Charter Fishing for the First Time: The Complete Guide
Sep 14, 2021 | 14 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 14 minutes

If you’re reading this, you’ve decided to try charter fishing for the first time. Good for you! As any angler will tell you, this is probably the best way to wet a line. Still, there’s a ton of new things to learn and pay attention to. With that in mind, we’ve put together this guide so you know what to expect on your first fishing trip.

A huge part of making your first charter a success is planning ahead and setting expectations with your captain. Charter fishing is diverse. This means that no two trips are the same. Your first time out on the water may look very different from someone else’s. The type of trip you choose will also determine what you need to bring along and what you need to pay attention to while fishing. 

However, there are some aspects of fishing for the first time that are pretty universal. Below, we’re going to cover how you can prepare for your trip in advance, what you should be aware of on the boat, and a few things to remember after your time on the water is over.

For all you FishingBooker customers out there, we’ve included some bonus tips to make your first angling adventure hassle-free. Let’s dive in…

Before the Trip

You can focus on making your first fishing trip a success before you ever set foot on the boat. From communicating with your guide to knowing what to pack, doing your homework early is critical.

Communication

It’s vital to talk with your guide or captain as soon as you book your outing. It’s the best way to establish your expectations and see if you’re both on the same page. Here are some basic questions you can ask yourself when booking:

  • What’s the most important thing for me – time spent on the water or targeting game fish?
  • What fish do I want to target?
  • Do I want to keep my fish or practice catch and release?

These will help you pick a charter that works perfectly for you. Share your answers with your captain, too. That way, they can make sure the trip you’ve booked with them suits your needs.

FishingBooker Tip: Use our Instant Messaging feature to get in touch with your captain or guide. You can contact them before or after booking your trip.

What You Want Out of Your Trip

Even if you’ve never been on a fishing charter before, you probably still have an idea or two about what you want to try. This could be a technique you want to learn, a species you want to catch, or even a specific fishing spot you want to visit. 

Two children fishing aboard an inshore charter boat, the one in the front displays a Speckled Trout to the camera and the one in the background is holding a fishing rod

If you or your fellow anglers have something special in mind, now’s the time to mention it to your captain. Also – let them know that this is your first fishing trip! This way, they’ll have a good idea of your skill level and will be better prepared to show you the ropes.

Perhaps the most important question to think about is what kind of trip suits you and your group. Deep sea fishing for big game species is often the first thing that comes to mind, but this is by no means the only type of fishing trip available. Not every charter is about battling huge Marlin in deep waters, after all.

So what, exactly, do you want to get out of your trip? Here are some questions you can ask yourself to get a better idea:

  • How far do I want to travel?
    The first part of your trip is all about reaching the hotspots. The biggest fish usually live offshore, so it takes time to reach them. Are you happy to wait it out? If not, then an inshore or bay trip is probably better for you – the fish may be smaller, but you’ll spend more time actually fishing.
  • Is catching lots of fish important to me?
    “Filling the boat” is often seen as the sign of a great trip, but this isn’t typically the case. Besides, if you do catch tons of fish, what will you do with them? Having to throw out your catch can sour a great experience,  and most first-time anglers are happy to bring home a fish or two to cook up and show off to their friends. 
  • How much time do I actually want to spend on the water?
    Spending a full day on the water is a dream come true for some people. For others, seasickness may rule this out, or you might not want to commit to a whole day on your first try. The amount of time on board will impact how, where, and what you can catch. If you only have a couple of hours, it’s probably not realistic to expect deep dropping for huge species. 
  • How involved do I want to get in the actual fishing?
    This might seem silly, but how hands-on do you want your fishing trip to be? Do you want to be catching bait, setting your hook, and reeling in your fish? Or would you rather cruise the waters and grab the rod when something bites? You should also consider if there’s a specific technique you want to try, or if you’re happy to let your captain take the reins.

Addressing these things with your guide ahead of the trip is extremely important for a couple of reasons:

  • Your guide will be able to prepare accordingly, so you can receive exactly the type of service you want. 
  • If something you asked for isn’t feasible (for example, a fish species is out of season), your guide will let you know, and you can agree to fish for something else. This will also help you set realistic expectations, and avoid any potential disappointment.

FishingBooker Tip: If you want to fish with a certain guide but can’t find a trip that suits you, make use of our Special Offers feature. It allows you and your charter operator to design a custom trip that fits your needs. You can also check out your captain’s calendar to see when they’re free.

Policies and What’s Included

Asking about your guide’s “onboard policies” is a must. You might find it completely normal to light up a cigar on board, but your captain may not! The same goes for alcohol and food. Most guides allow you to bring snacks and drinks, but it never hurts to ask.

If you’d like anything extra, don’t leave it until the very last minute. Some guides will be happy to pick you up and drop you off for free. Others won’t, or will do this at an additional cost. Use the same logic for fish cleaning and filleting, live bait, gear, and licenses – anything that’s not mentioned as included. 

Lastly, check if fuel is included in the trip price. Fuel costs can add up, especially if your trip means traveling far from shore. A lot of captains include this in the price of their trips, but confirm with them to avoid any unexpected costs.

FishingBooker Tip: You can see exactly what’s included on your charter in the following sections of their FishingBooker listing (below their trips):

A screenshot of a FishingBooker charter listing showing what is included in a trip such as catch policies, rods and reels, and fishing licenses

Departure Time and Directions to The Boat

Confirm the departure time and place one last time before you leave so your trip can get off to a smooth start. A lot of things can change between the day you book and the day that you go out. A marina could be under renovation, or your guide may have simply moved their base of operation.

anglers on a fishing boat near San Diego, each holding a yellowtail snapper in their hands

Ask for directions and where the nearest parking spot is – your guide probably knows the area better than you! You don’t want to be late for your fishing trip. If you’re set to go out in the morning, your guide might have another trip in the afternoon. That means that if you’re late, your trip will be cut short.

FishingBooker Tip: When you book with us, you’ll receive a confirmation email that contains your captain’s details, the trip name, departure time and location, as well as what’s included in the price of your trip. If you still have questions, use our guide to get in touch with your captain.

How to Prepare

You’ve nailed all the details with your guide, so now it’s time to pack. Your clothing will obviously depend on the season and location, but a few things are essential.

  • Rubber-soled sneakers. These will keep you firm and steady on the boat. Make sure they’re non-marking or light-sole to avoid leaving your tracks on the boat!
  • Layered clothing. This gives you flexibility if the weather changes. Always go for materials that dry out easily but keep you warm at the same time, as well as those that offer wind protection.
  • Sunscreen and polarized sunglasses. Not only will you be protected from the elements, but polarized glasses can actually aid in some fishing techniques such as sight fishing. 
  • Seasickness meds (like Dramamine). These are a great idea if you tend to get motion sickness, especially if you’re going to be traveling offshore on choppier waters. You can read our full guide on how to prevent seasickness here
  • For storage, bring a backpack, zip-lock bags for your valuables, one smaller cooler for food and drinks, and one larger cooler for fish (if you intend to keep your catch).
  • Drinking water. And lots of it! Although almost every fishing charter will provide bottled water, you need to drink a lot on a boat because of the sun, and getting dehydrated makes you more likely to feel seasick. It’s better to have too much water than not enough.

Finally: Get a good night’s sleep before you set out! If you’re in town with your buddies, a night of partying will come back to bite you once you’re out on the water.

The Trip

The day of your trip has finally arrived – hooray! As the excitement builds up, you’ll still have a couple of things to take care of. First, make sure you’ve packed everything. The foolproof way to go about this is having a checklist.

The second thing you should do is leave early. We can’t stress enough how important this is! Even if the news report says there are no traffic jams, give yourself plenty of travel time.

A man holds a large Wahoo with the open water behind him

Aim to arrive at least 15 minutes before your trip is scheduled to start. If you happen to arrive early, you’ll just have more time to get acquainted with the crew and discuss your expectations with them. Which brings us to the next step…

Meeting the Crew

Getting to know your captain and first mate will have a tremendous impact on what you get from your trip. A friendly attitude and a respectful relationship will go a long way into making your time on the boat an enjoyable one. 

Many fishing guides are showmen full of amazing fish stories. Others might be a little quieter, but still experts. These guys are a wealth of knowledge for you. They’re not just here to drive the boat and bait your hooks, they’re here to teach you how to fish. 

This leads us to one of the most important things you can do when fishing for the first time: Ask questions! Being honest about what you do and don’t know is the best way to learn.

Getting on Board

If this is your first time on a boat, you’ll need a few moments to settle down and feel comfortable getting around. Even if the waters are calm, which is likely on a shorter inshore trip, this isn’t solid ground! When the boat is in motion and you need to move, hold on to something or at least have a well-balanced stance.

A smiling angler holding a large Snook while crouching on a boat with vegetation in the background

The first thing you’ll want to take care of after stepping aboard is your belongings. Ask the crew for a secure dry spot for your things. If there’s one thing every first-time angler underestimates, it’s how wet and slimy things can get.

The Drive

Booking a six-hour trip? It’s important to know that you likely won’t be spending six solid hours fishing. Instead, you’ll normally be away from the dock for around six hours (your return time may vary depending on how hot the bite is). This includes travel time to the fishing spot(s) and back. If you’re looking to go deep sea fishing, for example, you’ll usually spend a good portion of your trip traveling to deep waters.

This might seem like lost time, but you can use these moments wisely. Ask all your questions and learn about the fishing you’ll do. As you set out from the dock, your mate or guide will usually give you a run-down of the equipment. Depending on the technique, you’ll be using one or more rods, bait and/or lure setups, etc. Pay attention to what the crew tells you, and ask, ask, ask away!

The Fishing

The clue is in the name – it’s called fishing, not catching! Realistic expectations will go a long way toward how much you enjoy the fishing experience itself. So many factors can affect how well the fish are biting, from the weather to the time of year. This doesn’t mean you can’t still have a great experience.

An angler in sunglasses and a cap standing on a boat, holding a fishing bent fishing rod

Catching fish is a big bonus, of course – but even if this doesn’t happen during your first time fishing, you’ll still get to spend time out on the water, surrounded by friends or family, and learning a new skill. What’s not to like?

The experience will depend on where you’re fishing, what you’re fishing for, and the technique(s) you and your captain decide to try out.

Inshore trips tend to take place in calm, sheltered waters, with smaller fish on offer. Because of this, they’re popular with first time anglers, especially those with children. Nearshore trips generally travel away from the coast toward underwater structure, such as reefs and wrecks. Fish here usually make for some great eating, and let you try out techniques such as bottom fishing. 

And then there’s deep sea fishing. These charters usually take you so far from shore that you can no longer see land. Depending on the area, a deep sea trip can last anywhere from a full day or overnight, to an entire week. The goal is usually to catch a trophy fish, so this will be a tough experience – especially for beginners.

An angler fishing in the inshore waters

No matter where you decide to fish, many trips require live bait. Some captains will begin by having you fish for this yourself. It usually doesn’t take long, but you should still factor it into your total trip time. Alternatively, you can ask the captain to buy bait at the marina ahead of time if possible.

If you don’t catch a fish on the first few tries, or at all, don’t feel disheartened. Learning the ropes and casting lines is still plenty of fun. If the fish aren’t biting in a certain area, a good captain will try a few different things. This could include moving to a different location, switching up your techniques, and using different types of bait.

If you want to change the species you’re after, or try out a different technique or fishing spot, don’t hesitate to ask. The captain probably won’t mind as long as what you asked is feasible.

What do I do with the fish?

Whether you’ll be able to keep your catch, have it filleted, have it served up in a local restaurant, or not at all depends heavily on where you’re fishing, as well as the area’s rules and regulations. 

If you hook a keeper (within the legal size limits), the crew will let you know and bring it aboard. Depending on the size of your catch, you’ll either reel it straight onto the boat, or you’ll bring it as close to the boat as possible for the crew to gaff it and swing it aboard.

Two anglers hold a large Tarpon in the water caught inshore in South Carolina

Alternatively, you can always release your fish. Just make sure you discuss this with the captain in advance. Sometimes you’ll need to practice catch and release – for example, if your fish is outside the legal limit or illegal to harvest. The crew will show you how to unhook fish safely at first, but you’ll get the hang of it sooner or later. You can also prepare in advance by checking out our detailed guide to catch and release fishing.

FishingBooker Tip: You can check out your captain’s catch policy on their listing in their “Listing Policies” section. If the policy is bolded and highlighted, like below, then you can hover over it for further information:

Image shows catch policy on a FishingBooker listing, including a specific catch policy set for Tarpon

After the Trip

Getting back to the dock, you’ll probably be tired from all that activity in the open air. As you leave the boat, make sure you’ve collected your belongings. If you want, the crew can arrange a customary photo shoot with your day’s catch next to the boat, just ask!

Depending on where you’re fishing, your captain and crew may be able to clean and fillet your fish for you once you’re off the boat. This way, you can take it home with you. Some crews will charge you for this service, others won’t. Some will split the catch with you 50-50, others will let you keep it all. Again, if you agree on all this ahead of time, you’ll have no surprises to deal with.

How much do I tip?

The most important thing to do right after your trip is, of course, pay for it. If your captain gives you the option to pay on the dock by credit card, be prepared to cover the processing fee, as well.  

You should also come prepared to leave a tip. A 15–20% gratuity is  standard in the recreational fishing industry, and is not included in the price of your trip that you pay through FishingBooker. The majority of captains prefer cash and may not have card machines available, so make sure you bring enough money with you. 

An angler holding a Striped Bass on a boat in New Jersey

If this sounds like a lot, look at it this way: if you would tip someone who poured you a drink, why not tip someone who just spent hours on the water with you, teaching you how to fish? More importantly, deckhands are often paid through tips only, so you’ll be rewarding their service directly. We recommend giving tips with the captain and deckhand both present.

Saying Goodbye

All good things must come to an end. Luckily, with fishing, you can always come back and wet your line another day. The last thing you should do to round off your first fishing trip is write a review for your guide. Most people like to wait a day to let the dust settle and gather their thoughts and photos. 

FishingBooker Tip: You’ll receive a message shortly after your trip, providing you with a link where you can share your thoughts on the trip you just had. If you had a blast, let everybody know. Trip didn’t go so well? Again, leave a review. You’ll help another first-timer avoid the same experience. It’s also a chance to clear up any confusion between you and your guide.

What if my trip gets canceled?

Every guide has their own individual policies, but here’s how things work at FishingBooker. You or your captain may need to cancel your trip for a number of reasons. What’s important is that you stay on top of things by keeping in touch. We offer the chance to reschedule trips as well, so that you don’t have to miss out. Here’s how to handle things if your plans aren’t shaping up…

A happy angler showing off a fish caught over the reefs.

Trips Canceled by the Captain

The vast majority of trips go ahead as planned, but there are some situations when your guide may need to cancel your trip. Some of the most common ones are:

  • Bad weather
  • Mechanical issues
  • Insufficient number of guests for a shared trip to run
  • Double bookings (although, thanks to our calendar, this is rare!)

If any of the above happens, FishingBooker will refund your deposit. Of course, if you’re flexible with your dates, we’d recommend rescheduling your trip instead. We can also arrange to send you out at your chosen time with a different charter, if possible. To learn more about what you can do when your guide cancels the trip, check out this article.

Trips Canceled by You

If you’re considering canceling, we recommend taking a look at your booking details to view the captain’s cancellation policy. This will let you know if you’re eligible for a refund or not. 

In a nutshell, good communication can save even a last-minute cancellation. Whether it’s rescheduling for another date, finding an alternative boat, or even a different location, staying in touch is key. You can also make use of FishingBooker’s Help Center for anglers. Finding the answers to your questions and preparing for your trip just got easier!

An Adventure to Remember

We know this is a lot of information to digest! Luckily, you’ll have your captain to take you through all the steps we mentioned above. If you’re worried about forgetting something, you can always come back to this guide as a reminder.

You might end up with the fish of your life, or you might catch nothing at all. Returning to the dock with an empty cooler happens to the best of us, and is completely normal. Sure, catching big fish is what everybody brags about. But trust us, that’s not what’ll keep you coming back!

What you should do is take a step back to truly enjoy your time on the water. Ultimately, an excellent first fishing experience is all about the things you’ll learn, and the laughs and stories you’ll share. That’s how a first-timer becomes a passionate angler.

A captain and a woman angler hold a Redfish aboard a charter boat

Where are you going for your first fishing charter? Any questions or concerns? Let us know in the comments below. Otherwise, it’s time to find a guide near you and discover your new favorite hobby!

Comments (26)
  • Albert Mikutis

    Oct 23, 2021

    Nj Regarding cleaning Organization has been using same boat/captain/Mate for 10+ years, At our last outing in Aug, a Saturday, on the way back in was informed that only two[2] fish per person would be cleaned, Last August it as ALL fish!
    Informed ther was a RULE covering this.
    Did due dilligence/research and guessing me but could not find a NJ Rule covering this.
    Are you familiar with same?
    And are there an NJ policies covering this that you are aware of?
    In advance.,
    PS We are a Vietnam Veteran group w/members/family/friends in attemdance.
    Aciu’

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      Vuk

      Oct 25, 2021

      Hi Albert,

      Thanks for reaching out. Unfortunately, we aren’t aware of there being any statewide regulations that deal with catch cleaning on the shore. Maybe it was a new policy at the marina that the captain didn’t communicate properly.

      Hope this helps,

      Vuk

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  • Jake

    Sep 9, 2021

    Hi, I read a few blogs that said if the cap keeps the entire catch then that acts as a tip, is that true?

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      Vuk

      Sep 10, 2021

      Hi Jake,

      Thanks for getting in touch. Tipping can be a touchy subject and charter captains tend to have strong opinions on the matter. While there are captains who will accept keeping the catch instead of a tip, it’s definitely not the default way of doing things. We always suggest consulting the captain before the trip about things like tips, and sticking with cash unless you know the captain is open to other options.

      Hope this helps.

      Tight lines,
      Vuk

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  • Bilaal McCloud

    Sep 9, 2021

    I was wondering if a wheelchair can git through a tuna door. I asked my captain but have not heard back yet

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      Vuk

      Sep 9, 2021

      Hi Bilaal,

      Thanks for getting in touch. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say for sure because the sizes of tuna doors can vary. Some captains will even decide to cut their own, so you can’t be sure about the size until you hear it from them. If you don’t hear back from your captain and you booked your trip through FishingBooker, let us know which charter it is and we’ll try to get in touch with the captain for you.

      Hope this helps.

      Tight lines,
      Vuk

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  • Eddie Hunt

    Aug 1, 2021

    Here’s a bit of advice have respect and only keep what you are going to eat the rest should always be released unharmed.

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      Sean

      Aug 3, 2021

      Hi Eddie,

      Thanks for sharing, that is some sound advice!

      Returning what you’re not planning on eating lets the fish “fight another day”. More importantly, practicing catch & release helps preserve fish stocks, which is crucial if we want to have healthy oceans, lakes and rivers.

      Thanks again, and have a great day!

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      Henry

      Sep 3, 2021

      I had my money on the fish

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  • SHIRLEY CARRILLO

    Jul 3, 2021

    This is very informative and useful. Thank you. Hope you guys tell more experience in the coming post.

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      Rhys

      Jul 5, 2021

      Hi Shirley,

      Thanks for reading and for your kind comment! We’re glad to be able to help!

      Tight lines,

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  • Jennifer

    Jun 27, 2021

    Heading for an in-shore fishing charter with my husband and son- and I will not be fishing (just picture taking and cheering them on). Do most charters still charge the extra $50 since I won’t be needing a license or will not be fishing? Thanks ahead for the insight!

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      Sean

      Jun 28, 2021

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks for reaching out.

      That would depend on where you’re planning on going on a fishing charter.

      In Florida, for instance, your licenses are covered by the price of the charter. In other states, each person who’s fishing needs to have their own license. Since you’re not planning on actually fishing yourself, you most likely won’t need to purchase your own permit. I’d recommend getting in touch with your charter guide to check this exactly.

      Sorry for not providing you with a more concrete answer.

      Hope you’ll have a lot of fun. All the best!

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  • Alex

    Jun 25, 2021

    What happens if not everyone who is on a charter doesn’t catch a fish? Would one be expected to share their catch with someone who wasn’t lucky or would they be entitled to keep their whole catch and the people who didn’t catch anything leave empty handed? Curious cus I want to know what I should do if that ever happens.

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      Albert

      Jun 28, 2021

      Hi Alex,

      This really depends on whether you’re on a shared or private charter – as well as where you are.

      If you’re on a private charter, you’ll usually be fishing with people you know, and are expected to work this out between yourselves.

      Shared charters vary. On a large “head boat” or “party boat” you normally keep whatever you catch. On smaller shared trips, it really depends on the location, but it’s pretty common to share the day’s catch more or less evenly. However, in some places, sharing your catch is actually against regulations.

      In short, it’s best to ask your captain. However, if you let me know where you’re fishing I can give you a more precise answer.

      I hope this helps.

      Tight lines!

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  • STEPHANIE M MCPHERSON

    Jun 23, 2021

    This will be my family first deep sea fishing trip on June 26,2021 @6:30 am will there be other people fishing on this fishing trip or just my family?

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      Sean

      Jun 24, 2021

      Hi Stephanie,

      I just checked your booking with Pelican Adventures and I can see that you’ve booked a shared trip.

      This is why it’s most likely that you’ll have other anglers with you on board.

      I hope this helps.

      Tight lines!

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  • martin young

    Jun 19, 2021

    I have read several different suggestions regarding tipping. One said if there is a captain and a first mate you only need to tip the first mate since he is doing most of the work. You suggest having both there when you hand out the tips, is that 20% each or will that that cover both. Who do you hand the tip to?

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      Sean

      Jun 21, 2021

      Hi Martin,

      A 20% tip should cover both the captain and the first mate. The mate will most likely be given the entirety of the tip, but as far as you’re concerned, 20% should be enough. It’s good to have both the captain and the mate present just to avoid any misunderstandings. Some captains pay their mates from tips, but others pay them a fixed salary.

      Of course, if you’re exceptionally satisfied with your trip, you can tip both the customer and the captain.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Have a great day!

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  • leroy chisolm

    May 17, 2021

    thanks for the great insight about fishing on a charter.it will help a lot when i get ready to go fishing

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  • Vicki Catoe

    Apr 18, 2021

    This guide is a must! Brought up things I didn’t think about. Thanks so much for this guide!

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      Sean

      Apr 19, 2021

      Hi Vicki,

      Thanks for reading, I’m glad the article was useful!

      Let us know if you have any other questions.

      Tight lines!

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  • Oscar

    Apr 11, 2021

    If the legal limit has been caught by one person, can that person continue to fish on a cath and release only?

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      Sean

      Apr 12, 2021

      Hi Oscar,

      Thanks for reading.

      Yes, if a person limits out on a particular species, they can continue to practise catch and release.

      If you’re planning on fishing with a guide, it’s best to go over this before your trip, because some guides will consider the trip done once you reach your catch limit. It’s not often the case, but it can happen, so it’s better to be on the same page.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Have a great day!

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  • Rose Ford

    May 18, 2020

    Just a question actually.
    My 15 year old grandson will be going deep sea fishing soon. His first time. Do you strap them in for safety? Those are some awfully large fish. Nervous Nana here.
    Thank you!

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      Sean

      May 20, 2020

      Hi Rose,

      Thanks for asking.

      Frankly speaking, strapping in could do more harm than good. This is because straps can limit your grandson’s mobility on the boat, or even become entangled with other anglers or on-board equipment.

      The most important thing here is to choose an experienced crew. If your grandson has a good captain and mate, all he’ll need to do is follow their advice, and he should be completely fine.

      Deep sea fishing vessels also need to have safety equipment on board. Depending on where you are, the regulations can be a bit different, but you’ll find life vests and similar items on almost every deep sea fishing boat out there. These boats also have higher gunwales (top edges of the hull), and they are built to allow anglers to battle big fish, even in rough conditions.

      Of course, you can always contact the captain for some additional peace of mind.

      I hope this was helpful. I’m sure your grandson will have a great time!

      Thanks for reading, and all the best!

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