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Issue #2          May 2003

The Guide From Hell...Choosing The Right Guide 

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 by John L. Beath copyright 2003


Underwater image of 125 pound halibut taking the bait with a Trophy Torch.

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Choosing the right guide can lead to limits or in some cases, lead to disappointment and empty wallets. Over the years Iíve fished with the very best guides and occasionally with the absolute worst. These experiences, especially the bad ones, have helped me learn how to avoid fishing with guides whoíd be better suited selling used cars. My hard-learned lessons have cost me money, time and more importantly, success. Last summer I became my own victim of not asking enough questions and researching a charter operation. Hopefully last summerís experience will help you avoid the piscatorial pitfalls that cursed me and my fishing group.

In hopes of experiencing some top-notch Alaska fishing action on the ocean, I set out to find a charter captain that could offer something a bit different from the usual day trip to the small fish hole. I wanted bigger fish, as most anglers do, and I wanted to fish much farther from port. After weeks of research just three charter operators from the area I was researching appeared to offer something different. First I called the charter captain, asking him the usual questions. How many years have you been in business? How big is your boat? How many people do you take per trip? What size of fish should I expect? How far from port will we go? What methods to you use to catch fish? Can we keep fish and how do you package them? I asked these questions and a few more to gauge his competence. He answered every question and seemed to be a very competent charter captain. His answers suited the needs of my group. The captain also had answers to more technical questions involving where to look for the best numbers of fish based on currents, bottom structure, weather and other factors.

The charter captainís credentials and knowledge still wasnít enough for me. Two phone calls to his competitors, asking them point blank if he was a good captain, completed the process. They both gave high praise. I set my dates and booked the entire boat. Four of us would enjoy some of Alaskaís best ocean fishing. We booked our flights to Anchorage, arranged transportation to the port in question and arrived on time with gear ready to conquer fish big enough to make anyone drool with desire. When we met our captain, he seemed normal by Alaskan standards. He stood tall, with a hair style to rival Dennis the Menaceís on a truly bad hair day. His shirt contained several small holes Ė reminders that hooks like shirts and other clothes. His shoes had oil stains, a sign that he most likely changed his own oil in his car and boat. His scruffy beard was laced with grey Ė the obvious sign of experience Ė rounded out his look. Upon reflection, this guy looked exactly like an experienced Alaskan ďSalty DogĒ captain.

As four pairs of eyes scanned the dock for his vessel, my eyes spotted it first. Having seen several pictures of the vessel already, the sight of his vessel struck me like a swift kick to the crotch. Oh god, I silently thought, are we going to survive four days on this boat? How old was that picture I screamed in the privacy of my own panicked thoughts. But looks can be deceiving, and this boat had credentials and a reputation for catching big fish. Iíd seen the pictures and talked to other captains about this boat. We continued to load our gear and shoved off toward the glory hole. Closer inspection of the vessel revealed too many broken or poorly maintained items to remember or mention. But for some reason the Gilliganís Island theme song kept playing in my mind. We arrived at our first destination of the multi-day trip within a few hours of departing the dock.

Donít judge a book by its cover is an over-used expression to say the least. However, this book, or boat as the captain called it, also had insides that revealed much. For instance, the vesselís electronics were of the most basic design. Donít get me wrong, Iím not an electronics snob, but I firmly believe a boat large enough to house six should have a depth finder suitable for the purpose of navigation and fish finding. This vessel had the most basic Hummingbird unit that you might find on a 12-foot aluminum boat. A great unit for a small boat, but certainly not powerful enough for accuracy and definition in deep water. An older GPS plotter was the only saving grace at the helm. A full length crack across the helmís windshield didnít look to appealing either.

Our first destination of the trip yielded nothing and resulted in a move to calmer waters because a storm had moved in. Spot two also yielded nothing. Spot three the same. Day two produced less than normal catches of very small fish. Throughout the trip the captain kept his enthusiasm and optimism high. But when the captain and mate crowded onto the back deck, which really only had room for two or three anglers, it forced two of us to quit fishing. His theory was simple. The more anglers fishing the more weíd catch. Our logic seemed simple too. Four anglers fishing in a hard current would be too crowded.

To say this trip was a bad trip would be an understatement. After four days of mediocre fishing we did come away with enough fish for all of us to have something for our efforts. But we also walked away with a sense of failure because we didnít accomplish the goals we hoped to achieve. My research and planning had failed us. Or was it simply a matter of bad luck. If fishing had been better this column might have been completely different, but I doubt it.

No matter how good or bad the fishing is we should expect a level of professionalism and standards for the captain and his vessel. And as anglers we must also realize our catching expectations might not be met, whether the guide was the best or worst. Sometimes the fish just wonít bite. But next time I book a trip with a charter boat Iíll be sure to ask about the boatís electronics. A couple of phone calls to past clients will also be on my check list. If I ever hear the theme song to Gilliganís Island playing during my conversation with a guide or his past clients Iíll know to start looking for another captain. And I might also ask for pictures of the boat with the captain standing in the foreground with todayís newspaper Ė kind of like a kidnapping ransom note. Maybe this will help me avoid being held captive by any more charter captains from hell.

<{{{{:> John L. Beath

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