Kings of Bonefishing

Remembering the Jennings brothers.

Story & Photos Courtesy Dr. Carlton Mills

Julius “Goo” Jennings in his boat.

In the early 1960s, the only fishing plant in the Turks & Caicos was in South Caicos. This attracted fishermen from throughout the Islands who came over to improve their livelihood. Many of them stayed on the fishing bank for several days diving or hooking conch which was sold to the local plant or sold in Haiti. Conch Ground Bay was the fishing hub. It was also the home to some of South Caicos’ greats—the Jennings brothers. They were Benjamin (Banner), Felix (Par Fee), Julius (Par Julius also known as Big Man) and Oswald (Sam).

Banner had two sons—Bruce and Willis. Par Julius also had two sons Julius (Jr.) who was affectionately known as “Goo” and George. The “Supreme Leader” of the pack was Banner. These men were rated as the “best” bonefish haulers on the island.

Banner could also be described as the patriarch of the family. He was of firm stature—towering to almost six feet in height and weighing close to two hundred pounds or more. He was very quiet and easy-going. His passion and desire was bonefishing. He was also a family man who encouraged his sons to also get into fishing. His wife Helen was the traditional housewife whose passion was baking bread for sale. This went hand in hand with the local culture—South Caicos people loved their fried bonefish and fresh-baked bread on a Saturday afternoon. Banner provided the fish and Helen the bread—voted as being some of the best in South Caicos at the time.

Felix (Par Fee) was the most talkative of the brothers. It was said that you could hear his mouth before you saw him coming. He seemed to have developed a spinal problem, as he walked bent over with both hands usually clasped behind his back. He was an ardent Methodist who hardly missed a Sunday service, usually sharply dressed in his black suit. Par Fee was a straightforward man. He told it like it was fearing no man despite his condition. He “called a spade a spade.” You basically knew where you stood with him.

Oswald (Sam) was very quiet but with a terrifying tone of voice. He was also firm. Sam invested his earnings from fishing into a bar and nightclub. This was a popular spot especially on weekends. During the annual South Caicos Regatta, he would bring in a band from The Bahamas to entertain the public. Sam and his wife Helene also had a small grocery store selling food items and dry goods to the community.

These historic images are among few available of the bonefishing greats of South Caicos in the early 1960s.
Julius “Goo” Jennings brings home the catch.

Sam was strict. No children were allowed around his establishment. He would also personally escort drunks off his property if they misbehaved. People generally feared Sam. He was one of the few persons in South Caicos at the time known to be in possession of a firearm. As boys, we believed that “If you mess with Sam, he will shoot you.” At times, he was seen hunting flamingos in the ponds with his gun. This reinforced our belief that he wasn’t a guy you would want to mess with.

Julius (Big Man or Par Julius), was also huge in statue. He stammered a lot. Like the other brothers, he was a regular at the Methodist Church. Despite his massive physique, he was a very quiet and loving man, one of the most pleasant guys you would ever meet. He was one who seemed not to keep many friends outside of his family circle. His son Julius (Jr.) was also an integral part of the fishing group.

One of the fascinating things about this exceptional family was that they hauled together. They worked as a unit—a team. They possessed exceptional skills and talent like no other, putting them in a class by themselves. The Jennings brothers were recognized as “Kings.” They were indeed kings of a very important industry.

Fish was the main diet of the people in South Caicos.Since there was little opportunity at the time to acquire other forms of meat (or relish as it was called), the South Caicos community was dependent on the Jennings brothers for their catch. Bonefish was a delicacy. Most people who came to South Caicos in those days hardly left without feasting on bonefish or taking supplies with them.

There were certain important strategies that had to be applied if one was to have a successful hauling day. First, it required that the fishermen be extremely quiet. Bonefish move in schools. The slightest movement or noise result in an unproductive day as the fish will speed away. Bonefish are very sensitive and Banner knew this. Verbal communication was banned during hauling.Sign language was the main form of communication. The fishermen had to understand this. Their catch depended largely on their ability to master sign language.

Felix Jennings “Par Fee” repairs his net.

The net was stretched out as wide as possible with a man holding each end. The others remained in the boat as one man steered it towards the fish, chasing them in the direction of the net. Both men holding the net would then close in on the fish. They would all join in on pulling the net in the boat full of bonefish. Following this, they would clear the net and prepare for their journey home.

In the early days they did not have the luxury of a boat engine. They either had to set or skull the boat in order to get back to Conch Ground Bay which was usually not very far away. When they arrived, the boat was docked. Before being sold, the fish was shared. The owner of the boat (who was usually Banner) received two shares—his and the other for the boat. Finally, it was time to sell.Consumers were free to purchase bonefish from any of the fishermen.

As little boys, we would eagerly await the arrival of the bonefish haulers. It was thrilling to watch the boat come in loaded with fish. We longed for the days when we could participate in this fascinating venture.

The Jennings brothers took their sales seriously. Pa Fee would be talking at the top of his voice in an aggressive tone which was a clear indication that there was “no credit.” Crowds of eager men descended on Conch Ground Bay to purchase bonefish. This was usually not an activity for women. Saturday afternoons in South Caicos became a spectacular occasion for male bonding.

As there was no widespread electricity in South Caicos at the time, freezing fish was not possible. The Jennings brothers therefore mastered the skill of preserving their fish that was not sold. This was done by a process called “corning.” They spread salt from the local salt ponds over the fish after they were sliced down the middle. The fish were then hung over racks. So for days after the catch, folks could still purchase fish.

The Jennings brothers made a major contribution to South Caicos. They made bonefish hauling a respected and admirable profession. Their names will always be synonymous with fishing as they made bonefishing an integral part of the local culture. They will always be regarded as fishing icons. Their legacy continues as Banner’s son Willis and his grandboys Dave (Big Cow) and Gilbert (Snuka) continue to follow the family’s tradition. One can still purchase bonefish from these boys although not in as large quantities as before. Helen passed on her baking skills to her daughter Jacklyn, whose popular bread gained the pet name “Mama’s Bread.”

The baking tradition entered its third generation as Nita, Jacklyn’s daughter, continues to bake bread for sale. Goo also had three sons who were all involved in bonefishing—Stanley, Hudson, and Nelson. Although Hudson and Nelson are deceased, Stanley continued the tradition until he retired. Goo also formed a band, “Gillette and His Blades” (also called “Goo and the Yellow Teeth Movement”.) The group would play regularly at the Admiral’s Arms Hotel entertaining guests.

The Jennings brothers made time to be involved in community and church life. They were also active in the local Odd Fellows Lodge and the Benevolent Association.In the afternoons after a day in the boat, they could be seen mingling with the men on Conch Ground Bay, having a few drinks and discussing events of the day. 

Benjamin, Felix, Julius (Sr.), Oswald and Julius (Jr.) are all deceased. They were instrumental in setting the stage for the growth and development of small businesses in South Caicos stemming from fishing. The island witnessed the expansion in this industry to include conch, scalefish, and lobster because of the contribution made by the Jennings brothers. 

Being men of great physical stature, they utilized their strength as needed by assisting people to move their wooden houses from one location to another. During this event, they were assisted by their cousin Lambert Wilson (Par Lumbie) and Robert and David Adams. During this occasion, everyone would join in and sing the popular song “Gal le we go down.” This singing made the task lighter. They were also involved in launching big boats in South Caicos.

As Dave (Big Cow) and Gilbert (Snuka) get older, there is concern as to the future of bonefishing in South Caicos. Bonefishing is becoming more of a sports fishing adventure—catch and release rather than for consumption. The concern is whether someone will take the baton from these grandsons so that bonefishing will remain an integral part of the South Caicos culture.

Undoubtedly, South Caicos has produced some of the country’s greatest fishermen. Because of this, the island has earned the distinction of being called the “Fishing Capital of the Turks & Caicos Islands.”

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