Deep-sea can be both cheap and convenient
It's a foggy morning, a little misty and around 60 degrees. My friends and I are awake at 6:30 a.m., and by 7 we slowly shuffle out of our rental place in Narragansett, RI. Normally, none of us would be awake before 10 a.m. on Fourth of July weekend, but this day's different: We've got some fishing to do.
A quick trip to Dunkin Donuts woke us up as we made the 15-minute drive south to the village of Galilee, where the deep-sea fishing boats of the Frances Fleet awaited our arrival. We bought our tickets at Captain's Tackle across from the docks, and climbed aboard a 105-foot vessel named the Lady Frances.
The Frances Fleet runs daily fishing trips out of the docks in the Port of Galilee, one boat running full-day fishing (8 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and another doing half-day trips (8 a.m. to noon and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.). Both ships, which run seven days a week during the summer, are fishing for fluke (also known as flounder), as they always do during day trips from June to September. These are party boats, meaning they require just a boarding fee for each person, as opposed to charter boats, which are usually smaller and charge a flat fee for the boat, usually around $400 or higher.
The half-day trip cost $27 to board, $3 for a rod rental and $3 to enter a betting pool against the rest of the anglers on the boat. The person who catches the biggest fish wins the pool money. With about 35 people on board, the winner received around $100. With rod rental end pool entry fee, the total cost of this fishing trip was $33 a person.
Although there are many party boats in Massachusetts that are much closer, the drive to Galilee is still only about 1 hour and 45 minutes straight from Boston.
On this day, my friends and I chose the half-day trip. We've been successful in the past, pulling in as many as five fish per person. We hoped for similar success, because we planned on cooking up a nice feast later that afternoon to complement our Fourth of July celebrations.
The Lady Frances backed out of the dock at 8 a.m. prompt (so don't be late!), and headed out the bay toward the Atlantic. Before we hit the open water, the captain got on the public address system and welcomed everyone aboard with a suggestion:
"Whenever you are walking around on the boat, hold on to something, always hold on," a voice bellowed from the loudspeakers above our heads. "One hand for you, one for the boat. That's our motto."
Captain Don Ruth was stationed behind the steering wheel in the cabin on the top deck of the Lady Frances. Captain Don, 34, has been a captain for 5½ years, and said he grew up on the water. He is an easy-going guy yet very professional, and life on the water seems to suit him. He said he was in the restaurant business before he decided on a career change.
"There are not many days where I wake up and don't look forward to going to work," he said.
The crowd aboard the Lady Frances was a good mix of people. There were a few experienced fishermen out for a few hours of fun, as well as parents and grandparents taking their young ones on their first fishing trips, a summertime rite-of-passage.
As the ship headed toward our first fishing spot, the mates of the Lady Frances handed out rods to those who needed them, as well as little buckets full of bait. Shawn Newton, 15, was one of the three crew mates on the trip, along with Kyle Blount, 17, and Kyle's brother, Corey. These are the guys that really make these fishing trips fun, as they have a patience and friendliness that belie their young ages. They are used to dealing with first-time anglers, and it shows. Nothing is too stupid to ask these guys, and they are always willing to help.
The crew mates are also really good with the kids. Fighting a fluke can be a little difficult for the younger ones, as they put up a much bigger fight than, say, a brook trout. Whenever a kid got a bite, the mates were always close by offering encouragement and assistance.
The mates also work a grill in the galley, where you can order a hot dog, hamburger, egg sandwich, and other snacks. I ordered a $2 hot dog, and as I made my way back outside I understood Captain Don's earlier warnings about walking around on the boat. My hot dog nearly became fish food as I almost slipped and dropped it over the side of the boat. Walking around on the boat, especially when it's stopped, can be quite difficult as it rocks back and forth.
If you're prone to seasickness at all, or even if you're not sure, you definitely want to take Dramamine about an hour before boarding. It helps prevent seasickness and is one of those situations where the motto "better be safe than sorry" rings very true. My friend Ty wished he had taken some once we were on the ship, as he became sick about an hour into it and never really emerged from the bathroom.
The trip to the first fishing spot took about 30 minutes and left us about 5 miles from the docks, Captain Don told us. It was a nice trip and the weather was beautiful -- you sure don't have to be a fisherman to enjoy being out on the boat.
One thing to keep in mind when going on a fishing yacht is that it's probably about 10 degrees colder on the water than it is on land; and when the sun hides behind a cloud it can get a little chilly, even during the warmer months. It's a good idea to bring a light jacket or a long-sleeved shirt just in case. Also, good sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat will protect you from the sun. Depending on what part of the boat you're fishing on, you could either be completely shaded from the sun or have it blasting right on you. It's best to prepare for both possibilities.
Captain Don turned off the engine when we hit our first spot, signaling it is was time to start fishing. Before dropping the line into the water, I fixed some bait to the end of my hook. The bait bucket has both cut-up pieces of squid and little baitfish called spearing. I hooked one of each to my line and dropped it into the water.
Photo Gallery: How to hook bait
Another good tip is to wear clothes you won't mind getting dirty, and bring a towel as well. You'll be handling bait and touching fish, and your hands will become slimy and fishy. Since I didn't bring a towel, I had to resort to wiping my hands on my jeans. Needless to say, I didn't smell very good by the end.
As I let my line out into the deep water, the mates reminded us to let out the line on the fishing rod until the 4-ounce weight, attached about a foot from the hook, hits the bottom. Fluke stay mainly at the bottom of the ocean, and you want the bait to be as close to where the fish are as possible. Every 30 seconds or so, an upward tug will get the bait moving around, making it a more attractive target for fish.
The deck can get a little crowded when everybody is fishing. With only around 35 people on board, we had a decent amount of room to move around; but many times you'll be fishing elbow-to-elbow with other anglers. Choosing a good spot on the ship is key. The front and rear offer the most room to move around. Along the sides the space gets a lot tighter, and you are more likely to get your line tangled with other lines.
The good spots in the bow (front of the ship) and stern (rear) were taken by the time we had boarded the Lady Frances (get there early to claim the best spots), so we were fishing off of the port side (left side -- starboard is the right side. Click here for a glossary of nautical terms).
The fishing started pretty slow. Fluke need to be at least 17½ inches long or they must be thrown back, and it seemed as if we were fishing over the fluke kindergarten. Most of the fish being pulled aboard were way too small to keep. A few keepers were caught, but most of the action was on the bow and stern. Even the starboard side was pulling in more than us. Shawn playfully tried to motivate us.
"Come on, guys, the other side is killing you."
We heard the occasional shout of "fish on!", which signals to the mates that someone has a fish on their hook. When the fish is close enough to the surface of the water, one of the mates will grab a net and scoop the fish out of the water and plop it down on the deck. The only thing I had to shout was "bait on!" My luck was horrible.
After about 45 minutes of fishing, the captain told us to reel in our lines and headed out to find another spot. Soon after, we were dropping our lines again, and having much of the same luck. The most popular fish biting our hooks weren't fluke, but another bottom-feeding fish that's much more ugly: the skate. It's rather disappointing to get a bite, reel the fish to the surface and see a skate at the end of your hook.
Every skate caught was thrown back into the ocean, although Kyle told us that some people actually keep those things and eat them. They sure don't look very tasty, that's for sure.
We hit three more fishing spots over the next couple of hours, but neither my friends nor I had any luck. Out of five of us, only one keeper was caught, and even that one was barely worth saving, and not nearly big enough to give us a chance in the largest-fish pool.
At the bow, however, one family pulled fluke out of the water with consistency. Minoru Tsuji, his wife Nobuko, and their son Ken are from Newington, Conn., and go deep-sea fishing quite often.
"I like the half-day [fishing trip] because it doesn't tie up your whole day," says Minoru. "You bring the family, it's very relaxing."
Minoru, who is originally from Tokyo, has been fishing for about 40 years, and the experience showed. He caught three good-sized fluke, and his 21-year-old son Ken caught three more. That total would have been more than doubled if you counted the ones they had to throw back.
"I don't mind if someone else catches a bigger one, especially the children," said Minoru.
Overall, the boat reeled in about 25 keepers, as well as countless smaller fluke and skate.
On the ride back to the docks, some people had their fish cut into fillets by one of the crew mates. At $1 a fish, it's worth the price, especially if you've never cut one up before. The mates put the fillets in plastic bags, which makes storage easy whether you want to throw them in the freezer or plop them on the grill.
As we departed the ship, my friends and I realized the feast we had planned on wouldn't materialize: One fish for five people could hardly be considered a "feast." So we did what most people do when they are at the beach and want a heaping pile of seafood -- we headed straight for the nearest restaurant. Fish and chips, please.