It’s been called ‘the toughest job you’ll ever love:’ being a world-class mate on a top-flight sportfishing boat. These guys are the unsung heroes of the team—while the captain and anglers can take all the fame and glory they can handle for a tournament win or running 250 charters a year, the mates quietly go back to work, cleaning the boat and prepping for the next day. It takes a special kind of person to consistently perform well in this environment.
The Gulf of Mexico is one of the world’s fishiest destinations, yet because many of the productive regions lie well offshore it’s also one of the hardest in terms of fishing it successfully. Tournaments just
amp up the challenge, with big fish and big bucks on the line. Boats often chug out the afternoon prior to the start of fishing, then fish for two days straight (often with an overnight or two of swordfishing
thrown in for good measure) before heading back to the dock.
Someone with a wealth of experience as a mate in the Gulf is Lance Hightower who has worked the deck of Jon Gonsoulin’s Done Deal with Capt. Jason Buck. Lance, who is now captaining the Vaquero, notes that the Gulf is “the hardest to fish from a mate’s perspective” adding that there is a lot of variety crews have to be prepared for. “We have to be set with a complete arsenal, from live-baiting to dead bait trolling to lure fishing, and to be able to transition from one style to the other as quickly and easily as possible. Most of the time I feel like I should have a whistle and an orange vest in the cockpit, I spend so much time directing traffic.” Hightower says that the best attribute a mate can bring to the team is a good set of people skills, in addition to the technical and mechanical skills that any good mate should acquire. “Fishing the Gulf tournaments, you’re in real close quarters with other people for several days, and you’re not getting much sleep,” he says. “Throw in rough weather on top of all that and you need to be able to get along and still do your job. There are a lot of good mates out there that just don’t have the ‘people skills’ to keep up.”
Lance credits a team’s success to the amount of time put into each event. “We live by the six Ps: proper planning prevents piss-poor performance. We spend days getting rigged up for a tournament,” Hightower reports. “The old school guys will pull six lures all day then shut down at night and drink and party, but not us. We’re very intense and have a zero tolerance on the boat—we don’t even have a beer when we’re done fishing.” He says their efforts start with catching live bait, often well before sunrise. A full day’s fishing finally ends around 9PM. After showers and dinner, they start rotating wheel watches through the evening and do it all again the following day. “We’re always being positive and keeping our cool in the cockpit,” he says. “You have to be humble and appreciative of your success when it finally does happen.”
Lee Scarborough has been fishing professionally off the North Carolina coast for a number of years and has spent several months each year in the sailfish-rich waters of Isla Mujeres, sharpening his skills even further. As a mate, Scarborough’s day starts about two hours before the day’s charter party is scheduled to arrive. “I like to take my time in the morning and not be in a rush,” he says. “Most of the time the more important things have been done the evening before so normally it’s just getting the rods out. A lot of times during a charter I will rig my teaser baits and maybe a few others in case anyone wants to see how it’s done.” At the end of the day it’s time to dive into rigging for the next trip. “By the time I’ve rigged enough bait for the next day, plus cleaning up and fueling up, it’s normally at least two hours before I leave the boat after we get in.”
Even more than just hard work, a good mate brings a positive attitude to the boat each day. When asked what’s important while working as a mate, Lee says, “I think its confidence. Every time I go out I expect to have a great day. A good friend of mine told me, ‘If you don’t think you’re gonna get ‘em, you probably aren’t,’ and there couldn’t be a truer statement. We have a great fishery here on the East Coast, whether we’re looking for Ole Blue in May or June out of Hatteras or maybe just gaffer dolphin fishing. We have a world-class white marlin bite in August and September out of Oregon Inlet and everything in between, even some bluefins as well. In May, you can catch eight or nine different species of fish trolling in one day, so you have to be ready for anything.”
Like many good mates, Carlos Arguedas is an experienced captain—he has run the Wing Man out of Los Sueños for a wide variety of species, including not just marlin and sailfish but roosterfish, snapper and others. When heading into a tournament, starts early, just like the others. “I get there with good time to check on things,” he says, “but if you’ve done a good job the day before you should just check your bait and ice and be ready. You always need lots of good ice for your bait and drinks.” He’s a firm believer in rigging baits in the afternoon. He says, “You have to have plenty of bait ready to go and you have to rig them with the secret ingredient: love.” Arguedas also double checks leaders to make sure they’re IGFA-legal, then does a quick survey of the boat including the running gear to make sure everything is ready to roll the next day.
During a tournament, Arguedas tries to help his anglers by spotting the fish before they bite so the angler can be ready. “The most important thing for a good mate is to be consistent in your job, with no
slack for anything,” he reports. “You have to be ready with anything the anglers may need during the day and make sure the baits are all in perfect condition so the guys have the best chance possible at
hooking the fish.” Making the most of the opportunities that are presented to you is the mark of a true professional, whether you’re chartering or tournament fishing (or both), no matter where you’re fishing.
Keys to a Good Mate
First-rate people skills. Whether you’re on a charterboat or a private operation, it’s imperative that you be able to get along with a wide variety of people. Just being a first-rate bait rigger isn’t enough.
Good work ethic. If you’re looking for a nine-to-five job, this isn’t it. Mates always begin their days early and end up late, working most every weekend and frequently over any holidays. The hours can be brutal, especially when you’re fishing a long string of days in a row. Any downtime is devoted to maintenance and tackle prep, not a day off at the beach.
A willingness to learn. Nobody likes a know-it-all. Be a sponge, open to learning new techniques and methods every trip out. Fish with different captains and in different places as often as possible and learn to be flexible—there’s always a better way to do something right around the corner.
Know when to say when. Too many mates fall into the trap of alcohol and/or drug abuse. After a run of long days offshore and a pocket full of tip cash, it’s easy to party a little too hard and wind up either in trouble with the law or missing the next day’s trip. Don’t do it—know when to say when. Party all you want on your own time.
Develop a good reputation. The fishing community is a pretty small one so right from the start, develop and cultivate a good rep. You want to be known as a hard worker who always has a smile on his face, not the drunken slob who smells bad and is always late for work.