Gus Darden shares exciting Gulf Coast memories

Published 9:30 am Saturday, April 15, 2023

WEST POINT — The West Point Rotary Club has had a series of programs of members talking about trips they took to the Gulf Coast during their youth. Several weeks ago, long-time member Edmund Glover reminisced about a trip he and some of his friends from West Point High School took down river from Columbus to Apalachicola, Florida in June 1954. Larry Nix followed that up recounting more recent river trips he and friends took down the Chattahoochee to the Gulf Coast. On Thursday of this week, Gus Darden discussed some trips his dad, Morris Darden, t0ok with him and brother Tom Darden to go shark fishing off the coast near Panama City. All of these programs were most entertaining and brought back that good feeling of being on an outdoor adventure in the summertime.

“I was fortunate to grow up in a good family,” Darden said. “My dad loved to hunt and fish. One year he built a 14-foot wooden boat in our garage. He put a three horsepower Evinrude motor on it and took it to Panama City to go shark fishing.”

His parents were friends with the Myers family, who owned a motel on Thomas Drive. They called it the Don Ron after their two sons.

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The Myers family were related to the Nichols family who lived in Shawmut, and Gus and Tom were friends with their sons, Mike, Chubby and Phil.

“Back in those days if you went to the Hang Out in Panama City, you were bound to see a whole lot of young people you knew back home in the Valley,” Darden said.

The Darden family’s first shark fishing trip took place in 1958. Mr. Darden got hooked on it when he landed two pretty big sharks. They were black tip sharks, one weighing 29 pounds and the other 52  pounds.

“We went back to the Don Ron the next summer, and when we got there we learned that a scuba diver had just been killed by a shark,” Darden said.

Despite that, the Dardens went shark fishing the day they arrived. Sometime during the night, Morris Darden hooked a big one.

“He fought it all night,” Gus said. “It was a huge one, about 15 feet in length and weighing 1,500 pounds. It must have been a great white shark. They normally don’t come in at Panama City.”

The great fish died during the struggle, and Morris Darden was able to reel it in close to the boat.

“We couldn’t get a tail rope on it to get it into the boat,” Gus said. “We had to let it drift off. If it was a great white and would attack people in the water, it’s a good thing it died.”

Morris Darden caught lots of mackerel on those trips to the Don Ron and once caught a shark off of St. Andrews State Park.

Gus said he would never forget going to Panama City on his 14th birthday in 1965. “Captain Joe from Captain Anderson’s Marina in Panama City took us shark fishing,” he said. “He took us out on the gulf past the two Naval stations, Stage One and Stage Two. Except of the great white, every shark that’s known to swim in the Gulf of Mexico swims there.”

They were far out on the gulf, young Gus would see the determined fisherman’s way his dad had of attracting big fish.

“He would tie an M-80 to a bolt, light it and throw it in the water,” Gus said.

The big firecracker would explode under water, killing or stunning some smaller fish and causing them to rise to the surface. Bigger fish such as sharks and marlins would come near the boat to feed on those smaller fish.

They caught a six-and-a-half-foot long shark on that trip.

“We took out last trip with Captain Joe in 1969,” Gus said. “He took us out past Stage Two. We were throwing in some M-80s and something big hit my line and my dad’s line at the same time.”

They were able to reel it in and get it on the boat. It was an 11-foot-long Tiger shark.

“Captain Joe pulled it up on a block and tackle,” he said.

He brought in it , but they didn’t keep it for long.

“It thrashed around on the boat until it got away and swam off,” Gus said.

But they did have the thrill of landing it and seeing its huge size.

Another indelible memory for Darden was the night they were fishing on the gulf and hooked a big marlin.

Marlins can not only reach considerable size they also can swim fast. Most adults can move at speeds of around 60 miles an hour and some have been clocked doing 80.

When on someone’s line they will jump out of the water in a bid to escape. They will also do what fishermen call the tail walk.

The one fish Gus had mounted is a bull dolphin. It’s truly a beautiful fish.

“They say a dolphin has every color that’s found in the ocean,” he said.

The dolphin put up a tremendous fight before the Dardens were able to get into the boat. “I was fishing with a Mitchell 300 reel,” Gus said. “That big dolphin stripped out its gears. Tom told me I needed to take off that reel and put on the Mitchell 400 we had. It worked. We were able to reel him in.”

Gus said that brother Tom is the family’s great fisherman. He’s caught many a red snapper in his day.

The well-known Channel 9 weather forecaster Penny Lee had a camp on Lake Harding next to the Dardens. One year she sold a 22-foot boat to them.

“We took it out to a place known as Mingo Ridge,” Gus said. “I told Tom that I would drive, and he could do the fishing. That was fine with him.”

While out on the gulf that day an enormous blue marlin swam up next to the boat. It was in shallow water allowing for a clear view of the big fish.

“It was one of the biggest ones I had ever seen,” Gus said. “There were many scars on it. No doubt it had survived many battles. I had to grab Tom to show it to him. I thought he was going to have a heart attack when he saw it. It’s a good thing we didn’t have him on the line. He would have pulled us all the way to Mexico.”

One of the more challenging outings took place off of Destin. Their boat ran out of gas just as a storm rolled in. “The sea was really rough,” Gus said. “It was lightning, and we were going up and down on eight-foot waves. I heard Tom yell at me, ‘Where’s that buoy?,’ Gus said. ‘I asked him why and he told me, ‘That’s what we have to be tied to when the boat sinks!’”

They thought they were going to be rescued when a tour boat came by. “There must have been 30 people on it,” he said. “They tried, but they couldn’t get us onto their boat. Fortunately, the Coast Guard showed up, and they did rescue us. They then wrote us a bunch of citations.”

Darden has a box full of framed photos from those getaways to the gulf. He also has a menacing-looking mouth of a shark with seven rows of razor-sharp teeth. It’s from one of the sharks they landed in one of those trips. There’s also a magazine he treasures. “I got it on a layover at a Miami airport,” he said. “It was about salt fishing. I was thumbing through it and was quite surprised to see a picture of my dad. It was so much like him. He was standing on a boat with a large rod and reel in his hands and looking out toward the sea.”