A good charter captain can be a tricky catch

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Friends and I for years have jokingly referred to those who’ve chosen to grind our living out of the sea as “misfit toys,” a square-peg navy on a round-hole ocean. In my own career arrangement as a writer-fisherman, I have spent literally thousands of hours on a multitude of charterboats across a significant stretch of the Atlantic Seaboard to gather supporting evidence.

Zach Harvey

Over the years, my own interests have shifted — ironically enough — away from fish and toward the fascinating range of characters who chase them: hard-driven products of the old school; the young hungries; the screamers; the silent, scary crazies and loud, hilarious crazies; the carnival barkers; the chest-pounding self-promoters; the pay-to-pass graduation-academy captains and other phonies, scabs and strike-breakers who sail for beer money; and the grandfatherly, self-styled “old salts” whose chief credentials involve “old” more than “salt.”

There are gear heads and harbor-cruise specialists, the latter usually putting more emphasis on the boat underfoot than the fish in their fore. What’s important, as in any human relationship, is finding a captain whose talents, methods and personal qualities best mesh with your own.

In almost two decades, as either writer or mate, I’ve fished alongside all kinds, most intensively during one season when I opted to pass on a full-time gig and work a more flexible niche as a fill-in across three states — a transient deck ape — for some of the many skippers I’ve met over the years. The three quick scenes that follow came out of that fateful summer, when I worked a dozen decks out of one orange bushel basket of gear.

There aren't many better ways to spend a summer day than fishing, and the right charter skipper makes all the difference.

It probably goes without saying, but the occupation of putting fish in a boat more or less on command tends to weed out the talentless in a hurry. I’ll take it as a given that there are a great many excellent fishermen in the chartering world, many of whom also happen to be nice guys and patient teachers. For the scope of this entry, nice, patient and competent make dull reading. I’ve changed the names of the first two captains to protect the not-so-innocent; the third — Capt. Barry Cherms — is real.

Baptism by fire

“That guy’s an #@&$%!” shouts my fearless leader du jour, Kim Jong Ed. He stabs an accusatory finger toward one of his bewildered clients in the port stern and, turning to me with murder in his eyes, barks the order: “Go tell that guy he’s an #@&$%!”

Instinctively — this is not the first verbal squall I’ve ridden out at sea — I study the toes of my deck boots and turn aft, looking as anonymous as possible, given the total insanity that has blown up out of nowhere. In the most even, soothing voice I can summon, I offer my plea: “Uhh … I’m, well … kinda working the tip here, so if it’s OK, I’d feel a whole lot more comfortable about it if you told him that yourself — you know, as the captain?”

It’s immediately clear that his previous directive requires no action, no feedback from me. I can now safely check off “Disregard Rhetorical Direct Order From Respected Charter Captain” on my to-do list.

The good skipper has already closed the distance between his helm and transom in two jerky, menacing strides, and I hustle after him, prepared for crisis mediation. He snatches the aged conventional setup from his client’s hands, flashing a predatory grin my way, and in a much more measured tone instructs his 50-something angler to head for the fighting chair, where it should be easier to manually level-wind the wire onto the reel.

Good charter cpatains simplify the process of finding and catching fish.

Five minutes later, with the last two fish of a six-man striper limit stowed in the fishboxes, we’re trolling happily along again. The benevolent leader’s face has transitioned from a rich aneurysm crimson back to its more traditional sunburned red; he has even paused to shake the condemned client’s trembling right hand and clap him on the back, drawing a pronounced flinch.

The man — an upper-level corporate executive in his life ashore — in a barely audible whisper begins to apologize profusely for “whatever I just did wrong.” I try to contain the sudden upwelling of half-insane laughter, but it explodes through my nose into the air astern. Here stands a man who has probably leveled entire corporate divisions with one stroke of a pen, with nary a bead of sweat on his temples. Now, on a glorious leisure day, he’s whispering and shooting nervous glances over his shoulder with the general disposition of a boy whose alcoholic steelworker dad has just staggered in late and piss-drunk, looking for trouble.

He is visibly shaken — in fact, shaking. He has apologized for what I gather is his very existence, and now — I truly cannot believe the words hissing quietly out the side of this man’s mouth — he’s about to sing Kim Jong Ed’s praises. An imagined snippet of some North Korean propaganda film flashes through my mind on repeat, fueling my ill-timed and explosive giggling.

“You know, Zach, he’s one hell of a fisherman — the best. I know he sounds harsh, but he’s right. This is his ocean.” He pauses, glances over his shoulder again, then adds: “He’s the real deal — a real old salt. And he’s a good guy, you know? We’ve fished with him for years.”

“This is not my gig, friend,” I offer as I glance down the top of my oilers, checking the time on my phone and longing for the relative luxury of my battered Toyota Corolla plinking and crunching its way across the gravel lot a couple hours from now, this floating asylum fading in my rearview.

Empty boxes, broken spirits

After that first traumatic excursion with Capt. Kim Jong Ed, I was already entertaining great and terrible suspicions about my new scheduling brainchild. The second outing left me weighing the less obvious perks of a fast-food career. It started ugly and went south from there.

Until that summer, 5 a.m. had never been a high-volume hour for phone calls in my home. The first of what became many wee-hours parking-lot maydays punched through my REM sleep one Wednesday that May. It’s significant that my phone rings five times before the machine intervenes because by the time I’d retrieved my cordless from the laundry basket where my 1-year-old had hung it up, the hell-spawned device had rung no less than 65 consecutive times.

When I finally grunted some guttural “H” sound into the earpiece, it triggered a deluge of panicky, garbled diction: “I’ve got — who is this? Oh, Jesus Christ. The guys are here and I — my mate can’t, oh God, he can’t answer, I mean won’t, didn’t answer ’cause he’s supposed to be here. The guys showed up to go fishing, and I can’t go, and they have all their gear and …”

“Sorry, Who is this again?” I ask.

“Oh, Zach? I didn’t wake you, did I? I’m so …”

“No, the 125 rings woke me up. Who is this?”

“It’s me, Zach, Capt. Don O’Hara.”

“I gotcha, cap. What do you need?”

Twenty minutes later I’d jammed the contents of my trunk into a dewy bushel basket from the yard and was streaking south toward the docks, hoping I’d managed to grab all of the key pieces of gear, such as pants, maybe a deck boot or two. Twenty minutes after that, we’d cleared the inlet jetties, and the captain sent me down forward to retrieve a half-dozen rods to complement the two dozen ill-suited sticks his ace clients had summoned from the bowels of their garages.

After I’d pried six outfits — any with visible wire line — out of three racks glassed into the three least accessible interior surfaces, I returned to daylight, relieved that I’d found the “right ones.” I walked back out on deck just in time to watch the last of my coffee run out the starboard scupper.

A good charter starts with a good boat.

In wire-line trolling, a lure’s running depth is determined, in the simplest terms, by how much line you deploy. A general rule is that 100 feet of stainless line will get you down roughly 10 feet. Naturally, trolling speed, current strength and other factors affect the equation, but the most basic, stupid, fundamentally critical part of the whole deal is properly measuring and marking the wire so captain, mate and crew can deploy the top-secret lures with at least a rough idea whether the thing’s skipping along the surface or knocking barnacles off a reef below. Usually the first two marks are at 100-foot intervals, followed by marks every 50 or 100 feet thereafter on a total of 400 to 500 feet of available steel.

Accustomed to maintaining (or at least monitoring) wires on decks I’ve run full time, I was a bit surprised, as I deployed the first line of the day, to find its first mark around 30 feet, then nothing but smooth sailing to mark two — somewhere around 215 feet thereafter — followed by heavy monofilament backing. The other was slightly better in terms of the marks — two in total at 100 and 200 feet, then another 200-foot shot that would make a crapshoot of the whole process. The good news, in light of the dump-and-hope gear, was that at trolling speeds north of 4 knots our rigs never came anywhere close to the 40- to 45-foot danger zone where all stripers in the area lay like a finned woodpile.

What we failed to accomplish catch-wise during the 11 hours of our scheduled six-hour “half-day” adventure we more than made up for in perseverance. Thankfully, O’Hara’s about the nicest guy whose deck I’ve ever manned. I found myself defending his honor right through the worst of it, even when I wanted off his boat in a way I’ve wanted few things in 36 years on this planet. I was padded-room material when I finally wheeled into my driveway 13 hours after a wake-up call I should have avoided like a leper-owned anthrax factory.

Redemption

It was the third call that kept my plan on the tracks. Capt. Barry Cherms, one of the handful of nice, well-adjusted and highly skilled fishermen, would be losing his regular guy to a midsummer vacation. Over a Friday morning full-day, we caught well, including some good fish.

Unlike the screamers and the hard-riding fish-savant types who turn into prime stroke candidates when there aren’t three fish on at all times, Cherms would actually drop the boat out of gear and encourage his clients to take their time with a good photo-op for one angler’s career-best bass, a thick-bellied 38-pounder. We all acknowledged that tide-wise we were probably squandering precious minutes. Then again, there are a hundred indicators of a successful day on the water, and not all of them relate to the trip’s meat yield.

Ironically enough, it was this third mission — one of the more successful trips, by any standard — that spawned the shortest, easiest and dullest entry in a journal I kept through that season as a transient deck ape:

July 3: CJ, Capt. Barry Cherms. Four nice guys, limit of bass to 38 pounds, finished up on some fluke S of Island. Beautiful morning, last of the ebb and some flood; slick calm and hot. No screaming, no lying, no stress. Decent gear, well-maintained, clean boat — nice work if you can get it. Good people, good day. Enough said.

There’s a larger truth somewhere in this entry. Charter fishing is supposed to be fun. When you find the right guy for the kind of trip you want — and part of the appeal of fishing is that you can approach it on many levels of intensity — there aren’t many better ways to spend a summer day. More than that, charter fishing is supposed to simplify the whole act of finding and catching fish.

To that end, it’s worth taking some time as you shop around for the right captain and boat, given your own specific expectations. As a general rule, beware of the Internet as a search tool for charter shopping. It’s a place that can legitimize a shaky operation with a handful of snappy photos and witty copy. Conversely, since many top skippers book most trips by word of mouth or through repeat business, it’s also a place where the best fishermen tend to fall through the cracks. Remember, you’re hiring a fisherman, not a marketing consultant.

However you generate your list of possible choices, try to raise each captain by phone. If you’ve had even a little time on the water yourself, you’ll have little trouble weeding out at least some percentage of the phony glad-handers, the bozos and the total sociopaths of the fleet.

Also, know that in charter booking, just as everywhere else you fork over hard-won earnings, the cheapest is seldom, if ever, the best. If the deal sounds too good to be true, it is.

July 2013 issue