“My big fish must be somewhere.”
— Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea”
I recall a warm June afternoon aboard a private charter, circling for hours searching for fish. When the combination of heat, diesel fumes, and the rocking of the boat left me feeling unsettled, I was ready to call it quits without having caught a thing.
Suddenly my fishing rod moved, and our captain yelled “fish on!” I jumped from my chair, grabbed the rod, and felt the pull on the other end of the line. For the next 10 minutes, I wrestled with my prey, slowly reeling in the line as my fingers and forearms howled in protest. Finally, the first mate hauled the 35-pound beast into the boat.
“That’s why we do this,” said the mate, with an ear-to-ear grin that matched my own.
There is something innate, almost primal, about heading out on the open ocean to fish. Whether it is our hunter/gatherer instinct, the need to get away for a few hours, or the adrenaline rush when a big fish hits the hook, casting a line is one of life’s true pleasures.
North of Boston, there is a wide variety of chartered fishing experiences available, from small, private charters to large, accommodating (and occasionally raucous) party boats.
You can even opt to go charter with a celebrity, such as Captain Dave Marciano of “Wicked Tuna” fame aboard Gloucester’s F/V Hard Merchandise. Marciano, who begins filming his third season of the National Geographic show this month, is a full-time fisherman who turned to charters to supplement his income.
“Charters were one way to make up for losses in other parts of the business,” he said. “My claim to fame with my boat is, we’re not fast or fancy, but 300 days a year, I go out and fish these New England waters.’’
However, the staple of Marciano’s charter business, like most of his counterparts, is the bounty of cod and haddock that feed near the ocean’s undulating floor.
“Obviously, because of the show, my charter business has exploded,” said Marciano in his gravelly voice. “People see us catching the tuna, and it looks really exciting. But what they don’t see is the 80 percent where we don’t do much at all. It’s a long day of staring at balloons floating behind the boat, and absolutely nothing happens.
“So, as far as taking people’s money, I want them to have a good time. I’ll say ‘Let’s go cod and haddock fishing,’ so even when it’s slow, we’ll catch some fish,” he said.
For the serious angler, there are distinct advantages to the smaller charters, known as six-packs (because they’re licensed by the Coast Guard for a maximum of six passengers). These trips are usually all-inclusive (providing gear and bait), and range from inshore trips that target striped bass and bluefish to open-ocean excursions to places like Stellwagen Bank for big fish, including bluefin tuna and shark (blue, mako, porbeagle, and thresher) in addition to cod and haddock.
“Our charters are fairly high end,” said Captain Nathaniel Moody of Rowley’s First Light Anglers, which specializes in open-ocean fly-fishing. “They tend to be one, two, or three guys at a time. We started chartering in 1995, and we have a very dedicated clientele that fishes with us every year. I find it a lot more personal.”
Moody’s boat, as the company name suggests, is usually one of the first vessels on the water, motoring out of Cape Ann Marina by 4 in the morning. What his 25-foot craft might lack in frills, it can make up for in versatility.
“That’s the great advantage of having the smaller, faster boat,” he said. “A 9-knot lobster boat is somewhat limited as to where you can get to in a 10-hour day. We’re often fishing east of Cape Cod, because that’s where the fish happen to be, or off of Maine, because that where the fish are. And at 30 knots, we can cover enough ground to do that effectively.”
Even within small-charter circles, customers have plenty of options to choose from. For example, Captain Kevin O’Maley’s Connemara Bay Fishing Charters out of Gloucester offers customers a chance to pull up a few lobster pots in addition to fishing, finishing the day with a traditional lobster bake (or have their catch prepared at Lobsta Land Restaurant on Route 128). Best of all, trips can often be customized based on the customer’s time constraints, from short sprints (two to four hours) to marathon and overnight sessions.
“One of the advantages of the smaller charter boats is that we’re flexible with our times,” said Captain Peter Murray of Newburyport’s Obsessed Charters at the northern tip of Plum Island. “We schedule our times around the customer. We can do after-work trips, things like that.”
Murray’s family-owned business also offers the rare guarantee, ensuring customers half off their next trip if they come home empty-handed.
“We’ve been offering a guarantee since I started” in 1979, said Murray. “I got skunked twice this year. So out of 100 trips, two bad ones, that’s a pretty good track record.”
“It’s fishing,” he said with a laugh. “Some days are great, and some days are a little slow, so you want someone who goes the extra mile.”
Charter owners recommend that customers do their homework, asking questions about their prospective captains, clearly outlining expectations, and getting references. Captain Kevin Twombly of Kayman Charters in Gloucester (also featured in “Wicked Tuna’’) has run trips for 25 years, and he says his resume translates to consumer confidence.
“This is all I do,” said Twombly. “The head boats, if they get on a pile of fish, they have to share it with 80 people. On a small boat, we can try different places. If I have a group of expert anglers, it’s one type of fishing, and if I have a group of novices, I do a different type.”
However, even small charter captains acknowledge that party boats — or “head boats” (named because they charge per person) — have a legitimate role.
“For cost-effectiveness, if you’re not a real hard-core fisherman, to pay $30 to go out on a head boat and catch a couple of cod for the day, that’s great,” said Moody.
Larger boats are usually more comfortable (with nicer facilities), and better prepared to serve customers who might either be elderly or have physical handicaps. Some, like Captain’s Fishing Parties in Newburyport, take care to limit the number of passengers so they do not feel overcrowded.
As for the season, you can find charters right up until the winter holiday season, if you are hardy enough.
“The biggest bang for the buck, if you can put up with the weather, is pollock fishing,” said Twombly. “In late October, right up to Christmas, we’re on huge schools of pollock. They’re the hardest-fighting fish there is, and you can put 1,000 pounds of fish in the boat in a trip. You wind up knee-deep in them. That’s a trip for the meat hunters who are looking to fill up their freezer. But you’d better bring your woolens.”