A reel passion for angling

Hilton Head Island outdoorsman makes the most of life in the Lowcountry

From his youth on the lakes and streams of Tennessee to his adulthood navigating the waters of the South Carolina Lowcountry, Michael Perry has always been a man of the outdoors. It’s a passion that’s delivered the longtime islander a career he loves, and the opportunity to share that passion with thousands of others during his many years on Hilton Head Island.

As owner of Papa Bear Charters, Perry has been leading fishing adventures on the waters in and around Beaufort County for nearly two decades. For the past six years, he’s also worked at Spring Island as the outdoors activity manager, where he leads residents and visitors on private fishing excursions around the waters that frame the private community .

A third-generation outdoorsman, Perry has made the Lowcountry his home base for the majority of his adult life, but has also traveled throughout the United States and abroad in search of offseason work ... and, of course, the perfect prey.

Yet the husband and dedicated father of two young girls, Audrey and Olivia, has always returned to the Lowcountry and his beloved 32-foot fishing boat that has delivered so many lasting memories for visitors and residents alike.

“As a kid, I was exposed to the outdoors almost every day,” he said. “It was something I got from my father and grandfather, and it never left me. To be able to pass it on to others is a great part of what I do every day.”

Perry, who got his start on Hilton Head working as a deck mate on the Fishin’ Mission out of Outdoor Resorts, didn’t necessarily follow his dreams to South Carolina. Instead, it was his heart that made him leave Rocky Top for the Palmetto State. Perry’s girlfriend at the time, Sarah, and wife to this day, left Tennessee to attend the Savannah College of Arts and Design; and Perry made the wise decision to follow.

After more than a decade working for other captains and learning the ins and outs of Lowcountry fishing, Perry finally started his own business - Papa Bear Charters - and hasn’t looked back.

“My wife’s parents had a place down here and it just seemed like the right decision to move here,” Perry said. “I’ve been fortunate to live in a place like Hilton Head where my passion for the outdoors can also be the way I make a living and provide for my family.”

When it comes to running Papa Bear Charters, Perry is really a jack of all trades. He offers excursions ranging from four to 10 hours, three-hour evening shark trips and even overnight experiences for the truly adventurous.

Commonly, there are days that start before the sun even thinks about rising and that don’t end until long after it sets. Often, Perry will run up to three excursions in a single day, and the work on those charters is anything but a relaxing day on the beach.

“There are some days when I wonder how we do it,” Perry said of charter boat fishermen. “You have to really love this business to go through the grind we do. There are some really long, hard days that seem to go on forever.”

The payoff, Perry said, isn’t just in the check at the end of the day, but comes through seeing both experienced and novice anglers enjoy the moment the hunt ends with a fish at the end of the hook. Many times that enjoyment comes from kids the same age as his 9- and 7-year-old daughters, and that makes the experience all the more rewarding.

“It’s fishing, so there are no guarantees, but sometimes the stars line up and our guests have a special day on the water,” Perry said. “When that happens, when you see the joy that comes from catching a big fish, it’s really a great thing.”

Given his vast experience fishing the shores of the Hilton Head and Beaufort areas, there’s no location Perry isn’t familiar with and no style of fishing he can’t accommodate. Whether its the abundantly stocked waters of the Port Royal Sound or the saltwater fishing-friendly wrecks, the longtime captain knows where to take his charters and, just as importantly, what they should be fishing for.

Offshore, where Perry’s true passion lies, guests have chased the likes of hammerheads, marlins, sailfish, black sea bass and even monster sharks; and under Perry’s tutelage have caught more than their fair share over the years.

Inshore, Perry leads his groups on fly-fishing adventures for fish such as redfish and cobia. Understanding the seasons and the best places to search has helped ensure the majority of his clients have a great time on Hilton Head’s waters.

“No matter what time of year it is or what type of fishing people want to do, this area never disappoints,” he said. “That’s what makes it so special.”

There’s no question that the natural surroundings and the adventures they provide make the Lowcountry so memorable. That said, its ambassadors such as Perry that truly fulfills Hilton Head’s potential. It’s hard work to be sure. But considering how much the captain loves where he lives and what he does, the payoff makes it all worthwhile.