You notice that every gas station you pass seems to have a center console or flats boat at the pumps. You imagine legions of smiling charter captains happily preparing for another day of fishing for a living. You let out a jealous sigh as reality sinks in. Another work day, off the water, lies ahead.
Being a charter captain may seem like a dream job. Most of us working stiffs yearn for the salty outdoors while sitting at a desk, suffering through the daily grind. Many of us weekend anglers, young and old, think it's simple to be a guide – all you need is a boat, a little know-how and a full tackle box, right?
It takes more, a lot more.
Trying to earn a living as a fishing guide is not all glitz, glamour and sunny days catching fish. It's competitive. It can be frustrating. It's tough on the mind, body and wallet. It requires business acumen, investment and a knack for customer service. Perhaps most importantly, becoming a fishing guide requires the fortitude to take a beloved pastime and make it “work.”
“Everybody is not cut out for it,” says Capt. John Irwin, an 18-year inshore veteran and fly fishing guru of Fly Right Charters. “I think part of guiding is more than catching fish. You have to have the right personality and be good at dealing with people.”
The local fleet
The Lowcountry charter fleet includes various types of guides. Some captains are hired hands working for the owners of huge offshore boats. Others work under the umbrella of a company with multiple captains.
Some guides travel south to Florida or Central and South America during the winter when there are fewer clients here. Still others work on commercial fishing boats during the charter fishing “off season.”
Some captains take out a few trips a year as a side business, while still others make it their full-time living as entrepreneurs.
Capt. Jamie Hough, 34, of Flat Spot Charters is a 15-year veteran and one-man inshore band like Irwin. He remembers when there were only eight guides operating north of the Cooper River in Lowcountry waters. Now, he says, there are almost 100.
“I'm one of the few guys who will sit here and tell you that I like the competition,” Hough says. “I think the competition is good. The more guys you have doing it, the less guides are going to be complacent with just going through the motions.”
For nine years, Hough migrated to the Florida Keys and Venezuela during the “off season” to work as a mate on offshore operations. He hangs his hat on numerous inshore and offshore accolades, including first place as a mate in the 2004 Islamorada Fishing Club Gold Cup.
Hough thinks the local guide community is as diverse as the workplace locations listed on his resume.
“I'd say it's more of a free-for-all,” Hough says. “Every year there's more guides…you'd think there would be less people doing this with the economy being poor.”
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources issued more than 500 charter licenses last year to operations running everything from smaller center consoles to sportfishers and head boats. The number of licenses sold statewide is expected to rise throughout 2011, according to Amy Dukes at the DNR Office of Fisheries Management.
Hough and Irwin both look forward to a united Lowcountry guide community one day.
“I think it would be really nice if we had a guides association here like they do in some places in Florida,” Irwin says. “There are definitely always some issues that arise and it's just kind of got to go around the wheel and everybody talks about it, but some things don't get done.”
The upside to guiding
It's tough to beat doing what you love for a career, whether it's dropping lines next to pilings for sheepshead, herding a school of redfish in the flats or trolling for the next state record wahoo 70 miles offshore.
You get to work outside, in the sun, and away from the desk.
“I think it's the greatest job I could ever have,” Irwin says. The 37-year-old fly fishing specialist has fished around the world and takes clients on an annual trip to Belize.
Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central's Colbert Report has been a repeat customer for Irwin. And besides a bonus trip with a celebrity, it's his clients' excitement Irwin enjoys most.
“There's nothing like having happy customers,” Irwin says. “I like to go with guides too, and know what it's like to have a good day, too, and be fired up. … I think that's the best part.
“The most rewarding aspect to me is taking kids, and seeing how happy they get. And also people that have never caught a redfish before, who have no idea how hard they pull, and how much fun they are to fight.”
But it's not just novice anglers and tourists calling local guides. Both Hough and Irwin have a long list of local angler clients. Hough says that throughout the down economy, he has picked up business from boat-owning anglers who save money by getting their fishing fix on his 22-foot Sterling flats boat.
“I would have thought the exact opposite,” Hough says of local anglers willing to pay charter fees. “But if you're spending $800 a month on a boat payment, plus fuel, plus oil, plus tackle, storage, maintenance, getting it out of the water, and all that hassle… Plus it's harder to write off the whole boat when you can just write off a charter if you're taking a client or friend or something.”
Irwin also has a lot of repeat business.
“I have a lot of good locals that really get me through the winter time,” he says. “It gets better every year. Eventually, the majority of your business, when you're making it, should be repeat business. You have to rely on that in-and-out tourist business a little bit, too. It helps fill in those in-between days.”
There is a lot of guide competition in a sluggish economy. Although the number of charter captains has been growing recently, Irwin isn't daunted.
“That's a common complaint you hear from some people,” Irwin says. “It's a bunch of new blood. I think it's part of the business. I wouldn't say there are too many guides. I would say that people come and people go … even veteran guides. It kind of ebbs and flows.”
New competition brings more inexperience, at times, from rookie guides.
“I think that etiquette's a big thing, and keeping your prices competitive with everybody else has been kind of an issue with some people,” Irwin says. Rather than low-balling prices, Irwin says, rookie captains should concentrate on “playing the same game as everyone else and earning the business, rather than coming in real low just because maybe you think you're not as good or want to get the business.”
Hough sees another potential problem with newbies: guide spotting. This frowned-upon practice entails one captain essentially tailing a more experienced captain to good spots, then coming back with clients of his or her own.
“It's fine if they went to that spot on their own,” Hough says. “But if that guide sees them come by, and the next day he's on a charter and goes back to the spot from the day before and that person's sitting there, they'll never get a call from that guide because he's overbooked.”
Such matters of professional courtesy are taken seriously by the community of charter captains, many of whom form loose alliances that trade overflow business and fishing tips.
Hough booked more than 300 trips last year, including some overflow trips from fellow guides.
Even so, some months are slower than others, and it's this fluctuating revenue that bedevils many captains.
“The inconsistency of income is probably the hardest thing for me as a captain,” Hough says. “I think probably the hardest part is budgeting money for the wintertime. As far as finding fish, and keeping people happy, that's really not the hardest part.”
Finding fish year-round may not be a problem for more experienced captains, but staying on them and producing for clients is tougher than most weekend anglers might think.
Hurricane season is June 1 through Nov. 30, making a lot of nearshore and offshore days impossible. Big tides bring stronger currents, muddier water and less cooperative fish.
Irwin says he can usually scrape up some fish, but admits that some days are still tough.
“Those days, you just kind of put your head down and keep going.
“I'm not apart from keeping people out longer than what they paid for. If I have a bad day, and I struggle, … I feel like it's on me and try to throw someone a bone and give them a free trip.”
Potential new captains need to remember that rods don't rig themselves for the next day's trip. This grind, Irwin says, is the tough part of the job that nobody really knows about.
“When you've worked two three-quarter trips in a day, … you've been on the water about 14 (hours). You get home and it's 9 o'clock at night in the summertime and it's dark and you're rigging stuff up in the garage at 10:30 to get up at 5 the next morning.
“Getting ready for the next day, and keeping the whole thing running efficiently, and keeping everything working is the hardest part of the job.”
It's also a business
Irwin learned 18 years ago that operating a guide business can be a blast, but it's not always fun and games.
“If you're going into it with both feet, you've got to treat it like a business and set it up right. You've got to treat it like a real business and it will grow, if you nurture it. It's a cash business. It's a referral business. It's got a lot of twists and turns to it. Some people go into it and don't treat it like a business early on.”
Over the years Irwin sees the same bad decision made over and over again by new guides.
The reason “people don't make it is they go out and buy a great expensive boat and expensive truck,” he says. “I think you can make the same amount of money out of a $20,000 Action Craft as you can out of a $50,000 Hells Bay if you're good at your job. If you're going to make it, you've got to make good decisions early on.”
Keeping overhead in check is critical for sustainability and growth.
Keeping up with technology back on land is also key, particularly in the digital world. Social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter help generate word-of-mouth business and increase a guide's visibility beyond the Lowcountry. And, of course, “you've got to have a website,” Hough says. “You're in the stone age if you don't have a website these days.”
Hough also advises guides to work with other businesses to help defray operating costs and reach new clients. Both Irwin and Hough regularly give seminars at local tackle shops.
But before captains throw themselves into the limelight, they must jump through the hoops necessary to run a business.
In addition to business license fees and the legal fees associated with starting a limited liability corporation, captains must secure serious commercial liability insurance. Tack on annual drug consortium certification, first aid classes, a Transportation Worker Identification Card (TWIC) and Coast Guard fees. The list for new charter captains goes on and on, including special safety gear requirements, official trip reports to the state and various levels of federal permitting for offshore operations.
The local branch of Sea School helps guide new captains through the treacherous waters. Catherine Giles from Sea School Charleston's office (one of nine nationwide) sees full classrooms these days.
“With all the economic uncertainty and jobless rates on the rise, more people than ever have been attending our courses,” Giles says. “This allows them the opportunity to re-train into a new career on the water. Even a bad day on the water is better than a good day on land.”
The online course is $395 and sit-in course for 54 hours is $550 ($495 with discount).
There are 360 documented days required on the water over a lifetime, Giles says, (90 days in the past three years) in order to become a captain.
“Virtually anyone can be a licensed captain… just count up the boating trips you've made with friends and family with any size boat,” Giles says.
Despite the difficulties, the number of anglers hoping to go pro keeps growing.
Richard Pate, 25, of Carolina Guide Service, started breaking into the guide scene with older brother Jordan last October.
Pate, who plans on returning to Alaska next summer after a six-month fly guide tour last year, hopes to ease into the industry.
“We plan to start out small, get our name out and rely on returning customers,” he says. “Once we have a good customer base that can get us out on the water every so often, then maybe we can look to bigger things.”
What advice would the seasoned pros give?
“Keep a journal and go every day,” Hough says. “The only way you can be a fisherman is to go fishing. You can't get better by adding a bunch of crap to your boat. You can't get better at it by going out and wading on a flat because you saw two fish there one time. You've got to go beat the streets, kick the bushes, throw the trolling motor down and cover 5 miles of grass line.”
With all that hard work, captains need to look after themselves.
“I had a pretty heavy year, and come September, I was pretty beat,” Irwin says. “A few guys I know retired due to that factor.
“Take care of your bodies.”
Sure, fishing for a living sounds like a fine thing. But would-be charter captains should look before they leap. It's hard work, there are plenty of hoops to jump through and the fish aren't always biting.