Just when the tradition started is anybody’s guess.
But when Fred Feller returned to port after taking people fishing, mates, deckhands, fuel dock attendants and just about everybody at the Virginia Beach Fishing Center knew it was time for a vodka with Five Alive, Fresca or orange juice.
That was how Feller unwound after a day on the water.
Earlier this week, Feller’s family all got together with his favorite cocktail to salute the captain.
“He always told me I made the best,” said daughter Karen Feller, who was almost constantly at her father’s side.
Feller died on Aug. 27. He would have turned 87 on Sept. 15 and would have celebrated 60 years of marriage to his wife, Bobbi, on Nov. 15.
While the end-of-the-day relaxer is something Feller was know for, it was more his love of the water, fishing and the people involved in the sport that stand out the most. Watching children catch their first fish on one of the family’s headboats was a special thrill.
Feller grew up working on headboats with his father in New Jersey. He played high school football and then played for Navy, which is how he ended up in Hampton Roads.
After a stint as a Norfolk motorcycle police officer, he started running Pete Decker’s boat, “Gannett.” While he enjoyed the charter fishing world, the world of headboats still ran through his veins.
Enter Earl Paul, who owned a headboat called the “Sea Robin.” Paul offered to sell the boat to Feller, who couldn’t resist. He renamed the boat “Sea Sport” and started a fleet that over the years was East Coast’s largest fleet of continuously-running head boats that still offer fishing trips, and excursions to watch dolphins and whales. Four generations of Feller’s family have, and continue, to participate.
“If it wasn’t for Earl Paul selling dad the Sea Robin, he probably would have continued to run charter boats,” said son Skip Feller.
In 1977, developer and fishing enthusiast Wayne McLeskey purchased the fishing center and Feller and family members ran the facility from then until 1993, always running and expanding his headboat fleet. Feller paid several others to manage the facility over the years so he could concentrate on his roots.
Family members were always part of the scene at the fishing center, working on the boats and for the facility. To this day they still are.
Over the years, Feller was influential in the formative years of many a mate and charter captain.
“What can you say about Fred in a paragraph? Can’t be done,” said David Wright, owner and captain of the High Hopes, which is docked at the fishing center right next to the headboat fleet. “Oh, the things he taught me. I was learning a lot from my dad (Capt. Jim Wright), but I wouldn’t be where I am without a lot of his influence.
“Not just fishing, but maintenance, prevention, being prepared for anything out on the water and, of course, the love of fishing.”
Feller also played a role in the sinking of old ships to form artificial reefs. Some of that work was done in coordination with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission’s reef program.
But dare he ever catch someone fishing on one of them. At Paul’s funeral, Wright asked Feller that if anything ever happened to him, could he fish the reefs.
“He turned to me and bluntly said, ‘No,'” Wright said with a laugh.
John Savage, who was a deckhand for Feller before mating for Wright, went on to become a charter captain. He remembers Feller being hard on the youngsters who worked on the headboats.
“He told me ‘I’m hard on you sometimes because you have the best potential to be the best,'” Savage said. “I have tried to achieve that in everything I’ve had since the day he said it.”
For a time, Feller and his wife owned a motorhome and toured the country whenever possible. Karen remembered one specific trip where she got to join them.
“I went out to join them and spent 15 days,” she said. “We went from San Francisco down to Hollywood and they out to Las Vegas.
“We had an amazing time.”
In the salty, often ego-driven, world of fishing, not everybody gets along.
“Hell, dad and I butted heads a lot,” Skip said. “He had his detractors, for sure.”
That’s life, though. It’s like that in every aspect of society.
But there is no taking away from the influence Feller had on so many, and of the role he played in the Virginia Beach fishing scene.
One of the importance aspects of fishing on a head boat that Feller shared with me was to ask the captain where the transponder for the fish-finding sonar was located.
“Ask that when you first get on the boat and set up shop there,” he said. “When the captain says ‘drop ’em’, you’ll be right over the fish.”
For the little things and so many more, Feller is going to be sorely missed by so very many.
I guess all there is left for me to do is go make myself a nice tall vodka and orange juice, sit in my office and reflect on the too-few times I was lucky enough to spend time in the wheelhouse with Capt Headboat.
A memorial and celebration of life will take place from 4 to 8 Monday, Sept. 13 aboard several of the family’s headboats docked at the eastern end of the Virginia Beach Fishing Center. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the American Diabetes Association.