Charter fishing trips done right

(Photo by John N. Felsher)

From rivers to lakes, bays and bayous to vast marshes, the Gulf Coast offers some of the best fishing in the nation for many species.

Not everyone can afford to own a boat, but they still want to fish. Hiring a charter service costs money, but sportsmen who only fish occasionally save dollars. After adding all the expenses of owning and operating a boat, anglers can pay for several charter trips each year and still save money.

“We provide all the tackle and bait,” confirmed Ron Harmon of Captain Ron’s Charters (228-860-4308, www.CaptainRonsCharters.com) in Gulfport, Miss. “The only thing we require for anglers booking with us is to bring their own food and drinks. In Mississippi waters, our charter license covers everyone on the boat, so non-resident guests don’t need to buy separate fishing licenses. I also recommend people bring a hat, camera, sunglasses and sunscreen.”

April Bethea shows off a king mackerel she caught while fishing aboard a charter boat in the Gulf of Mexico. By taking a charter, anglers can fish for species they might never otherwise catch. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

How do you know?

Many people book charters because they’ve never fished before. Others who regularly fish their local waters want to try something new. With so many great charter services available, how does one know which one to choose?

Everything comes down to two words — research and communications!

Before spending big bucks to hit the water, surf the internet. Look at service websites. Many captains also periodically post fishing reports and photos on other sites. If a captain hasn’t posted a report in years, that’s not the first one to call. Read recent articles in periodicals or websites that might mention a captain or service who works a particular area. Does that captain fish for what you want to catch the way you want to catch it?

“Research the area you plan to fish,” Harmon suggested. “We get many calls for tuna, but that’s not a practical fishery for us because of how far we need to go out to find tuna. We go to great lengths to try to accommodate requests from our clients, but fishing is fishing. I’ll do everything I can to make sure they get what they are expecting and bring them back safely.”

After deciding on a place to go, talk to people who own marinas or lodging in that area. Call local sporting goods stores or bait shops. Ask them to recommend captains. Then, do some research on those individuals. Check out their reviews on line.

“Start with local resources, such as a community Facebook page and find a properly licensed captain,” advised Daryl Carpenter with Reel Screamers Guide Service (225-937-6288, www.reelscreamers.com) in Grand Isle, La. “Many of my first-time customers come from local referrals. Hire charter captains local to that area and not people who come in temporarily from somewhere else. The hotel/motel and marina owners know who their charter captains are.”

Capt. Kenny Kreeger of Lake Pontchartrain Charters shows off a black drum he caught while fishing in the Rigolets near Slidell, La. A good charter captain can usually find something biting. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

When to call

After narrowing down the field, call a few services. Whenever possible, speak directly to the captain, not a booking agent. Call in late afternoon after the captains return from a long day of fishing and get a bite to eat. Don’t call too late because most captains go to bed early.

“The absolute best idea before booking a charter is talking to the captain,” Carpenter said. “I want a customer to call me because I want that customer to hear me and I want to do the same with that customer. I want that customer to be comfortable booking with me. My philosophy has always been ‘if the captain doesn’t have time to talk to you on the phone, what makes you think he’s got time to deal with you on the boat?’ Tell the captain exactly what you want to do and what you expect out of a charter. Communication is the key. If you have a pleasant conversation, then go with your gut.”

When talking to the captain, don’t hesitate to ask questions. Is the captain properly licensed? Ask about the boats and equipment. What does the captain provide? Inquire about any extra fees such as fuel surcharges, fish cleaning services and tips. Request references. If possible, talk to some anglers who recently fished with that captain.

Let the captain know how many people will comprise the party and a little information about them. If the party will include young children, ask how the captain feels about that. Some captains cater to family groups and might fish a special way to get the youngsters involved. Others might only host adults. Don’t surprise the captain by booking a trip for six people and showing up with one adult and five small children.

As the sun rises for another day of action, Justin Hoffman fishes near a marshy shoreline on Calcasieu Lake south of Lake Charles, La. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Multiple boats

If a party consists of more people than can fit on one boat, the captain must place anglers in multiple boats. The person who makes the call and books the trip won’t necessarily fish with the captain who answered the phone.

“We all get bookings that require multiple boats,” Carpenter said. “The customer might not know they’re being handed off to someone else. As operators, we need to inform people of that so they can make a personal communication with that captain to see if they feel good about booking that trip.”

Captains and customers also need to discuss what they will actually do on the water. Some people only want to fish a special way or catch a specific species, tempting redfish on a fly rod, for example. Does that captain fish for that species that way? Is that species in season or when is the best time to catch it? Others want to bring home an ice chest full of fresh fillets. Others just want to relax, enjoy the day and don’t care what bites.

“The captain needs to know exactly what are the intentions and expectations for the trip,” Harmon said. “We go to great lengths to try to accommodate the requests from our clients. We are going to fish for what they want to catch, but fishing is fishing. We can’t guarantee that will work that day.”

Also consider options. If the desired plan doesn’t succeed, perhaps the captain can recommend Plan B or C. For instance, if the party wants to troll for king mackerel, but rough weather makes that impossible, perhaps the captain might suggest hitting a hot redfish hole or dropping shrimp next to pilings for sheepshead.

“Sometimes people come with expectations a bit too high,” Carpenter said. “Some people want to get a limit of speckled trout and then a limit of redfish. Sometimes we can do that, but sometimes it’s just too windy to chase specks. The ideal customer says, ‘Captain, I’m leaving it at your discretion. We’ll go after whatever is biting.’”

Some guides clean the catch. Here, Tommy Adams of Fishing Tom Guide Service begins to fillet a redfish his customers caught in the Calcasieu Estuary near Hackberry, La. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Schedule well in advance

Since most charter services stay busy during prime fishing times, potential customers should schedule an outing well in advance. Don’t show up on the dock at 7 a.m. on opening day of red snapper season and expect to hire a charter. Captains understand that genuine emergencies do happen. If a customer must cancel for some reason, that person should contact the captain immediately to give the service an opportunity to book another trip.

Weather probably causes the most cancellations, particularly for offshore adventures. Boat captains must ensure the safety of everyone aboard the vessel. If a captain cancels a trip due to unsafe weather conditions, don’t argue. Usually, that captain will work with the party to reschedule the trip or offer an alternative, such as switching from offshore to an inshore excursion.

In addition, customers must show up at the designated time and place ready to spend a day on the water. Don’t crawl to the dock after running the bars all night and expect to catch fish. Also, don’t judge the trip by the weight of the ice chest. Captains know their areas and keep up with fish movements, but they can’t make fish bite.

Capt. Tommy Pellegrin of Custom Charters shows off a speckled trout he caught while fishing near one of the barrier islands south of Cocodrie, La. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

“Many people book a fishing guide and think they are going to load the boat,” Carpenter said. “No matter how good the captain is, we’re still chasing a wild animal that moves. As charter captains, we do everything we can do to put people on fish, but sometimes fish just don’t cooperate. In addition, some people just can’t fish. I love when customers bring their wives or children with them because they listen to what we tell them to do. They’re usually the ones who catch the most fish.”

Many Gulf Coast captains offer excellent fishing packages. Some include food, lodging and other services. Unfortunately, recent hurricanes devastated large sections of the Gulf Coast. In some places, lodging and other services might still be difficult to obtain.

“Grand Isle is coming back from Hurricane Ida, but we’re still having trouble with enough affordable lodging for customers because we still have so many contractors occupying the rooms,” Carpenter said. “As far as the fishing goes, we’re back! We want people to come down and have some fun!”

Take a little time to pick the right captain with proper credentials and evaluate the entire experience, not just the fish count. Did that captain provide an adventure that created a good lasting memory? If so, you picked the right captain!

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About John Felsher 17 Articles
John N. Felsher is a professional freelance writer and photographer with more than 1,700 articles in more than 117 magazines to his credit.

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