What is it that makes a great charter captain?
By Capt. Charlie Philips
What are the qualities that separate the best of the best charter captain from the pack across the region? These are things that I have asked myself since we started our personal business in the Everglades and I continue to ask myself now. Being a charter captain and running a successful charter business is the dream of many. Those of us that choose this line of work are blessed beyond measure, but what is it that makes some guys stick around for 50 years like our own Capt. Bouncer Smith in Miami Beach, while others are here and gone in the blink of an eye? This is my topic of discussion for this months “From the Crow’s Nest”.
To be honest I never planned on taking many guests when I started Hope Fishing Adventures in Everglades City. I had a very successful career going in the commercial explosive industry and was blowing up things from bridges to beaver dams all over the nation. That job afforded me the opportunity to live anywhere I chose, and being an off the beaten path kind of guy, Everglades City was a great fit for me and my border collie Cody.
It was just the two of us back then. Cody went with me on the blasting jobs and served as navigator on the boat each day when we were back at home. Fishing was all I really did when I was off. We would exploring the Everglades and 10,000 Islands, seeing where this creek went, what lived on that oyster bar, trying to figure why mullet jumped. I was living the dream.
Getting my USCG captains license was just something I wanted as a personal accomplishment for myself. I have always had a commercial driver’s license and wanted to obtain my USCG Masters license as well as a pilot’s license, but had never taken the time to make that first step.
In about 2006 Laura walked into my life and the rest is history. She encouraged me to take the time and get my USCG license and helped me start our charter business. Without her help, I would never have gotten it done. All the paperwork, all the tax mess, and LLC this and that, but with her help we were a bonafide Everglades National Park and 10,000 Islands charter fishing business.
Now keep in in mind, I had moved to Florida right after getting out of the service, didn’t know a soul and tend to be a quiet guy keeping to myself and minding my business. Those of you that know Everglades City can attest to the fact that is a wonderful place, with some of the best fishing in the world. It is a small and close knit community (things I appreciate and grew up exactly the same in my hometown), but folks weren’t exactly jumping over themselves to try and help teach me, or show me the tricks of the trade. That was actually OK, as I still didn’t plan on taking many trips. Fishing was going to be a hobby. I would take a few trips a year and it was still more of a personal thing for me.
My first trip with customers was a donated one. It was a benefit for a friend that had passed in the explosive industry and me being the “Charter Capt.” (I use that term loosely at the time) I was going to donate a trip to the event and take these folks fishing. The guest came to turn in their voucher and I took them out for a day in the swamp. We had a banner day. It seemed like everywhere we went we caught big snook, big reds, inshore tripletail, black drum, you name it, we caught it. We were on fire. I came home that night and told Laura, there is nothing to this charter captain gig. I must be a natural - boy over the years have I paid for that comment many times over!
After taking the donated trip someone was crazy enough to come fishing with me and give me money to do it. I don’t remember who they were, but do remember I couldn’t buy a bite. They never came back. Humble pie is best eaten in small slices, I quickly learned. Those experiences began my bumper car life of running more trips in SW Florida and growing our business into what it is today.
Being in the business I had to learn the ropes pretty much on my own. I took my time, made my mistakes, had my quiet victories, but just kept plugging thru. At the dock each morning I watched from afar as the old salty captains launched their boats, grabbed their guest and took them out for a day of fishing. Many times coming back with a meager fish box for my own guest while these old hands had a net full to get filleted at the end of the day.
It was one of these old salts that left a big impression on me one time at the dock at the days close. I was up filleting my few trout, maybe a snapper and Spanish and getting my hands shook and my customers on the way. This older Capt. pulled up and made small talk with his guest and waited for my folks to leave. Once they were gone, he started piling permit, snook, and reds in a small mountain and turned to me and said, “Waited for your folks to get gone, we don’t do that to each other when we have a slow day. It happens to everyone and tomorrow it might be my turn”. This was the start of me seeing the camaraderie and professionalism of what made up the successful guides and captains from the rest of the pack.
As time has gone on, and I too have gotten a little longer in the tooth, it’s much clearer now and easy to see. Running a charter boat is a business first and foremost. A successful captain has a business plan, he knows his cost, and he or she knows what it takes in revenue to keep the lights on for tomorrow. They have the license, permits and gear that it takes to keep them compliant and to keep their passengers safe while in their care. They know their waters, they know their fish and they know their equipment. And above all, they are “entertainers first and foremost.” A captain in the NE portion of the state told me that several years ago and it’s as true a statement as I know about this business. We all catch fish.The trick to this game is getting the customer to come back and be happy to see you next time on a day when you didn’t catch many.
The common trait I see in the captains and guides that I admire most is passion, its drive. These folks eat, sleep and breathe fishing, boats, and the water. A great many of them, on a day off from running charters, go fishing themselves. That’s passion right there. How many other trades do that on a day off?
These captains are many times great teachers, they are wonderful ambassadors to the sport and life we all love. They never forget or miss an opportunity to show an angler something that makes them a little better, they teach conservation and a love and respect for the fish and the fishery. These are just a few of the habits I see in successful guides all over the nation.
Now add to that list the guides that make up the Florida Guides Association and you’ll see some of the best ambassadors of the industry working in unison to ensure our voices are heard, and that the things we hold dear and in high regard are here for years to come.
The FGA is an opportunity for professional captains and guides to come and share insight, and knowledge to other professionals, it’s an opportunity for individual small business owners to work together for a common purpose. It’s also a rare chance for a newer guide, or an older one like myself, to learn and share that camaraderie I first saw on the dock in Chockoloskee many years ago.
While I have just touched on a small part of what makes up a successful fishing guide, the one thing I know for sure is that looking at the ranks of the FGA, a big part of our membership has been in the industry for decades. That should tell you something as a newer guy to the industry.
There is a great value to being a part of a professional association such as the FGA. Its simple business if nothing else, while fishing is of course what comes to mind as the root of running a charter boat, ensuring and being directly involved in your industry is also a part of the equation.
If you never take the time to attend a meeting, talk on an issue and/or be a part of a professional association making sure you are represented in issues that affect your future and ability to work, then can you complain if things go a way that makes life harder for you to be successful? For me the answer is no, but to each their own. At the end of day I believe with my whole heart that the same passion I have in my fishing should be also there as we work as a team to help shape the future we want for our charter businesses as well as the next generation’s chance at this profession.
I thank each and every one of our Guide, Associate and Corporate members for your participation and being involved in shaping all our futures. It’s that support that has made the Florida Guides Association the biggest statewide voice for charter captains, recreational anglers and sportsman thru the nation for the past 25 years and for many more to come.
As always I encourage feedback and any questions please never hesitate to get in touch. Have a great Labor Day and talk to y’all in next month’s FGA Newsletter.