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 time 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 remember your trip for the right reasons.
Why is identifying the right charter a crucial part of any successful voyage? Quite simply, because it 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.
You might be concerned about your gear not being suited for the big game action in your fishing destination. Let’s hope the charter comes equipped with all of the proper rods, reels, and terminal tackle that you’ll likely need – and that they’re in decent condition.
Someone in your group prone to seasickness? It’s pretty common. If so, a big and sturdy boat eliminates most of the bumps on the ‘road’. Fishing from a large vessel is much more enjoyable than from a panga, or really any vessel under 30 feet, regardless of its appearance.
Everything has to do with finding the proper fishing charter! That’s exactly why we have decided to compile this comprehensive guide-of-all-guides on how to choose a fishing charter. Learn to pick 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 “must haves” on 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 let me make the case for not choosing the cheapest option you come across. In fact, you don’t even want to go for the second cheapest most of the time.
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 on a regular basis. 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 acquire proper licensing and keep it up to date.
- The insurance premiums that boat owners needs to pay to fully cover you and your family in case anything happens on your trip aren’t getting any cheaper.
- Then there are the docking fees that captains have to pay to keep their boat in a proper marina.
- Finally, 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 vary based on a variety of factors. The most important ones are the size of the boat and the engine, and the approximate distance to your fishing location. It’s common for an offshore sportfisher to burn up to seventy gallons a day, costing the captain about $400 in a single trip.
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 is in lousy condition, the boat’s older than it looks – it might even be due to a combination of these and other factors.
Either way, if you’re going with the low-cost option, we definitely recommend checking the captain’s license number and 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 servers of the sea).
Bottom line – It’s your job to find out exactly what is and isn’t included in the price, which is why FishingBooker lets you easily view everything that’s included before you book.
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. 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:
What does the charter’s insurance cover?
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.
Are there properly-fitting life jackets for everyone onboard?
Immediately locate where they’re kept on the ship, as well as the whereabouts of any fire extinguishers and throw cushions. If PFDs (personal flotation devices) aren’t available, ask to bring your own if you have an inflatable one.
US charters are required to have Type 1 PFDs, which are primarily built for safety, not so much with big game fishing and comfort in mind. Type 3 vests, on the other hand, are built to accommodate both needs.
Is the captain or crew 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 many 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 set sail making sure all these things are ship shape.
Does the vessel have twin engines, in case one motor fails?
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 were updated.
Is the captain licensed by the US Coast Guard (in the US, at least)?
A safety briefing is the 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, be sure to keep an eye on the weather.
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 high 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
The State of Michigan ran a study on the local fishing industry back in 2009. 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).
However, the hospitality of the captain and the mate was actually the thing that contributed most to their satisfaction with the entire service. It overshadowed 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. A conscientious and experienced captain is also a necessary part 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? For example, the Miami area alone is home to more than 200 charter captains. 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 asking 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 weekend. Commercial boat owners also use the charter business as a way of subsidizing their own fishing (case in point: only 62% of charter boat operators in South Carolina are actually in the business full-time).
You may end up having just as good a time on board any of these gentlemen’s boats. However, 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, 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 well do they know the area’s waters?
How well do they know the local waters and 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 according to the slightest temperature shift. Others are usually content with blindly following the rest of the fish. It’s only by trial and error, trading stories with other captains, and closely examining the waters that a captain can pick up this kind of knowledge.
This is why a good captain knows, at least approximately, where the fish are 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. 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 and save you from any legal troubles once you reach the shore.
How good are their social skills?
This may sound like a funny way to judge a captain, but it’s a relevant one nonetheless. If there are any beginner anglers on board, or really anyone unacquainted with the local fish and techniques, it’s up to the captain to step into the role of 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). Of course, this isn’t to say they should bend over backwards to entertain everyone on board, but it should at least be obvious that they love what they do. That they aren’t just motivated by the income.
After all, charter fishing is primarily a form of entertainment. One you’re paying good money for, at that. 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 is the captain to your fishing experience?
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 fulfil his own daily fishing quota, you might be better off with someone who puts your interests first.
Are they a man or a woman?
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?
Wrong. It’s 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 customers and less initial respect from other captains, which is why any female captains that stick it out 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 local tournaments. Also, ask if they’re thoroughly familiar with the IGFA rules in case of a world-record catch. This might be a pretty cocky question to ask, but hey, they won’t be laughing when a monster GT decides to hit your line, now will they?
How do they market their charter business?
Does the captain have a website, or are they relying on the marina to book clients for them? Are they doing most of their business on the run via a single cell phone, or does their 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.
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 want to troll for Billfish, don’t even think about a half-day charter
It matters little if you’re in a big game paradise destination or not, catching Billfish 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, the big fish who make prime story material sometimes only come out for a late afternoon bite – right around the time that you’re back on the shore, annoyed and storyless.
If you or your group is new to fishing, don’t forget to mention it
A good captain is the one who doesn’t let your fishing experience impact their ability to put you on the fish. A half-day charter may be a good idea for a complete beginner. 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 on 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
The size of the boat matters
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 likely to be less comfortable or stable. The boat will tend to bounce around a bit more and you’ll 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 cost you a couple hours worth of fishing time.
Party or Private?
Other than the boat’s speed and size, you should also consider the type of charter you’re booking.
If you’re on a budget and don’t mind sharing the boat with a bunch of strangers, think about fishing on a party boat. These ships can sometimes carry up to 100 anglers at a time and generally sail out of the larger marinas. Unlike private vessels, party boats (or head boats, as they’re also called) charge a per-person fee.
Other than being crowded with both people and lines, the setback to this charter type is the fact that it doesn’t leave the dock on a specific day unless a certain number of passengers decides to go. This means that if you have a tight schedule to stick to, you might want to look at 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 to be you on the lucky line. The anglers often 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 can go home empty-handed.
Moral of the story: if you’re the type of angler that prefers comfort and catch over feeling uncomfortable and possibly not catching anything, you might want to stick to the private charters.
6. Sharing Your Fishing Philosophy
There are some 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 their views are about the following:
Is the catch guaranteed?
Many 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.
If you’re one of them, there are often captains and charters that accommodate this angling philosophy. Many charters offer a “no catch, no pay” guarantee, unless you depart late or end the trip early for whatever reason.
Most captains, however, advise their customers to “expect nothing” in terms of the catch, but assure the clients they will do everything 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’s your catch-and-release policy and who keeps the fish?
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 makes up a substantial portion of their overall income. It’s customary, in these situations, to let the captain keep most of the fish that’s caught on the trip.
Still, you are a paying customer, and as such are entitled to choose what happens with your catch. Whether you’d like all of it to be kept by your party (within what the rules and regulations dictate), or insist on exclusively practicing catch-and-release on your trip, 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. Bigger fish will have little problem overpowering cheap rods and reels. Premature line wear should be a clear sign that the gear for game fish has been overstressed. The amount of care the boat owner shows toward his tackle is very indicative of what you can 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 line? 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?
Find out exactly what you can and cannot bring to the trip
Do you enjoy a beer or two while waiting for the line to twitch? 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. Do you bring your own food and drinks, or is that included in the price?
By the way, whatever you do, do not bring bananas on board! This is considered serious bad luck by many captains. We’re not sure where this dietary discrimination originates from, 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 went online to track down the ideal charter. Given the fact that you’re reading this, we can safely assume you’ve opted for a similar path.
Most charters have their own websites nowadays. They’re a good starting point for 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 biggest game fish that were caught onboard. Obviously, there’s a clear incentive for the company to portray itself in the positive light, so take everything you see here with a pinch of salt.
Visit fishing chatrooms and forums
Make sure to follow up that trip to the company’s webpage with a visit to at least a couple of fishing-oriented chatrooms and forums where 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 the details for you. The all-inclusive packages that an agency offers are seldom more expensive than the direct-contact alternative.
Secondly, have I mentioned they are much more convenient? The pressure of checking off every to-do in this this post is transferred to someone else’s experienced 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-out tackle? The booking agency has no incentive to do business with these individuals. If you have a bad experience at sea, it’s 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, stress. 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 one that you’ll regret as soon as you step on board. Take it from us – it’s their experience and expertise that have primarily contributed to this article’s content.
Have you found these tips on how to choose a fishing charter useful? Are there any tips we missed? Let us know in the comments below!