Growing up in Southern California, Steve Locken was never far from a good cast. From his first angling steps in the streams of the Sequoia National Forest to family escapes to Catalina Island, Steve knew the ins-and-outs of a fishing reel since he was old enough to tie his laces.
“I used to get off school every day and ride my bike over to Lake Mission Viejo. I still remember trying to balance all the fish I would catch on the handlebars.” Over the years, Mission Viejo swapped its grazing fields for high-end houses and golf courses, but that did little to temper Steve’s passion for the rod and reel.
Today, this high-octane character is the proud owner of Rockenreel Sportfishing, one of the busiest fishing charters in SoCal. We sat down with Steve to talk about his crazy ride to the top and what he does to keep his business “rocking.”
How’d you get into fishing?
My grandfather and my dad were fishermen, so I grew up around it. We had a family cabin on a little stream up in the Sequoia National Forest, right next to the big redwood trees. So when I was a kid, I’d set my alarm to when it was still dark out to go catch hellgrammites and salmon eggs in the mornings.
I’ve been a fisherman all my life, but I’ve also been a corporate guy for most of my adulthood.
What made you switch to doing fishing trips for a living?
Around 8 years ago, I went through a nasty divorce, and for about 5 years, I just went crazy. I was drinking, and I spent what feels like a million bucks. I didn’t get into any trouble, but I was really drinking a lot.
It sounds like you needed a change.
I wanted to change everything. So in 2017, I quit my job and took a year off to get sober and clear my head. I spent that whole year fishing with a buddy of mine, Frank Rice. Now my buddy – he’s fished commercially his whole life. I mean, this guy is a fishing animal. We fished for over 300 days that year.
Meanwhile, I came from being a general manager with a huge office and 180 employees, making 35K a month. And all of a sudden, I’m on Fat Frank’s boat and he’s making me clean all the scales off his reels and clean the boat!
But guess what – he taught me all his secrets. He showed me all the rocks, all the spots, and he taught me all the tricks about Shark fishing. Most importantly, this guy probably had the biggest influence for me to become a captain. He’s the one who said, “Dude, you should do this for a living – you’d be awesome at it.”
How did that go?
I got my captain’s license and, for the first six months, I really struggled – I had nothing. I was four payments behind on everything, barely holding on to my house and my cars.
Hear Capt. Steve talk about how he got into guiding trips.
But then my sponsor said “Hey man, I always go on FishingBooker, you should try them out”. Me being a sales guy, I thought I could do it on my own. I thought I’d go from hotel to hotel, business to business. Besides, I used to work a ton of hours anyway, so I’m used to hard work. Plus, I didn’t want to pay anybody any percentage.
But I decided to take his advice and I did it. And all of a sudden, the bookings started coming in like bam, bam, bam! I hadn’t spent any money on advertising, so with the new exposure, I just started rocking! I’ve never looked back since.
And I could save the 10%, but I’m like, it’s worth it, man! It’s like a no brainer. It’s just like just, you can see my hours, what I provide, what you need. You could read reviews. It’s one stop shopping.
Making It Work
You get over 160 bookings a year through FishingBooker. How do you keep up with all the trips?
I’m available on FishingBooker on an hour’s notice. I’ve had trips where the customer books and two hours later we’re on the water. But I know that if I’m out of town, I need to block my calendar or adjust my availability.
So I’m always ready. I’m a high-volume guy, so the boat has to be cleaned after every trip.
As we’re coming in, I tell them to be prepared to debark the boat. The other customers are five minutes out of their steps. But instead of trying to hurry them out, you put a positive spin on it. I say something like “Make sure you take your time to get everything ready, you don’t want to rush and forget anything.”
That’s a crazy pace. Do you have trouble communicating with people that are just arriving?
I know from experience that your phone can get blown up like crazy. And if I’ve got my Bluetooth hooked up to my radio, I can’t pick up and disturb my customers by constantly taking calls.
That’s why the key thing is to call the customer right after they book. You need to put them on ice. When you’re responsive and they’re not waiting – even though their trip is in two months – they’ll know they called the right guy.
What do you typically talk about?
Most of my customers are from out of town. So if I can give them a strong roadmap of what’s going to happen, where to park, where the boat is, what time I’ll be rolling in, they’ll be in a good place.
I even go as far as getting parking passes for all my customers, which my wife thinks I’m crazy for. But guess what? They like it. It costs them 11 bucks to park, and it costs me 50 cents.
Sometimes I have 10 people with 10 different cars coming in. So on top of the parking tickets, I have saved responses where I tell everybody: “Hey, this is where I’m located. If for some reason the QR code for the gate doesn’t work, here’s what you need to do.”
Sounds like attention to detail can save you quite a few headaches.
When I respond to customers, I don’t do one-liners. When they ask “What I should be bringing?” or “What fish could we catch?” you can’t just say “Bring a jacket,” or ‘Check the fishing report.” I go in and I take the time.
If you look at what I write, it’s like a little freaking book with three paragraphs worth of stuff.
What about talking on the phone?
When I talk on the phone, I really try to spruce up the boat and tell everything about it. Because I don’t want to lose them. I don’t want them to change their mind and book another captain – or think that they should maybe go to Disneyland.
So that first call after they book – I knock them out. I give them a Mohammad Ali left hook. Boom. They can’t wait to come on the Rocken and go fishing with Steve. Because I just made it sound like it’s the best thing since sliced bread.
Newbies can sometimes have the wrong expectations. How do you deal with that?
Sometimes you’ll get customers in the middle of winter saying “I want to catch Yellowtail, a 12 ‘ Shark, and a Dorado.” At that point, we haven’t seen those fish in three or four months. They’re long gone.
So I tell them, “Hey, this ocean is a big Blackberry Bush – you’ve got to think of it that way. The thing is that there are no blackberries on it right now because it’s not blackberry season!” But I say this in a very nice way, because I don’t want them to feel stupid.
I need to educate my customers and explain that the temperature needs to be 65 or higher for those pelagic fish. And I’ll say “I’m not going to rule it out, but chances are that we’re not going to get those guys.”
How do customers react to this?
The best way to get around those situations is to just be honest with the people. I think it is a good businessman move, too. Some people might disagree, but that’s worked out for me.
You’ve got a ton of 5-star reviews. How did you accomplish that?
I just try to treat my customers the way that I want to be treated. I don’t do dry business, “Cut-and-go, two hours and you’re back, on the dot” – that’s not the way I run it. When I go out, I’ll give customers a little tour. You know, I’ll say, “There’s a seagull, there’s a seal,” or “We might see pilot whales or dolphins today.,” stuff like that.
What about the fishing?
I make sure that customers see that I’m trying to maximize their trip. The enthusiasm is the number one thing, but number two is the hard work. They need to see that you’re working really hard to catch them fish.
If it’s a slow day, I need to have backups. I’ll be on the radio, talking to my friends. They need to see that I was prepared coming up front. So if you’re not catching fish at the first anchor down, you better hit five more spots. So if you get skunked, at least the customer can say, “Hey, this guy tried everything in the book!”
But here’s the deal – every time it’s showtime. This isn’t just fishing – it’s a show.
What if something unexpected happens?
If I’m late because we hook into a big fish, I’m going to be honest and I’m always going to keep it positive. I’ll be in 20 minutes later, but we’re going to stay off 20 minutes later on your trip. I’m sure if it was your trip, you’d want to catch that big fish!
And even if I call to say that I’m running 20 minutes behind, I’ve already told them that this might happen, because I took the time to call them earlier. They’re not angry because it’s already in their head that this could happen. The last thing you want to do is not be transparent, come in late and p**s ‘em off.
And if someone gets seasick?
I can kind of feel my customers out at the very beginning. So for those people, I’m not going to go too far away at first. I’m fortunate that I can drop somebody off at the gas dock or the Catalina Flyer, right up the front of the Harbor. I can turn around and drop off somebody who’s sick and then take the rest of the party back out fishing and not kill their trip.
What would make the perfect fishing guide – in your opinion?
Local knowledge of the waters, enthusiasm, and setting the right expectations through perfect communication.
Plans For the Future
What’s Rockenreel Sportfishing going to look like in a few years?
So far, I’ve just kind of kept it small and had a ball. But I plan on growing.
I didn’t expect chartering to be as fun and as profitable. I thought that it would be like a part-time or a semi-retirement type thing, with maybe a sales gig on the side. And I figured that I could make a living doing that. But now I’ve figured out that I could make a good living doing this.
Over the past few years, I’ve grown this business where I’m in a position to get a second boat. I spent $95,000 on my boat this year alone. New engines, new transoms, and two new outdrives – everything brand new MerCruiser, in the wrapper. But I still found out that when you do as many charters as I do, the boat still breaks down.
So when I have to cancel trips, especially in peak season when all the other boats are booked, it really puts the customers in the trick bag. I’m disappointed too, because of the revenue I’m losing.
And if the boat breaks down on a Friday, I’m out for three days because we can’t get parts from the mechanics until Monday. So I’m down nine grand in three days. And that happened to me a lot this last season.
So my first plan of attack for this next season is to have a second boat. And once I do that, I plan on branching out. I want to have a fleet of five or six boats, with a boat in every major harbor in Southern California.
That would be the dream. So you‘re going to hire people?
Yes, I’m going to have to hire the right captains to run the boats. It’s so key to get the right people with enthusiasm, integrity, and passion.
Me and my deckhands, we’re in Southern California, so we’ve got the surfer look. My deckhands are all surfers from the Dana Point High School surf team. We’re rocking the flat bill hats and the matching shirts with the name of my company. When you see us work as a team, we look professional.
So my customers who are coming from all over the world, they come here and we’re giving them a true Southern California experience. And then you’ve got me. I’m 54 and I still think I’m 23. I still race skateboards and BMX!
Sounds like you found the winning recipe.
When you can be professional and have fun at the same time – it’s awesome.
I got my captain’s license, started my own company, got on FishingBooker, all right when I got sober. And now I got a hound dog, a motor home, you know, an old 60s truck, a big Excursion. I’m caught up on my house payments. I’ve got a great wife, who’s helping me run my business. I mean, I’m living the American dream.
But FishingBooker gave me my kickstart. It really got me the volume that I needed and it got me quality customers. They tip, they’re fun, they’re just good old people!
If that’s not worthy of a movie script, we don’t know what is.
We hope you found Capt. Steve’s insights useful. Got any tips on starting and running a charter business you’d like to share? How about your own story? Drop us a comment below, we’d love to hear from you!