by Charlie Levine
Captain Ricky Wheeler rose up through the ranks in New Jersey learning how to catch everything from fluke to bigeye tuna to blue marlin. Wheeler credits fishing out of this part of the world with shaping the captain he is today. It was that well-rounded fishing education that helped him become a successful captain and launch his own tackle company.
Wheeler, who just turned 34, grew up in Delaware but spent his summers in Wildwood, New Jersey. When he scored a job at South Jersey Marina, home to the MidAtlantic 500, the door to the offshore fishing world opened. “I grew up fishing for striped bass and bluefish in the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays,” he says. “My dad and granddad had boats and back then the fishing for weakfish was really good, but we didn’t do much offshore fishing. We didn’t have the means. When I started working at the marina, I met the right people and got invited offshore. I learned a lot really fast.”
He spent a summer working as a mate on the Super Crew, a 54 Monterey, and caught his first white marlin. “That kind of catapulted my love for offshore fishing,” he says. His next big break occurred while fishing the MidAtlantic tournament with Frank Pettisani who had a 45 Hatteras. “We caught fish, but didn’t win,” Wheeler says. “Frank offered me a job on the way home and had me running that boat right away. I got my captain’s license that winter.”
Wheeler fished with Pettisani for five years, till the end of 2010. “For me, it was great because Frank demands a lot, but I don’t think realizes it. He wants perfection every day. He pushes me to go beyond good and get better,” Wheeler says. “He understands the fishing part of it.”
Wheeler fished nine months out of the year in New Jersey, fishing for whatever was biting, then spent the winter months with customization projects on the boat. “It went well, and I learned a lot,” he says. “We totally customized that boat and fished a lot.”
Pettisani took the boat from Cape May to Venezuela in 2010 and also fished in Aruba. Those were tough times to fish in Venezuela, with issues sourcing fuel for US boats. It was just dangerous to be there. “It’s a shame,” Wheeler says. “It’s a beautiful country and really good fishing.”
After Venezuela, Wheeler headed back to New Jersey and started freelancing. He fished with IGFA world-record holder Maureen Klause. The pair set nine records together. He also ran larger boats for various clients over the summer. In 2011, he spent his winter in the southern Bahamas, fishing with Capt. Joe Trainor on the Over/Under. He also began fishing in Trinidad and Grenada with Pettisani who had moved the boat there. “It was a busy, year-round schedule for four or five years,” Wheeler says. But the entire time, Wheeler was learning more about fishing in various areas and taking what he learned in New Jersey and applying it to new waters.
“In New Jersey, we have long runs and you learn how to read sea-surface temperature and chlorophyll charts, how water moves and how to adapt every day,” he says. “I use what I learned up there and take it everywhere. Fish do the same basic thing anywhere. It may change a bit depending on what they’re eating, but we’ll still target current edges and look for color breaks.”
From Trainor, Wheeler also learned how to keep a boat running in remote settings. There simply aren’t many facilities in the southern Bahamas. If something breaks, you better be able to fix it, and you better have spare parts. “There was no body coming to help us,” Wheeler says. “You’ve got to learn to fix things. I don’t love turning wrenches, I actually dislike it, but I love that I know how to do it. Anything that is broken can be fixed.”
Wheeler started spending time in Grenada in the winter of 2013 with Pettisani and fished the spring months with Joe Trainor in the Bahamas. A self-described computer geek, Wheeler also uses his electronics to the full extent possible. He says that freelancing on different boats really helped him master marine electronics. “Every boat I fished on had different electronics, from the newest to the oldest, so I had to learn all that. It was one of the best things that could’ve happened to me. The same could be said for engines and gensets, they were all different. When you only work on one boat you only learn one system.”
After fishing Grenada for a few seasons, Pettisani decided to go all in. He didn’t want anyone but Wheeler to run the operation. Pettisani stationed the 45 Hatteras on the Spice Island and brought over the Exile (formerly Phat Mann and Soul Candy), a 65 Paul Mann that’s going to fish year-round in Grenada. The operation, Exile Charters (www.exilecharters.com), is ready to make the most of a bite that Wheeler says is quietly home to one of the best fisheries in the Caribbean.
“Nobody there really understands how good the fishing is,” Wheeler says. “It’s just far enough that most American boats don’t go, but you can get direct flights from New York and Miami. Our clientele can be there in a few hours.” According to Wheeler, prime time in Grenada runs from December through April with February standing out as the peak of the action. “We’ll see sails balling bait and you can get 25-plus shots a day. The first three days of February we fished five-hour days and had 15 shots with blues in the mix.” The yellowfin bite is also strong, offering some variety and the action is just five miles offshore.
When fishing remote locations, you sometimes need to get a little creative with the spread. Wheeler had been using what he calls a Party Hat, which added some flash to an O-ring circle hook ballyhoo rig. “I wanted to be able to add some color to the ballyhoo, especially for tuna,” he says. His Party Hat accomplished that goal and didn’t impede the circle hook hookup ratio on the drop back.
He met his future business partner on a liveaboard charter and they started Fish Downsea (www.fishdownsea.com), offering a line of Party Hats, Dredge Shads, Mojo rigs and more. “I would make my own tackle as a hobby,” Wheeler says. “We kept expanding on it and we’re about to start a line of trolling lures. This season I’m going to try a good array of shapes I like. We made some molds, and we’re going to try them. If I’m going to pull something, why not make it mine? If I can pull it, I can promote it.”
Charlie Levine is the publisher of FishTrack.com and the author of the fishing book, “Sucked Dry: The Struggle is Reel,” available on Amazon.