Fish University 103: Expectations and Etiquette
Respecting Your Charter Skipper: It's not all glory.
The crew stood jubilantly as the weigh team hoisted their majestic fish onto the scale with all eyes fixated on the readout. Ears were tilted forward like a cocker spaniel to hear the final tally, and the suspense was killing skipper, crew, and charter guest alike for they had all dreamed of this moment for some time. Based on the calculations they’d made from measurements they took on deck, this fish had a chance to reach the coveted 1,000 pound mark. But as they stood nervously waiting for the cables to settle, they knew only the weigh scale would prove it for sure.
The skipper (we’ll call him Tyke) reflected on the time he had spent in his life fishing around the world, and thought about the circumstances that brought the three of them together at the scale on this glorious day. For the charter guest (how about Chris to be gender-neutral), it was a dream followed by a $650.00 charge on a credit card. For deckhand Ronny, who had fished with Tyke a few months, it was a dream followed by years of hard work at low pay.
For Tyke, this fish represented the culmination of a lifetime commitment built on the dream of being able to one day say he had caught a “grander.” He had been through it all in his twenty-plus years of charter skippering, and now today he had a chance to enter hallowed territory.
Tyke thought about all the days he woke up at 4:00 am, ate a quick breakfast after intravenously consuming a cup of coffee, prepared his lunch, and jumped into his truck to drive to the icehouse and then the harbor where his boat lay patiently waiting. Today went well and nothing was broken, but just a couple of months ago he had taken out a second mortgage on his home to pay for the $46,000.00 repower of his 40-foot sportfisher. During the repairs and upgrading period, he wasn’t sure he would even get back in the water in time for three days of charters he managed to book on his cell phone while upside-down in the engine room, and he was relieved when the boat started up the first time after splashing back in.
Yes, today was a good day. Being the last Tuesday of the month in the middle of the summer, Tyke didn’t have to think about paying his bills for a few more days. His annual bottom painting and drydock were completed at the same time as the re-power, he’d been running fairly solid for a month, the bite was good, and his customers were leaving the boat happy.
Since the weather was good, he didn’t have to think about cancellations from people nervous about seeing whitecaps from their hotel rooms, and with the bite on, he didn’t have to find ways to keep his customers from organizing a mutiny. “Monkey off my back” was how Tyke described those days when he finally got a fish at the end of the charter, while “goat in my throat” described the days when he never even got a strike.
Tyke knows Hawaiian waters, and he knows most of his guests don’t. He’s not an optimist, not a pessimist, but a realist. He knows some days he and the crew will do everything wrong and still land a big fish or a gaggle of small ones. He also knows some days they’ll do everything right and end up losing them all. He knows to take both days in stride, because those are the exceptions to the rule.
Most days he and the crew are professional, methodical, have a game plan they stick to, making small adjustments as they go, and he knows that over the course of the year, he’ll have more guests leave his boat happy about their decision to charter with him. He knows he’ll probably see them again next year, too. It’s all just a part of the life of a charter skipper. He knows won’t get rich financially, but he is rich emotionally. And he figures that’s more than half the battle.
Regardless of how he approaches his fishing on any given day, Tyke knows the sea will only give up so much. It’s just a fact of life. But he knows that because he fishes in Hawaii, he and his guests have a chance at a great fish every single time the boat leaves the dock. Yes…..every single time, from January 1 through December 31 every year, a big fish can be caught in Hawaii. Tyke knows there is no other fishery in the world that can make this claim, so just knowing he and his guests have that same shot every day is of great comfort to him.
Today was special to Tyke. He had no water in his fuel, a problem that had plagued the fleet only a year before, and speaking of fuel, he was happy that the price hadn’t gone up 20% in the span of a week. Ronny had passed the Coast Guard’s mandatory drug test with flying colors, and while he knew he had a good deckhand who shows up on time every day and smiles with the customers on board, he knows other skippers haven’t been so lucky.
In fact, he had been through tough times himself in the crew-finding game, and recalled the times when he just couldn’t find a deckhand willing to work the required twelve-hour days for $70.00. He remembers having to leave one group of guests on his boat one morning as he scrambled around the harbor hoping to find someone willing to crew.
As the trio’s great fish was connected to the scale and began to hoist, Tyke’s thoughts were no longer on worker’s compensation insurance, slow fishing, liability insurance, slip fees, competing for customers, lack of support from the government, long hours, tough relationships away from the job, no regular schedules, unexpected problems, or equipment breakage. All he could do today was stare at the scale and enjoy it.
He had done his part. Today Tyke had worked the area offshore just like a thousand times before, but just happened to get the right fish to bite the right hook. He and the Ronny helped coach Chris through the massive strike and ensuing 400-yard line rip. He had spun the boat at the right time and got the fish to stop its torrid run as his Ronny skillfully assisted Chris into the harness.
For five solid hours, Tyke knew he and his team were doing battle with a massive fish, and that anything could go wrong to end it. The hook could straighten or shear off, the leader could pull through the crimp, another curious fish in the area that nobody sees could clip the main line, or Chris might just get tired and stop pressuring the fish. He’d been here before and he’d lost his share of beauties for all these reasons.
But this fish wouldn’t get away. It went airborne like no other animal on this planet can, it charged the boat and peeled out line as if there was no drag at all. The fish was in its element, and though stressed, it clearly had the upper hand. It would take a match of wits unequal to any the estranged threesome had ever witnessed, but somehow, it all came together.
The great Marlin finally tired, and the trio managed to bring it aboard – along with some help from a series of pulleys and line. It took another half hour to drag it on deck and secure it, and after the fish was finally theirs and the high-fives were completed, they all collapsed in exhaustion. Tyke finally recovered enough to call the fish in and gave the weigh crew an ETA of 45 minutes. He put the boat onto a plane and headed for home.
This was the moment Tyke had waited his whole life for!
As the boat headed home, Tyke thought about how ironic it was that this was the lucky angler. Chris wasn’t anyone famous or powerful, didn’t have any superior skill or knowledge, wasn’t the size of a linebacker, and the trip was just part of an overall vacation in Hawaii. The fees charged weren’t any more or any less than anyone else, and Chris received no additional special treatment from Tyke or the crew. Chris was just an ordinary, average person who liked the idea that a great fish could be caught in Hawaii at any time and was willing to take that chance.
The boat neared the harbor, and Tyke’s heart began to pound. Though he had docked the boat in front of the scales thousands of times before, he had quick stabbing thoughts of ramming the dock in his excitement. Or stalling an engine, breaking a dockline, or running over one with the propellers. Appearing calm on the outside, Tyke was nervous as a cat on the inside. After the boat was tied securely to the dock, he shut down the engines, took a deep breath, and patiently waited as their fish was removed from the deck.
Tyke kissed the fish. He didn’t think about tomorrow’s charter and trying to think of a way to explain to them about what today’s fish was like. He didn’t think about the $350.00 he’d spend tomorrow refueling the boat or making sure all his valves were secure and the oil was topped up. He didn’t even think about having to empty the holding tank and hoping it wasn’t clogged up forcing him into a night course in self-plumbing. He just stared straight ahead as his friends surrounded him.
Soon he began to cry. Tyke always tried to keep his composure around his customers and peers, but this was too much. Holding it back just didn’t matter any more. Everything he ever believed in and dreamed about in his life was now before him on the scale. He hugged Ronny and Chris, knowing the three of them would forever be bonded by the powerful adhesive of a dream called fishing.
Tyke got up at 4:00 the following morning and went through his normal routine. Unlike a professional athlete that reaches the pinnacle of a career and enjoys it for a few months, Tyke had a business to run. During the night, a switch on the breaker panel seized, but he was fortunate to loosen it enough to get his generator fired back up. Though only 14 hours previous he had caught the fish of his dreams, Tyke knew today was another day. Sure, he knew he’d be up on the wall for all that follow to see, but a photo on the wall doesn’t feed the family.
Tyke had to work another day to pay his bills.
We hope you enjoyed this feature story and sneak peek into the life of a charter skipper. As you dream about your great fishing adventure and plan your trip, think about some of the things it takes to have that boat ready for the moment you arrive. Then, when it’s over, take a moment to thank your skipper and deckhand for the effort, regardless of the fishing outcome of the trip, and reward them with a token of your appreciation.