How To Become a Florida Keys Fishing Professional
So you want to fish professionally? Perhaps you are sitting in an office cubicle reading this article right now. Are you tired of sitting under artificial fluorescent lights? Sick of working for an entire year to get another week off to fish the Keys again? Maybe you recently returned from a fantastic Florida Keys fishing vacation, and you can’t stop daydreaming about it.
Well, the idea of being paid to fish is appealing; heck, you get to be on the ocean, catch fish, meet new people every day, and get paid for it!?! And to be able to do that in the Florida Keys, one of the most desired vacation destinations, what could be wrong with that?
There is no doubt that being a professional fisherman (male or female) can be an incredible experience. Still, there is much behind-the-scenes work to accomplish this dream that one should consider before choosing this career path.
Fishing professionally often means starting work before sunrise and finishing after sunset.
Have you ever wondered why the same crew is not at your favorite charter company year after year? Well, this article will detail why and help answer those questions. Whenever we conduct a job interview, everyone says, “I love to fish” or “I live to fish.” etc. Being passionate about fishing is a great start, but this alone is not enough. There is a vast difference between fishing for fun and running charters daily, for weeks or even months without a day off, year after year. Believe us when we tell you that not everyone is cut out for this lifestyle!
Of course, what you read today is from our perspective at Main Attraction Charters and how we fish in particular. We run over a thousand charters a year, and while some charter businesses do not fish as often allowing you more days off, it also makes it harder to pay the bills. Living in the Florida Keys is very expensive, and with the recent heightened housing market, most long-term rentals are no longer available. People are selling their long-term rentals, which are being turned into vacation rentals, making long-term housing rare and expensive.
If you can swing it, though, being a fisherman is a fantastic job, your office is the ocean, and no day is the same, but there are lots to think about if you choose this career path. Even if you are already fishing professionally in another state or country, once you get here, you soon realize fishing in the Florida Keys is unlike anywhere else in the world. While the Florida Keys are loaded with fish, there are just as many boats putting the fish here under immense pressure. For this reason, your fishing skill level and knowledge of Florida Keys specific techniques are essential for consistent success.
The start of just another day at the office!
If you consider moving your family to the Florida Keys to be a professional fisherman, you better save some money first. Chances are you won’t get rich being a fisherman, but if you work hard, you can make a decent living and pay the bills. It doesn’t hurt to have a supportive spouse who can help you earn a living, especially while you are in the learning stages.
The boys heading back to the dock with a well full of pilchards.
Getting a Captain’s license before you move down can also be advantageous. If you meet the prerequisites for time on the water etc., getting your license beforehand makes you a more desirable hire. Even if you currently don’t know how to fish in the Keys or drive a boat too well, you can learn this on the job if you have a good attitude and consider yourself a hard-working, self-motivated individual.
Start as a Mate for a business that fishes often. You want daily experience and to learn from a Captain that knows what they are doing. Even if your ultimate goal is to be a Captain, you should be a Mate for several years before considering being a Captain. Why? Because you have to be an excellent Mate before you can be a great fishing Captain.
The first year of Mating for an outfit like Main Attraction can be very challenging. By the time you start learning the techniques needed for one style of fishing, the seasons change, and it’s on to another. It takes years of experience, training, and lessons learned to become an expert at catching fish with true efficiency.
After Mating for long enough, you will no longer feel like you are constantly playing catch up for the next set of fish down in the cockpit. Once you become efficient and the job becomes second nature, you will have extra time to climb the tower and learn from the Captain. You will begin to see how they find fish, learn how to drift baits near the bottom, dock the boat, etc. This is just part of the natural progression to Captain that we foster at Main Attraction to develop great fishing Captains.
Getting A Captain’s License
Some individuals can absorb information well from reading textbooks and, others require a more hands-on approach. If you are serious about getting your Captain’s license and want to have the best chance of passing on your first try, consider taking a course to get you there. Being completely immersed in your Captain’s class for a week or two can increase your odds of passing significantly.
Learning To Throw a Cast-Net
Catching live bait is a big part of being a thriving fisherman in the Florida Keys. Purchasing live bait is not a consistent or affordable source for live bait when you fish daily. You will be a much bigger help on daily bait runs if you already know how to throw a cast net instead of learning on the job. At the Main Attraction, we throw large cast nets in the 12-14 foot range. We do NOT throw cast nets with the leads loaded in our teeth, either. Our load procedure is particular and proven to be safe and effective. If you show up in the Keys not knowing how to throw a cast net effectively, you will find yourself having to practice over and over again after long days of fishing.
Captain Marty Lewis throws a cast net on bait.
Daily Life as a fisherman
The Main Attraction crew bringing bait to our boats before the day’s fishing trips.
A fisherman’s typical day starts very early, well before the sun comes up (4:30-5 am for many of us).
Not all charters catch bait before their trip, but when live bait is available (typically winter and spring), at Main Attraction, we take out one of our smaller center consoles and load it up on live bait before the actual charter trip begins.
Make sure you have a good jacket and bib for this, as many mornings can be frigid as you head out to catch bait before the sun comes up.
Grundéns Jacket and Fishing Bib Pants
Costa Polarized Sunglasses.
Everglades fishing boots.
Avid shirts / hats / buffs etc.
As a Mate in the Florida Keys, you will hear this line from customers all the time, “You have the best job in the world; you get paid to fish!”. Yes, it is fantastic to get paid to fish, but as a Mate, your job is to mostly do the toughest parts of fishing and let the clients do the fun part of the fishing! You will be up the night before twisting wire rigs for Mackerel, or rigging Ballyhoo for trolling Mahi, or Making Tuna lures, or Sailfish rigs. You will spend your early mornings catching live bait. Then you will spend the day hunting for fish, and yes, you might hook some fish here and there to help inexperienced clients, but the clients, not you, will do all the fighting of the fish!
The rush of an exciting Sailfish hookup makes all the hard work worth it.
You won’t just fish on sunny days either; you will fish in rough weather if the client is game, you will fish on windy days, you will have to pull the anchor in big waves etc. You will get hooks in your hand, knife cuts, fish bites, infected hands, fish poison, jellyfish stings, you name it, you’ll get it.
The job is challenging and demanding, but you get to be in the sun all day, get great exercise, meet new people every day, and you do get paid to fish. So if knowing all of that has still not deterred you, then being a professional Mate in the Florida Keys might be for you!
As a Captain, your experience and responsibilities are entirely different than being a Mate. While at the Main Attraction, you will be responsible for helping the team catch live bait early in the morning; you will also need to complete your vessel’s daily inspection to ensure it is safe and ready to fish. This includes checking the hull for leaks or water and testing all bilge pumps and high water alarms. You will also have to check your fluid levels, such as oil, coolant, and fuel. Your daily checklist will include turning your motors over and running them to ensure everything is operational. You will also need to check all hose clamps and connections, and instrument panels, as well as electronics, and radios.
The Captain also performs a safety introduction for the clients after they board the vessel, showing them where the lifejackets and fire extinguishers are. Once all of these tasks are complete, it is time for the Captain to look for some fish!
While our Captains are great at finding fish, try to imagine for a moment the kind of pressure they are under on the more challenging days. Clients often save up all year to go on a fishing trip and have a lot invested in making it a good trip. The clients might want to catch a specific species, but the Captain might know it’s far better to do something else that day. As a Captain, you need to learn how to effectively communicate with clients to explain what you think is best to try and fish for and why.
In addition to the responsibilities mentioned above, the safety of everyone aboard the vessel is also the Captain’s responsibility. The Captain must make quick, intelligent decisions if anything goes wrong to ensure the safety of everyone on board.
On top of all that, The Captain must also aid the mate and the clients in catching fish! This is why we firmly believe that to be an effective Captain, you need to know how to be a good Mate first. One of your jobs as Captain will be to provide the mate with clear, concise, effective instructions to help him do his job. The tower allows you to have a birds-eye view of the situation and see fish from the top down without dealing with the glare off the surface of the water as you do from the cockpit.
This makes you the eyes for the mate when fish are near the boat. You will point to where you want the mate to cast baits to hook fish that they can not always see. As a Captain, you will learn that this means pointing where the fish is headed so the bait lands in front of the fish to be seen and then eaten. You will need to identify when lines are crossed and shout clear instructions to uncross the lines to avoid tangles. You will need to navigate the ocean and avoid storms and bad weather sometimes while looking for fish. It is a unique and exciting job, but it also comes with great responsibility. It is a special breed of person to be a Florida Keys Fishing Captain for years or even decades.
After The Trip
If you work for the Main Attraction, you can expect to fish anywhere from one to two trips per day. When your trip is over, the crew’s day is not over. Typically, once back at the dock, the Captain will fillet and bag the catch and take payment from the clients. The mate cleans the vessel top to bottom, rinsing the salt from the tower as well as soaping and scrubbing the deck. The mate also rinses the fishing gear, dries it, lubricates if needed, and stores it in a dry place. Our center console has a Captain only, who is responsible for all of these tasks. While it is more work for the solo Captain, they get to keep the entire tip instead of splitting it.
Once customers have their filets and have paid for their trip, the crew have to prepare for the next day of fishing, clean the dock, put away the cast nets from the morning, restock the bait freezers with chum and oats, rig ballyhoos, respool lines, fix any boat issues from that day, refuel the vessel, and perform oil changes or any other maintenance items.
Sometimes if the bait is thick in the afternoon, the crew will go out for another bait run. There are no days off during the high season unless the weather is a factor, and it will be dark when you start work and dark when you finish, BUT our crews do it because they honestly love it.
A typical office job starts at 8 am and ends at 5pm, with an hour lunch break and weekends and holidays off. Not a fisherman! Something to remember when you are fishing with our team. We take Easter and Christmas off every year regardless, but for our fisherman who has family out of town, that doesn’t leave enough time to visit them.
Captain Marty Lewis filets some Mahi after a trip.
Even when we aren’t fishing there is still plenty of work to be done!
At the Main Attraction, we are even busy during the off-season! When the kids go back to school in the Fall, we continue to fish, just not at the same non-stop pace. The off-season is also when we take our boats out of the water to work on them. Our boats get any attention they might need after a long year of fishing daily, which could mean anything from sanding, painting, waxing, replacing motors, and upgrading the vessel. We consider this a privilege as keeping busy in the offseason means you can earn money year-round, which a large percentage of professional fishermen worldwide can not do.
Despite all the hard work and challenges that come with being paid to fish there are some pretty incredible benefits. When the sailfish are tailing, and each vessel is putting up high numbers of releases, and your adrenaline is pumping out of sheer excitement, sometimes there is the moment of genuine gratitude and awe in the fact that you get to do this for a living.
Even one Sailfish release is a natural high for a fisherman! Finding a Stingray with a bunch of Cobia under it, getting that first Swordfish for a client, a junior angler’s first Yellowtail Snapper, a wintertime Wahoo caught at high-speed on the troll, or a shocked family catching a Slammer sized Mahi, these scenarios quickly make all the long hours pay off very quickly.
If you are anything like us at Main Attraction, when you look back, you will forget about all the hard work and long days and all you will remember is getting to catch some amazing fish, with some pretty incredible people, while sharing joyful moments with them that you will never forget. If that sounds like something you want to be a part of, give us a call and let us know, and maybe one day, you too can end up a member of the Main Attraction crew!
If you have questions or feedback call us at (305)-289-0071 or visit our contact page to book your next fishing adventure in the Florida Keys.
Captain Marty Lewis repairs bait cages after a long-season of fishing.