channel and tributary of St. Marys River. It’s a breezy, cold morning, about 48 degrees. Hope is wearing a heavy coat and a cap that completely covers the top of his head. House is dressed in a heavy cotton coat with a hood pulled up and a sock cap underneath. I am wearing a thin, nylon jacket and a baseball cap. Guess which one is the new guy.
Before we head out, MacGyver adds hydraulic oil to the steering mechanism, jerking the wheel back and forth to make sure the boat will take us where we want to go. His boat does a lot of speeding up, slowing down to encircle a float tied to a rope that’s hooked to a crab trap on the river bottom, and then stopping briefly for House to retrieve the trap with a “pot puller” — a type of winch for the rope — and waiting until he empties the wire trap of keeping-size crabs, and puts in new bait. The bait is a fish called a pogie, shipped frozen in boxes from up north. House always twists one of the fish to release a crab-attracting odor.
Hope has about 40 traps in the North River and 75 to 100 in St. Marys River. Today, we’re checking some of the North River traps.
“Everybody thinks a crab is a buzzard,” Hope says, “but it’s not a buzzard, because once food becomes rotten, a crab won’t go near it.” That’s why old bait in the trap is replaced with fresh.
Furthermore, a crab doesn’t like a dirty trap, even if it has food inside. The female crab is more particular than the male. It’s like us human beings, Hope says.
“A woman knows you don’t put a black plastic garbage bag in a white kitchen, but with the man, you’re lucky if there’s a bag in there at all.” Traps covered in debris and invasive grasses — Hope calls them woolly mammoths — will be removed and spray-washed before they’re used again.
Hope guns the skiff through the water, stopping often to check a trap and leaning over to explain something to me, or to just make a comment. I’m sitting on an upside-down bucket.
“The tide comes in and affects where the crabs will be,” he says. “You’ve got to fish for crabs where the crabs are going to be. They’re not going to come looking for the trap.”
Before long, we are zooming past several fishermen in boats anchored at treetops that have fallen over at the shoreline. “They’re trying to catch sheepsheads,” fish that sport human-looking teeth, Hope says. “I don’t fish where other people are fishing. …You know, 10 percent of the people catch 90 percent of the fish. Some people couldn’t catch fish in a bathtub.”
Suddenly, a gust of wind catches my baseball cap just right, and it goes sailing.
“Go ahead,” I say to Hope. “I’ve got a lot of baseball caps.”
We spot a sunken shrimp boat near a grassy area in the river, and Hope has a theory.
“Fishing got bad,” he says. “They probably had insurance.”
And then he points out a spot where a fort would’ve been situated during the War of 1812. It’s a place called Point Peter, located on a peninsula between the North River and Point Peter Creek, which flow into the St. Marys River. The British overtook a smaller American force on the Georgia side of the St. Marys River in early 1815 and occupied Cumberland Island and St. Marys for a few weeks.
“And that’s where they (the Americans) kept horses,” he says, pointing toward the shore. And then he spots a marsh hen, which he calls a “chicken of the sea.”
Hope is constantly looking around and pointing out sites to his underdressed guest. He’s also keeping an eye on his 100-horse Yamaha motor as he steers, making sure the overused water pump is still working. At one point, he steps to the back with a piece of wire to perform surgery on the motor. The operation is successful, and we move on.
Sometimes, he had said back at his house, crabbing can make a crabber crabby. For starters, some people like to steal a few of his crabs to bait their hooks for black drum fish, a bottom-feeder like the carp.
“If you’re going to steal my crabs,” he would tell the thief if he had a chance, “make sure you shut the door back.” All of Hope’s trap floats are white and marked with his assigned number, so no one should get confused about ownership.
Secondly, he says, “dealing with the public makes you crabby, I can tell you right now, because most people want something for nothing. You put your blood, sweat, and tears into it, and somebody wants to give you nothing for what you got.” To make matters worse, he says, state regulations on commercial fishing have become tougher and more unforgiving.
But Hope usually does all right, because he knows who’ll offer the best price for his product. As soon as the North River traps are checked, he’ll leave for Jacksonville, Florida, where he has a wholesale license, and sell his two boxes of crabs — 153 pounds total, not bad for three hours’ work. This time of year, just before spring, only male crabs that are 5 inches wide from tip to tip are harvested. Females are ready to “sponge up,” meaning they’ll carry eggs on the bottom of their shells, and you don’t want to keep them because those eggs will produce next year’s stock.
Hope doesn’t waste any time getting on the road to Jacksonville. Blue crabs are a live market, and he needs to sell them alive.
So this is the life of a Southeast Georgia crabber on rivers that introduce the Atlantic Ocean to the East. Every day is a good day, Gene Hope says, especially good when nothing goes wrong. “I enjoy being on the water, and I enjoy the freedom it gives me,” he says. “I can go to work early and when my day’s done, it’s done. The thing I like about crabbing is I can set my own schedule.”
In the meantime, he’s thinking about another project or two. He’d like to buy an old grain silo, dismantle it, move it somewhere, and put it back together as a circular cabin. And he’d like to get into the pine straw business. “I’m always looking to move from one industry to the next.”
No doubt Forrest Gump and MacGyver would be proud of him.