Written by Palmetto Bluff
Aug 17, 2022
His has been a life defined by all-in passion, a tale populated with a cadre of “E” words reserved for those audacious enough to attempt a marriage of aspiration and adrenaline. Whether improving health conditions in Third World countries or educating others while sharing his love of fly fishing, the impact is always the same. When Will Stephens puts his imprint on a project, the end result is excellence.
It’s the through-line for his military service and 35 years of life-saving work for one of the world’s largest companies. And there’s been no slowing of that trait in his “retirement” to Palmetto Bluff. He’s turned what was supposed to be a part-time job to get him out of the house into helping build a world-renowned outdoorsmen epicenter at Southern Drawl Outfitters on Hilton Head Island.
“I will admit, it’s been one hell of a ride,” said the soon-to-be septuagenarian in a chat bookended between a 10-day adventure to the Amazon and a months-long teaching residency in Belize. “My wife, Cybil, and I are driven to make the most of every day we are gifted with. So I thrive on that next adventure.”
For nearly four decades, the catalyst for that next sojourn was his work for pharmaceutical titan Johnson & Johnson. The Trenton native and Ryder University graduate rose through the ranks quickly at the New Jersey-based company. He traveled the world for J&J, helping to see many of the company’s philanthropic projects to fruition, such as supplying anti-infective drugs for HIV to Third World countries and drugs to fight dengue fever and Ebola in the Congo and western Africa.
His posts led him to home bases from Boston to Chicago to Jacksonville. But he was never at home very long. “I’ve got well over a million frequent flyer miles and counting accumulated with Continental,” Stephens said. “I’d take travel risks into dangerous countries because I always had support, and I put my trust in the relationships I formed that got me access to some far-flung locales. When you’re flying in with the shipments we delivered, it tends to open plenty of doors to explore the edges of civilization.”
The life-and-death weight of his work in the world’s most impoverished countries made a steam-relieving outlet a necessity. For that, he leaned on his Jersey Shore childhood days hunting for stripers from Raritan Bay, Sandy Hook all the way out to Montauk Point on Long Island.
His trusted fly rod was his best friend, as he constantly pushed his fisherman skills via exclamation endings to high-stakes international assignments. The ultimate stress reliever for Stephens was an equally dangerous trip into the most exotic and sought-after fishing waters in Latin and South America and the Caribbean.
“They represent two different parts of my life, but my work and my fishing both demand extreme patience and planning,” Stephens said. “But the rewards for the efforts in both have been life-changing and epic blessings.”
The more obscure the fish, the better. It’s what has led him to pursue and land arowana in the Amazon, pacu in the jungles of Bolivia, and tiger fish in Tanzania’s Zambezi River. Then there’s the 200-pound, 7-foot-long, and 36 -inch wide arapaima in Brazil. “The arapaima were almost extinct for a while, they were so overfished because their meat is so exquisite. The government dedicated a reserve, they only let anglers in a certain number of days per week, all catch and release, and it’s the only place in the world to find them,” he said. “That’s what I’m after. The places few people have gone and to catch stuff no one’s caught before. The golden dorado in the foothills of the Andes that are hugely aggressive, 30-feet fish you have to hike 8 kilometers with gear just to have the chance to land. That’s my lane.”
When Stephens finally began considering stepping away from his career with J&J, he wanted to find a new home zip code that would fuel his thirst for the next big catch. Colleagues told him of Palmetto Bluff. He and Cybill visited in 2015, went to three straight Music to Your Mouth festivals, and then built their dream Bluff home in 2017.
“I retired in October, we moved in in March. I’d had my boat down here two years before that. I’d go fishing and Cybil would go to art festivals,” he said. “Art is her passion, and we found the Bluff to be the perfect destination for both our worlds.”
Stephens spent his first year disconnected while he decompressed from a life in the fast lane.
“We got the house set up, but Cybil had had enough of me. I spent my life on the road and she wasn’t loving the house-bound version of me,” he said.
That led him to visit a fly fishing shop: Southern Drawl. New owner Paul Duffey had gear that intrigued Stephens, but he wanted to help bring more of his favorite rods to the shop. He asked Duffey if he could work part-time at the shop. Three months later, he approached Duffey about being a partner in the business.
“It’s worked out beyond my wildest dreams, taken off and grown a thousand different arms and legs,” Stephens said of going into a 50/50 partnership with Duffey at Southern Drawl. “Our mantra is we arm the angler for success. It’s education first, the right rigging, knowing the tide schedules. Then we get to actually buying gear.”
He has found that teaching classes at the shop, taking clients out to Pinckney Island at low tide to study crabs and bait in the water, and fronting fly fishing beginner classes at the Bluff to be a near-genetic match for his “retirement.”
“Teaching is in my DNA. It’s a challenge to dumb down a life’s worth of experience into a talk that can whet their appetite for this wonderfully addicting hobby,” he said. “Folks want that expensive rod out of the gates, and most folks I guess would sell it to them. I’m going to give them the basics, school them on the correct mechanics and techniques so they’ll know why they need to use simpler rods for a year. And they come in a year later, knowing why that rod costs more and that we’re here to teach them and outfit them for the long game.”
Stephens understands wanting the latest thing, the rarest collectibles, and the coolest gadgets. He’s shown his 1950s pickups and sedans at the Concours d’Elegance. He and Cybil needed to build an addition to house a life’s worth of collecting. It includes a three-car garage to house his classic Vespas and a fishing loft to house 30 rods and reels and an accumulation of trains, toys, neon signs, and mementos and pictures from his worldwide sojourns.
Stephens admits that somewhere deep inside, once he stepped foot into Southern Drawl, there was never going to be anything part-time about his time in the shop. He dived headfirst into the industry, meeting suppliers, gaining sponsorships that land him in magazines, and forming friendships that lead to the next itinerary. Stephens also recently got his captain’s license in Florida.
“I love planning the travel for the next opportunity. The logistics, it brings me back to the J&J heydays,” he said. “You know, 70 is coming up. It’s just a day. You fill those days up with excitement, and you never get old. Paul is younger than I am, he knows I might have five years all-in here, but we’re going to go full-blast every one of those days.”
One such opportunity for now-Captain Will was becoming the fishing director at the El Pescador Lodge, a world-class fly fishing resort on Ambergris Caye in San Pedro, Belize, where the burgeoning industry legend oversees client relations and managing the guides that lead exclusive itineraries.
After a slow travel calendar in 2020, Stephens plans to make up for lost time in the coming months, with chunks of time in Belize, Bolivia, the Amazon, and the Andros Islands of Bermuda already on the books.
“I’ve got a bucket list, 30 to 40 species I’m pursuing. Each one of those can take four or five weeks to get on a line. I’m not a trout guy, I defer to Paul and others when it comes to freshwater. I’m a saltwater fly fisherman and my list is extreme,” he said. “My calendar is booking out to 2023, 2024, 2025 now. I want the helicopter ride over the ocean to find the keys where that elusive, exotic permit is swimming on the backs of manta rays. Fish where people look at it and say, ‘What the heck is that?’ Everything I do, all the teaching, building Southern Drawl, all the relationships and new friends, it all feeds into that dream.”
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