Great charter boats, crewed by dedicated professionals who truly love to take people fishing, exist in just about every corner of the known billfishing world. But sometimes signals get crossed or expectations don’t quite match reality, and things just don’t come together the way they should to ensure that the charter customer has a good experience. I’ll never forget my first charter trip outside the United States.
A college buddy was getting married in Ecuador, so four of us headed down to the coast from the Ecuadorian capital of Quito for a day offshore. “Barely floating” best describes the boats fishing out of Salinas, Ecuador, in the early 1990s. However, the excitement our group felt about the chance to see a nice blue, or a big striped marlin for that matter, blinded us to the possibility of danger.
We loaded up, along with one of the mates and our tackle, into a small panga for the trip out to the anchorage. I did a double take when I saw that the four Penn 50s in the rod holders were completely white, all of the gold anodizing having worn off. Not a good sign. The line had seen better days as well. Even when we insisted to the mates that they strip off the first few dozen yards, they politely refused.
The captain arrived in the next panga, holding a small round object that was obviously precious to him: It turned out to be the boat’s compass. No other navigational or communications equipment would be with us for the trip. The captain carefully placed the compass in its homemade holder at the helm, and we slipped the mooring lines and headed offshore at a stately 12 knots.
After a few hours on the troll, a blue marlin delivered a smashing strike to the outrigger bait, and the old wooden rigger bent over almost to the water before whipping back violently after the clip finally let go. The marlin leaped from the calm Pacific, tail-walking away in the typically blue-dog dance we all love to see, but within 90 seconds it was over; the line broke just above the Bimini twist. A good lunch of fish tacos, some gaffer-size dolphin, and a few cold beers on the ride home raised our spirits somewhat, but the third-rate tackle cost us our shot at a blue marlin.
Since those early days, I’ve done plenty of charter fishing, and I’ve learned a few things about scratching your offshore adrenaline itch on someone else’s ride. Here are my top five pitfalls to avoid when choosing a charter — disregard them at your own risk.
Fishing Half-Day Charters
This is one of the biggest decision-making errors, and it happens all over the world: choosing to fish a half day instead of a full day or multiple days. There are only a few places where you could even hope to see a billfish in a half day, and even in the hottest of hot spots, you’d have to be incredibly lucky to have any success in such a short amount of time. Take it with a big grain of salt when you hear someone say, “We caught two blues and were back in time for lunch.” Possible? Maybe. Likely? No. This is also part of what I have come to call the “Guatemala syndrome.” Here’s an example of it: The boats that fished a full day yesterday averaged 20 sailfish releases each, but you say “Why spend all that money for a whole day when we could just go for a half day and catch 10?” It doesn’t work that way. First, those fish may be well out of range for a half-day charter. There may also have been an afternoon bite that takes place long after you’ve packed it in and headed for the dock.
And just one day really isn’t enough, especially if the fishing has been less than red-hot lately. By booking two or three days with the same boat, you’re giving your captain plenty of time to find the fish and greatly improving your chances for success along the way. Save the half days for fishing inshore.
Picking the Cheapest Boat
Of course, we all want a good deal on everything we buy, but selecting a charter based solely on price is almost always a bad idea. A low price could mean several things: The boat’s much older or smaller than the others, which means you’ll be more uncomfortable in rough weather; the tackle isn’t properly maintained; the captain and crew are working for less money; or a host of other things, and few of them good.
Capt. Herbert Merryweather Jr. operates Driftwood Charters in Aruba, averaging 30 half- and full-day charter trips per month on a 35-foot Bertram and a 50-foot Post. Capt. Merryweather says, “The old saying ‘You get what you pay for’ holds especially true when chartering. The cheapest price doesn’t always come with the best value. You may think you’ve gotten a great deal, and then just end up going for an expensive cruise, with the crew not making any real attempt to catch fish.” He says that his boats are not the cheapest, but he always goes the extra mile for his clients, providing fresh bait, properly maintained tackle, fresh line on the reels, and a first-rate crew that wants to outfish everyone else on the dock every day.
This brings up another potential problem when it comes to low prices: Your captain may not be fishing full time. In lots of places around the world, boat owners earn their captain’s license so they can run their own rigs as charters, more or less to subsidize their fishing. And while there are plenty of part-time captains who put up some big numbers and memorable catches each year, they don’t have the expertise of a full-time professional.
Setting Unrealistic Expectations
Even in the best fishing holes, the numbers change dramatically from day to day. And while everyone always hears about those banner days — boats catching 10 blues a day off St. Thomas or 50 sailfish in Guatemala — much less is heard about those days when the skunk was in town. Even in places like Costa Rica, where the fishing is relatively consistent during the high season, the fleet runs into slow days. That’s why it’s important to set realistic expectations for yourself and your charter group.
This is especially true when it comes to marlin fishing. If there are four, five or six people in your charter party, then the chances are good that not everyone will be able to catch a blue marlin. You should determine ahead of time whose turn it will be when a strike finally does occur, so the opportunity’s not missed. Some choose to either rotate time in the chair or assign a rod rotation in order to make it fair for everyone.
You may have your heart set on a marlin, but if the tuna are chewing the props off the boats a few miles away, then it may be a better option than staring at pretty blue water for six hours waiting for a bite. Be realistic with yourself and your party ahead of time — and be open to suggestions from an experienced pro at the helm — and you can avoid a lot of disappointment at the end of the day.
Failing to Do Some Research
While much can be done online in terms of researching charter boats, nothing beats a few well-placed phone calls. Capt. Richard Chellemi, owner and operator of Gamefisher II in Costa Rica, recommends doing a lot of background research before booking a trip.
“Check with the marina where the boat’s based to see how often they fish and how well they do. Call local tournament directors to see who’s been hot recently. Chances are very good that if a boat’s been a top producer in tournaments, then they’re a good pick for chartering,” Chellemi says. “Get a list of the navigational and communications gear they have on the boat, as well as safety equipment, to make sure you don’t find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation. Don’t rely on the photos of the boat and gear from their website — you don’t know how recently they’ve been updated.”
Chellemi also recommends fishing with a like-minded crew. “If you want to hook your own fish, the crew should be happy to oblige your request and even coach you along the way so that you improve your angling skills,” he says. “The crew knows they may not catch as many fish as they would if the mates did all the hooking, but the client’s enjoyment should come first, not pushing for big numbers.”
It also pays big dividends to e-mail or call the captain directly. Capt. Bouncer Smith, one of south Florida’s legendary charter skippers for more than 45 years, recommends making a checklist of questions. Ask about what kind of fishing they’ve been doing recently, what type of tackle they have available, and whether fishing licenses are included. If you want to do a specialized type of fishing, like chasing sails on fly, ask if the crew is experienced with that style of fishing and if you need to bring your own tackle. He recommends that you find out as many details as possible ahead of time, like who keeps any game fish that are landed, or if lunches and drinks are included, since these types of details vary widely from place to place. Few things cause more hard feelings at the end of the day than a simple misunderstanding about what’s included and, more importantly, what’s not, in the price of a charter.
Failing to Prepare for a Day Offshore
This one can really kill a good day offshore. A perfect example is seasickness. You may be fishing with people who swear they’ve never been seasick a day in their lives, but then the seas kick up a little and they’re losing breakfast (and part of last night’s dinner) over the side. It’s a miserable feeling, especially when faced with the prospect of several more long hours of discomfort and no refunds for heading in early. If there’s any doubt, always ask your charter companions to use a seasick-prevention medication at least an hour before getting on the boat in the morning. If all else fails, recommend that your friends have doughnuts or bananas for breakfast, since they taste about the same coming back up as they did going down.
Don’t forget things like a light jacket, foul-weather gear for rain or rough weather, a hat or visor, sunscreen, a digital camera and a good pair of polarized sunglasses. If the charter does not include lunch, then be sure to pack your own, along with snacks and plenty of drinks, including bottled water. If you want to bring beer, remember that cans are preferred over glass bottles, which can shatter in a cooler, and that hard liquor is almost never welcome on board.
Charter fishing is a great way to enjoy an offshore adventure, with a professional, highly experienced crew at your disposal. If you avoid these common pitfalls along the way, the experience can last a lifetime — or at least until that next trip.