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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.
by Elliott Stark
Ask anyone who has ever spent much time fishing in Venezuela and the conversation always goes the same way. It starts with an exclamation. “I love Venezuela. The fishing is…” They then spend the next few minutes spinning outlandish-sounding tales that would seem farfetched were they not similarly repeated by other captains who fished in Venezuela. Stories about having multiple blue marlin, multiple white marlin and a sail or two in the spread at the same time. Stories about weeks filled with multiple double slams.
After talking about the fishing, they then transition to “The people are…” The next few minutes describe the hospitality and friendliness of the Venezuelan people. Most also provide recollections of some of the amazing fishing talent that gathered to fish the La Guaira Bank. The captains who fished there were too many and too influential to mention here.
Next, inevitably comes the expression of regret. “What a shame what has happened there…” After the almost mournful statement of sadness, whoever is doing the talking will usually recount the lead up of events that resulted in their departure. The story usually involves describing a fair bit of back and forth – “The fishing was good and the experience was so great… but it just wasn’t safe any longer…” There is usually an underlying sadness in these recollections – it seems as none of those who spent a lot of time fishing in Venezuela ever actually wanted to leave. Most describe their eventual departure as being forced out by circumstance.
After the stories and the expression of sadness at having to leave always comes the same thing – “I sure hope it gets better. I’d go back in a second.” Most anyone who has ever spent time in Venezuela, it seems, dreams of one day returning. With the return of political and economic stability there will be a trail of sportfishers steaming south from all over the United States, the Caribbean and Central America. This stream of boat traffic will be matched in size and franticness of pace by only by the Spanish Armada (Columbus first visited Venezuela in 1498).
What’s Happening in Venezuela
Before going any further we must make one thing clear. While most of those reading this may have only thought of Venezuela as it relates to fishing, everything else pales in comparison to what is happening to the people of the country. Venezuela is in the midst of a crushing economic depression and a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions. There are shortages of food, medicines and other basic necessities. Crime rates have sky rocketed, the country’s public health care system has collapsed. There are reports of mass hunger. By some estimates, 80% of Venezuelan households lack access to sufficient food.
Economically, the country is gripped by one of the worst economic depressions in the history of Western civilization. The country is experiencing hyper inflation of its currency of disastrous proportions. The International Monetary Fund estimates that inflation will reach 10,000,000 percent in 2019. Yes, that’s 10 million percent. (Inflation is an economic term that describes the increase in prices for goods and services and a decrease in the purchasing power of a currency. To put this into perspective, at 10,000,000 percent inflation it would take $10 million dollars in cash to buy something that costs one dollar.) The result of such hyper inflation makes money near worthless. It is also causing a shortage of cash (because people need to carry a backpack full of cash, and wait for hours in line, to buy a loaf of bread and some eggs).
The situation is so bad that is has caused a mass exodus from the country. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that some 3.4 million people have emigrated from Venezuela since 2014. This is the highest rate of fleeing from a country in modern history – higher even than from people leaving Syria.
President Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998. Upon his death in 2013, his hand chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, took power. Chavez nationalized the oil and gas industry in Venezuela, forcing out private industry. Populist social programs designed to redistribute wealth and corrupt moves to pay for military support lay at the base of the regime’s popularity. Between these programs, state sponsored television and intolerance (jailing and worse) of political dissent, Chavez’ regime was able to maintain control.
With the continued tanking of the Venezuelan economy – now recognized as the world’s worst performing economy, and the shortages of food, medicine, and other necessities, support for Maduro has waned. A challenger – Juan Guiado (a 35-year-old leader of the National Assembly from La Guaira) – has named himself interim president. The Venezuelan Constitution states that the President of the National Assembly has the authority to take power in the absence of a legitimate president. Guaido and his supporters claim that when Maduro changed the elections and the rules last year – invalidating his claim to victory – this mandate was due in 2019. Guaido has consolidated support from the many factions that oppose Chavez/ Maduro’s regime within Venezuela and has been recognized as the legitimate leader of Venezuela by 65 countries – including the US, the European Union and much of Latin America.
While the outcome of all of this is far from certain, it could well be a watershed moment in the political history of the country. Guaido has also provided something that has been in short supply in Venezuela for a long time. A vehicle for hope.
How Did Venezuela Get Here
Venezuela was once, not too long ago, the richest economy in Latin America. The country is blessed by an incredible base of natural resources – including the world’s largest oil reserve. It was this bounty that was central to the stories of boats buying fuel for three cents per liter in Venezuela. Oil – its price fluctuation and misguided economic policies surrounding it – is also at the heart of the Venezuelan economic meltdown.
Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998. Chavez’ “Bolivarian Revolution” was marked by increasingly populist foreign and economic policies. Much of his emphasis was on distribution of wealth downward – something that resulted in mass popularity. In 2001, Chavez passed laws designed to redistribute land and wealth. In 2005, large ranches and estates were taken by the government. In 2006, Venezuela forcibly nationalized oil and gas, banking and most large industry. With the government owning most large industry, the country lost a majority of its private employment options.
At the time of Chavez’ election in 1998, the price of oil was $7 to $9 per barrel. By 2004, prices soared to upwards of $100 per barrel. With oil producing more and more money, the government of Venezuela (which owned the economy) became less diversified and more and more dependent on the high price of oil for economic health. The country bet its entire stake on oil – nationalization of (government-owned) industry killed manufacturing and productivity fell sharply. Venezuela exported oil and imported nearly everything else – becoming virtually entirely dependent on high oil prices for economic health. By 2012, oil accounted for 95% of all of Venezuelan exports.
Despite the amount of money pouring into the country from high oil prices, the Venezuelan government borrowed heavily from 2004 to 2014. The public debt increased six-fold during this period. In spite of all of the oil money and the funds borrowed, the government did not create a sovereign capital fund or other savings mechanism to hedge against a fall in oil prices.
In 2014, oil prices fell. Because of the country’s high rate of borrowing (and because much of its collateral for loans is tied to the price of oil), capital markets for Venezuela tightened and the country no longer had access to loans. Debt sets in shortly thereafter and cash was soon in short supply. Because Venezuela relied on imports of most everything except for oil, it needed to import food, medicine and other necessities.
Without access to loans, the country did not have the cash to purchase these things. With fewer imports coming in, prices on basic goods began to rise. To combat rising costs, the government established price controls (mandating the price of what goods could be sold for). This cycle led to inflation, the devaluing of the Venezuelan Bolivar (the nation’s currency), and longer and longer lines for increasingly scare necessities. The recession that began in Venezuela in 2013 continues unabated – it is recognized as the largest recession in the history of the western world.
The Political State of Venezuela Right Now
Hugo Chavez died of cancer in 2013. Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’ vice president, was his hand-selected successor. He inherited a corrupt government, a pile of failed economic policies and a situation that was spiraling out of control on many levels. Maduro’s presidency is largely an extension of the Chavez regime. As economic and social problems continued to pile up, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to protest against Maduro in 2016. In the lead up to the 2018 election, Maduro jailed leaders the National Assembly (Venezuela’s legislative body) and appointed a new governmental body to administer the election.
While Maduro claimed victory, widespread claims of vote rigging and voter coercion opened the door for Juan Guaido – the leader of the National Assembly – to question the validity of the election results and proclaim himself interim president until a new, fair election can be held (something which the Venezuelan constitution grants him authority to do). Guaido, who favors a market economy, was immediately recognized by some 65 countries around the world as the acting leader of Venezuela. The United States and others have made it imminently clear that Guaido should face no harm from the Maduro regime.
While the outcome of all of this is far from certain, Guaido provides hope for a people and a nation who have long suffered. While the economic and social problems and the political turmoil of Venezuela will not be something that can be overcome tomorrow – how Guaido’s challenge to Maduro’s regime will play out is far from certain – there is for the first time in a long time a tangible vehicle of hope.
The eyes of the world are watching. Many displaced Venezuelans around the world are watching. And the sportfishing world is watching too… In addition to the prayers coming from around the world, there is hope for Venezuela.
The Venezuelan Perspective
Rafa Martinez Tovar is a displaced Venezuelan currently living the Dominican Republic. Martinez’ family has been intimately involved in Venezuelan sportfishing for generations. “My grandfather was one of the founders of the Playa Grande Yachting Club in La Guaira. I have been fishing since I was six… and I am 43 now. When I was a child, I remember fishing with the greatest light tackle anglers in Venezuela – Aquiles Garcia, Gildo Bellini and Rafael “Pantaleta” Arnal. They won eight ILTTA (International Light Tackle Tournament Anglers) tournaments – still the most in history.”
“We took our boat to the DR four years ago,” Martinez says, describing the Keep Fishing, a 45-foot Rampage convertible that now fishes out of Cap Cana and Casa De Campo, “and we opened the charter service to be able to cover the boat expenses.”
“I was the third generation of my family working in the family business – the ferry company Conferry. The business turned 60 years old last August and for the first time in its history, it is not transporting people and cargo to Margarita. We used to move three million people a year back and forth to the island. Isla Margarita is home to The Margarita Hilton & Suites (once Hilton’s hotel top performer in the Caribbean for more than seven years), a radio station, a newspaper, the ferry terminal and the Margaritas Professional Basketball team Guaiqueries de Margarita. My grandfather founded the team in 1975 – it was one of the best teams in the Venezuelan Professional League. They took everything from us. That’s why I had to come to the DR.”
When describing the situation in Venezuela, Martinez is somber in his analysis. “A cartel has the country kidnapped. It’s not a single dictator, it’s a whole network. It’s a political mixture that is not easy to untangle,” he reflects insightfully. “I think Guaido is the way to go. It’s a matter of time before things change. We are positive that things will change – it’s when, not if. Six months ago, we didn’t have this view. It’s going to take time, but it’s not impossible. Guaido will reestablish the rule of Law and Democracy in our country.”
“We’ll need our people to come back – many of those who would be prepared for the recovery have left. As soon as the rule of law and democracy are reestablished, lots of our people will return.”
The situation for many Venezuelan ex-pats is understandably sensitive. When I asked if it was ok to publish his name along with the article, he didn’t hesitate. “Go ahead buddy… there’s not much more that they can do to me. VAMOS BIEN Y LA VIRGEN DEL VALLE NOS ACOMPAÑA!!!”
Jose de Veer is another of Venezuela’s displaced sportfishing community. From Puerto La Cruz in eastern Venezuela, de Veer now works as first mate on the 65-foot American Custom Black Gold that fishes out of the Dominican Republic. “All of the problems in Venezuela really effect everyone. I am almost five years living outside of Venezuela – I moved because of all of the problems,” de Veer says.
“I was working as a diesel mechanic. The problems for me started with getting parts through customs. I started to get calls from customs asking for money to get parts out,” Jose describes. “My family owns a 38-foot Bertram, the Doble Linea, that has been fully customized. Our plan was to fish it together as a charter business and live there. Now it sits there idle. My dad doesn’t like to fish without me.”
“My family is still in Venezuela – my mom, my dad, my sister and grandpa. I visited them in August 2018. I hired a guy to dive my boat and he wouldn’t accept money for payment. He said he no longer took money because it couldn’t buy him anything. He wanted some food. I asked him what he’d charge me and he said, ‘A bag of rice, a can of sardines and a bottle of rum.’ That’s what I gave him. It is really sad – people don’t believe me when I tell them about it.”
“It’s the same way with fuel. It’s less than penny to buy 500 gallons of fuel – the tip is more expensive than the bill. The people are really, really hungry. It is really bad now,” he describes. While fuel may be cheap, the basic necessities are increasingly scarce and expensive. “My dad used to live very well on $150 per week. Now everything is really expensive and it seems like prices are doubling every day. What they air on the news is so sad… and everything is true. The government is trying to get rid of the middle class – they only want rich and poor people.”
“My family just went four days without electricity,” de Veer says, describing the massive country-wide 100 hour black out that occurred mid-March. “They lived on the boat running the generators, with extension cords running to the house (for the freezers). We were lucky to have the boat.”
As for his vision for the future, de Veer shares optimism about Guaido. “I think he’s doing a great job – I hope it works. He’s the only one with the balls to do it. He’s talking to the world,” he reflects. “People are dying without medicine; they are hungry and they are poor. Even if he succeeds, it will need time to change. The situation won’t be solved tomorrow – it will take time, patience. People need a chance to relax.”
Que viva Venezuela.
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by Charlie Levine
Raised in Pensacola, Florida, Chris Mowad, only ever wanted one job. “I was always an avid angler growing up, and the dad of one of my best friends was a private boat captain,” he says. “I thought that was the dream job.”
Chris started working on boats at 14 years old and just 13 years later, he’s running the Whoo Dat – a 58-foot Jarrett Bay owned by Keith Richardson. This is one operation that does not like to sit idly by. Mowad and company left the Gulf of Mexico in January and have been fishing in the Dominican Republic and St. Thomas ever since.
Mowad took the time for a phone call in St. Thomas just after the September moon and the bite’s been on. “We caught 23 in the last seven days,” he says of fishing on the North Drop. “We recently hired a new mate who fished the entire Gulf season and caught 11 fish. We doubled his whole season in a week. You can build a resume pretty quick spending time in hot spots, and the experience you gain is priceless.”
Mowad’s quick ascent to the captain’s chair began as a freelance captain and mate on a handful of boats. He also worked at Outcast Bait and Tackle, in Pensacola, from the ages of 17 to 21. It being a smaller shop, he had to know how to do a little bit of everything. Spool reels, rig lures, you name it. At 18, he got his six-pack license and started running more boats. “I met a lot of local guys who had private boats, and I worked as a captain-for-hire,” Mowad says. “That’s how I got a lot of experience. You learn a lot when you’re managing a different crew every weekend.”
While running the boat and finding fish is the more glamorous part of the job, Mowad is not afraid to get his hands dirty and do whatever it takes to make sure the boat is running properly. “I was always impressed by captains who maintained the boat themselves and if anything broke, they knew how to fix each system,” he says.
Capt. Myles Colley was one such captain that Chris Mowad looked up to. Colley, captain of the Born2Run, is from the same area as Mowad and also started running boats at a young age. “I wanted to kind of follow in his footsteps,” Mowad says. “The part I enjoy most now is that he’s gone from being a mentor to us being in competition, but we still have a good friendship.”
The Whoo Dat is the perfect platform for the kind of marlin fishing that keeps Mowad’s boss fired up. The 58-footer was built by Jarrett Bay in 2007 and when Richardson bought it in 2011, he installed a tuna tower, a second generator, new electronics and a fresh coat of paint. The 1,350-hp MTU 12V 2000s just rolled over 10,000 hours and keep the team on the bite. While the engines keep the team mobile, it’s really the owner of the boat, Keith Richardson, who keeps everyone on board fired up. “He keeps us all going,” Mowad says. “He wants to put up big numbers and is not afraid to fish extra hours. He’s really the hardest working guy I’ve ever worked for and a key part of our program. He’s willing to fish on a different schedule and follow the bite.”
Having the flexibility to move throughout the Caribbean, whether it’s fishing FADs in Casa de Campo, or pulling lures on the North Drop, gives Whoo Dat the ability to stay right on the marlin’s tail. Fishing out of St. Thomas this summer, Mowad and his crew were seeing 10 to 12 blue marlin a day during the peak moon phases in June, July, August and September. It’s been some of the best fishing there in a long time. Fishing alongside his mate of four years, Kevin Alexander, he says they’ve got a solid group of guys on the boat and camaraderie is high.
While they’ve been successful, Mowad is never afraid to ask for help from some of the more experienced skippers. “If you quit asking questions, you quit getting better,” he says. “There’s a group of guys here that have been really helpful.”
Mowad’s plan moving forward is to get boat work finished in October and November then head to Casa de Campo in December and fish there through next April. From the DR, the team is heading back to St. Thomas for the summer. The days can run together, but he’s certainly not complaining. “It wouldn’t be fair to say we work 24-hour days, but there are times it seems like it,” he says. “Keith doesn’t have a problem going for a 15-day stretch and the seas are rough the majority of the time. But you get to learn how maneuver the boat in rough water. If you can catch them when it’s rough, you’ll catch them when it’s calm.”
Charlie Levine is the publisher of FishTrack.com and the author of the book, “Sucked Dry: The Struggle is Reel,” available on Amazon.
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