Photos by Austin Coit
There is nothing so delicious in the entire world of saltwater fishing as heading out on glassy seas in the warm, early-morning dampness aboard a party boat. A whole bunch of emotions become tangled into a ball, spiced with the heady aroma of fresh-cut bait, hot coffee and a touch of diesel as the big engines rumble beneath the deck — anticipation, a bit of trepidation, expectation at one level or another, a sense of competition that can barely be stifled, and a little nervousness wondering if the other 16 or 40 or 66 folks on board are friends or foes, compatriots or competitors. Just who are these people?
But emotions soon evaporate into salt air. The captain finds the fish, positions the boat over them and sounds the horn. Baits or jigs are quickly deployed into the inky depths, and soon, rods begin to bend. Kids and adults alike squeal with delight as fish start coming over the rail. Clench-jawed “regulars” check and recheck their baits, fuss with various hooks, sinkers and teasers and either talk tersely or remain mostly silent, intent on filling a pail or stringer. More casual rail neighbors, perhaps tourists who have never met, begin chatting and joshing, sharing fishing tips, where they’re from, a political view or two, and the best way to prepare a porgy or grunt, haddock or snapper, for supper.
Gallery: Party Boat Living
And the fish keep coming in. They may not be big or particularly plentiful, but that’s not the point. We’re out here to catch fish, dammit, and that’s what we’re doing. There are government “studies” that claim the true desire of all saltwater anglers is “just to be out enjoying the water and spending time with family and friends, caring little if they actually catch anything.” Horseradish! I don’t care what anyone says: Headboat fishermen are out to catch fish. If you ask one of them, “What would make you happiest at the end of the trip today?” I doubt he or she would reply, “Oh, that I had a wonderful time in the sunshine and ocean air, bonding with my friends/family/spouse/girlfriend/boyfriend/parole officer.”
Nope. They’re going to say, “I wanna take home a big bag of fillets!” Or, if they really bare their soul, they’ll quietly admit, “I want to win the pool.”
Ahh, the pool. Almost every party boat has a pool for betting on who catches the largest fish. Participating is completely voluntary, and the cost to enter is nominal, from $1 to $5, sometimes more on extended trips. A mate comes around and collects the cash, and on the trip back to the dock, the crew determines who caught the largest fish, measured by weight or length, and hands that person all the money.
Winning the pool on a party boat is an honor like no other. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author at a black-tie cocktail party is more likely to tell you about the time he won the pool, 67 bucks, with a 5½-pound gag grouper on a headboat out of Fort Lauderdale than he is about his latest book. People who can’t remember the date of their wedding anniversary or their kids’ birthdays can recite the day, time, boat name, bait used, line strength, reel brand and amount of pool money garnered for their 36-pound cod or 18-pound kingfish.
By the way, there has never — and I mean never — been a party-boat patron who has declared his or her pool winnings to the IRS. That would be a breach of trust, a shattering of protocol, a breakdown of civilized society. IRS auditors go on party boats, too. They understand. What happens out on the water, stays out on the water.
This segues us to party-boat protocols, which are not particularly complicated. The first is positioning on deck. The two stern corners are the Holy Grail of headboat positions because you can work your line over the stern or the side at will, depending on current and drift. Many boats will allow early-arriving customers to stake out the corners by tying their rods to the rail with a piece of twine. I took a trip awhile back on the 80-foot Yankee Capts out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where a duo of hard-core regulars had arrived six hours early just to secure these two spots. So if you see a rod tied to the corner, or anywhere else along the rails for that matter, that position is taken.
Another protocol on many boats is that if you lose a rig or jig that’s supplied by the boat, even if you’re negligent or ignore instructions, you don’t have to pay for it. But you do have to pay for the second one. If the captain announces over the loudspeaker to lower your baited rig down 45 “pulls” from the squeaky Penn 65 reel to the first eyelet of the rod on your well-worn rental outfit, do just that and no more. If you go down another five pulls, you may get snagged in the wreck. If that happens, suck it up and break out the $5 or so for another rig. And don’t complain.
Furthermore, try not to stray too far from the sinker or jig size the boat provides. If everyone uses sinkers and jigs of the same weight, tangles will be minimized. You’ll invoke the wrath of your bench-mates if your secret “lunker catcher” rig causes your line to float up in the current and snarl with others. Party-boat mates occasionally wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night after a dream where everyone aboard is involved in a monumental tangle that requires sharp knives to resolve. And it has actually happened, thousands of times. (Most crews are fine with any bait you might bring aboard for your own use, unless you start hooking dogfish or other undesirables.)
Another thing: Never try and sneak a handheld GPS aboard to record the boat’s positions over the fish for later use on your own. This is really bad form, one of the most serious of headboat transgressions. If my friend Capt. Tim Tower, the congenial, mild-mannered skipper of the well-known party boat Bunny Clark out of Ogunquit, Maine, catches you with a GPS, he will throw it overboard without a second thought. He’s done it several times. If you want to know where you are on the water, ask the captain. He’ll cheerfully tell you. Tell you something, anyway.
Above all, follow the instructions of the mate to the letter. Most of these guys and gals are friendly, knowledgeable and helpful, and have a vested interest in your satisfaction. If you catch a bunch of fish and have a fun and productive day, you’re more likely to give them a good tip at the end of the trip. At least that’s the assumption. So if the mate says, “Reel up and put a fresh bait on,” or “Drop down another 10 feet,” you’ll want to do exactly that. Headboat mates are on the water every day, and they know what works and what doesn’t. And they’re not much interested in your explanation as to how your custom-tied leader rig or special hot-shot jigging technique really slayed ’em on some boat you went out on 10 years ago.
This brings us to tipping. Party-boat deckhands generally earn a major portion of their take-home pay in tips, much as a waitress does. Sometimes the boat has a “standard” tip per fish cleaned or filleted, say 50 cents or a dollar, or some other set fee for a specific amount of dressed fish flesh. On other boats, the gratuity scale is a little more fluid. In these cases, follow your conscience. Whether you catch anything or not, if a crewmember was friendly and helpful, he or she should be tipped. When in doubt as to the amount, think “waitress.” Ten bucks for a $75 fare works fine; $15 or a bit more if the deckhand cleaned a goodly amount of fish for you.
Protocols and unwritten rules aside, a half-day or day spent aboard a headboat is all about having fun. In most cases you won’t bring home enough fish meat at market prices to cover the cost of the fare, but that’s not really the point. The point is simply to catch fish and have a good time. Some folks are quiet and serious about catching, yet others delight as much in the social interactions and camaraderie. But virtually everyone has the same goal. There’s something primitively satisfying about cranking up a fish that will be eaten by someone — whether it’s a rail neighbor aboard, friends back home or your own family, perhaps tossed into sizzling olive oil in a black-iron skillet with a sprinkle of minced shallots and a squeeze of lemon.
I sometimes wish I had never advanced as far as I have in saltwater fishing: a succession of ever-faster boats, higher-tech electronics and tackle, travel to faraway and wonderful fishing venues, and so forth. All of this has tended to diminish the simple excitement and anticipation of boarding a party boat in the early morning, taking a seat on a painted wooden bench behind the rail, clutching a bag of muffins and a rental rod with corroded eyelets, and heading out on the ocean. Soon there will be a tug on the line from an unseen critter in the depths a hundred feet below. Will it get away? Or could it be the pool winner?
A party-boat trip is an adventure whose outcome is impossible to predict, and that’s precisely its allure for so many folks, from all walks of life. I have a funny feeling that when I take my grandson Jakey on his first headboat trip, perhaps in a year or two, that all those emotions, the same excitement and expectation — with a touch of trepidation — I felt back in 1957 on my own first trip will bubble to the surface again.
Barry Gibson went on his first headboat trip, out of Fort Lauderdale, in 1957, when he was 6. He has since made numerous party-boat excursions from Maine to North Carolina to the Florida Keys but has never won the pool.