Chartering on Long Island Sound

(A Connecticut Captain in King Neptune’s Court)
by Captain Sal Tardella with Bonnie Tardella

Running a charter fishing business may seem, to the casual observer, to be a fun-filled job, an easy way to make a living, with none of the stress generally associated with most professions.   Actually, I do have a lot of fun, and there’s plenty of satisfaction when things go well, but my work is definitely not stress-free.  My colleagues and I promote ourselves with the motto “It’s Smarter to Charter,” and to validate this claim we’re obliged to produce results, not excuses. Most of my customers only get the chance to fish once or twice a year.  Some book their trips months in advance, and they look forward to taking  home a Styrofoam cooler filled with fresh fillets as well as some interesting fishing stories to share with friends, and maybe a nice photo to enlarge, frame, and hang on their office walls. These enthusiastic fishermen pay me decent sums to show them a good time on the water, and they’re entitled to their money’s worth.   I’m ever mindful that every charter is important to those who’ve hired me to get them into fish, and I can’t afford a cavalier attitude about any trip.  (And to add more pressure to this challenge, many of my clients play host to their own clients, promising them an enjoyable day of fishing, and they’re sure to be embarrassed if their trip is a bust.)  I can’t let anyone down, and that’s a weighty load to bear-even if we’re just talking about fish!

A diligent captain does whatever it takes to meet his fares’ expectations.  I full understand my responsibilities and take them very seriously.   Every night before a trip I mentally replay and evaluate my most recent outing; I analyze the latest local reports and project the next day’s conditions.  Then I ponder my options for the morning and try to fall asleep without worrying about tomorrow’s results.  This contemplation resumes when I awaken at 4:45am, and it lasts until my passengers disembark at the end of the charter.

Obviously, there’s a great deal more to this job than just analyzing, pondering and contemplation.  Every good charter captain knows that preparedness is paramount.  When getting ready for a charter, we hope for the best, of course, but we must be able to deal with so-so and adverse conditions on the water.  Each new trip can involve new situations, and we want to feel confident that we’ve covered all bases and can deal with every contingency before we rev up the engines and throw off the lines.

If I were invited to teach a course for aspiring charter boat captains at my local community college, it would be entitled Fishing 101: Piscatorial Proficiency for Professional Fishing Guides, and in order to pass the course the students would have to master just two rules:



Now the chances are excellent that no college will ever require my pedagogical skills, but if called upon, here is what I’d convey to my hypothetical class to help them get a passing grade.

Rule #1 – Be Where the Fish Are.
Assuming you know where the fish are on any given day, a captain must trust his boat to get him there–just as a traveling salesman trusts his car to take him to his customers.  But my vessel isn’t just commuter transportation; it’s my workplace, and must provide a comfortable and safe environment for all aboard, in all conditions. I’ve had my center-console C-Hawk customized so that it’s able to get to and from the fishing grounds with maximum efficiency.  After all, everyone aboard is completely dependent on my skills and expertise-so it’s incumbent upon me (and every captain) to maintain our boats and engines and all navigational equipment to the highest standards. The reliability of my engine is critical; I treat my treasured Yamaha outboard with great respect, and I would never consider deviating from the precise instructions in my owner’s manual. I regularly inspect my boat’s hull for stress cracks, and I check all electrical connections and battery terminals to be sure they’re tight and corrosion free. I change all the sparkplugs when they still have some life in them.  I try to leave nothing to chance, but we do have occasional problems on the water, and we have to use our radios and summon assistance, so my VHF is another valuable asset that I upgrade every couple of years.  Hopefully, all these precautions pay off, and my faithful boat will take me and my passengers to where the fish are again and again and again.

Rule #2 – Get the Fish Into the Boat.
We use only the finest equipment to accomplish the mandates of Rule #2.  First-rate rods, top-of-the-line reels, tournament-quality line (which we inspect throughout each trip and change frequently to avoid break-offs).  We also bring aboard an assortment of rods and reels as well as lures and terminal tackle of various sizes and types-so we can switch methodology, going from surface casting to jigging to bait fishing-on the spur of the moment.

Let’s get back to Rule #1 for a moment.  Fishing is not a science; it’s a sport.  But when you’ve been a guide in a particular region for several years you know what species are where–and when they’re there–and you know what they’re most likely feeding on.  But one can never really be 100% positive. So a determined captain should prepare for each day’s trip-regardless of what might have happened last year or yesterday.  The ideal scenario on Long Island Sound is a balmy day, flat water, and the panoramic view of large schools of fish on or near the surface attacking bait for hours at a time.  This kind of action can be spotted from long distances, and the fish are easy to catch, even for an unskilled angler.

These ideal conditions might continue for days at a time and then suddenly change for no apparent reason. There are many nights when I go to sleep with the sound of leaves softly rustling in the trees, and a few hours later I’m awakened to the tintinnabulation of my Maine buoy chimes being tossed about by strong northeast winds.   I live on one of Norwalk’s salt-water marshes, with a view of Long Island Sound from my rear deck.  When my binoculars reveal whitecaps in the harbor I know I’ll need to change my strategy if I’m going to get my customers into fish that day.

Knowing that we probably won’t be able to get out to the most-desirable fishing grounds, I mentally chart out a trip that will involve tucking into sheltered areas that have been productive under similar conditions-small inlets within the Norwalk Islands, Westport, Southport and Stamford.  We also know that we will probably have to rely upon the use of bait to make the day successful.  We might get lucky and bump into a school of bunker (menhaden), but we can’t depend on such serendipity, so we bring along a nice supply of frozen chunks of bunker or mackerel, clam bellies and/or sand worms.  Fishing with bait is a lot more work and a lot messier than using lures, but it’s a time-tested tactic for catching fish on the Sound when dealing with northeast winds.

Following a northeastern blow, the coves and inlets become muddied and unfishable, even with live bait.  A shift in wind direction-most often now from the northwest, suggests that we move a few miles offshore in search of fish feeding on top.  We captains talk to each other via radio and cell phones, and I might get a call: “They’re on top! Come over to my spot!”, but they’re five miles from my current location.  Should I stay, or should I go? Sometimes I respond to that call and it’s a home run.  But just as often I arrive on the scene too late, and the fish are no longer showing.  In that eventuality I usually hang in at that site because the chances are excellent that the fish haven’t moved out, but have simply moved down, and they can be jigged up if we use the right techniques.  This isn’t as exciting as catching them on the surface, but after making the trek I want my people to have something to show for it.

If we’ve heard no reports from other boats and we’ve reached mid-Sound with still no sightings, we’re committed to the time-consuming 11-mile run all the way across to the Long Island side. The odds are favorable that the northwest winds have pushed the baitfish to those sandy shores, and that their predators have followed in close pursuit. This is where years of experience prove to be so valuable.  We know exactly where to look on days like this-and we don’t mind the assistance of a flock of diving sea birds to confirm our hunches. Then assuming we’ve done our homework properly, and we have the right bait and equipment for the job, Rule #2 is a snap.

On the subject of areas that hold fish with relative consistency, there are many mid-Sound sites that we return to throughout the season for bottom-fishing.  These hot spots include reefs, rocks and wrecks. They’re well-known and popular, and so it’s rare that you’ll be alone out there on a decent day.  Sometimes it’s amusing to see frustrated anglers fishing from boats very close by to ours.  From all appearances they’re doing exactly what we’re doing, but we’re hauling in fish, and they’re not.  Perhaps they’re making one or more of the following mistakes-errors that a charter captain can’t afford to make:

1. During a full moon or new moon phase, we don’t chum during mid-tide. The tidal pull is too strong, and all our efforts would be for naught.

2. If we’re not getting any hits, we should try different size sinkers. Maybe heavier ones will do a better job at holding bottom.

3. A good fisherman is a patient fisherman. If no one gets a hit within five minutes, we don’t pull up the anchor and seek another spot even if our customers are beginning to grumble and sarcastically ask: “So where’s all the fish….?”

Sometimes it’s not so amusing because we’ve done everything correctly but we’re still not getting significant results.  So we rack our rods and move to a second or even third spot.  The pressure is now beginning to mount because time is running out, the tide is ebbing, and our customers are impatient and definitely less affable than when we started out a few hours earlier. In most cases our perseverance and tenacity are rewarded.  We find the right spot, and after we ladle out some scrumptious chum, three or four lines are simultaneously “singing,” and the action turns hot and heavy.  All aboard are bringing in 4-6 pound bluefish, with an occasional short striped bass mixed in.  Everyone is seemingly content, and I begin to relax.   But it isn’t long before we hear a familiar refrain from someone in the party: “Do you think we’ll be getting any bigger fish?” (A variation of Rule #2, part 3.) This is when my own patience can begin to erode, but I’ve dealt with this before, and I quickly regain my composure after jokingly chastising them for their dearth of appreciation.  When we wrap things up and begin the trip back to port, the weary fishermen are enthusiastically recounting the day’s events, teasing the “low hook” of the day, and every one of them is telling me how much they enjoyed the experience and that they can’t wait to come back and do it again.

And, truth be told, neither can I.

Being a charter boat captain and having total control of my own business is all that I could want; I wouldn’t enjoy doing anything else for my livelihood.  But as I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, this job is far from a no-brainer, not all peaches and cream, and certainly not a walk in the park.

There’s a lot of stress involved in keeping my passengers safe when there are two or more of them casting lures from all corners of my vessel.  No matter how strongly we emphasize the need to look all around before casting, chances are someone’s going to at least tap someone else with an errant lure-or ding the pilot house or hook into his own shirt or hat.  When they’re excited, passengers often forget to open their bales and so lose control of a dangling lure after they’ve attempted to cast it  into a voracious school of blues. Or they impatiently attempt to horse in a fish right at the boat, snapping the lure from its mouth and backlashing a plug that now swings around like a boomerang. Sometimes, heedless of our warnings, they actually put their fingers into the mouth of a bluefish when holding it up for a photograph.  We’ve been lucky in not having any major accidents, but we always worry, and it’s a serious responsibility for the captain.  Of course, we’re all trained in First Aid, but no one wants to ruin a good day of fishing with human blood on the deck.

Sometimes we actually get skunked, no matter what we try and where we go and how much overtime we put into a trip.  When that happens nobody is happy; and the next day’s fishing trip is that much more daunting. Definitely stressful.

Sometimes the weather conditions are ominous, and I have to make the morning call: Should we sail or not? Will conditions remain status quo, get worse, improve?  I don’t allow my clients to make the decision under such circumstances; I must call the shots.  I’m right about 90% of the time, but when I’m wrong, I’m left with egg on my face and have to deal with the disappointment of the fishermen who have put their faith in my expertise and discretion.  Embarrassing and stressful.

Marital stress? Not really, but my wife often complains about the intrusiveness of the telephone in our home.  Our phone seems to ring all afternoon and evening–hopefully with calls from prospective clients; but more often the calls are from other captains and fishermen friends asking the same questions: How did you do today? Where did you go? What did you use? How big were they? How did the other boats do? Where will you be going tomorrow?  Then I ask them the same questions about their day, and I might make a few new calls of my own.   All of us take each other’s reports with a grain of salt, of course.  Fishermen either minimize or exaggerate, depending on the information being imparted.  Bonnie (after whom my boat was named, of course) is a terrific fisherwoman and a wonderful captain’s wife.  But as insightful and understanding as she is, she insists that we take the phone off the hook five minutes before we sit down to dinner and not return it to its cradle until the table’s been cleared.  I know she’s right; we have to unwind at the end of the day, and dinner without phone interruption is good for our relationship.  But it’s not good for my digestion, because throughout the meal I keep worrying about who might be trying to reach me while we’ve made ourselves incommunicadoNot exactly stress, but certainly a bit of anxiety.

The life of a charter boat captain is definitely not all fun and games.  I don’t want to sound like a whiner; I just wanted to set the record straight for all the fishing-guide wannabes who are ready to trade places with me after one trip aboard “My Bonnie”.  Listen, fellows, you keep your 9-to-5 jobs, and let me take care of getting you into fish.  God wants it that way.

Aug 2006

Leave a reply