I started guiding for striped bass twenty-six years ago. I was working as a writer/photographer and read an article one evening about “guides” that took people fishing for tarpon, bonefish and permit down south. I began wondering if it were possible to guide anglers to striped bass and blues on my home waters of the Massachusetts coast. Tens of thousands of fish later, the answer is yes.
However, I quickly came to some realizations. There was federal training involved, legal fees, insurance costs, banks, taxes, permits, licenses, boat mechanics, advertising, speaking engagements, website maintenance, direct mail, trade shows, daily pressures and lots and lots of overhead that had to be maintained. To top it off, the take-home pay was a fraction of your daily gross that got eaten up by the daily overhead. The glamour of calling out to your sport on the front deck, “Big Fish, ten o’clock, twenty yards, coming your way…!” quickly faded into the realities of running a small business. There was also another reality I soon became aware of: your day starts at 3:00am, every day, and you are exhausted all the time.
Being young and full of vigor, I decided to extend my season on the bay by three months, offering guided sea duck hunting in late fall and winter. More gear, more insurance, licensing and overhead. But my biggest daily concerns? Daylight and temperature. It’s one thing to take your anglers out for a half-day of fishing at sunrise in the summer, with balmy temperatures in the seventies. It is a totally different responsibility to take people with guns across the bay in the pitch dark, in January, with temperatures in the teens or single digits, using flood lights to spot floating ice chunks and commercial fishing gear exposed by the tides. Seas are often rough and if you or your hunters get wet from salt spray, it can become a life-threatening situation very quickly. Sea duck hunting involves setting out large spreads of decoys on gang lines with heavy boat anchors on both ends. It is done in the thick of night so everything is ready to intercept the flocks of sea ducks as they leave their roosting areas on the ocean and come into the bays to feed at first light.
Water temperatures are forever a concern. If your boat ever takes on water and you start to sink, nobody is coming to rescue you. At least not for a long time. Most harbormaster and rescue service boats are high and dry, hauled and shrink-wrapped for the winter. The coast guard is maybe an hour away if you can get a call out to them. If you go into the bay in January, in the pitch dark, in rough seas, outside the grace of God you got a couple minutes at best. On several occasions, after returning from a successful sea duck hunting trip, I have rolled up my sleeve and thrust my arm into the water at the dock to see how long I could hold it there. I have never gotten past thirty seconds before losing all feeling and function and the pain makes me pull it out and retreat quickly to my warm truck with heater running.
As I enter my twenty-sixth season, I have started to phase out sea duck hunting. Oh, I still go and I still hunt a lot of ducks. It is in my blood and I will never quit hunting. But now it is for fun, the way it use to be, and the only life I have to be concerned about is my own. And as far as guiding for striped bass and blues goes, I figure I got at least another thirty seasons on the bay!
Capt. David Bitters