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One Way to Become a Successful Fishing Charter Captain

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Charter School

How does a successful charter captain get his start? One skipper shares his story.

After graduating from college I couldn’t stand the thought of a nine-to-five job; I just knew I was going to go fishing. Ever since I was a young boy I loved to watch the captains back their boats into the slips at the Ocean City Fishing Center in Maryland. I was so fascinated by their catch and charters. Some people dream of being a fireman, a lawyer, a doctor—I knew I wanted to fish.

Jon Duffie

I used to walk the docks and ask every captain if I could ride along, help the mate, or do anything that would help me learn all there is to know about fishing and boat handling. I was lucky that some agreed to, and my “payment” for the day was to wash down the boat once it returned to the dock. But I learned many different fishing techniques and tricks of the trade.

My family had boats my whole life growing up. My dad started out running to the canyons on a 25-foot Bertram. He moved up to a Luhrs, then a couple of Posts, and then he built and ran two Ricky Scarboroughs. With each boat, he would expand our fishing horizons. By the time my older brother and I were teenagers we had a pretty good family fishing team going. My parents, brother, and I would fish every weekend and during the tournaments.

I would help my father in the engine room and with any maintenance. He also taught me how to navigate, run the electronics, and be a responsible boat handler. My brother and I didn’t always realize it, but we were receiving an education by tying the lines properly, navigating by paper charts, running inlets and channels, and docking the boat. I can remember running the boat in the marina years before I could legally drive a car. Today that training serves me well every day on the water. I look back and really appreciate the time I spent with my family on the boat and all the things we were doing for fun while learning proper seamanship from my father. 

We were very fortunate to learn from the best fishermen, captains, and mates on the East Coast. Ocean City is known as the white marlin capital of the United States so the best of the best fished there during summers. My education was furthered by traveling to North Carolina and Florida in the spring and winter when I got a break from school. Fishing around other fleets and crews I was always trying to learn new tactics and methods. I can remember riding along on the Hammer with Capt. Mitch Pierson and learning how to circle up fish to keep your baits out while you are hooked up. He also showed me how to maneuver the boat once we had a couple fish on to use the boat to catch them, working the wheel and throttles to get the releases as quickly as possible to get back to fishing. In the winter we would fish with other captains out of Palm Beach and the Keys where I learned how to bank kites and live-bait sails.

One of my favorite lessons growing up was from Scott Walker who taught me how to throw cast nets and read the birds and water down on the grass flats in and around Duck Key every morning while we were trying to catch our bait for the day’s trips. I learned that it’s much more rewarding when you catch your own live bait.

I’ve also learned that every place you go has different types of fish and different ways to fish for them. It can be overwhelming, but the more you travel, the more you learn. I can remember sitting down with my brother, rigging baits, and copying everything we saw the pros doing with their rigs. One day Bob Gowar of the Liquidator walked down the dock and presented us with a trash bag. “Try this for a teaser,” he said. We opened it and found a dredge. We rigged it with 12 mullet and pulled it from a cleat. That day forever changed the way we fish the boat I own today, Billfisher, a 62-footSpencer. Now we set out multiple dredges, with dozens of mullet off each bar, pulled by electric reels. We’re always trying to stay ahead of the curve by learning what the competition is doing and seeing if there is a way to do it better. It seems as if there is always a new way to rig everything. As the years have gone by and tactics change, I can’t help but think back to all the captains and mates who have gone out of their way to help another fisherman learn something new. Now, I hope to continue that tradition.

Today, before most people are awake, my crew and I are busy preparing Billfisher for departure by assembling the mullet and ballyhoo dredges, getting the leaders ready, and making sure all the tackle is perfect. My morning meeting doesn’t consist of PowerPoint presentations but rather talking strategy with my mates and going over the previous day’s fishing reports and satellite shots with the other captains on the docks. 

Of course, it’s not all record-breaking days and tournament wins. There are certainly frustrating days where I feel like I have no clue what I’m doing behind the wheel. I get down on myself just as everyone does at some point in his or her career, but then I realize that I am doing something that I love. When we raise a triple, I forget about looking up the number for Truckmasters truck-driving school and get excited about fishing all over again. 

After ten years of running a fishing boat year-round, I sometimes allow myself to look at what I do as just a job. Sometimes the days can feel like they involve the same old routine: engine-room check, clean up, Windex and Pledge the interior, W.P.O (wax, polish, organize), and then repeat the same things next day. Then I take people fishing, who at the end of the day are so happy to have just gotten out on the water, and I know I shouldn’t take my profession for granted. It is not the great days of fishing or tournament wins that make me love it so much, it’s the small details of each day that remind me of how lucky I am. It can be the most action-filled day of white-marlin fishing or the longest, roughest, and most uncomfortable crossing I’ve ever made, either way it’s my job. And I’m happy to do it.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.