Outdoor Life - - HOW TO BE A FISH BUM -


The striped bass tat­too that cov­ers Eric Ker­ber’s fore­arm tells his story. It’s a flag that flies for the Jer­sey coast where his salty roots took hold. It pays homage to the species that lit an un­quench­able fire that would even­tu­ally con­sume his life. Whether it’s buried un­der a heavy jacket on a frigid De­cem­ber day in New Jer­sey or get­ting more sun-bleached as he poles a skiff in the Florida Keys, that bass is a re­minder of the long road to be­com­ing a suc­cess­ful cap­tain on two of the most com­pet­i­tive pieces of coast­line in the coun­try.

“I owned a land­scap­ing busi­ness from 1999 to 2007,” Ker­ber says. “I was mak­ing re­ally good money. But I just couldn’t stand get­ting calls about a bite go­ing off while I was mow­ing some­body’s lawn.”

The de­ci­sion to switch from leaf blow­ers to out­boards didn’t come with­out con­se­quences. Above all, money con­cerns strained re­la­tion­ships with loved ones.

“Most peo­ple would have been re­ally scared to start over, but I thought it was ex­cit­ing,” he says. “A lot of peo­ple told me I was crazy, so I was de­ter­mined to prove them wrong.”

Within two years, Ker­ber, 39, had so­lid­i­fied his rep­u­ta­tion as one of the top striper cap­tains in New Jer­sey, largely be­cause he fished whether he was get­ting paid or not. The amount of time he spent on the wa­ter gave him a back pocket full of one­off humps and rock­piles that would pro­duce a striper or three while ev­ery­one else strug­gled. In the win­ter he worked in a tackle shop, mostly so he could drum up more char­ter cus­tomers. It was a con­stant hus­tle to grow the busi­ness, though when an of­fer to work in Is­lam­orada, Fla., in the win­ter came his way in 2013, that hus­tle reached new lev­els.

“I was itch­ing to learn new fish­eries, but you have to re­mem­ber the best cap­tains in the world fish in the Keys,” Ker­ber says. “No­body gave me the time of day that first year. I had to prove I could fish all over again. And I had to prove I could drink 30 beers in a sit­ting with those guys.”

On days when there were no clients on the big boat he was work­ing for, he took the owner’s small skiff into the back­coun­try, ven­tur­ing far­ther each time, de­cod­ing more skin­ny­wa­ter se­crets. By the fol­low­ing win­ter, he was tak­ing pay­ing cus­tomers out for every­thing from snook to tar­pon. He’d also earned the re­spect of his new “Keys fam­ily.”

The lack of sleep takes a toll, Ker­ber ad­mits. He wishes he could spend more time with his fam­ily. There is al­ways the stress of know­ing a week of bad weather can keep bills from be­ing paid, but he’ll never quit. “There’s never a day I don’t want to go to work,” he says.

Ker­ber with a heavy striper on New Jer­sey’s Rar­i­tan Bay.

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