Five Things To Look For in a Fishing Mate

An experienced captain explains the top five characteristics he looks for in a deckhand.
mate gaffing yellowfin tuna into the boat
The best mates are intense, but they’re also respectful to clients who expect an enjoyable day on the water. This mate made a clean gaff shot on a yellowfin tuna. Capt. John McMurray

I’ve been running fishing charters for years, and I’ve managed a multi-boat operation in western Long Island, New York, focusing on long runs for big tuna for the last decade. If you tuna fish off the New York coast, we have likely crossed paths. So I speak with a fair bit of experience when it comes to long fishing days in the summer.

When you’re burning it at both ends, getting up at 2 a.m. during the tuna season to make bait, then running 80 miles each way, then getting home and making sure the boats are clean and in working order for the next day before knocking off at 7 p.m. (if you’re lucky and nothing needs fixing), well, having a few good mates, or better, one or two great mates, is critical. Because if you don’t, guess what? You’re doing all the work. And getting into the house and spending a couple of hours with the family before crashing? Well, that ain’t happening.   

Here are the five most important things I want to see in a mate. 

A Mate Must Love Fishing

To do this kind of work, you must love fishing. Because working as a fishing mate will not make you rich. No mate does it for the money or job stability. My mates have always worked for tips. Sometimes it’s good money, sometimes it isn’t. But whatever the case, when you break it down by hours, it’s less than minimum wage. 

The best mates are not right in the head. They don’t just work hard because they love it. The best mates do it because they can’t do without it. You know and understand who those guys are pretty quickly. They show the same sort of stoke and excitement as me, every single day. You don’t have to ask them if they can work, they ask you if they can work. 

It is those guys who don’t ever complain about the lack of sleep, the long hours, the back-breaking work, and the money. They know and understand full-well that they are lucky to be on the water fishing every day.   

A Mate Must Be Tough

The best fishing mates are hardcore, tough as nails both mentally and physically. They don’t want or need the sleep. We have decals on all of our boats that read, “Plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead.” They embrace the hard work and they never complain about it. They don’t really care about a social life during tuna season. And if you get a hook in your hands? Well, then be a man and pull it out. 

Just as importantly, the good mates aren’t the kind of folks who get their feelings hurt when  getting yelled at, which is often in this line of work. Stuff happens quickly on the boat, and sometimes strong words are said, maybe even some name-calling in the heat of the moment. If you can’t handle that kind of thing, go work at McDonalds. 

Our mates tend to be on the receiving end of a good amount of ball breaking. Political correctness does not exist at 30 fathoms. The mate is the low guy on the ladder, and without a doubt, we’ll have fun at their expense. Think long and hard before signing up if you’re easily offended. But understand that if we do bust your chops, it’s a real good sign that we like you. If we don’t, well then you probably won’t be asked back.     

A Mate Must Be Curious and Eager to Please

The best mates want to be productive, they want to learn, and they want to please. You know pretty quickly who they are because they show up early, leave late, and are constantly asking you what they can do to help. They’re not asking when they can go home. They don’t plop themselves on a beanbag on the way in. They ask you if they can run the boat while you catch up on some sleep.    

There is no relaxing as a mate, unless I give the go-ahead to nap on the way out or back. A mate should always be doing something, whether it’s cleaning blood off the deck, rigging baits, jigging/casting, or handing the rod off to the client should there be a hook-up. If you don’t know what to do, you should be asking what you can do. 

It goes without saying, but a good mate never gets seasick, no matter how rough it gets. 

The best mates are not simply the ones who know the drill, they are the ones asking the questions. Fish migration patterns, water temps, chlorophyl levels, bait, plugs, jigs, how to tie knots, how to fix engines, or how to use electronics. I could go on and on. I don’t care how much experience you have out there, there’s always something to learn. Yeah, those questions can get annoying when you’re on your fifth day of 2 a.m. wake-ups, but I know it’s that desire to learn and become better that makes a great mate, and one day a great captain.      

A Mate Must Mesh With Fishing Clients

Being nice to clients sounds easy enough. But things go into high-gear quickly out there, when you might only get one perfect shot at a tuna all day. Just as often the clients screw it up. It’s pretty hard not to be an a-hole to what seem like clueless people sometimes. Imagine working multiple days in a row, never sleeping more than four hours at a time, and having an angler mess up a presentation the whole boat worked so hard to make happen. When clients do exactly what you told them not to,  it’s hard not to direct some animosity toward them. 

Yes, the best mates are intense, but they are also respectful and nice to the good folks shelling out money for an enjoyable day on the water. A good mate can handle the seemingly ridiculous questions that often come from clients. 

A Mate Wants To Be a Captain

The very best mates show up at 2 a.m., not just because they are fish-junkies, but because they have ambitions of becoming a captain and running a boat. There was a time where I was paranoid that I was creating more competition by sharing all my hard-earned knowledge, spots and experiences.  But these days I’m kinda proud when a mate gets their captain’s license and starts running trips.  Especially when they are running one of my boats.