This is the 2nd chapter of Shark Hunter: Russell J. Coles at Cape Lookout.
In 1915 Russell J. Coles drafted an article on two kinds of manta rays that he had hunted at Cape Lookout. One was the lesser devil ray (Mobula hypostoma), and the other was the giant oceanic manta ray (Manta birostris), a gentle, incredibly beautiful creature with fins that can be 18 feet or more across and which look like great black wings when moving through the sea.
That draft of Coles’ article, which he later revised and published in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, was titled “Natural History Notes on the Devil Fish, Manta Birostris and Mobula Olfersi.”
(Mobula Olfersi is an outdated name for the lesser devil ray.)
That scientific paper was part of a large collection of diaries, letters and other documents that my daughter Vera and I found at Coles Hill, the historic home where Russell Coles was born and raised in Chatham, Va.
I’ll talk more about Coles and manta rays in a later chapter, but I’m mentioning that article now because, on its first page, he offered a few personal reflections on what drew him to Cape Lookout every summer between about 1900 and 1925.
“Every year for more than twenty, the call of the sea comes to me in the spring; first as a gentle whisper; but rapidly increasing in volume, until it becomes like the roar of the surf in a great storm and soon the fetters which bind me to my business are broken, cast off and forgotten until I have lived a wild sea life for several months.”
In that article, he made clear that his passion for Cape Lookout was rooted partly in his affection for the beauty of its shores and his fondness for the tranquility of wild places– but it was far from just that.
“While I love the sea, it is not so much the sea; but the curious and powerful creatures living in the sea that draw me…. It is the big, powerful fighting ones that I love to battle with and for a number of years, fishing big sharks with rod and reel was the ideal sport for me….”
Taking the Bull by the Horns
Russell Coles began big-game fishing at Cape Lookout in or about 1900. By that time he was 35 years old—he was born on New Years Eve, 1865. He was and would always remain a bachelor and he made his living primarily as a tobacco leaf broker or what people used to call a “tobacconist.”
He was a big man, high spirited, a bit jovial, though dead serious in business matters or when setting a broken bone or wielding a harpoon.
He was good with his hands. He could fix anything, build anything. He loved to cook and was both wildly inventive in the kitchen (especially with respect to marine species not traditionally eaten) and quite a gourmet.
As we will see later, he could be devious, ruthless, charming, courageous and more than a little mischievous.
A fawning tribute published in the New York Sun (Sept. 9, 1917) described Coles as being “tall… and great of girth” and “of the breed that takes the bull by the horns.”
That story referred to his Virginian accent and called him “the most gallant of men,” while mentioning in passing that he had a wild and wayward youth before he settled down to make his fortune.
When he began to spend his summers at Cape Lookout, Coles was dividing his time between Coles Hill and Danville, 45 miles to the south. His tobacco business was based in Danville, and when he was there he kept a room at the Westmoreland Hotel. He apparently traveled widely, sometimes selling tobacco leaf as far away as the eastern part of Canada.
At Coles Hill he shared the family estate with his older brother, Walter Coles, and his sister-in-law Eliza.
Judging from their letters, he and Eliza were especially intimate. In those letters, he confided his most secretive plans and wildest escapades. He felt no shame in telling her about his most unscrupulous behavior or even his basest seductions, and she never acted surprised by anything he said or did.
When Vera and I were there, we failed to understand how fully Russell Coles was involved in business and management of the fields, forests and orchards at Coles Hill. Our sense was that his brother Walter handled most of those affairs.
Coles Hill had been a large plantation before the Civil War, and many of the enslaved families apparently remained on the land as tenants after the war.
When we were at Coles Hill, Walter Coles, Sr. showed us his uncle’s medical bag. He explained that his Uncle Russell provided medical care to the family’s tenants, as well as veterinary care to its livestock, which makes it seem as if Russell Coles kept at least a hand in the affairs of the estate and its inhabitants.
Doc Coles and VMI
All his life people called him “Doctor.” Wherever he went, he seems to have treated the ailments of those that did not have ready access to a physician or dentist, at least with relatively minor ailments. That included the families of coastguardsmen, lighthouse keepers and jetty builders at Cape Lookout.
After some time at prep school, Russell enrolled at VMI, the Virginia Military Institute, 60 miles north of Coles Hill, in Lexington, Va.. That was in 1883. At the time, he apparently intended to study medicine and become a physician.
He did not finish his degree. The only insight into his academic career at VMI in the papers that we saw at Coles Hill was a number of letters related to a “court of inquiry” in 1884.
Apparently young Russell had undertaken a prank that involved an attempt to blow up the school’s arsenal with a very large amount of dynamite. Things had not gone well.
He was unbowed: in a Dec. 6, 1884 letter to his father, he sounded as if he welcomed the fight with VMI’s court of inquiry as much as he later welcomed battles with great white sharks and giant manta rays.
Records at the VMI Archives indicate that Coles was enrolled at VMI at least for the beginning of two academic years, beginning in 1883, but is silent on any details of his departure.
World’s Best Tobacco Market
Some years later, Coles established his tobacco brokerage in Danville. At that time, tobacco was Danville’s heart and soul. It was a rough, wide-open kind of city, known for its wild ways and with a reputation for corruption, lynchings, bars and brothels.
By the 1880s Danville was also a wealthy town, at least for the families that lived on Millionaire’s Row. By some measures, it was the world’s largest tobacco market.
If you had visited the city at that time, you would have discovered a dozen blocks of tobacco establishments scattered along the banks of the Dan River.
In 1884 they included 25 manufacturers of twist and plug tobacco, 73 “prizing” and brokers’ houses and three stripping and stemming factories.
Fifteen years later, in 1899, when Coles was on the verge of his first pilgrimage to Cape Lookout, Danville’s market sold more than 54 million pounds of tobacco, an astonishing figure that gave some credence to the city’s motto as the “World’s Best Tobacco Market.”
By all accounts Coles did quite well. At some point—I failed to discover exactly when—he struck a partnership with a former physician, Dr. John James, and the firm was known as Coles and James.
He apparently grew wealthy or at least wealthy enough that he could afford to stay away from Danville for four months a year, purchase a number of boats and a great deal of fishing gear and employ a crack crew of local fishermen to be at his beck and call as his crew and companions in arms.
Discovering Cape Lookout
By 1902 at the latest– and I suspect a year or two earlier– Coles had begun taking leave of his firm and making big-game fishing trips to Cape Lookout in the summertime.
He was ahead of his time. The little coastal town had not yet become a center for charter fishing. Even Atlantic Beach– now bustling with charter boats, hotels and condos– had only a few fish camps on it, and the entire, 26-mile-long island where it is located, just off Morehead City, only had a few scattered little settlements and perhaps a dozen mullet fishing camps.
Sports fishing in the area did not really take off until the late 1920s, and Morehead City’s charter fishing industry truly did not come into its own until after the Second World War.
Coles may have discovered Cape Lookout while on a hunting trip in another part of Carteret County, N.C.
In those days, fishing trips to Morehead City and other parts of Carteret County were unusual. On the other hand, wealthy sportsmen– from Babe Ruth to New York industrialists– often came to the area to go hunting.
Coles may well have made his first trip to Carteret County in order to go waterfowl hunting in the great salt marshes along Core Sound, which is east of Morehead City. Or he might have gone hunting in the Open Grounds Pocosin, a little north of there, for deer, bear and other game.
In later years, a number of Coles’ letters and diary entries refer to winter hunting trips in that eastern part of Carteret County (local people call it “Down East”).
In particular, he hunted with a guide named Julian Brown, who lived in a fishing village called Gloucester, 10 miles east of Morehead City. Coles stayed with Brown and his family on those trips.
I knew Brown’s grandson, J. M. Brown, a remarkable man with a razor sharp mind for local history. He died a couple years ago, and I still grieve him and the historical knowledge that was lost with him.
Some years earlier, however, J. M. had told me stories about Russell Coles’ visits to his grandfather’s home in Gloucester. His grandfather had told J. M. those stories when he was a child.
J. M. also told me that his grandfather was a friend of Capt. Charlie Willis, a fisherman who was Russell Coles’ righthand man at Cape Lookout for more than 20 years– and Coles’ diary indicates that “Capt. Charlie” joined his grandfather and Coles on at least one of their hunting trips. .
For that reason, I suspect that Russell Coles first learned about the great sharks and other big-game fish at Cape Lookout when he was on a hunting trip with Julian Brown and Capt. Charlie Willis in Gloucester.
I can see the men– Russell Coles, Julian Brown, Capt. Charlie, maybe others– talking around a fire at night, after they finished their hunting for the day, while a venison shank or a few ducks roasted in an old cast iron stove. Maybe the men had a drink or two.
They might have re-lived the day’s hunt, and then they’d talk about other adventures in other places.
Sooner or later, I figure, Capt. Charlie would tell a tale or two about the remote island where he grew up, just west of Cape Lookout– the C’ae Banks, as the old timers call it.
I’m just imagining all this, but I can really see it: Capt. Charlie would have told the hunters about his whaling days, when the islanders used to launch boats from the shore and go after whales, harpoons in hand, while the winter sea raged around them, all within sight of the lighthouse at Cape Lookout.
Capt. Charlie– and this I know is true– could tell stories about hunting whales and great sharks and other sea creatures, and he could tell stories about the sheltered waters of Lookout Bight and how there was no other place that he had ever seen that had its abundance of sea life.
In my mind’s eye I can see all that: and I can see Russell Coles listening to these stories, feeling the call of Cape Lookout– and his life was forever changed.
-To be continued-