From the Bridge: Hook, line and sinker

May 25, 2022 by Triton Staff

EDITOR’S NOTE: Triton met with captains via Zoom recently for a “From the Bridge” roundtable on what it’s like to run a sportfish boat. To encourage candid discussion, Triton’s policy is to not identify participating captains or their comments.

Sportfish boats are far less formal and much more interactive, aficionados say.

When you interview for jobs, is the owner more interested in your fishing ability or your ability to be a captain?

  • For me, it was personality in the beginning, I was nothing to brag about at the start in my first chase boat, we were really just out there having a good time. And the same thing with the job I’m at now – we just really got along.
  • It just depends on what the owner’s focus is. I worked for a very novice owner that was really into the fishing, and he was just very focused on my ability to fish. I had a guy recently who — well, I started as a delivery guy, and then he asked me to stay and try to get him squared away. That turned into a month, and then a year — and it was my ability to manage the program. Where I am now, they did not want a young, aggressive, tournament kind of sportfishing captain; to be able to be a comprehensive program manager was more important to them. The one before that, there was no emphasis on managing the program — it was a large sportfish and a large yacht, but it was all focused on fishing.

Are there some sportfish captains and crew who prefer tournament fishing, and some who don’t? Sort of like some yacht crew prefer charter yachts, and some don’t.

  • Certainly, there’s a competitive side of it, and if you’re a competitive individual you’re going to plug into that. So, you’re doing something you love, you’re competing in it, and oh, by the way, you can win a significant chunk of change as well. That, to me, is what seems like drives a lot of sportfish captains toward tournaments: the ability to add to the bottom line at the end of the year.

If you’re there for a good time and everyone wants
to have fun, that’s what fishing’s about, and it
makes your life a lot easier.

  • If we do tournaments, we’re into ones like the Jimmy Johnson where they’ve got a nice, good party. It’s not just about the fishing, it’s about getting together on the dock and just having a good time. Personally, for me, tournaments are a little more stressful — there’s a lot more going on. Especially the sailfish tournaments. Being out on a 74-foot boat, it’s not easy to catch the fastest fish in the ocean.
  • I’ve never worked for a guy that is like this, but there are guys out there, if you don’t win a tournament, if you don’t win money in a 12-month period, you’re out. Some owners are hugely competitive and are dying to get into it, and others are just there for a good time. If you’re there for a good time and everyone wants to have fun, that’s what fishing’s about, and it makes your life a lot easier.
  • Every fisherman’s been there, when you don’t catch anything, and there’s two types of boat. On one, you might have an owner and the crew pissed at you and everyone in a bad mood. On the other, you hear: “That’s fine. We had a great time. We’ll head in a little early and hit happy hour. It was good to get out there.”

Compare the life of a sportfish captain with the life of a regular yacht captain.

  • The yacht side is more silver service. There’s a lot more waiting, you’re dressed up a lot nicer, you get a shower before dinner. For me, it was rarely ever going to dinner with the owner, and you always had to look busy, shammy in hand, you know… maybe a radio. They want you there and they want you to just be waiting on them, which is fine. Sportfishing, from my experience, it’s a 180, and I’ll never go back to yachts. You know, we get in and the boss will say, “Oh, here man, have a beer” and, you know, “Relax, you did great today, let’s just rinse the boat.” You’re not always busy. We’ll all go out to eat. They kind of bring you in more as a family. They want you there. They want you around. They’re not there to impress anyone, it’s just to have a good time. It’s just way more relaxed.
  • You are enabling them to participate in a hobby which is a fantasy, and you’re making that possible for them, and in that, it creates a very strong bond — a very intimate bond. It’s completely different. In the yacht world, you are a manager, an administrator, and a servant. That is their mansion on the water, and you are there to serve them, serve their needs with white-glove treatment. It’s the lifestyle basically that they’re looking for there, versus when you take somebody fishing and you catch fish —even if you go out and you don’t catch fish, but you had a great day. It’s a completely different mentality, a completely different mindset.

Say, in the chase boat program, something mechanical goes wrong and you’re struggling to figure it out. Would you ever use the engineer off the yacht to help you out?

  • Absolutely. In my case, absolutely. Now, I’m not going to tell you that they’re real good at it. LOL! Every time I ask them a question, they’ll ask for a manual. I’m like, ‘We don’t have any manuals – get in there and be an engineer and figure this out!’ The guys I work with now are awesome and they will do anything they can to help me out, but not all the time are my problems resolved. More times than not, it’s not resolved. They will get me to a point where I know I need to call in a subcontractor.

So, how does it work on the chase boat — does the chef on the yacht provide your meals, do they do your laundry, etc. Or are you completely independent?

  • I’m completely independent, but I have those services available to me. It just becomes more trouble than it’s worth sometimes. For instance, this winter, we were in a bunch of different places. Sometimes we’d be anchored out and I’d be on the hip, where I could just jump on the boat and grab something to eat. Sometimes I’m anchored myself. Well, then, I’ve got to have them come get me in a tender —that’s ridiculous! Laundry-wise, I’d say bulk items, beach towels, and anything the guests were using we’d send back over there, but 90-95% of the time it was just easier to do personal stuff yourself. And I would say 75% of the time we would cook for ourselves.
  • We weren’t very often docked near each other — it would be, like, a 15-minute walk. By the time we walk down there, eat, and come back, we could have cooked and been done and moved on to something else. When you have gotten up, gotten ready, gone fishing, come back, and now have to fix anything that broke, service anything that needs to be serviced, and get ready to fish the next day, that 30 minutes matters. The people on the yacht were very, very helpful and very eager to do anything they could for us, but most of the time we’d eat just on board here, and I’d say 95% of the laundry that was done was done on this boat.

Do you think the sportfish captain network is tighter than the yacht captain network?

  • The difference that I would see is when you’re a yacht captain and you see another yacht captain, you kind of look at each other, maybe shake your hand or something, and if you get to talk, that’s great. As a sportfishing captain, I’d go up to a couple and I want to talk to them: “hey man, what have you all been doing, where you coming from, how’s the bite been…” If they’ve been there longer than you, you ask them what they’ve been trying or maybe even the area they’ve been, you know. And then, oh, you guys going to the bar tonight, we’ll see you there – that kind of thing. Actually, I’d say more with the sportfishing captain, cause the yacht captains are busy.
  • It’s a more informal connection. Dock time for a sportfish guy —it’s real, it’s significant, Yacht captains don’t stand around the dock and talk. They have their offices, their emails, they got 99 people working for them, they got HR issues — in the sportfishing world, we don’t have any of that. My office is my settee. You sit there, you’re at the dock level most of the time you’re doing any administrative stuff, you’re watching out the window, and if you see a few guys, you go talk to them. ‘Hey, where you been, what are you doing, where are you from? Oh, I’m heading there, you got any insight for me?’ It’s very much an informal thing, and if you’re genuine, most of the time — I mean, there’s always some outliers — but most of the time people are going to help you out.
  • It’s just more about the time on the dock that a yacht guy just doesn’t get. They just don’t understand that — they come to the boat, they get on the boat, they’re isolated in this big capsule, and then they leave and they’re gone. And they might go to, like, you know, Rybovich, you know, where you have crew houses and all that. Sportfish? We ain’t got none of that. None. It’s on the dock, cooler, maybe some chairs, sitting around a fish-cleaning table and just kind of shooting the shit. And you don’t know who’s going to be there. You can sit there talking to owners, boatbuilders, mates, and captains — you just kind of have a roundtable and everybody’s chewing the fat. I can remember I was with some boys I had met in Florida and then ran into in Charleston, and they were heading up to Virginia and Maryland, and I’m, like, “Here’s my number. Let me know what you need. I’ll rig you up”. Those guys were from Texas. I’ve never fished there, and if I ever had to go there, that would be the first group I called — you know, “I’m heading there, what do I do?” If you have that mentality, then 99% of the time, that’s the type of relationship you’ll build in the sportfishing world.

As the years have gone by — and you guys have been doing this a long time — sportfish boats, in terms of size and value, are rivaling yachts. You’re talking $15 million, 80 to 90-plus feet, which seemed unheard of not too long ago. How has that changed the role and responsibility of running a sportfish boat ?

  • I think that 10% of what I do, if that, is fishing and the rest of it is managing a yacht. When the boss leaves, I wear a lot of hats. I’m stew on the boat, I’m chef. You know, you make it look good inside, you want to keep her clean, same thing with the engine room. It’s really no different from a yacht. It’s just that when the boss is on board, there’s a break — you’re not paying so much attention to the boat. Like, you’re not chammying, you’re not washing, you’re hanging out with your sportfishing family, you know? But the boat needs to look brand new every time he gets there, and there’s a lot that goes into that. So, it’s not much different ... just when the boss is there, really.
  • Over the years, it’s become much more like being a yacht captain. I mean, I’m a project manager on a $300,000 upgrade. They’re adding systems all the time. I’m putting in a system in this boat I hadn’t used before. So, it’s becoming more and more like the yacht, but the difference is that this boat will then go be used to execute the fishing program, which is where it really differs from the yachts. So not only do you still have to bring all your fishing expertise with you, but you have to then be a yacht captain as well, as they have gotten bigger and more complex every day.
  • You’ve definitely got to be coming back more toward the yacht captain type of professional level of service and execution of your job — but you’ve also still got to be that sportfishing guy and go fishing and catch fish. I joke with the yacht people all the time: “You sit there and send emails and administrate.” I mean, yeah, you got 19 employees, but you got an HR department, you got this, you got that — you’ve got 3 engineers! I mean, I’m that guy. Sometimes you’re cooking, sometimes you’re cleaning toilets — you just never know. Sometimes you’re in the engine room tearing apart something you really don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re going to figure it out. And you’ve got to get it back together, and then, oh, by the way, have you got everything rigged and ready to go? And then the next morning, where the yacht captain’s waking up to a prepared breakfast, you’re getting up, cooking breakfast, and then going fishing. It’s a dual role, and where it used to be kind of ‘just keep the boat running,’ now you have to keep everything looking good, you’ve got to keep everything high and tight. It’s gotten more complex over the years, for sure.

Are there secrets that you don’t share with the other captains?

  • I might have a rig set up that I wouldn’t be so open to share about. LOL! It depends. If I just meet someone on the dock and we’re exchanging information, I’m not just going to say, “Hey, you should use this right here, this is my little trick, and don’t forget to do this.” But at the same time, you start getting to know people and you do trade those secrets. You know, that’s how I learned, from people just recommending, “Hey, try this, try that.”
  • When it comes to trolling and big game fish, I mean, they move. There’s no fences out there. So, it’s really common

knowledge — you’re looking for birds, you’re looking for weed lines, or rips, you know, disturbances on the surface. Now, when it comes to bottom fishing, absolutely! Or lobstering is my main thing. I don’t give away those numbers.

  • I agree, there’s some things you keep close to the vest, if it’s important, if it matters. But, you know, I was a charter boat guy—I was out there pounding pavement, making a living every day throwing fish on the dock, trying to hawk another charter. So now, as a private boat guy, I have respect for those guys. I don’t need to catch a bunch of fish to get a charter the next day. Many, many times fishing off North Carolina, I will call a charter boat right in. I’ll catch a fish, and I’ll say, “Come right in here behind me, they’re right here.” Cause it’s just the right thing to do. It’s respectful. If I’m out there trying to fish a tournament, you know, catch a million-dollar fish, and for some reason I think I’ve got the secret spot, I might not be apt to share that. But if I’m getting tunas, I put it on the radio: “Hey, I’ve got tunas right here. Come on, come on.” Cause, again, those guys are fishing, they’re making a day rate, they’re in there trying to get a tip, they’re trying to put their clients on fish — I mean, what do I care if I catch six or seven or eight tuna. My god, there’s plenty. If I catch a marlin down there, I’m not competing against those guys. And I’ll put it on the radio every time.

Have all the owners you’ve had been respectful of your knowledge of where to fish and what rigs to use, or have you had owners who say, hey, we’re going here, we’re going to fish like this, and I don’t like what you’re doing?

  • Both. Some people are know- it-alls. Some people are open to recommendations, and some aren’t. So yeah, that can get frustrating. That can get real frustrating. You know, maybe they had one trip one time in their life that was epic and this is what they’re used to. But if they’re not biting, we’re changing out lures, we’re using different colors, different baits, different speed — we’re just trying different things.
DECKHAND JAMES RENNIE SWAN OF M/Y G3
  • I’ve had absolutely both. I’ve had people who have counted on me implicitly to make recommendations. I always am trying to be a team player and let everybody have a say, because there’s something to be said for a little mojo. If somebody’s got a feeling about a place or a report they heard, somebody told them this or that — I’ve had very good experiences with people like that. And I had a guy who would literally tell me what way to turn, every day. Turn left, turn right, turn here, turn there — you know, crazy. We were fishing one time and he had a very special place he liked to fish in the Bahamas, and we went there and caught nothing. And he said, well, what do you want to do tomorrow. And I said, well, I’d like to go down here where I heard they caught some fish. It was out of the way and he had never fished down there, but he agreed to go. And we caught two blue marlins. We were sitting around having a meeting that night, and he said, ‘Well, I guess you’re happy.’ So, I said, ‘Yeah, I am. I’m glad we had a great day.’ And he was mad — I mean, he was mad! — that that wasn’t his idea and he didn’t pick that spot, and that his spot didn’t produce. It takes all kinds.

When the boss leaves, I wear a lot of hats.
I’m stew on the boat, I’m chef.

You were talking before about having fished all over the world. With every country and every region having different rules and regulations, yet no single resource outlining them all, how do you keep track?

  • You’ve got to ferret it out yourself. You’ve really got to use everything at your disposal — the internet, officials that you talk to when you get to some places, mates from the area or who have friends from that area, or at the dock, grab somebody that fishes there on a regular basis. Use everything at your disposal to figure out what you need to know. Not only rules and regulations, but customs and local “unwritten rules” — there’s several layers of that.
  • I follow a lot of boats on Instagram. Our boat’s on Instagram. So, sometimes I’ll get on and maybe see who’s in the area. You can just reach out to those guys. More often than not, you can pick their brain. They’ll share the information.

I know the technology is changing fast. What would you say was the one technology that really was a major game-changer for you?

  • Mine has been, without a doubt, the Seakeeper [stabilizer] that we installed. I’m in the tower a lot, and I used to get beat up real bad. Sliding around, banging into the rails. And this Seakeeper, I mean, it wasn’t cheap, but it was like it made it a whole new boat. Everything different. It just made it easier to stay on the handles and chase the fish. You’re just more stable, I had better footing, you feel safer up there in the tower. So I’m a huge fan of it.
  • The newest, latest thing is the [Furuno] sonar. It’s really kind of changing the landscape. Tournaments are having to adjust their rules for boats with sonar versus boats without. I ran one boat with sonar — we did not fish it much and I was not on the boat a long time, so I never really fished a boat with a sonar, but it’s definitely changing the landscape of sport fishing across the board.
  • Tournaments have already started having a separate category for calcuttas. So it’s going to cut these purses in half, basically — maybe not half, but there’s certainly going to be a two-thirds/one-third split. A lot of guys talk about it. They just put the sonar down and they find one big fish and they follow it around all day. When it comes up to feed in the Gulf, they’re throwing it live bait. And they try and catch just that fish. A lot of guys are also talking about how you get watching the sonar and you stop fishing — it becomes a video game.
  • We fished with some friends last year on the rigs, and he had the sonar, and he would start marking marlin -- you know, big fish. And he’d get on one, and then he’d get on the radio and tell me, “Hey, just to let you know, go right there.” He’d tell me when to stop. “That’s right where we saw them.” And we just worked that area, and sure enough, we would hook up. We didn’t even have it —we were just with a boat that did have it, and it was beneficial for us. It’s pretty wild.
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