WANTED: “I am looking for the perfect mate. My previous relationships just haven’t worked out. I need one that is not too young, not too old, that doesn’t cost too much money and that knows their way around the cockpit. I also need someone that is loyal, who won’t jump ship the next time we’re docked next to a pretty Rybovich.”
‘What the hell kind of article is this?’ you think, as you check the website to make sure you haven’t accidentally landed on Woman’s Time Monthly. Don’t worry, this is InTheBite and the situation relates to fishing. Whether it’s a private boat, a charter vessel or a traveling program, finding reliable, qualified mates is becoming an increasingly difficult, as well as an integrally important, aspect to the sportfishing equation.
The Mate, Historically
As the career of a sportfishing professional evolves, the position of mate is critically important. For most, it’s the first job in which they are paid to fish. The mate’s responsibilities vary from boat to boat but fundamentally they involve fishing, rigging baits, cleaning and learning how to maintain the boat and operate the many systems that comprise a modern sportfisherman. Not too long ago, a mate would be expected to work on a boat for five or six years (and sometimes quite a bit longer) while learning everything that goes into a sportfishing program from bilge to tower and stem to stern.
The position of captain was always viewed as the pinnacle of the sport and one to be attained only after one gained all the knowledge he would need to run the operation. This knowledge base is no small sum since it includes everything from trip logistics, the ability to socialize professionally with the boss’ guests, provisioning, maintenance and boat handling, among many others. Learning all of these skills takes time and mistakes can literally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Becoming a captain requires the investment of time and dedication. This makes a lot of sense: after all, NASA doesn’t allow astronauts to step foot aboard a space shuttle, let alone drive the thing, until they have trained for many years.
Mate in the Morning, Captain by Afternoon
And yet with all of the information available on the Internet today, the lure of becoming an overnight captain can be captivating. Add boat Facebook pages and video blogs—with crews whooping it up like drunken Indians after catching a sailfish—to resources like sea surface temperature charts and satellite-driven navigation, and the role of captain appears to be much less daunting than it once did. This perception, to put it bluntly, is just not true.
Captain Jack Plachter, a sportfishing professional for some 40-plus years, puts it simply, “I have been absolutely blessed to work with some of the finest people in the cockpit my entire career, including the likes of Andy Moyes, Craig Coke and Patrick O’Connell. You can always get a kid to learn. Now guys work in the cockpit for a year or two and all of a sudden they know everything about a boat. You can’t learn everything in a year or two.” He continues by saying, “The owner [who hires a new captain prematurely] may save a few bucks up front, but he pays for it in the long run. Mates now are not patient. These days, seven days on the computer and you can become a captain. It’s really a shame.”
For some perspective, Plachter grew up on the Haulover and Baker docks in Miami. He began his career working on headboats before mating on charter boats. His tenure running his own boat as captain did not begin until after he returned from a stint in U.S. Coast Guard. He is a captain’s captain.
Captain Tony DiGiulian, a longtime sportfishing professional who has worked in just about every facet of the industry, tells a similar tale. “There is definitely a problem finding good mates, and it’s industry wide. Some of this can be attributed to the change in what is expected from a mate. Some operations bring quite a bit of their basic rigging to tackle shops. From rigging kites, spooling reels, splicing wind-ons and rigging lures, some operations make room in the budget to have this done externally. In the 1980s when I got started, the crew and the mates did all of this, right down to servicing the reels,” DiGiulian explains.
In the early days of sportfishing, crews were expected to be self-sufficient. In those days, there was no such thing as an on-call diesel mechanic, ready to fly across the ocean to get things up and running at the drop of a hat. “On the Tyson’s Pride, all the mates had to have a captain’s license to be able to help with watches or in case of an emergency,” DiGiulian says. “These days, you can be an ambulance driver on Monday and a charter boat captain on Friday. Ideally, however, a mate should put in four or five years before even thinking about moving up. Job longevity, keeping with the same program for two or three years, is another good thing to consider,” DiGiulian continues.
Expert marlin wrangler and general sage Capt. Wade Richardson puts it another way: “If you don’t know how to fix it, you have no business running it.”
What Makes a Good Mate and Where Do I Find One?
There are places where good mates tend to come from and there are also certain characteristics that define them. Knowing this can help in locating where a prospect might be and determining the likelihood of success before you commit the time and resources into training a new prospect for the cockpit.
Captain “JoJo” Joachmowski says, “We talk about the lack of young mates every day. I think a lot of it has to do with the decreased number of charter boats caused by the economy. In many places the inshore charter is becoming a thing of the past.” JoJo, who started on the back of a boat at age 15, says, “Inshore charter boats teach a good baseline of skills and used to be a great starting place for someone wanting to become a mate. It can be hard find and train a young guy because owners want results now.”
Plachter relates his experience about finding and training young mates. “To get a start in the industry, everyone needs a foot in the door. And when you’re first getting started, appearances matter,” he reports. “A young kid covered in piercings and tattoos with dyed hair might not sit well with owners and their guests. Once you get your break, it’s important to put your head down and work hard.”
In Plachter’s mind, what separates a very good mate from an average guy are the following items. “Desire is really important. To be a professional, you really have to want it. You’re never going to be rich or famous from fishing, you need the love for it and have the desire to work hard,” he wisely explains. “Drugs and alcohol are not as big a problem in the industry now as they may have been in the 70s or 80s but it’s important to keep the partying in moderation.” The third pillar of Plachter’s recipe for a successful career as a mate is honesty. “There are no shortcuts and no free rides. Some guys try to get ahead by padding bills or getting kickbacks from the boatyard. I don’t believe in this,” he concludes.
Tony DiGiulian offers a similar perspective. “If a young guy is thinking about starting a career in sportfishing, it is important that they get as much education as possible. Learning skills such as writing and effective communication will be important to your career moving forward,” he says. “Once on board with a program, a mate should show the captain and crew that he’s willing to take the initiative to learn the electronics, the navigation systems and the engine room.” DiGiulian concludes with, “A good mate should be the first one on the boat in the morning and the last one off the boat at night.”
So where can you go to find a good prospect for your next vacancy? “Some of the best mates I have ever seen have come out of tackle shops,” Plachter reports. This makes quite a bit of sense, as young guys working at tackle shops obviously enjoy fishing and have a direct avenue for learning the latest in rigging and fishing techniques. The skinny kid you see growing up on the dock today could be a world-traveling, fish-slaying beast tomorrow. Training a young mate from a distant location, when done correctly, can increase the talent in your cockpit and also make your nightly fishing stories more interesting (see the sidebar on Fishing Universities).
How These Captains Do It
Captain Anthony Lopez has operated the Lone Star Fishing Company out of Surfside, Texas, run charters on the Uno Mas, a 33-foot Americat, and maintained a vintage Bertram. As Lopez’ operation has had quite a few moving parts, a competent and devoted mate has been a must.
Enter Alyssa Lopez: five feet, six inches of red-haired, blue-eyed fishing machine. Alyssa is not only Anthony’s wife but has been his partner in business and fishing. But make no mistake, Alyssa is a highly skilled mate: maintaining the spread, rigging baits and not known to miss a gaff shot on a yellowfin or wahoo. “Alyssa hadn’t fished offshore before we started dating,” Lopez says. “About the time we got married, I had the opportunity to start the charter business. Alyssa got exposed to the lifestyle and all that goes into it and having her willing to help out is a tremendous benefit.” This season marks their third year of working together.
Captain JoJo’s approach is equally inventive. “Many of the good mates in our area have been scooped up by the traveling boats. Everybody wants to marlin fish,” JoJo says. (The Knot Again puts a hurting on the bigeye tunas more often than targeting ole sticknose). “Our mate, Derryl ‘Sparky’ Scuse, is a farmer. He’s great. When the crops are in the ground, Sparky takes off to go fishing. In the fall and the spring, Sparky’s unavailable to fish. In these times of the year, we have a network of guys who run boats up here who can crew for a day or two when their own boats are not fishing. We all pitch in.”
A skilled mate can be the difference between going 0-7 and 6-7 on blue marlin. They can be the difference between the best fishing day of your life and a day from Hell. While the description of how to find the perfect mate may sound like an E-Harmony commercial, a good mate equals success.