THE STRIPER SNOWBIRD
HOME WATERS: NEW JERSEY COAST AND FLORIDA KEYS PRIMARY TARGETS: STRIPED BASS, TUNA, SNOOK
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.