How to Tell if a Fishing Charter is Operated by an Experienced Captain

Choosing a fishing charter in a place you’ve never been before is a daunting task. Aside from not knowing which charters are most established, what the best fishing season is, or how the weather conditions may impact your time on the water – you’re relying exclusively on the reputation of local fishing captains and the marketing efforts they’ve managed to promote their business. That’s a risky proposition, because some professional fishermen are better marketers than anglers.  So how can you tell if a fishing charter is operated by an experienced Captain?  There’s five dead simple rules to follow when sizing up the legitimacy and capability of a prospective fishing charter:

  1. Determine how long the charter operation has been in business
  2. Find out whether its a full time or part time operation
  3. Learn about the Captain’s fishing experience
  4. Ask about a typical day on the water
  5. Inquire about tournament experience

Determining how long a charter operation has been in business

This is a fairly straightforward task which can be accomplished easily and politely. Professional charter captains are almost always happy to boast about the health and longevity of their charter business. The trick is to speak directly with the captain and not a booking service or administrative office. Most fishing charters are run by the operator of the boat, but its also common to find a marina office answering the phone and making the reservations.  Once you’re able to get the captain on the phone, first of all, be polite.

Remember that you are interviewing them for a bit of information about their business with the ultimate goal of learning who they are and what they’re all about. If a captain seems irritated or doesn’t want to speak with you – that’s the first indication that you should likely call someone else.  A fishing charter is a service business, which means customer service should come first…and there’s absolutely no excuse for fishing with someone who is rude, unpleasant, or stoic.  The most succesful and ambitious fishing captains love what they do and are excited to take people out fishing.

Once you’re able to get the captain on the phone, ask them about how long they’ve been fishing professionally.  Don’t be rude about this, as some Captains take offense when people question the legitimacy of their business (and rightly so). Quite a few professional fishermen start a charter business out of a passion for sport fishing or the desire to live a mariner lifestyle – it’s rarely for the money as the overhead is exorbitant – so be conscious of that when you ask someone how long they’ve been in business. It’s a safe bet that a charter operation that’s been in business for at least a year and a half will know the ropes.  It doesn’t take long to get established when you’re fishing for hire more than 15 days a month to really understand the ins and outs of the business.

Is it a full time or part-time charter operation? 

To be clear, making a living as a professional charter fishermen is extremely difficult.  The cost of owning a boat, repairing a boat, fueling a boat, storing a boat, insuring a boat, buying fishing gear, etc….well, you get the idea.  Most professional charter fishermen have full time fishing operations while balancing a side career.

In most areas around the U.S – fishing is a seasonal business.

When the prime fishing season arrives, local captains will switch careers and focus on fishing.  Once the tourism season is over, they go back to whatever it is they do the other half of the year.  There is nothing wrong with that and it does not impact a charter captain’s ability to catch fish or provide an outstanding experience for their customers.

Full-time charter captains are often under immense pressure to “pay the bills” and will fish any condition at any time. Be wary of captains who attempt to “oversell” or pressure you into booking a charter with them ( be wary of anyone who slanders or speaks negatively of fellow charter operations) as there is likely a reason for their urgency.

A professional charter captain ( part time or full time) should be friendly, upbeat, and enthusiastic about scheduling a trip with you. Remember, charter operations are small businesses which means that proprietors should be doing their best to provide an exceptional experience.

Whether the captain is a full time charter captain or part-time charter captain should not be your determining factor for booking a trip. What’s more important is the amount of time they spend on the water, the legitimacy of the business, and the owners approach to customer service. Both full time and part time charter captains can deliver an exceptional fishing experience – so make your decision on the captain’s experience and willingness to accomodate your ideal fishing day.

Learn about the Captain’s Fishing Experience

When you’re considering a fishing charter, it’s important to learn about the Captain you will be fishing with. Their background and fishing experience will undoubtedly have an impact on the quality of the trip.  Age is not necessarily a factor here, as many young captains mentored under an older generation which is just starting to retire. An experienced charter captain should be able to tell you about their fishing experience in the area – see if you can learn about the type of fishing they did most often before they went pro.

In many instances, charter captains decide to go pro after fishing “at the top of their game” recreationally for many years. Captains who fished their entire lives as a hobby are usually passionate about what they do, which is exactly what you’re looking for.  Professional fishermen who have experimented with different kinds of fishing methods are versatile, which is a handy trait when conditions change depending on various environmental factors.

The trick is to find a captain who has extensive experience fishing the area where you will be chartering.  Bear in mind that many captains will relocate to a new area with their charter business after having fished one area for many years – simply for a change of pace or to build experience in a different fishery.

The captain’s skill set is also something to consider.  Not every captain is a master of every type of fishing. It’s a wise idea to find someone who is specialized in the type of fishing you prefer to experience.  For example, some kite fishermen are not experienced bottom fishermen.  Many bottom fishermen are terrible at trolling.

A great way to find out what a captain specializes in catching is to ask about their favorite fish to catch. Highly specialized methods of fishing often require significant diligence to master and many charter operations specialize in catching a particular species. In some cases, a captain will build a reputation for catching a particular species, but will offer general trips just to pay the bills. Do your best to find a captain who is well versed in multiple fishing techniques and is knowledgeable about the best methods to target seasonal species.

Ask about a typical day on the water

This is an important part of the conversation with a prospective fishing charter and an excellent way to determine whether you’re speaking with a seasoned professional or rookie. An experienced captain should be able to elaborate on their “daily routine”. From the time a captain leaves the dock until the moment they return – they should have a gameplan that they’ve crafted based on the season.

Experienced captains usually host a briefing before the trip departure to review safety protocol and talk about what to expect during the day, which means its no big deal for them to explain what a typical trip is like on the phone. You can spot an amateur captain easily if they fumble this question, and while the fishing changes with the season, an experienced captain should know where the bite is and what the best species to target will be given the conditions.

It’s important to remember that there is no “typical” day at sea.  One of the great things about fishing professionally is that each day is unique.  Fishing can be exceptional one day and then completely dead the next. When a captain responds to your question about a “typical day” be sure to clarify that you don’t know what to expect and you want to learn what the options are.  Know what you’re getting into before you agree to a fishing charter.  Allow the captain to explore the options with you, set expectations, and clarify what you’re getting for your money.

One other important “myth” in the fishing charter industry – don’t trust “guaranteed” fishing.  There is no way to “guarantee” fishing by any means and expecting that from a fishing charter is unrealistic.  Some captains will offer this and then take you to catch bait fish or trash fish just to satisfy the guarantee.

If you expect a fishing charter to “guarantee” fish or your money back…they will take you to do the dumbest most basic fishing imaginable so they are “guaranteed” to get paid.  Be realistic about a fishing trip and educate yourself about the fishing in the area before you inquire about a typical day on the water.

Inquire about tournament experience

While its not a mandatory trait required of experienced fishing captains, most compete in tournaments to build reputation and experience. Fishing under tournament conditions refines the skill set of the captain and crew – it’s an opportunity to refine techniques and tactics in a pressured environment where money is at stake.

Fishing tournaments are not cheap to enter and anyone who stands a chance can handle themselves at a competitive level.  Sport fishing in a tournament scenario taks alot more than luck – it requires a refined skill set, competitive determination, and ALOT of experience.

When you ask a charter captain about their tournament experience, their response doesn’t have to be legendary. Some fishing captains don’t compete because of the entry expenses, but they should have at least a few tournaments under the belt.  Winning a tournament is even better, but not a mandatory characteristic of a professional fishing captain.  It’s the experience that matters.

About CaptCharlie

Charlie Ellis has written 2 post in this blog.

Capt. Charlie Ellis of Miami, FL has 25 years experience fishing for big game species like Bluefin Tuna, Sailfish, Swordfish, and Sharks. Capt. Charlie is also an avid scuba diver, world traveler, writer, and entrepreneur.

Leave a Reply

Note: Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *