Looking to embark on her very first deep-sea fishing experience, Andrea Goto climbs aboard Miss Judy’s Charters and hooks one of the best fish stories around. » Photography by Michelle L. Morris.
“My life makes Jerry Springer look like a fairyland,” Captain Judy Helmey shouts over the roar of her squeaky-clean custom 31-footer, the Miss Judy Too, as we leave the dock, headed for the deep sea.
I’m not so sure. “Miss Judy” as she’s commonly known, grew up on a nearly two-acre plot of land overlooking the Wilmington River that her father, Sherman Helmey, bought in 1948. There, Judy lives and operates “Miss Judy Charters,” offering personalized inshore, offshore or Gulf Stream fishing expeditions—and an unadvertised lesson in local history.
As we cruise down the river, Judy points to overgrown rustic cabins and sprawling new homes with tidy yards, telling us about each homeowner—current and past.
“This was my playground for my whole entire life,” she explains. “My first boat was a rowboat with a 3.5 horsepower Evinrude on it—I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
There’s not much Judy seems to forget. She jumps around from one story to the next like a squirrel on speed, dropping jewel-like “Judyisms” as she goes.
“Daddy was married eight times and never stopped dating,” she says before launching into the story about how he worked for Al Capone in the ’30s, retrofitting cars to smuggle bootlegged liquor. As we cruise past the now-defunct Oglethorpe Hotel (formerly a Sheraton Hotel), Judy tells me that “back in the day” Capone and his pals would hang here, making it the place to see and be seen in Savannah.
“It’s the truth,” she says pointedly, her eyes sliding out to the blue horizon.
That’s how Judy punctuates many of her stories, including the one about Civil War ships that were allegedly sunk in order to bottle up the Wilmington River, preventing trade. As we drift over the location where she claims the ships dropped their last anchor, Judy points to a massive dark shape on her top-of-the-line sonar screen.
“That’s them,” she says. “Daddy always said ‘and there’s dead bodies in ‘em,’ but I don’t know about that.”
Stories from the sea captain’s colorful raising on the Intracoastal Waterway make for good entertainment as she charters our small fishing crew—most of whom (myself included) are first-time fisherwomen—10 miles off-shore. Her narrative also distracts us from the pitching waves that, at times, threaten to fling us from the boat and the lunch from our stomachs.
As someone who gets motion sick watching 3-D movies, I came prepared with Dramamine in my system, ginger gum in my mouth and acupuncture bands around both wrists, which I revealed to Judy as soon as I got on board, in hopes of validation.
“Oh yeah, those totally work.”
I couldn’t tell from her tanned, weather-worn face if she was mocking me, but I have a feeling she was. I discovered Judy’s playfulness when I first attempted to introduce myself and my three friends. Before I could even get out my name, Judy cut me off.
“Baby, Chickie, Honey and Sweetie,” she said, pointing to each of us in turn. “Got it.”
And with that, we departed on our seafaring adventure.
It Takes a Fishing Village
When I ask about her mother, Jerry, Judy gets uncharacteristically quiet.
“People loved her and she sure was pretty,” she recalls, adding that her mother must’ve had a sense of humor to stay married to her father.
“He did not care what he said or to whom he said it, and he had an answer to everything,” Judy says. “And according to my father, women loved him—every woman.”
When I press her, Judy explains that her mother was 32 when she died in an automobile accident.
“And—now this is real bad,” she warns me, “—she was killed on my sixth birthday.”
After her mother’s sudden death, Judy was raised by her father, a series of six stepmothers (he married one woman twice), and live-in caregivers between marriages—including a woman with polka-dotted fingernails who’d crawl out the window at night to see her boyfriend, and a clairvoyant who communed with the dead.
“Her name was Francis Cochran,” Judy recalls. “She was like a gypsy. She painted her eyebrows on with a pencil, and her hair was real, real thin and she drove a Studebaker. She used to run a boarding house on Montgomery Street where she’d keep all the ‘carnies’ when they came for the fair.”
She credits Cochran with teaching her “so much”—including how to cure a debilitating case of warts.
“I had warts all over my knees, on my feet, on my elbows,” Judy explains. “I had one on my thumb that was so bad that the doctor said he would have to take part of the thumb just to get it off.”
Instead, Cochran quartered a raw potato and rubbed the pieces all over young Judy’s warts. She then wrapped the potato in a dirty dishrag and instructed Judy to bury it in the ground somewhere off the property where it could not be seen from the kitchen window. Two weeks later, the warts were gone.
Judy also is grateful to Cochran for saving her life. One day a family invited her to swim with them in the freshwater down by a train trestle, but her caregiver had a vision that frightened her.
“She begged my father not to let me go and I was so mad,” says Judy. “Turns out, the train blew up and killed a bunch of people.”
The Big Kill
I have no idea how Judy determines when we’ve arrived at our fishing destination. We are literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by water and sky. Every now and again I’ll spot a bird bobbing on the ocean, presumably resting from a marathon flight. Our captain’s navigations are based on memory and backed by high-tech equipment—“so you can know where you are when you don’t care,” she chuckles. As soon as we drop anchor, Judy and her fishing partner, Captain Karen Brown, spring into action, handing us poles, baiting the hooks and providing a two-second reeling lesson.
“Let the line out slowly until it hits the bottom and then wait,” Judy instructs. “If you don’t catch something after 30 seconds, reel it in.”
I don’t think my line even reaches the bottom before I get a bite.
“I got one!” I scream, too excitedly. “I think it’s a big one!”
(I will say this 20 more times in just about as many minutes—and not once will it be “a big one.”)
“When I tell a customer, ‘We’re going fishing and you’re literally gonna catch a fish every time you drop a hook,’ I’m not lying,” Judy says. “We try to focus on activity, action and memories. It’s not about how many fish you get to keep, it’s about how many you get to catch—the wonder of fishing, catching and releasing.”
I’ve hooked the first one deep into his gills, which bleeds steadily. He flops on my line, panicked and gasping. I stand there in horror, waiting for Judy to recuse both the fish and me.
“It doesn’t look good,” I say sheepishly.
When she extracts the hook with a set of pliers, the fish regurgitates a thick, smelly yellowish substance, which doesn’t impress her.
“They throw up when they’re stressed,” she explains, flinging my fish into the ocean, where he quickly surfaces on his side, giving me the one-fin salute.
“Murderer,” Judy teases. At least I think she’s teasing.
We spend an hour catching and releasing—and in my case, killing—muscular black sea bass, shimmery summer trout and silvery blue fish. I hook every subsequent fish the same as the first, leaving a trail of tears in the boat’s wake.
“You need to jerk the line as soon as you feel the bite,” instructs my friend, who neatly hooks her fish in the mouth every time. Show off.
With the weighted line and the rolling waves, everything feels like a “bite.”
“You’ll get it,” Judy encourages.
That’s easy for her to say—she’s been fishing all her life. Her father started the business more than 50 years ago when he retired from working on cars and began charging friends to take them fishing. His buddies enjoyed sport but, back then, fishing was the way they fed their families and scraped together a living.
Today, Miss Judy Charters has expanded Judy’s father’s hobby into a bona fide business. In addition to the Miss Judy Too, she has contracted nine inshore boats and one offshore boat. She has outfitted all her boats with state-of-the-art equipment, making it easier to satisfy customers with an ample catch—whether they’re pro fishermen looking for “the big one,” or tender-footed first timers simply in search of an experience.
“The most fun is people who have never gone fishing before and want to just have a good time for their memories,” she says. “I have a lot of people who fish with me who can afford a boat 10 times over, but prefer to do it with me because it’s fun and it’s a lot cheaper.”
In spite of her teasing—or perhaps because of it—Judy is as much a part of the experience as the catch itself.
“It’s a show for me. It’s like being on stage,” she laughs. “But everybody I take fishing with me becomes part of my family.” So as not to sound too soft, Judy quickly adds, “You want to give people what they think they paid for.”
As we barrel back toward shore in the late afternoon sunshine, a reflective quiet descends on us—even on the captain herself. I’ve lived in Savannah for more than a decade, but I’m still awed by the breathtaking views, the once-in-a-lifetime experiences and the crazy-ass characters Savannah has folded up in its landscape—old and new.
Judy represents the best of both worlds. She’s seen firsthand how the island and its inhabitants have changed. She’s seen people go who could no longer afford the taxes, and others stay and continue to live as if rotary phones are still in vogue. These people and their stories tend to disappear into the landscape, but time has not forgotten Judy. She has taken what she knows best—fishing and storytelling—and transformed it into a lucrative profession. The business doesn’t look the same as it did 50 years ago, but neither does the island. And that’s why Judy makes an ideal guide; she adeptly charters us into the ocean’s fishing hotbeds and through Savannah’s storied past.