6. Ask Before You Book
To avoid any misunderstandings or disappointments on your next charter, ask your captain these questions before booking a trip.
How much? What does the price of the charter include? Are there additional costs for fuel, fish cleaning, bait and others?
What about extras? What's the usual tip expected for the captain, the deckhand(s) or the cook, and are there any other charges or gratuities I'll be expected to pay?
Got a reference? Can you provide me with references for not only your successful charters but also unsuccessful charters? You'll find checking the references for unsuccessful charters very important. Ask these references if the captain has plenty of equipment and bait and whether or not they would rebook with that same captain.
How big are the fish? What do you expect to catch if we book with you for a specific number of hours? Most captains will try to meet the expectations that they give their customers.
Refund policy? What is your rainy day or cancellation policy? Who decides to cancel the trip and why? Will I get my deposit back if the trip is cancelled?
The better understanding you have before booking a charter, the fewer problems you'll have during and after the trip.
-John E. Phillips
7. Find the Thermocline
Vertical boundaries, known as "temperature breaks," are easily identified and familiar to most offshore fishermen. But horizontal boundaries, known as "thermoclines," can only be seen by a good fishfinder or sonar, so are much less well known.
The most important thermocline is the first, or upper, thermocline. In tropical waters it may be as deep as 300 feet and persist throughout the year, while in temperate waters it may disappear in the colder months and return as the sun warms the upper layers, gradually deepening and becoming more pronounced as the season progresses. It can be located by following these steps: slow your boat to eliminate turbulence, turn your fishfinder to its highest frequency to maximize its resolution, then slowly increase the gain until the thermocline shows up. It will appear as either a fine, rather sharply defined line or, if there is much plankton in the top layer, as a sudden clearing of the screen at the base of the plankton echoes.
The establishment of the upper thermocline in late spring heralds the northward migration of such species as white and blue marlin, dorado and yellowfin tuna. Look for these species where the thermocline is well-established and at a depth of at least 40 feet.
8. Read the Birds
It's no secret that salt water anglers rely on birds to find fish. Seeing a flock of gulls or terns dive-bombing the water makes us feel like we've found the mother lode. But can you "read" the birds well enough to decipher the frenzy and catch more fish? Here's a crash course.
While there are lots of different species of birds, the common ones we see are a blend of inshore and offshore birds. Terns, gulls and cormorants are inshore birds. While terns favor small bait such as silversides, sandeels, bay anchovies, and small butterfish, gulls target larger baitfish such as menhaden, mackerel and herring (when they're not picking on dead horseshoe crabs or other debris). Cormorants are less selective and will eat anything that swims.
Offshore birds like petrels, shearwaters and gannets travel great distances every day. In the ocean, petrels like squid but they'll move into bays and estuaries to feed on shrimp and plankton. Shearwaters key in on mackerel and squid but they also slum it with some crustaceans and plankton. The migratory gannet moves through New England in the fall, feasting on a buffet of herring and sampling a peanut bunker or two.
Take a few minutes to study your birds to see if some patterns unfold. Birds flying in a single direction reveal baitfish spread out in a current. It probably means that the fish are scattered as well. If the birds are all balled up, there may be fish corralling their next meal. Watch when birds suddenly veer off course because they're telling you that they are on to something better. Fast-flying birds can mean fast-swimming fish like Spanish mackerel or bonito, whereas slow moving-birds can reveal striper schools. Birds hovering close to the water tell you that the bait is on top and birds flying high means they're just looking. If a diving bird is underwater for a short time then the bait is high up in the water column and if they're down for a long time they're probably just doing some laps. And if a big flock of birds suddenly ditches and goes somewhere else, you probably should, too.
It's easy to get duped by birds. When the bait is thick, birds dropping out of the sky in big flocks may be more about easy pickings rather than big schools of fish. Similarly, large flocks of birds sitting on the water may mean lots of fish have driven the bait to the surface and the birds don't have to fly to feed. Watch their heads, as they are probably picking at more than just their feathers.
So before you start racing around wasting gas or blowing out big schools of fish, check out the birds. Chances are they're providing you with invaluable information and putting you right on the prime locations of schools of fish.
- Tom Keer