By Dave Ferrell
It’s really a thing of beauty to see a top-shelf mate (or a couple of them) set up a spread and work it throughout the day when the fish are really snapping. Whether snatching perfectly-rigged ballyhoo out of the cooler and threading them back through the dredges and shorts with speed and efficiency; coaching the team through a double or triple header with clear communication and professionalism; or taking the correct gaff shot to finish off that tournament-winning marlin, a mate’s job changes from day to day, month to month and year to year.
Their list of duties runs long and deep and all the good ones work extensive hours with a seemingly never-ending supply of energy.
For a variety of reasons, no two mates are exactly alike. Each one comes with a certain skill set, work ethic and general disposition. All of which can be influenced by the people and experiences they see every day as they mature and grow into the fishing business. Certain places on the planet – as a rule, ones near a good and varied fishery – seem to produce more than their fair share of excellent captains and mates.
This is not to say that excellent mates or captains can’t from anywhere; as you’ll see in the testimonies below, attitude and eagerness to learn go a long way for any up and coming deckhand. Still, the fellows lucky enough to grow up where they fish a lot of days, or catch a lot of fish using a wide variety of tactics, will always have a slight edge if they are worth their salt.
No matter where your boat leaves the dock, there will always be a few mates that stand a little taller than the others. The following captains and mates share a bit of insight as to why that is so.
Capt. Mark DeCabia, Shinnecock, Long Island, New York
Pounding out a living on the long runs and relatively short tuna season in the North East, Capt. Mark DeCabia and the boys who fish the far-off canyons from New York and New Jersey rarely take a day off…weather be damned. Alongside his tuna fishing exploits from his Canyon Runner days, DeCabia, like a lot of Northeast fishermen, has a strong commercial background that influences how he runs his crew. “I fish about 280 days a year.
When you grow up in the North East, you start every day at 4 a.m. and you fish in all kinds of weather. You get used to long days and harsh conditions and some guys just aren’t up for that,” says DeCabia.
“Perfect example…I recently told a new guy down in Florida that we were going to start at 6 a.m. the next day. He got here at 6:30 and had a cup of coffee and we didn’t start getting things done until 7:30! I had a different set of teachers. Every single guy I ever worked for – guys like Phil Delaney and Chris Williams – we started every day before the sun came up and we stopped when the sun went down. We had a farmer-type work ethic. Everything gets done or gets fixed. We would start a new project with just two hours left in the day…typical New York and New Jersey… go, go, go!”
DeCabia fishes the sailfish season down in Florida during the winter months and sees the differences between the two places first hand. “The guys in Florida take way more pride in their boat…we don’t focus as much on how the boats look because the season is so short. You get set in your ways up there in the NE and the crews down in South Florida seem to have a broader knowledge about rigging ballyhoos and the like. Everything we see down here has a bimini on it. In New York, nobody knows how to do those little things like that.”
The long runs and long days that come with fishing in the NE takes a toll on both boat and crew alike. “Down in south Florida it’s much easier to keep a boat nice and working properly,” says DeCabia. “There’s only one West Marine in Long Island and they never have anything. I make sure I travel with a ton of spare parts. If you break something in Florida, you can usually get the part you need that day.”
With so much ground to cover, the most successful boats that fish in the North East are going to be the ones that get out almost every day. This makes guys tough. “The commercial fishing honed my skills, and we usually do very well,” says DeCabia. “The key is going every day. I commercial fish from April 15 to July 4, so I know where the bait is, what boats are out fishing. To keep stacking fish on the deck you have to know the moon; know when the fish are going to move. I do a lot of seminars in Atlantic City, Boston, and Connecticut. I’m talking to the same 350 guys I compete against…spoon-feed them the info. But if you don’t know how to apply it, it won’t matter. The difference is, me and my guys are out there every day. It takes a different breed to fish up here. I don’t know if that’s good or bad…it’s hard on all of us, but we get the job done every day.”
Capt. Devin Potts; Orange Beach, Alabama
Capt. Devin Potts runs the 66 Spencer, Sea Mixer, out of Orange Beach, Alabama. Devin has spent his entire career running boats in the Gulf of Mexico and says he’s fished out of every “orifice” along its coastline.
“Most of my experience has been right here in the Gulf, but I’ve fished with a lot of different mates from different places,” says Potts. I can definitely say that without a doubt, the better dead bait guys are going to be on the Outer Banks, Ocean City, Maryland or Stuart, Florida. We borrowed Richard Wright from Capt. Newt Cagle one year and Wright helped us win first and second place tuna. [Wright got his skills running back and forth between North Carolina and Isla Mujeres on the Obsession]. I still talk about it to this day. We had a big fish come up on the chain and stayed on it so long we were able to get a big leader on a 30 and pitch it to the fish. Wright fought the fish, a 160-pound yellowfin, for an hour and fifteen minutes. He won the tournament for us in buzzer-beater fashion. He won’t be coming back though, that fish was back breaker!”
“In the Gulf of Mexico, you have to be well-versed in all facets of fishing,” says Potts, “dead baiting, trolling lures and live baiting.” Generally speaking, you troll lures to cover ground and find good water, then slow down and use dead baits when you do. And if you mark a fish, or find a school of tunas on a rig, then you catch a tuna and out go the live baits. “A mate here needs to know a little bit about a lot of different styles…you have to be a fairly well-rounded fisherman. One advantage North Carolina mates have is they have a great skill set when it comes to tuna fishing. If you can find and catch tuna, then you can find marlin here in the Gulf. Those NC boys are tuna killing machines and they can make tunas bite when others can’t…they can make magic happen. It makes sense because it is that tuna knowledge that pays the bills back home. The charter customers want to catch tunas and these guys can run eight lines all by themselves to get it done.”
No matter where the mate comes from, Potts likes to pick up mates that come with a healthy dose of charter fishing experience.
“You learn a lot of people skills and get a personality in a hurry when you are chartering every day…if you don’t, it will get in your wallet. Charter mates don’t mind the grind, they keep a smile on their face, they don’t mind the silly questions and they keep focused on the task at hand. I shouldn’t have to tell him a whole, whole lot. If I’m going to go away a two-day tuna trip, I want him to come to me and tell me what he’s got and what he needs so I can say yeah. I shouldn’t have to say do this and do that…they should have acquired those skills already. The fishing will always come and go…one day you’re the hero and one day you’re the zero…but keeping the people happy and into it always trumps missing a few.”
“And if you do miss a few you can’t have a complete meltdown. It hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve heard about it. This is a happy place, we want to keep it all smiles. Shake off the bad things and move on in a professional manner. You need to get along with the boss and make sure the guests enjoy the boat. A boat is not a necessity…if it becomes a pain in the ass, it will be the first thing to go.”
Capt. Charles Perry; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
A true legend in the sportfishing game, few captains or mates enjoy the rock-solid reputation of professionalism, integrity and generosity as Capt. Charles Perry. He’s one of the best there is on the leader with a heavy fish on the other end and if you hear someone saying something bad about him you should just turn around and walk away because that fellow is no count! He’s fished in all the good places and alongside the best.
“One of the things I can tell you, and I’ve traveled quite a bit, I’ll get calls from all over the world, from different people, asking about getting a mate,” says Perry. “They will ask for them in these terms; ‘Do you know a Hatteras or Oregon Inlet mate that you could recommend for a job?’ I’ve had two captains who’ve been around a really long time; Matthias Henningsen in Ascension, and Zach Conde in the Canaries, ask me just that way. After I said that I’d look around for him, I asked Henningsen, out of curiosity, ‘Why do you want one of those?’” “He said, ‘Well, I’ve never fished there, but I know they fish long hours, they have to catch all kinds of fish, and they deal with different people every day. That’s exactly what I want. If they can last in Hatteras or Oregon Inlet, then they must love what they do.’ That made a lot of sense to me.”
Perry, however, sees talent the world over.
“Everywhere I go the good mates will stand out. Guatemala has some really good mates. The young man that fishes with Jason Brice down there, Yefri Garcia, now travels all over the world with Gary Carter. He’s been to Madeira, Portugal and Australia. The top mates from any country usually start to travel and fish other places, which only makes them even better in the long run. But traveling isn’t a necessity, you can still stay in one place, enjoy the sport and be good at it. Carlton Arai, who fishes with Mcgrew Rice on the Ihu Nui in Kona is a perfect example of a guy that’s stayed in one place and that is universally loved by tons of people! He’s really great in his home town,” says Perry.
An early start in North Carolina and several seasons in Australia were the key to getting a good education for Perry. “I’ve been fortunate enough to start traveling and fishing fairly early on. I had a job for eight seasons in North Carolina, and I’d get spend four months out of each year in Australia. Even when I went on to work for Stewart Campbell, he kept me on retainer. The more people you fish with the more things you learn. There is so much to know now, so much new stuff all the time.”
Perry got a quick and thorough bait handling education during those seasons spent in Australia on the Great Barrier Reef and found out the mates there were no joke.
“I went in there with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, but it got knocked off real quick. In Australia, all the top guys are really good,” says Perry. “They have to catch bait, process bait, and catch big fish. I loved it. It’s a challenge. Most of those guys travel now and as a whole, Australia puts out some great fishing people. All the captains there were mates beforehand, and I certainly think that time on the deck makes a better captain.”
Capt. Marty Bates; La Onda Mila, Cape Verde
A native of New Zealand, Marty Bates started his career chasing giant striped marlin and swordfish in the prolific waters around home before making the jump to Australia to catch big blacks. After getting a bunch of experience on big fish, he wound up splitting his time between the Azores and Cape Verde, running boats in some of the world’s best blue marlin hot spots.
“No matter where you come from, I think everyone has strong points and weak points,” says Bates. “In North Carolina, you have to be very quick on the deck, the guys are very fast, and they know how to fish a lot of different styles. The guys on the Reef come with the bait experience. Nobody takes care of their baits and rigs them up like they do in Australia. In New Zealand, we are good at catching big swordfish – some pushing 1,000 pounds – and really big striped marlin. We don’t fish much ballyhoo for our stripes down there!” says Bates.
“A lot of guys will probably call bullshit, but to me, white marlin fishing and sailfishing with the dredges and ballyhoo are pretty much the same thing. But that’s not really what I do. I’m always fishing for blue marlin,” says Bates. “I was an observer for Ronnie Fields once and those guys fishing for white marlin, with all the bait rigging, those south Florida guys are pretty damn good. The North Carolina guys are on it as well. I always like to see different styles of fishing and those guys have some pretty slick ways of doing things.”
Recently, Bates spent some time down in Panama and he came away with a deep respect for some of the local tuna fishermen in Central America work the porpoise to catch tuna.
“Paul Gerlach’s captain, Chicho, is an excellent tuna fisherman. He’s really good at finding the front of an enormous school of porpoise and getting his baits in front of the tuna. Every time I tried to figure out which way they were going, I’d choose the opposite direction! That’s old-school local knowledge. He’s one of the best tuna fishermen I’ve ever seen,” says Bates.
Bates went to the well in North Carolina and got a North Carolina deckie named Chase Travis to work the deck this upcoming season. “Ninety percent of my charters come from the United States, and I know this guy will know what he’s doing and treat people right.”
Capt. Brad Goodrich; Florida Keys
With the true Keys’ fishing attitude that includes everything from “grunts to granders,” Capt. Brad Goodrich built his career by being pretty good at a lot of different things.
“Everybody brings something to the table. I’ve been fortunate that being from the Keys, I’ve been able to travel and work in some great destinations, like Isla Mujeres, Costa Rica, Bermuda and all up and down the East coast. Not all the Keys guys I know have had those opportunities, but they could all handle it if they wanted to. A good Keys crew member has to be able to do it all. You have to be able to catch live bait, throw the cast net, target and use the right bait for the right time of the year. On any given day, a good Keys mate might be asked to fish from two to eight different styles of fishing. You go from catching bait in the morning on hair hooks, bottom fishing for a grouper, chumming for yellowtail, kite fishing for sails, trolling offshore for dolphin or tuna or deep dropping for swords. You might be asked to do three or four of those on a single day. And you have to be proficient and prepared to do all of them at all times.”
“I want to make it clear that I’m not bad-mouthing anybody else. Different areas require different styles and methods. The North Carolina guys are great at what they do…great at catching their targeted fish. But they aren’t starting out with live baits, and then trolling dead baits later on. Down in the Keys, we dead bait fish in the summer, but in the wintertime, we are live baiting with kites, sabiki-ing 100 baits each morning or throwing a big cast net…it’s just part of the job.”
Goodrich also says the mates in Central America get the best training imaginable. “A lot of those Costa Rican guys are really, really great at dead bait fishing. They are just experts at seeing fish in the spread and hooking them. They just get a ton of opportunities and it shows. A guy on the East Coast may see good numbers from time to time…a 100 or 150 billfish season is a good year. The guys in Central American can catch that many every four days! If you have a basketball team of killers in the cockpit that can really swing a rod you can catch 100! You just can’t beat that kind of experience.”
“That same kid that’s so great at catching and releasing sails, might not be the guy you want on the gaff,” says Goodrich. “Especially if you have a North Carolina guy back there who sticks little kings, wahoo and tunas all day!”
Goodrich thinks that ego gets in the way of a lot of mates’ development. “I had an experience five or six years ago on a brand-new boat that was fishing a tournament. I went down to the boat and was looking through it
when the other mate came aboard. He was a younger kid about 20 and I was 31 or 32 at the time. He had a bit of a chip on shoulder and after we introduced ourselves and I told him I was from down in the Keys.”
“He said, ‘You guys do a lot of that fag rag fishing down there don’t ya?’ I was a little shocked, but I said, ‘Yeah we do a lot of kite fishing.’ He continued putting it down. I finally told him that there’s a lot more money in live bait tournaments than in dead bait ones and that the difference between me and him was that I knew how to fish both ways, and that I wouldn’t have to ask him how to do it when I went home. He was hell-bent on the idea that live baiting was stupid. I’d much rather be a jack of all trades than a master of one. He finally got the idea when they handed us a second-place brown bag in one of Skip Smith’s tournaments,” says Goodrich.