PLYMOUTH — There are a few things you can count on when you go deep-sea fishing on a commercial open boat for the first time. 1) You’ll have plenty of time to think, or do something else other than fishing. 2) You’ll meet people who absolutely love to fish, and to talk about it. 3) You may not hook any fish, but you’ll have fun trying, anyway.
On a recent Saturday afternoon trip with Captain John Whale Watching and Fishing Tours, it took more than an hour to motor from Plymouth Harbor to the H Buoy, a fishing area in Cape Cod Bay about 13 miles out. You’re on a boat with 59 other people, all anxious to put their line in and test their luck. You move about, ambling between the fishing deck and the sitting level upstairs, where some are soaking up the view and sun as they wait to get there.
The mind wanders: Did I leave the coffee on when I left the house? Did I send off that e-mail at work? What do I need to pick up at the grocery store on the way home? Will I catch anything today?
There’s no guarantee in fishing. The 65-employee Captain John operation takes about 25,000 people fishing each season, from mid-April through November, says co-owner Bob Avila. An estimated 3 million fishing trips are taken in Massachusetts each year. But many anglers won’t feel a bite, much less land a fish of legal keeping size.
“It comes and goes — yesterday, they did really well,” Avila said last week about another Captain John outing. “As they say, it’s fishing, not catching.”
Captain John is one of a handful of companies between Boston and the Cape that offer both charter and party — or head — boats. Unlike charters, which are more common and involve a group of anglers booking the whole vessel, party boats are open to individuals (“heads”) on a first-come, first-served basis. With Captain John, you can choose morning, afternoon, and full-day trips.
Capt. Tim Brady & Sons Charters & Tours, a considerably smaller, family-run company also based in Plymouth, and LadyKFishing.com, which operates out of Onset Harbor in Wareham, will offer party-boat seating when their lone vessels are not booked for charters.
Anglers on party boats may catch cod, flounder, blue fish, haddock, mackerel, and pollock, but Captain Chris Whitton, owner and operator of the Lady K, says he will target specific species on his trips, depending on the time of year. He goes after cod in April, May, and June, fluke in July, porgy and sea bass in August and September, and blackfish in October. He fishes in Buzzards Bay, sometimes going as far as the western edge of Martha’s Vineyard, toward Nomans Land Island.
The Lady K can accommodate up to 40 anglers, and Whitton lets people call ahead to reserve a specific spot on his boat, as each rod holder is numbered. “People do have a preference where they like to fish on the boat,” he said last week.
Captain Tim Brady Jr., who took over the family business from his father, now the backup captain, will take seven to 30 anglers at a time on the Mary Elizabeth from mid-April until Nov. 1. He says he keeps a log of where he has fished in the 40 years he’s been in the business, and will take his customers where he feels they’ll have the best chance of landing fish on a given day.
“We follow the fish around, wherever they are,” he said. “We don’t always go far. We have caught fish right next to the Mayflower,” docked in Plymouth Harbor.
But fish seekers need to do a bit of planning and calling ahead if they’re going with the Brady or Lady K outfits, as open-boat seats are not always available. Captain John runs three trips a day through the summer, and its boats can take up to 70 people each, allowing late decisions to go fishing.
That’s what happened with Steve Platt. He said on a typical summer weekend he would be on his sailboat in Narragansett Bay. But his wife wasn’t feeling great, so he drove down from Natick by himself to fish instead.
Like most of the other anglers aboard the Capt. John & Son, Platt came with minimal gear: plastic bags for the fish, if he lands any, and a rag to wipe his fingers after handling the sea clams used for bait. For $6, the company provides a rod and reel, and a deckhand is never far away if you need help with dehooking a fish, or cleaning one later, for a small tip. Your fishing permit is covered by your fee to a commercial outfit.
“It’s best to leave it all to them, use theirs,” and not worry about losing your own tackle or even the rod, said Platt, who fishes in Florida in winter, and says he goes with Captain John a couple times a year.
After Captain David Niemi drops anchor 128 feet down and shuts off the engine, it’s time to fish. My line was a tangled mess around my reel to start, but deckhand Kevin Crosby fixed it in two minutes. All I had to do was put the bait on the hook, which was tied at the end of the line about a foot from the 1-pound sinker, and let the contraption drop into the water. No need for casting or swinging the rod, and worrying about catching some poor victim’s lip with the barb.
And then you wait, standing and leaning against the railing and hoping to feel a tug from the ocean depths.
Platt soon had a strike, and reeled aboard a flounder that flopped about on the deck for several seconds before a crew member pronounced it legal — larger than the 12-inch minimum — and took it to a cooler for tagging and storage. It was to be Platt’s only keeper. But even then he did better than all but a handful of others on the boat.
On our side of the boat, we tallied about a half-dozen little sculpins and sea robins, which were quickly dehooked and released, and three dogfish, a small bottom-feeding shark. Niemi said it’s the same species used in English fish and chips, but not considered desirable dining fare on this side of the Atlantic. The voracious scavenger is more a nuisance when showing up in abundance, he said.
“Some days it’d be so bad you couldn’t get the bait to the fish you want, the real fish,” Niemi, who has been working for Captain John since 1986, said later.
On this trip, though, the dogfish provided some action and excitement to the otherwise uneventful couple hours of fishing. Nothing bit on my line except for a foot-long sculpin that tried to swallow my entire chunk of clam and hook. I hoped it survived the rude extraction of said hook.
Two anglers nearby landed cod just over the keeper size of 19 inches. In all, the 60 of us hooked six keepers of flounder and cod. Not a good haul, agreed Niemi, who let on that April-May and October-November are best for fishing.
But even the regulars on the boat didn’t seem disappointed.
Joe Waystack, a state parole officer from Plymouth who came with his young son Ben, said they hooked a couple of sea robins and a small cod, which they let go. They had chosen fishing over going to the beach this day, and they were going home empty-handed.
“But we’re happy,” said Waystack. “We still had a good time.”
It’s easy to agree. It was fun, but it’s time to wash off the clams, and head to the store for dinner.