Charlie Hayden was my friend. I loved this man and his wife, Maggie, and they loved me. It was with great disappointment that I read several of the poorly written headlines on Charlie’s death. If I owned a newspaper, it would have read something like this: “One of the best fishermen of all time, a bait-rigging legend and monarch of our sport, passed away.”
I first met Charlie some 40 years ago, catching giant bluefin tuna as they swam along the flats of Cat Cay, Bahamas. The fishing in those days was grand. As I recall, Charlie’s boat caught and released three in the 800-pound range that first day. The mates used to line up for his hand-rigged mullets and mackerels. They performed better than any in the world.
During the past four decades, Charlie and I crossed paths many times. Charlie never owned a big-game fishing boat, but wherever there was bait to be rigged and marlin or tuna to be caught, he was there with the best of the best.
He invented and perfected the split-tail mullet, as well as the swimming mackerel. Any jerk anywhere in the world can rig a skipping mackerel, ballyhoo or mullet. But to make them swim like the real McCoy — sometimes without any weight — required The Master.
The Barta Blue Marlin Classic was held in Walkers Cay for seven years. It was a dead-bait 30-pound tournament, and Charlie fished aboard my boat, Makaira, often. He was on board for my son, Hunter’s, first sailfish and blue marlin. Hunter called him “White Beard Charlie.” He always wore jean overalls and white boots. That was his attire 99 percent of the time.
I remember one year, in three- to five-foot seas, I had to use a 2-ounce chin weight to rig a mackerel. But Charlie could make that mackerel swim absolutely perfectly in these conditions with a huge loop in No. 12 wire and not miss a beat, no weight required.
The best fishermen in the world unequivocally recognized Charlie as the planet’s master bait rigger. Before tournament time, he often spent 24 hours in his shop — Splittails Trolling Baits — in Riviera Beach, Florida.
Another of Charlie’s passions were his Labrador retrievers and waterfowling. During fall, he often would stay at my house in South Hampton, New York, for more than a month. I can’t remember what was wrong with Charlie’s eyes, but inside 50 yards, he was a pathetic shot. But it was a different story at distance.
I remember one day in the goose pit, when it was raining and blowing like a cuss, three of us unloaded our guns at a triple. Then Charlie stood up, and each bird crumpled and fell to the ground with his shots. As God as my witness, no bird was closer than 65 to 75 yards. Charlie could hit anything far away.
I cried out loud when I heard about Charlie’s death. But the big question now is, who will pass along his expertise?
For you whippersnappers who think you’re the greatest thing since an English muffin, let me tell you that you’ll never attain the skill, finesse, knowledge and insight of Charlie Hayden. I do not write this as a put-down — it’s simply a fact. My advice is to find someone trained by the Great One himself, learn his techniques and pass them on.
Charlie Hayden was not just another one of us; he was part of the fabric and soul of blue-water fishing. He touched millions and will never be forgotten.
To his family, I offer from everyone at Sport Fishing our greatest condolences. It was an honor to have known this man. To Charlie, who is rigging mullets in heaven, I am not embarrassed to tell you that you were the greatest friend and one of the best men I have ever known.
Till Next Tide,