Wherever you’re staying in the Keys, you’ll have no lack of charter fishing boats to choose from. Nearly all are knowledgeable, safe and can return you to the marina with some good “fish-on” tales. However, it can take more than that to make a trip truly pleasurable. When people find their favorite guide, they often end up building a relationship that lasts over many years, and oh so many fish. To find your ultimate captain, here are a few considerations to ponder.
Boat Size & Amenities
For rabid fishermen, the only consideration is getting to where the fish are. But for everyone else, certain creature comforts outweigh the thirst for a specific species. The three main environments in which to fish in the Keys will dictate the boats amenities.
- Backcountry, sometimes called flats fishing, involves small boats in the shallow-water, mangrove-island environment of the nearshore Gulf. These vessels often do not have heads (restrooms) or shade, such as Bimini canopies or T-tops. What the backcountry does offer are calmer seas, especially on windy days, and a more protected feel than the exposure of the vast ocean.
- Reef and wreck fishing typically involves a larger boat that stays within 3 to 9 miles from shore. Some of these boats are center-console style, which offer shade from a T-top and sometimes, but not always, a head. Others in this category are full live-aboard boats with cabins, air conditioning, couches, outlets for charging cell phones and all of the other comforts of home.
- Deep-sea fishing occurs 7 to 45 miles offshore, and almost always involves a full live-aboard setup. The seas can vary from calm to rough out here, depending on the day.
Tackle & Release
Backcountry is all about the light tackle and fly-fishing. On reefs and wrecks, some guides use light tackle here while others prefer heavy, depending on what species they’re trying to hook. Deep-sea most often involves trolling and heavy tackle. Confirm with your guide that he or she uses the type of tackle and style you enjoy. In addition, some charters are mostly catch-and-release while others keep the fish. Ask what the guide’s policies are if these factors are important to you.
Shared or “party” fishing charters are a nice choice for affordability, especially for those just getting their feet wet in the sport. The downside to the price is the potential for a crowded boat, which means less fishing space and one-on-one attention from the guides. With private charters, it is still a good idea to consider the size of the vessel versus the maximum amount of passengers — just because a boat can fit a party of six doesn’t mean lines won’t be getting crossed around limited gunnel space if everyone intends to fish nonstop.
Captain & Crew
For some, fishing is a social event. For others, it’s a time for quiet reflection and focus. Finding a captain and crew who fit your personality and ethics will certainly make the day more pleasurable — as well as a captain who knows his fish and enjoys teaching, of course. If a choice must be made, choose personality and experience over a flashier boat.
What to Bring
The charter will probably provide the gear, tackle, ice and bait, but confirm if food, water and other beverages are included. If not, come stocked with those as well as sunscreen, a brimmed hat, towel, polarized sunglasses and seasickness medication. Many people also bring a long-sleeved coverup from the sun, a bandana to protect their neck and a light waterproof jacket or dry bag, especially on boats without a cabin. A camera or GoPro are great additions to capture the moment. Definitely bring crunchy snacks, as they are especially nice on the water.
Safety & Licensing
Most charters follow all safety, licensing and legal requirements, but it’s still a good idea to ask. If they are playing by the rules, they will be happy to show verification. If they are not, even if the price seems too tempting to pass up, consider whether it’s worth putting your life in the hands of someone who is willing to take short-cuts. There are many laws, but the biggest are that all boats carrying paying customers must have a licensed captain with a current first-aid card and a fishing license that covers the guides and their clientele (that’s you). In addition, their vessels must comply with Coast Guard safety regulations, such as life jackets, and maintain insurance.
Children, Lovers and Pals
When going with others, try to consider the needs of each member in the group. If they enjoy the day, they are much more likely to want to go again, not to mention enjoy your company for the rest of the vacation. For kids, a guide passionate about teaching with patience and a knack for little ones can make all the difference for developing a life-long love of the ocean. Some guides will even stop at the reef for a snorkel, making it a most memorable day for a young enthusiast. For significant others and friends, ask them about seasickness, and if they are unsure consider just a half-day. It’s no fun for anyone if one person is sick for 8 hours miles offshore. Also, if you have smokers in the party, check with the captain about his policies.
Gratuity is customary at 15 to 20% of the charter cost for the captain and crew, sometimes more for those who are particularly informative and engaged. Keep in mind, some mates are only paid on tips, and many captains do not own the boats, so tips are a vital source of each’s income.