Fishing has been a way of life for Ben Green as long as he can remember.
He tagged along with his mom when she headed off to work, heading shrimp at the Trade Winds dock in Thunderbolt. Too small yet to be an apprentice, Green set out to catch some fish of his own.
Equipped with some string, a hook and a weighted tin can, he quickly became an eel-catching phenom. He still gets giddy today talking about the array of emotions he felt reeling in those eels.
“You get that taste of salt air, catch that first fish, that feel sticks to you like glue forever,” said the leader of Island Recreation’s On the Hook fishing program. “That’s a feeling I get every time I cast a line. It’s a feeling you want to pass on.”
Green has lived a life dedicated to service – first in the U.S. Army, then as the first African-American Thunderbolt policeman. He later headed to Hilton Head Island with his wife, Ruby Maria, and son Sheldon, where he ran a cleaning business for nearly three decades.
After Green retired from the Army and from his work in the janitorial business seven years ago, he set out to pass on that childhood feeling – to give kids that same feeling and excitement that fishing brought to his life.
The idea was simple: Head out on a Saturday afternoon and pass on his joy and knowledge of the island fishing life to as many children as possible. He’d once tried his hand running his own shrimp boat, but found he’s much more suited to fishing and teaching off a dock.
“It started at my church, Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist, but Frank Soule at the Island Rec Center, he wanted to help expand the idea. He gave me a spot to work out of and we started soliciting support from businesses, at first from many of my friends in the cleaning industry,” Green said. “It started with just a few kids, but we’ve been able to grow this pretty steadily thanks to a lot of help.”
Green and a rotating team of 15 volunteers are based at the Rowing and Sailing Center off Squire Pope Road. Each Saturday in April through October, the man with the signature bushy white goatee and his crew of helpers are there from 4 to 6 p.m., helping bait hooks and showing fascinated newcomers all the steps, from baiting to casting to reeling in and cleaning the big catch.
When they’re done at the cleaning station, the greenhorns can also learn all about crabbing from Green and his team.
What began as paying forward a passion has become more for Green over the past few years. He’s on a mission to show kids there’s fun beyond video games and tablet screens.
“We have got to get them outside. It changes you when you get connected to nature, it’s real fun. When you can experience nature, honor your surroundings, that’s a whole new level of fun no screen could ever give a child,” Green said. “Back in the day, what you caught, that was the meal. It fed us, the waters provided for us, kept us from starving. Now, I really see that both kids and adults are starving to connect with nature.”
Green passes on life lessons as he imparts fishing knowledge, discussing the Gullah-Geechee heritage he cherishes and how the keys to fishing success set you up for life success.
“You have to have patience to make that catch, to share the spaces and to learn the craft. And think about the greatest joys, that great job, that amazing companion or friend. Finding those joys, it takes that same patience you learn out here on the dock,” Green said.
On the Hook Fishing has spawned a passionate group of alumni and supporters. Rods and reels are free of charge, thanks to donations from businesses like Beaufort Boat and Dock Supply, who recently donated 12 rod and reel sets to the program.
The outdoor respite became even more needed over the past 18 months during the COVID pandemic, a calming presence in an increasing uncertain world.
“We all needed to get outside for our own sanity. I think a lot of folks discovered or were reminded what a miracle nature is, so for me, I’ve got to find the bright side of this COVID mess and that was it,” Green said. “I hope that feeling lasts now that we’re getting back to ‘normal.’ Getting outside, that should be the new normal.”
Green will concede that not all tech is bad. Supporters have built out a Facebook group, On the Hook with Ben Green, and a website, OnTheHookWithBen.com, that helped get the word out and bring in a new wave of budding fishermen.
“Computers have helped us for sure. Anything that gets these kids out, I’m up for any avenue to spread the gospel,” Green said.
As he tackles life as a 71-year-old, Green is facing his own life challenges. He lost a leg to diabetes in April 2019 and nowadays, needs the aid of a wheelchair for most of the time he spends on the dock.
“I’m not out there as much as I used to be, but nothing is going to stop me from doing what I love,” he said. “Even when I was learning to walk all over again, they’d roll my wagon to the dock and it was just magic. I look as forward to it as the kids.”
That magic has spread beyond kids. More and more adults are showing up as word spreads about how much fun is being had on the dock.
“We’re all kids. You get that first catch, I see that same look I still remember on their faces no matter how old they are,” he said.
The program also provides free hot dogs and hamburgers on the fourth Saturday of each month to nourish during the pursuit. Green said that is often the most expensive part, feeding anywhere from 10 to 70 pupils and family members each week.
“That’s where we can really use the donation help, whether that’s goods or money. I want everyone to have a meal to end their day,” he said. Repair and maintenance of the equipment can get pricey as well, but businesses like West Marine help with the repairs to offset some of the cost.
Green is proud of what he and his team have built. The kids keep him young, and seeing 90-year-olds get out to the dock with as much vigor inspires Green to keep pushing forward.
“We have Charlie Calbert, a 92-year-old retired colonel, trying to get his hook on a catch. He’s what I want to be when I grow up,” Green said.
And they’re not just angling for the fish. Green gets there each weekend a little early and sees kids and parents alike there an hour early just to claim what they believe to be the prime real estate to make that catch.
“They all think they have that secret spot, and hey, that’s one more hour they’re away from their screens,” he said.
Green knows there will come a time when he’s rolled off the dock for the last time, but he’s savoring every Saturday he gets until that time comes.
“There’s peace out here. That’s so important, especially these days,” he said. “I’ve found a peaceful life out on these waters and if I can help create that peace for others, that’s all part of the mission.”
Volunteers are always needed. Call 843-816-0172 or email email@example.com to donate to the program.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.