PARTY BOAT LIV­ING

FROM BRING­ING HOME FIL­LETS TO WINNING THE POOL, HEAD BOAT FISHING IS ALL ABOUT FUN

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By BARRY GIB­SON

Party-boat fishing is as much about fun as it is fish. Winning the pool is an honor like no other, and the IRS is none the wiser if you don’t re­port your win­nings.

There is noth­ing so de­li­cious in the en­tire world of salt­wa­ter fishing as head­ing out on glassy seas in the warm, early-morn­ing damp­ness aboard a party boat. A whole bunch of emo­tions be­come tan­gled into a ball, spiced with the heady aroma of fresh-cut bait, hot cof­fee and a touch of diesel as the big en­gines rum­ble be­neath the deck — an­tic­i­pa­tion, a bit of trep­i­da­tion, ex­pec­ta­tion at one level or an­other, a sense of com­pe­ti­tion that can barely be sti­fled, and a lit­tle ner­vous­ness won­der­ing if the other 16 or 40 or 66 folks on board are friends or foes, com­pa­tri­ots or com­peti­tors. Just who are these peo­ple?

But emo­tions soon evap­o­rate into salt air. The cap­tain finds the fish, po­si­tions the boat over them and sounds the horn. Baits or jigs are quickly de­ployed into the inky depths, and soon, rods be­gin to bend. Kids and adults alike squeal with de­light as fish start com­ing over the rail. Clench-jawed “reg­u­lars” check and recheck their baits, fuss with var­i­ous hooks, sinkers and teasers and ei­ther talk tersely or re­main mostly silent, in­tent on fill­ing a pail or stringer. More ca­sual rail neigh­bors, per­haps tourists who have never met, be­gin chat­ting and josh­ing, shar­ing fishing tips, where they’re from, a po­lit­i­cal view or two, and the best way to pre­pare a porgy or grunt, had­dock or snap­per, for sup­per.

And the fish keep com­ing in. They may not be big or par­tic­u­larly plen­ti­ful, but that’s not the point. We’re out here to catch fish, dammit, and that’s what we’re do­ing. There are gov­ern­ment “stud­ies” that claim the true de­sire of all salt­wa­ter an­glers is “just to be out en­joy­ing the wa­ter and spend­ing time with fam­ily and friends, car­ing lit­tle if they ac­tu­ally catch any­thing.” Horse­rad­ish! I don’t care what any­one says: Head­boat fish­er­men are out to catch fish. If you ask one of them, “What would make you hap­pi­est at the end of the trip to­day?” I doubt he or she would re­ply, “Oh, that I had a won­der­ful time in the sun­shine and ocean air, bond­ing with my friends/fam­ily/spouse/girl­friend/ boyfriend/pa­role of­fi­cer.”

Nope. They’re go­ing to say, “I wanna take home a big bag of fil­lets!” Or, if they re­ally bare their soul, they’ll qui­etly ad­mit, “I want to win the pool.”

Ahh, the pool. Al­most every party boat A throb­bing rod sig­nals ac­tion. Head­boat skip­pers need eyes in the back of their heads.

has a pool for bet­ting on who catches the largest fish. Par­tic­i­pat­ing is com­pletely vol­un­tary, and the cost to en­ter is nom­i­nal, from $1 to $5, some­times more on ex­tended trips. A mate comes around and col­lects the cash, and on the trip back to the dock, the crew de­ter­mines who caught the largest fish, mea­sured by weight or length, and hands that per­son all the money.

Winning the pool on a party boat is an honor like no other. A Pulitzer Prize-winning au­thor at a black-tie cock­tail party is more likely to tell you about the time he won the pool, 67 bucks, with a 5½-pound gag grouper on a head­boat out of Fort Laud­erdale than he is about his lat­est book. Peo­ple who can’t re­mem­ber the date of their wed­ding an­niver­sary or their kids’ birth­days can re­cite the day, time, boat name, bait used, line strength, reel brand and amount of pool money gar­nered for their 36-pound cod or 18-pound king­fish.

By the way, there has never — and I mean never — been a party-boat pa­tron who has de­clared his or her pool win­nings to the IRS. That would be a breach of trust, a shat­ter­ing of pro­to­col, a break­down of civ­i­lized so­ci­ety. IRS au­di­tors go on party boats, too. They un­der­stand. What hap­pens out on the wa­ter, stays out on the wa­ter.

This segues us to party-boat pro­to­cols, which are not par­tic­u­larly com­pli­cated. The first is po­si­tion­ing on deck. The two stern cor­ners are the Holy Grail of head­boat po­si­tions be­cause you can work your line over the stern or the side at will, de­pend­ing on cur­rent and drift. Many boats will al­low early-ar­riv­ing cus­tomers to stake out the cor­ners by ty­ing their rods to the rail with a piece of twine. I took a trip awhile back on the 80-foot Yan­kee Capts out of Glouces­ter, Mas­sachusetts, where a duo of hard-core reg­u­lars had ar­rived six hours early just to se­cure these two spots. So if you see a rod tied to the corner, or any­where else along the rails for that mat­ter, that po­si­tion is taken.

An­other pro­to­col on many boats is that if you lose a rig or jig that’s sup­plied by the boat, even if you’re neg­li­gent or ig­nore in­struc­tions, you don’t have to pay for it. But you do have to pay for the se­cond one. If the cap­tain an­nounces over the loud­speaker to lower your baited rig down 45 “pulls” from the squeaky Penn 65 reel to the first eye­let of the rod on your well-worn rental out­fit, do just that and no more. If you go down an­other five pulls, you may get snagged in the wreck. If that hap­pens, suck it up and break out the $5 or so for an­other rig. And don’t com­plain.

Fur­ther­more, try not to stray too far from the sinker or jig size the boat pro­vides. If ev­ery­one uses sinkers and jigs of the same weight, tan­gles will be min­i­mized. You’ll in­voke the wrath of your bench­mates if your se­cret “lunker catcher” rig causes your line to float up in the cur­rent and snarl with oth­ers. Party-boat mates oc­ca­sion­ally wake up in a cold sweat in the mid­dle of the night af­ter a dream where ev­ery­one aboard is in­volved in a mon­u­men­tal tan­gle that re­quires sharp knives to re­solve. And it has ac­tu­ally hap­pened, thou­sands of times. (Most crews are fine with any bait you might bring aboard for your own use, un­less you start hook­ing dog­fish or other un­de­sir­ables.)

An­other thing: Never try and sneak a hand­held GPS aboard to record the boat’s po­si­tions over the fish for later use on your own. This is re­ally bad form, one of the most se­ri­ous of head­boat trans­gres­sions. If my

friend Capt. Tim Tower, the con­ge­nial, mild-man­nered skip­per of the well-known party boat Bunny Clark out of Ogun­quit, Maine, catches you with a GPS, he will throw it overboard with­out a se­cond thought. He’s done it sev­eral times. If you want to know where you are on the wa­ter, ask the cap­tain. He’ll cheer­fully tell you. Tell you some­thing, any­way.

Above all, fol­low the in­struc­tions of the mate to the let­ter. Most of these guys and gals are friendly, knowl­edge­able and help­ful, and have a vested in­ter­est in your sat­is­fac­tion. If you catch a bunch of fish and have a fun and pro­duc­tive day, you’re more likely to give them a good tip at the end of the trip. At least that’s the as­sump­tion. So if the mate says, “Reel up and put a fresh bait on,” or “Drop down an­other 10 feet,” you’ll want to do ex­actly that. Head­boat mates are on the wa­ter every day, and they know what works and what doesn’t. And they’re not much in­ter­ested in your ex­pla­na­tion as to how your cus­tom-tied leader rig or spe­cial hot-shot jig­ging tech­nique re­ally slayed ’em on some boat you went out on 10 years ago.

This brings us to tip­ping. Party-boat deck­hands gen­er­ally earn a ma­jor por­tion of their take-home pay in tips, much as a wait­ress does. Some­times the boat has a “stan­dard” tip per fish cleaned or fil­leted, say 50 cents or a dol­lar, or some other set fee for a spe­cific amount of dressed fish flesh. On other boats, the gra­tu­ity scale is a lit­tle more fluid. In these cases, fol­low your con­science. Whether you catch any­thing or not, if a crewmem­ber was friendly and help­ful, he or she should be tipped. When in doubt as to the amount, think “wait­ress.” Ten bucks for a $75 fare works fine; $15 or a bit more if the deck­hand cleaned a goodly amount of fish for you.

Pro­to­cols and un­writ­ten rules aside, a half-day or day spent aboard a head­boat is all about hav­ing fun. In most cases you won’t bring home enough fish meat at mar­ket prices to cover the cost of the fare, but that’s not re­ally the point. The point is sim­ply to catch fish and have a good time. Some folks are quiet and se­ri­ous about catch­ing, yet oth­ers de­light as much in the so­cial in­ter­ac­tions and ca­ma­raderie. But vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one has the same goal. There’s some­thing prim­i­tively sat­is­fy­ing about crank­ing up a fish that will be eaten by some­one — whether it’s a rail neigh­bor aboard, friends back home or your own fam­ily, per­haps tossed into siz­zling olive oil in a black-iron skil­let with a sprin­kle of minced shal­lots and a squeeze of lemon.

I some­times wish I had never ad­vanced as far as I have in salt­wa­ter fishing: a suc­ces­sion of ever-faster boats, higher-tech elec­tron­ics and tackle, travel to far­away and won­der­ful fishing venues, and so forth. All of this has tended to di­min­ish the sim­ple ex­cite­ment and an­tic­i­pa­tion of board­ing a party boat in the early morn­ing, tak­ing a seat on a painted wooden bench be­hind the rail, clutch­ing a bag of muffins and a rental rod with cor­roded eye­lets, and head­ing out on the ocean. Soon there will be a tug on the line from an un­seen crit­ter in the depths a hun­dred feet be­low. Will it get away? Or could it be the pool win­ner?

A party-boat trip is an ad­ven­ture whose out­come is im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict, and that’s pre­cisely its al­lure for so many folks, from all walks of life. I have a funny feel­ing that when I take my grand­son Jakey on his first head­boat trip, per­haps in a year or two, that all those emo­tions, the same ex­cite­ment and ex­pec­ta­tion — with a touch of trep­i­da­tion — I felt back in 1957 on my own first trip will bub­ble to the sur­face again.

PHO­TOS BY AUSTIN COIT

The Dou­ble Ea­gle II sails out of Clear­wa­ter Beach, Florida. The quarry may change, but party-boat fishing from Maine to Florida shares many sim­i­lar­i­ties.

The ad­ven­ture ends with fish that will be taken home and eaten by some­body. And if you’re re­ally lucky, you just might win the pool.

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