By Steve Strickland
MI History Project
Captain Tommy Gaede ran several party boats out of Murrells Inlet during the 1960’s and 1970’s, including the Thunderbird and the Tom-a-Gator. These wood boats fished the blackfish and snapper banks and brought in record catches that drew big crowds onto the boat to fish and onto the dock to watch the fish being unloaded.
Tommy “Gator” came to Pawleys Island in 1963, after four years in the Navy, and went to work as a mate on the “Twill Do,” a near shore charter boat that ran out of Pawleys Island. He started working as a mate for Captain I. J. “Buddy” Dew on the Thunderbird around 1965, then running out of Capt. Alex’s Marina.
The Thunderbird was a twin engine 65-foot wood boat that ran about 12 knots (nautical miles per hour). She was built in Shallotte, N.C., and started fishing out of Charleston, before coming to Murrells Inlet.
Captain Buddy Dew docked at Capt Alex’s Marina and ran regular deep sea fishing trips from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for $7, and would take longer trips to the snapper banks (7 a.m. to 6 p.m.) for $10. Tommy worked with him for a couple years, then left to run a private yacht for John Calusi in the Bahamas and South Florida.
In the summertime, while the yacht was sitting in the marina at Wrightsville Beach, Tommy came back to work with Buddy Dew and ran the boat about 50 percent of the time.
While Tommy was working on the boat during the summer of 1968, two gentlemen from Charleston, who operated charter boats, came walking down the dock and looked at the Thunderbird to purchase it and take it to Mount Pleasant. They asked Tommy if he would come and run the Thunderbird for them and left. Tommy was taken by surprise by this because Buddy had not mentioned anything about selling the boat. After the guys left, Buddy came down to the dock and said, “Tommy, I’m selling this boat, do you want to buy it?” Without hesitation, Tommy said, “Yes,” and Buddy told him it was his and walked away.
The Thunderbird sold for $35,000 (back when a full day of fishing was $12, rod and reel rentals were $2, and a gallon of diesel fuel was about 30 cents a gallon) and Capt. Tommy was in the fishing business, with Bill Moeller mating for him. The next couple of years were during the glory days of deep sea fishing, with the Thunderbird and the Captain Alex drawing huge crowds to the docks in the afternoons to see all the fish brought back.
The Thunderbird moved down to Sam Barwick’s marina (present day Drunken Jack’s) after a couple of years and Tommy had a bulkhead built where the pier was and renamed the site Thunderbird Marina. During this time, Tommy went up to Holden Beach, N.C., and had Varnum and King build another fishing boat, the Tom-a-Gator.
The Tom-a-Gator was a twin engine 54-foot wood boat that ran 14 knots, and he fished the blackfish and snapper banks with it. Tommy tied the Thunderbird against the bulkhead and tied the Tom-a-Gator to the pier. Capt Bill Moeller ran the Thunderbird and Capt Tommy ran the Tom-a-Gator, fishing around 30 to 35 miles out of Murrells Inlet. When the fishing slowed down in the fall and winter, the Thunderbird moved down to Riviera Beach, Fla., or trapped blackfish commercially.
The Thunderbird moved down to Capt Dick’s Marina after a couple of years at Thunderbird Marina, when the group that controlled the property could not agree to a price to sell it for. The Thunderbird was later sold and moved to South Padre Island, and the Tom-a-Gator started commercial fishing for snapper and grouper around 1974, bringing the “bandit” reels to Murrells Inlet.
(Copyright © 2012 Steve Strickland. Used with the author’s permission)
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