Fishing Boat Charter Tips
By Lenny Rudow
It takes decades of daily trial and error to become an expert fisherman on your own, and most of us are lucky to get a single day on the water each week. That's why good anglers surround themselves with better anglers, and learn from them. It's also one of the main reasons why people charter fishing boats, even though they may have a boat and fishing gear of their own. Others hire a guide because they're traveling, they want the best possible chances of success, or they have a group larger than their own boat can support. But whatever your reasons for chartering may be, it's important that you choose the boat you're going to book wisely.
Actually, experienced charter anglers will choose the captain, as much as the boat. A captain's attitude makes all the difference. Naturally you'll want a safe captain, but you also need to consider several other factors.
The number-one consideration for many people is cost. "Cheapest is not always best," notes Capt. Drew Payne, of the Worm, a 45-foot custom-built boat that can carry up to 35 passengers from Chesapeake Beach, Maryland (www.wormcharters.com). "There's a surprising number of pirates out there, guys who will take you fishing for half the going rate but aren't even licensed properly. Then you have to realize that most 'real' fishing guides, probably about 80 percent, are part-timers who fish maybe once or twice a week. Some of them are good, but many aren't."
Personal recommendations are a great way to choose a captain, but in many cases (especially when traveling to unfamiliar areas), you won't be able to get one. In this situation you'll have to get a feel for a captain by reviewing his or her website, and speaking with them on the phone. But don't give up on a captain if he doesn't answer the phone immediately.
"If I'm on the phone all day, my party starts asking themselves, 'Is this guy really doing his best to put me on fish, or is he just talking on the phone all day?'" Capt. Drew said. "So most good captains don't even answer the phone when they're fishing. The captain who does answer on the first ring, every time, that's probably not the guy you want to go fishing with in the first place."
Another telltale sign that a captain isn't the best pick is whether or not he's available on prime days, and on short notice. "It's rare I can answer 'yes' when someone calls and asks me if they can go fishing tomorrow, because I'm booked way out in advance, sometimes six days a week," Drew said. "If you call a captain and he's available on short notice, you might want to ask him if he's available on the opening day of the next big season. If he is, that's a bad sign."
Drew also stresses the "entertainment" aspect of fishing, but notes that some captains don't see things the same way. "When everyone has fun and comes back to the dock with smiles on their faces, to me, that's a successful day," he said. "It's not just a question of how many fish are in the cooler, it's a question of whether or not everyone had fun."
But some captains are looking for full coolers and bragging rights back at the dock — and may be a particularly bad choice for people such as catch-and-release anglers, or families with young children. Other poor match-ups can occur when light-tackle fishermen show up at the docks to discover heavy-duty gear, or when people interested in the constant action of bottom fishing unknowingly sign on to a day of trolling. Drew says there's only one way to find out which charter is right for you: Ask lots of questions, ahead of time.
Jennifer Blunt, of the Ocean City Fishing Center, which has a fleet of more than 20 boats ranging in size from 25 to 61 feet, agrees. "You've got to do your research," she said. "These days it's pretty easy, with Google. Almost all of the boats and captains have websites."
Booking through a marina fleet is a bit different than booking with a specific captain directly, but you should be asking the same questions. In fact, the fleet manager should be quizzing you, as well. "We end up asking a lot of questions ourselves when a customer calls, to try and match them up with the right boat," Blunt said. "Price is almost always the first question they have, but we try to ask about their comfort level, and experience. Especially with the boats that fish offshore, people have to realize it's very different than what most bay or inland anglers are used to, and which boat they're on can make a huge difference. The smaller boats might cost less to book, but in some cases, people will be a lot happier with a larger boat, or a captain who's really good at a particular type of fishing. In other cases, they might not need that big boat that goes way out there. It's all about finding out exactly what the people really want."
Why not ask a captain or fleet manager for references? Oftentimes, the captains and marinas can't give them out because of the customer's privacy concerns. But luckily, you can find a lot of customer comments on the Web. Fishing-oriented Web forums, such as www.Tidalfish.com and www.Thebassbarn.com, are good places to prospect for information.
Given that vetting a captain's credentials is so important, you may also want to check in with a local guide's association. You'll find them in virtually all areas of the nation, but when there isn't one, the local chamber of commerce is another good source of information.
Once you've found a captain and a boat that seem right for you, you'll also need to inquire about exactly what services the booking includes. Virtually all guides offer bait and tackle, for example. But some add a surcharge for one, the other, or both. In some cases, the exact opposite is true — the captain will want you to use his supplied gear only, and won't want extra rods and reels brought aboard the boat. Charters at resorts commonly include boxed lunch and drinks, but those working from areas that see few tourists generally expect you to bring your own food and drink. Licensing, fuel surcharges, and tips for the mate — 15 to 20 percent is the norm, and remember to tip on the high side if the mate cleans your fish for you — all can vary from charter to charter, and need to be ironed out ahead of time.
Another situation that calls for special consideration is chartering for a group that includes a disabled member. This could be difficult in the past, but in recent years, many charter operations have made special accommodations, and wheelchair-accessible boats are now commonplace. Groups with women and children will want to verify that the boat has an enclosed head onboard.
Whether you're just after a day of fun and relaxation or you want to learn the ropes from an old salt, charter fishing is a great way to expand your horizons. But make sure you choose your charter wisely — trusting your experience to trial and error is just one big error.
Lenny Rudow has been a writer and editor in the marine field for two decades and has authored five how-to fishing books including Rudow's Guide To Rockfish and Rudow's Guide To Modern Jigging. He's won 18 awards from Boating Writers International and two from the Outdoor Writers Association of America.
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Charter Question Checklist
Getting ready to choose a charter? Make sure to ask the captain all the applicable questions, before you book!
- Are you fully licensed on a state and federal level?
- Do you cover my fishing license, or do I need to get my own in advance?
- Does the boat have an enclosed head?
- Is there wheelchair accessibility?
- What’s the method of fishing and what type of gear will we use?
- Do you like having children on board?
- Does the boat have a full electronics suite, including radar and satellite weather? (If offshore, add: Is there a life raft and EPRIB aboard?)
- What’s the policy on limit catches? If we catch our limit of the target species, will we then fish for other species, or does the boat go in?
- Do you encourage catch and keep, or catch and release?
- What is the cancellation policy? Will we get a full refund if we have to cancel due to poor weather? Will the deposit be applied to a reschedule date, or is it forfeited?
- Do you supply all the gear? If so, is there a surcharge for anything?
- Can I bring my own gear?