In the first installment of an ongoing series, Glenn Hayes examines what it takes to work on the waterfront
There are many jobs that are performed every day on the waters around us. Some are obvious and high-profile while others are not so well-known or understood. In this series of articles each month, we will delve into the variety of marine-related jobs out there and will seek to learn more about the careers people have chosen on the water. Each job is interesting in its own right and All At Sea Southeast will attempt to delve into what it takes to work these jobs on the water.
Do you fancy the idea of being on the water almost every day of the year and living, eating and breathing fishing from sunrise to sunset? Can you picture yourself in the latest and greatest fishing boat with all the best equipment money can buy? Envision yourself fishing with CEOs and top executives as well as sports stars and celebrities. There you are on TV, on a sports network being interviewed after winning a top fishing tournament. Flip the channel and there you are again guiding a show host to a catch of a lifetime. Does this sound too good to be true? Well, it’s not for some.
Captain Jim Huddleston has made a successful career of being a top inshore charter captain along the west coast of Florida. With a client book that reads like a ‘who’s who’ and a list of top tournament wins, he has achieved what many have attempted and failed.
Saltwater runs through Captain Jim’s veins. He is in fact a fourth generation professional fisherman. From a history dating back to his great grandfather who was a commercial fisherman to his charter captain and commercial fishing uncles and a father who loved light tackle fishing, his family influenced him to follow in their footsteps and work on the water.
With a few major tournament wins under his belt, it became obvious to sponsors that Jim was a safe bet for their sponsorships and also a safe bet for a great day of fishing for their executives and guests. As the requests for trips grew along with the possibility of more and larger sponsorships, Jim decided to take the leap and become a full-time charter captain, giving up a successful business career. All of this at about the same time he decided to take another leap and get married. Apparently he has been successful at both.
When asked what the single most important tool to have in order to be successful as a charter captain Capt. Jim responded, “The support of my family. Without that backbone it’s hard to be charter captain.” It’s a difficult juggling act to balance quality time with his wife and three kids and maintain a successful charter business, but somehow he manages to do so.
Huddleston is on the water about 300 days a year and runs 250-plus charters each year. Those numbers are impressive for any charter business and he attributes it to hard work and getting out on the water. He also adds that you have to spend time in getting your name out, working hard to get premium sponsors. “Nothing was handed to me on a silver platter. Everything I did, I did on my own.” He attributes his extensive client book primarily as being a result of treating each of his clients like they are his best friends. As a result, referrals and repeat customers make up the bulk of his 250-plus charters a year.
A typical day on the water for Capt. Jim would start very early in the pre-dawn with the task of obtaining bait and setting up the tackle and rigs for the day’s fishing. The time of year determines what bait will be used. Whether it’s getting to the right spot at the right time to catch bait, or getting to the right bait supplier for the select shrimp before they are all gone, he is usually up and working hours before the charter guests arrive.
Another preparation Huddleston contends with before a charter is studying the tides. All his charters are fished according to the tide. “The tide is such a key element in my business. You can live and die by a good tide.” After picking up his clients at a local marina the rest of the charter is spent in pursuit of fish – and Jim runs to wherever they may be. Typically he fishes in water that is three to four feet deep and can be fishing light tackle for fish from a two-pound trout to twenty-pound snook or even much bigger redfish. “A lot of the time we see the fish and it’s sight casting and it’s very intense. You can be on a school of 100 redfish looking at these fish feeding and all of a sudden they turn on.” Getting the fish to strike is only part of the challenge for an inshore charter captain. His clients are fishing light tackle over oyster bars and in mangroves and the task of bringing in the fish in and not losing it is a tough one. Guests and captain never know what they will be up against, either. With one cast they could catch a trout and the next it could be a 100-pound spinner shark.
When the charter ends and the guests head back home or to the hotel, Huddleston’s work is still not done. After a full day of fishing he cleans the boat and takes care of any maintenance issues that are required of the tackle and boat, prepping them for the next charter.
The waters Huddleston fishes are unique, offering a variety of fishing not found in other locales. Because of the location of many of his charters in St. Joseph’s Sound, on the west coast of Florida, at certain times of the year he is able to fish on the outside of the sound for king fish and run back inside to the inshore grounds to fish for reds – all in the same charter. The waters from Clearwater to Tarpon Springs are not the only area where Huddleston applies his knowledge. For a month or so he follows the monster tarpon down to Boca Grande and fishes the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series along with a full calendar of charters between tournaments.
The equipment he uses and is sponsored by is a direct result of his years on the water and is equipment he chooses not just because of a sponsorship possibility. If it’s equipment he wants to use he pursues the sponsor, not the other way around. To be successful he requires top-quality equipment that is reliable and won’t let him down on a charter. Knowledge of what works best for his type of fishing in his waters is key to having a successful charter. His boat of choice is a 25 SheerWater (the third boat for him from the company) powered by a 250hp Mercury OptiMax with a Motorguide trolling motor. The SheerWater boasts large live wells, which are vital to keeping live bait alive in the hot summer months, and the boat provides a comfortable platform for his guests to fish from. As a sponsored captain he gets to input ideas and design improvements to the boat and equipment manufacturers, and this input can be used in the design of future models.
Sponsors are primarily the result of his successful tournament winnings and media exposure. These are key factors in obtaining quality sponsors and Huddleston is keenly aware of that. His involvement in the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series from its inception is proof of his acknowledgment of the importance of media exposure. He not only participates in professional tournaments but also is heavily involved in local tournaments and even is involved in helping to organize some fundraiser tournaments in the Tampa Bay area. He acknowledges that giving back to the community is a vital part of being a successful part of that community.
The charter captain business can be a tough one, with many misconceptions, but it can be rewarding. Huddleston is quick to acknowledge that it’s not a career you will get rich doing and that you should do it “for the love of fishing.” His favorite part of the job is one that shows his passion for fishing. “Hands down putting someone on a big fish that they have never caught before.”
He also laments that another misconception is that charter captains will always put you on big fish. Even with knowledge of the waters and the fish you pursue as a result of hard work and time invested, you are still at the mercy of the fish. He says that the toughest part of the job is “one-timers.” These are charter clients that treat their captain as a servant and are disrespectful to both him and the concept of conservation. He can usually educate his guests on the importance of catch and release and conservation, with only select fish being kept for the dinner table.
By treating his charter guests as if they were his best friends (and many do become friends) and utilizing his extensive knowledge of the waters he plies, Huddleston has proven enormously successful as a charter captain. After all, he “does it for the love of fishing.”