Knowing how to choose a fishing charter is the single most important part of any fishing trip.
Notice how I didn’t say ‘a wonderful fishing trip’ either: the boat and the captain you select are going to make your ordeal on the water ‘unforgettable’, one way or another. It is your (and now our) responsibility to ensure that when you step off the boat after a full day offshore, you use that attribute is used in the most positive way.
Why is, then, identifying the right charter a crucial factor of any successful journey?
Because it quite simply encompasses all the other factors and worries you might have regarding your trip.
Unfamiliar with the waters you’re about to fish in? The captain better be able to teach you how the fish behave locally or the ideal bait to use for each species.
Concerned about your gear not being suited for the big game action usually taking place at your fishing destination? Let’s hope the charter comes equipped with all of the appropriate rods, reels, and terminal tackle that you’ll likely need (and that they’re in decent condition as well).
Someone in your group prone to seasickness? A big and sturdy vessel eliminates most of the bumps on the ‘road’. Fishing from a big vessel is much more enjoyable than if you rented a panga, or really any vessel under 30 feet, regardless of its appearance.
Everything has to do with finding the proper fishing charter! That is exactly why we have decided to compile this comprehensive, guide-of-all-guides to help you choose from (usually) more than several dozen boats and captains that all look and sound the same, and still be certain that you’ve made the right decision.
Let’s have a look at all the relevant traits of an ideal fishing charter. Starting with:
Saving up to a couple hundred bucks on a fishing trip seems like a completely rational decision from a financial standpoint. But indulge me for a moment in making the case for not choosing the cheapest option you come across in your research or even the second to cheapest.
You might think that the figures sometimes listed for a single day of offshore fishing are plain greedy and outrageous, but consider the captain’s grocery list for just a second here:
- Captains need to maintain the entire boat in regular intervals. They need to inspect and replace any mechanical, navigational or electronic parts of the vessel’s inventory that are past its prime or are at risk of malfunctioning,
- They need to take care of proper licensing and keep it up to date,
- The premiums that the boat owner needs to pay for the insurance policies to fully cover you and your family in case of anything happening on your trip aren’t getting any cheaper,
- The docking fees that captains have to pay to the marina are another fixed cost,
- Providing everyone on board with proper tackle and bait and routinely replacing it means more money out of the captain’s pocket.
And we’re only now approaching one of the largest costs every charter has to cover every day:
Gas money will depend on a variety of factors. The most important ones are the size of the boat and the engine, and you should add to that the approximate distance to your fishing location. It’s common for an offshore sportfisher to burn up to seventy gallons a day, making the captain about $400 poorer in a single trip – and how about those oil prices?
So what does all of this mean?
Simply put, if you find a deal that looks too good to be true, it usually is. You’re paying less either because the crew is unskilled (or just underpaid, but that can’t be a good sign either), the tackle’s in a lousy condition, the boat’s older than it looks. It might even be due to a compilation of these and other circumstances.
Either way, if you’re going with the low-cost option, we definitely recommend checking the captain’s license number, as well as their credentials before you leave the docks.
The price of the charter boat isn’t a perfect indicator of the quality of service but it’s a good starting point. Most anglers tend to choose comfort and quality over saving a few bucks. This is why, generally speaking, charter fishing appears to be less price-sensitive than many other businesses.
All of this is not to say that there aren’t several price-related items you should be on a lookout for:
Check if the charter or the agency offers any kinds of discounts. There are businesses that give up to 10 percent off for those planning a fishing excursion for multiple days.
If you’re a member of an angling community respected in the area, you might be eligible for a small discount in a couple of places.
Make sure there aren’t any hidden costs associated with your trip: don’t be shy to ask, for example, if there’s a fuel surcharge, or if you have to pay extra for live bait.
Keep in mind that a 15-20% tip for the crew is customary (in the way they earn their living, mates are basically the waiters of the sea).
Bottom line – It’s your job to find out exactly what is and isn’t incorporated in the price being offered, which is why FishingBooker lets you easily view everything that’s included in a charter’s price.
2. Safety First
By opting to use a charter service, you’re doing much more than just fishing. Effectively, you’ve just put your life, as well as the lives of your entire party in the hands of a complete stranger. And no matter how comfortable you may feel cruising on that 50’ beauty, bad things do happen on the open sea: from sudden and dramatic weather changes to boat collisions to people falling overboard.
Safety should be your number one priority when choosing a charter (yes, I do realize I had it listed as number two, but that’s capitalism’s fault). With that in mind, here’s a safety checklist to go over before choosing a charter boat:
Ask about the charter’s insurance liability coverage before departing.
Many businesses will try to cut corners here since covering everyone on board in full can cost the boat owner more than twice as much. If you step on a boat that doesn’t have you fully covered in case of an accident, and something does happen on the trip, your claim could be denied, leaving you in a world of pain, both physically and financially.
Check if the captain provides everyone on board with fitting life jackets, or PFD’s (personal flotation devices).
Immediately locate where they’re kept on the ship, as well as the whereabouts of any fire extinguishers and throw cushions. If PFDs aren’t available, ask to bring your own if you have an inflatable one. US charters are required to have Type 1 PFD’s, which are primarily built for safety, not so much with big game fishing and comfort in mind. Type 3 vests, on the other hand, come as an effort to compromise between the two aspects.
Check if the captain or the mates are trained in CPR and First Aid.
As a matter of fact, check exactly how skilled the crew is in dealing with rough waters and surprises. Failure of the crew is the leading cause of all marine accidents. To identify just how much a captain cares about safety, look at the state of the ship immediately before departure. Is the vessel clean and organized? Are any moving parts locked in place or immobilized? An experienced captain wouldn’t sail in subprime conditions regarding the boat’s etiquette.
Check if the ship has twin engines, in case one of the motor fails during the trip.
When determining the shape of the charter, don’t rely solely on the website photos: you can’t be sure how long it’s been since the last time those have been updated.
If you’re fishing in the US, make sure that the captain is licensed by the United States Coast Guard.
A safety briefing is a norm before departing from any US dock. In Mexico, on the other hand, many seasoned charter captains are annoyed by the fact that the license is far too easy to be acquired, the credentials are sometimes even perjured or photocopied, and many so-called ‘boat drivers’ regularly ignore basic seamanship and sea traffic rules.
Finally, even if all of the above checks out, be sure to keep an eye on the weather on the day of your departure.
There are captains that won’t turn you down even if the wind and waves should require them to, either because their livelihood depends on it, or they’ve simply built up a higher tolerance to rough seas over the years.
Rule of thumb: if it’s blowing more than 20 knots, and that’s not the type of sailing you’re used to, stay on the shore.
3. Top-notch Captain
When the state of Michigan ran a study back in 2009 on the local fishing charter industry, they learned the single most important factor clients considered when choosing a vessel was the captain’s ability to locate fish (the boat’s safety features came in second), whereas the hospitality of the captain and the mate was in fact the aspect that contributed most to their satisfaction with the entire service, overshadowing any mention of the number, size, or species of the fish caught during the trip.
Choosing the right charter could, for the most part, come down to choosing the right captain. The captain’s persona is certainly undeniably linked with the previous two factors we’ve considered: most people are willing to pay more for a seasoned guide with a wealth of local knowledge and a stellar track record, and a conscientious and experienced captain is an unavoidable aspect of any smooth and safe trip.
But even if you’re determined to only go fishing with the best, how do you know which one to pick? The Miami area alone, for example, is home to more than 200 charter captains, a type of market overcrowding analogous to most highly developed fishing destinations. Some of these captains have spent their entire lives threading the same waters, while others arrive as fresh additions to the party each year. Consider answering these questions when fishing for the right captain:
Is this the captain’s full-time job?
A portion of any charter market will be comprised of part-time fishermen looking for extra cash by offering charter services on the weekends, or commercial boat owners using the charter business as a method of subsidizing their own fishing (case in point: only 62% of charter boat operators in South Carolina are actually in the business full-time). While you may end up having just as good a time on board any of these gentlemen’s boats, only a full-time professional has the skill and the expertise needed to systematically deliver the highest quality of service.
Are they licensed?
As we’ve already covered, licensing costs money, and many ‘captains’ find it easier to avoid going through the trouble of obtaining the permit altogether. This, of course, is somewhat illegal, as in that it’s usually followed by a jail sentence should the person be convicted. All charter boat operators in the United States must be licensed by the US Coast Guard.
How experienced are they?
How well do they know the regional waters and local fish behavior? Most anglers would agree that fishing professionally in a specific area for at least 5 years should be a minimum experience requirement when choosing a captain.
There are several reasons why this rings true. For starters, you simply need time on the water to learn how the fish act: some will follow the landmarks along the ocean floor, many react accordingly to the slightest of temperature shifts, while others are usually content with blindly following the rest of the fish.
Nevertheless, it is only by trial and error, trading stories with other captains and closely examining the waters that one can expect to acquire this kind of knowledge.
This is why a good captain knows, at least approximately, where the fish is supposed to be on any given day. The weather may not be the same as yesterday, the migratory patterns might have been affected by any number of factors, and a skilled guide will be able to quickly tweak his strategy to accommodate these various changes.
Are they knowledgeable about fish?
An experienced captain also knows the kinds of lures and bait that are best to use on each species, as well as the prime way to present it to the fish. More importantly, they’ll be able to use this insight to educate you, the customer, possibly increasing your success rate as a result.
Finally, many fish are protected by the law, and these sometimes bear striking resemblance to the types of fish that are legitimate targets for anglers: a seasoned charter master will be able to differentiate between the two categories and save you from any legal troubles once you reach the shores.
How good are their social skills?
This may sound like a funny way to judge a captain, but is a relevant one nonetheless. Should there be any beginner anglers on board, or really anyone unacquainted with the local fish variety and techniques, it is the captain that must be able to step in the role of a teacher before any lines are cast.
If a captain has an encyclopedic knowledge of the local waters but is unable or unwilling to communicate it to their clients, the entire experience could be drastically affected.
Also, it goes without saying that the captain should be plain old fun (you’re spending 4 to 8 hours in a confined space with them after all, aren’t you?). Of course, this isn’t to say he should bend over backwards to entertain everyone on board, but it should at least be obvious that they love what they do, and aren’t just motivated by the income. Charter fishing, after all, is primarily a form of entertainment: the one you’re paying good money for, at that. So be sure to check out the captain’s reviews on websites like TripAdvisor and FishingBooker, paying special attention to buzzwords such as ‘fun’, ‘friendly’, ‘engaging’ etc.
How dedicated to your fishing experience does the captain plan on being?
Are they and the crew going to be fishing as well? If there’s a chance the service provider may neglect you, the paying customer, in order to fulfill his own daily fishing quota, you might be better off with someone who puts your interests first.
Is he a boy or a girl?
There’s no place for sexism in the charter business – at least as long as you’re a man. Because fishing is traditionally regarded as such a patriarchal line of work, many anglers have second thoughts about booking a trip with a female captain: what do women know about fishing anyway, right? Ironically, it is precisely this kind of reasoning that should make you less concerned about the captain’s gender: women in the charter business usually receive more skepticism from the customers and less initial respect from other captains, which is why any remaining female captains are likely to be a pretty good choice.
What are their tournament credentials?
If you’re going after a record-breaking fish, check the captain’s track record in the recent local tournaments. Also, ask if they are thoroughly familiar with the IGFA rules in case a world-record catch actually occurs. This might be a pretty cocky question to ask, but hey, they won’t be laughing when a monster GT decides to visit the end of your line, now will they?
How do they market their charter business?
Does the Captain have a website, or is he relying on the marina to book clients for him? Is he doing most of his business on the run via a single cell phone, or does his firm maintain a physical location with around-the-clock customer service? Will you receive a written confirmation of your booking, with all the terms and conditions clearly outlined, or does the Cap’ like to keep things a bit more ‘informal’?
4. Accommodating your fishing style
Are you determined to finally make this your Grand Slam year, or is this trip more about bonding with your kids, maybe teaching them the subtle art of fly fishing? Whichever style you prefer, there’s a charter out there that specializes in it.
Trolling or bottom fishing? Fly fishing or jigging? Some charters will even set themselves apart by building their entire business around targeting a single species (we’re looking at you, Florida’s Swordfishing charters). Additionally, there are usually specialty charters willing to make any of your distinct fishing niches a reality for a bit of extra cash. Interested in kite fishing or deep dropping? Ask for a charter able to accommodate your specific angling needs and desires.
If you plan on trolling for Billfish, pledge right now to not even think about booking a half-day charter.
It matters little if you’re in a big game paradise destination or not, catching one in such a short timeframe is usually beyond lucky. Why? For one, the hotspot may be too distant to reach in only half a day. Secondly, sometimes, the big fish who make prime story material only come out for a late afternoon bite, right around the time that you’re back on the shore, annoyed and storyless.
If you’re new to fishing, don’t forget to mention your skill level, or that of anyone else in your group, when booking a vessel.
A good captain is the one who doesn’t let your fishing experience impact his ability to put you on the fish. A half-day charter may be a good idea for a complete beginner, however. Also, if the rest of your party doesn’t ‘necessarily share’ your obsession with sailfish, many charter services offer additional activities during the fishing trip: whether you entertain your kids with snorkeling, or take your spouse to a sunset cruise, customizing your day on the sea makes sure there’s more than one happy face when you get back home.
5. Boat Speed & Size
You may have heard differently, but it is, in fact, the size of the boat that counts.
This especially holds true if you’re out deep sea fishing.
Although you’ll still be able to catch fish on a vessel under 32 feet, the cruise is less likely to be comfortable or stable. The ship tends to bounce around a bit more and you’re able to feel most of the bumps up close and personal. Groups of more than 4 are advised to look for a bigger boat.
Charters between 33 and 35 feet are considered optimal for the overall experience, but generally speaking, the heavier the boat, the smoother you can expect the sailing to be.
The speed of the boat is another highly important aspect of the journey. It usually takes some time to reach the fishing grounds, so if one captain pushes the charter at 35 knots whereas the other approaches the same location at half that speed, a 45 mile run could be only a small portion of the entire tour, or could cost you a couple hours’ worth of fishing time.
Party or Private?
Other than the boat’s speed and size, the type of the charter should be considered as well.
If you’re on a budget and don’t mind sharing the boat with a bunch of strangers on your trip offshore, think about booking a party charter. These ships can sometimes carry up to 100 fishermen at a time and generally sail out of the spacier marinas. Unlike private vessels, party charters pay a per-person (so-called ‘flat’) fee. There are shared trips that only count 10 people or less.
Other than still being crowded with both people and lines, an additional setback to this charter type is the fact that it doesn’t leave the dock on a specific day unless more than a certain number of passengers decided to go along. This means that if you have a tight schedule you have to stick to, you might want to start looking for private charters exclusively.
Also, if it’s a slow day, only a few fish get caught during the entire trip, so it’s less likely it’s gonna be you on the other side of the lucky line. The anglers often regularly rotate around the party ship in order to give everyone an equal chance at reeling in the big one, but most of the people on board eventually go home empty-handed.
Moral of the story: if you’re the type of angler that prefers comfort and catch above…uhm, feeling uncomfortable and possibly not catching anything, you might want to stick to the private charters.
6. Sharing Your Fishing Philosophy
There are several general fish-related questions anglers tend to overlook, even though they feel very strongly about the possible answers. Just so there isn’t any major miscommunication between you and the captain, make sure to learn what his views are about the following:
Is the catch guaranteed?
Most anglers are in it for the thrill of the game, not concerning themselves with a warranted catch on any given day at sea. Hey, it’s why they call it fishing, not catching, right? Nevertheless, there are people that, more than the journey itself, value the final destination: the excitement they get from bringing a monster fish on board after an exhausting hour-long struggle.
There are usually several captains and charters that accommodate this kind of angling philosophy. Many charters offer a ‘no catch, no pay’ policy, the guarantee only nullified in the case of late departure or prematurely ending the tip for whatever reason.
Most captains, however, advise their customers to ‘expect nothing’ regarding the physical catch, but assure the clients they will do anything in their power to put them on the fish, and with proper techniques too: no cutting corners, no shortcuts that undervalue the nature of the sport.
What is your catch-and-release policy and who takes the fish home?
This is a big one, especially in some cases. Many boats own a commercial license besides primarily (or sometimes secondarily) providing a charter service, and selling the fish they catch on a daily basis comprises a substantial portion of their overall income. It is customary, in these situations, to let the captain keep most of the fish that’s been caught during the trip.
Still, you are a paying customer, and as such are completely entitled to choose what happens with your catch. Whether you’d like all of it to be kept by your party (unless, of course, the rules and regulations dictate differently), or insist on exclusively practicing catch-and-release on the ship that you paid for, be sure to make these preferences clear to the captain prior to departure.
7. Gear & Beer
If you’re not bringing your own tackle with you, relying on the captain to provide you with the appropriate equipment is essential. Many of the bigger fish will have little problem overpowering cheap rods and reels. A premature line wear should be a clear sign that the gear for game fish has been overstressed. The amount of care the boat owner show towards to his tackle is very much indicative of what you may expect from the rest of the trip.
Always, always ask about the gear.
- Is there a spinning or a bait-casting reel in the boat’s inventory? There should be both of course, and the captain should be able to teach you to use either of them.
- What types of rods does the charter offer?
- What’s the condition of the lines? If it’s seen better days, would the crew agree to strip off the first couple of yards, or more?
- What kind of bait does the charter use? Is there a surcharge for live bait, or do you perhaps have to spend the initial portion of your trip catching it before going after the real deal?
Also, do make sure to know exactly what you can and cannot bring to the trip.
Do you enjoy a beer or two while waiting for the line to tremble? Some charters are okay with a few cold ones, although many explicitly forbid any alcohol on board. Drinking and fishing could be dangerous for a number of reasons, especially if the captain decides to join in. Do you bring your own food and drinks, or is that included in the price?
By the way, if you’re fishing in Hawaii, whatever you do, do not bring bananas on board! We’re not exactly sure what kind of superstitious reasoning is behind this dietary racism, but we’d love to hear from you if you know the story).
The ‘How’ of finding a perfect charter
Referencing those Michigan and Sitka studies one last time, more than 50% of both pollsters used the Web to track down the ideal charter, and given the fact that you’re reading this, we can safely assume you’ve opted for a similar path.
Most charter businesses do have their own websites nowadays, and they are certainly a good starting point in your research.
The company’s sites are usually filled with customer’s testimonials, stellar reviews, top-notch fishing reports, and the charter fleet’s gallery.
There is usually a ‘catch’ page as well, where you can marvel at the most amazing specimens of game fish that were caught during their deep sea and sport fishing journeys. Obviously, there is a clear incentive for the company to portray itself in the positive light, so take everything you see here with a grain of salt.
Visits fishing chat rooms and forums
Make sure to follow up that trip to the company’s webpage with a visit to at least several fishing-oriented chat rooms and various forums where many previous clients will go to applaud, or more likely, criticize their experience with a certain company. Of course, some of these critiques might be overblown as well, so you shouldn’t trust either of these sources of information entirely.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, consider booking your trip via an agency.
There are multiple benefits to entrusting an experienced booking agent with doing most of the research and taking care of all the details for you. The all-inclusive packages that the agency offers are seldom more expensive than the direct-contact alternative.
Secondly, have I mentioned they are much more convenient? The pressure of heeding every advice and checking off each of the to-do’s that make the content of this post are transferred from yours to someone else’s competent shoulders. You just let the agency know exactly what your preferences are, and they’ll track down the charter suited to those specific needs.
Remember all of the horror stories listed in this article: unlicensed captains, unsafe vessels, and worn-off tackle? The booking agency has no incentive to do business with these individuals. If you have a bad experience at sea, it is no longer entirely yours, but also the agency’s fault. That’s why they only partner up with charter companies that offer the highest quality of service: any negative review could severely impact the agency’s reputation and credibility.
This method of booking a fishing charter can save you a lot of time, money, and perhaps most importantly, your nerves. These people are at the front lines of the charter industry every day: they know the ins and outs of the business and are much quicker in discerning between a legitimate offer and the one you’ll regret immediately after stepping on board. It is their experience and expertise that have primarily contributed to this article’s content.
How do you choose a fishing charter? Have you found these tips useful? Are there some tips we missed? Let us know in the comments below!