It’s a time-honored stereotype: the grizzled old captain at the helm, the well-wrinkled sunburned face, maybe a shock of white hair topped with a faded ball cap from a long-forgotten marina. He’s been at sea for so long he can remember when Moby Dick was just a minnow and the Dead Sea was barely sick. He’s navigated hundreds of miles offshore with just a fistful of paper charts and an old Ritchie compass and seen blue marlin as big as school buses. He’s one of a kind and slowly, but reluctantly, beginning to fade.
We often hear that “there’s no one to pick up the slack” or “there are not enough young people getting into the sport.” But is that really true? If you hang around this sport long enough, you start to see that there is indeed a new crop of skippers climbing the ladder and doing well. While there are far too many to cover individually, here are profiles and tips from some of the hottest young skippers in the business -— because we all know that from time to time, even old dogs can pick up a few new tricks.
Baiting Up on the Gulf Coast
Growing up on the Gulf of Mexico, Capt. Jason Buck has wanted to captain sport-fishing boats as far back as he can remember. He joined the U.S. Coast Guard right out of high school, putting in four years in Coast Guard blue before earning his captain’s license and running charter boats in his off time out of Venice, Louisiana. In 2007, after nearly a decade working as a first mate, Buck got the opportunity to run Done Deal, a 56-foot Viking owned by Jon Gonsoulin out of Houma, Louisiana.
In 2012, the 38-year-old led the Done Deal team to one of the strongest seasons in the Gulf in recent memory: first-place blue marlin in the Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic at Sandestin, winner of the Gulf of Mexico Triple Crown Championship, first-place catch-and-release team in the Mobile Big Game Fishing Club Memorial Day Tournament, second-place blue marlin in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Billfish Classic, second-place catch-and-release team in the White Marlin Shootout, and the list goes on. When asked about the team’s success, Buck referred to one of the key tricks in his bag: live baiting. “There’s no denying its effectiveness in certain situations,” he says. “If you see a blue marlin chasing tuna, that may be all he’s interested in eating. There’s no better way to get the bite than to match the hatch. If the bait is there, we’ll put the effort into live baiting.”
To get the live-bait business down right, Buck began by outfitting the boat with a set of homemade tuna tubes. Buck made the first set of tubes on Done Deal from PVC pipe. “They were ugly; they leaked, and I don’t know how many tubes of 5200 I squeezed into them,” Buck says with a laugh, “but they worked when it counted. I made the next set out of fiberglass, and they performed a lot better. Now, we can keep a 20-pound tuna happy for hours.”
He says the real key to keeping frisky live baits comes down to the pumps and their placement. “The best thing to have is too much water flow, where you can vent the overflow and then valve down each tube individually,” he says. “There are a lot of numbers thrown around out there on what a fish needs in terms of water flow, but just as critical is the installation. The location of the pump, the through-hull location and how far the pump has to push water -— all those are important things to keep in mind.”
Live baiting in the Gulf does have its drawbacks, though. “Using live baits can be hot, slow and boring. It requires constant attention,” Buck says. “If somebody is beating up the white marlin trolling dink baits, it’s going to be hard to beat them on release points looking for one blue marlin. Also, there have been times when we’ve been live baiting an area when another boat shows up and makes it happen on a lure. But if you’re looking for one big bite in the Gulf of Mexico, pulling a big live bait can definitely pay off.”
East Meets West
Like most professional captains, Capt. Josh Ruskey grew up around boats. His father worked as a charter-boat mate out of Ocean City, Maryland, so as a teenager, Ruskey would go to sea with his dad, rigging baits, washing the boat and doing the typical grunt work. By age 20, he was a full-time traveling mate, working out of Stuart, Florida, during the winter and splitting time between Oregon Inlet in North Carolina and Ocean City in the summer. The 32-year-old ran a 48-foot Ocean called Crush Em in Los Suenos, Costa Rica, and he took the helm of a Viking 58 called Warrior in Ocean City this past summer.
During his relatively short time at the helm, Ruskey has enjoyed some notable moments. Winning more than $680,000 in the 2005 Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament at the helm of Size Matters — his first captain’s job — certainly counts as one of his personal highlights, as well as winning in the 2011 Ocean City Tuna Tournament and finishing a second-place in the first leg of the 2012 Los Suenos Signature Billfish Series. In February 2012, his team released 10 blue marlin in one day on Crush Em, so his Pacific experience isn’t limited to just sailfish.
So what does Ruskey bring to the table in terms of fishing the Atlantic versus the Pacific? “The first thing I learned when we made the transition to Costa Rica from the East Coast was dredge fishing,” he says. “When I first got to Los Suenos in the winter of 2006, nobody was using them down here, but I had friends that said, ‘Always pull a dredge.’ And it paid off for us. Now, every boat fishing competitively is pulling dredges, and it’s making a huge difference.”
He also says that being a teacher is as important as fishing. “We have a lot of people who fish with us in Costa Rica to gain experience, to become better anglers,” he says. “It’s our job to teach them correctly. It doesn’t do any good for the captain to get 30 or 40 bites a day if your anglers are only catching five. You need to become a better teacher at that point.”
Ruskey points out that getting a lot of shots at fish works the same for the captains too. “Look at the East Coast guys like Jon Duffie and the Oregon Inlet boats that fish Mexico in the wintertime. They get a lot of practice fishing year-round, so when the bite turns on for a few weeks at home, they’re really on top of their games,” he says. “They can make the most of it and pile up some big numbers.” To get better you need to see more fish.
Ruskey cites his aggressiveness and competitive drive as advantages too. “I always tell people who fish with us that I want to catch [fish] worse than they do — I want to catch every fish we see, and I want to fish every day that I can.”