Working on Fishing Boats
So You Want to Fish for a Living?
Fishing for a living sounds like an ideal job. After all, who wouldn't rather be fishing than working, right? Well, the realities of a career in the fishing industry are quite different than what you may expect. There are many different types of fishing jobs available and each provides a unique set of challenges and experiences. However some things are consistent across the entire spectrum of fishing jobs.
Very Long Hours
Regardless of your chosen path in fishing, you can expect to work some really long hours. A typical deckhand on a charter boat works about 14-18 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 7 months a year. This is on an established boat with a good customer base, but if you aren't working on a boat like that, you aren't making a living fishing. The fishing part of the day is typically less than 10 hours, the rest is spent prepping the boat, cleaning fish, and cleaning the boat. More on that in a bit.
On a longline boat, expect to work between 14-20 hours a day, depending on conditions and the catch. Longlining trips typically last between 6 and 28 days, though 60-day or longer trips are possible on some of the largest boats. Depending on what you are fishing for will determine when you work. Sword fishing for instance is a nighttime bite, so you will set gear in the evening, sleep for a few hours, and wake up at dawn to retrieve the days catch.
Working on a bandit boat means 16 to 20-hour days are the norm, and sometimes, if the bite is really hot, you will fish for over 40 hours straight. When you work depends largely on when the fish are biting. Because of the gear used, much of the bite is a nighttime bite, meaning you will start fishing a couple of hours before dusk and fish through the night until a couple of hours after dawn. Then you have to gut the fish, pack them in ice, and clean the boat before sleeping. Oh and someone has to cook as well! Typically a bandit boat will be out for a week to 10 days each trip.
Shrimp boats and crab boats are so varied that it is difficult to give a true 'average experience' since every boat is different. Some boats are day trippers, they leave out either in the morning or at night and return the next day. On these boats you can easily work 24-36 hours straight! On larger boats that stay out for extended periods of time (normally up to 90 days at a time), you can expect to work at least 18 hours a day.
Hard Physical Labor
No matter what type of fishing boat you work on, you will earn your check. Or you won't be on the boat long. From icing the boat before a trip to cleaning the boat afterwards to any of a thousand things that can happen in between, all fishing jobs exact a toll on your body and mind.
The least labor-intensive position on the boat is normally the Captain. However, the Captain is under immense mental stress that can be just as if not more draining than actually doing the dirty work on deck. The captain is responsible for the vessel and crew's well-being and with making the trip a success. When the bite is on, it is great feeling, but if the bite is slow or non-existent, then the stress builds and builds. If the captain is also the owner of the boat, these stresses are multiplied even more by boat payments, dock fees, license fees, and routine or emergency maintenance issues that can quickly cost the captain his boat.
Deckhands have more physical demands and less mental demands. It really varies depending on what type of boat you are working on, but these tasks include baiting and deploying lines, cleaning the boat, retrieve lines, and removing the catch from the hooks/nets/traps and then storing the catch in a way to ensure the fish is in peak condition when you get back to the dock.
Something as simple as baiting a hook becomes a chore when you do thousands of times each day. Think it is easy to land a fish? Try landing a pissed-off tiger shark you caught accidentally while longlining for grouper. Gutting a fish and packing it on ice is easy, until you have to process a thousand pounds of three to five lb fish after working through the night. And unless you are on a freezer boat (boat that has a freezer hold), then you have to pack the fish in ice. Which means you have to move several thousand pounds of ice to one side, pack the fish, and then shovel all the ice back on top of the fish you just stored. Then rinse and repeat.
Speaking of ice-not all ports are created equal. I've fished from some ports that had an ice blower machine that let you put ice straight into the hold with the push of a button. What a luxury! More often than not you will have to manually load tens of thousands of pounds of ice by the trashcan full. Icing a boat is its own special hell in these conditions.
Harsh and Hazardous Conditions
The recreational fisherman generally have the luxury of only fishing when the weather is nice. Some diehard fishermen will go fishing in bad weather but most have more sense than that. Too hot outside? No worries, just wait till dusk. Raining all day? We'll just go next time. Seas are at three to five ft? No thanks, I'll just wait until the seas calm down before going so I don't get beat up. Working a fishing job is different.
There Is No Such Thing as 'Too Hot to Fish'
The sun will take a lot out of you, and it is on you to take the proper steps to keep yourself healthy. The most important thing is to make sure to stay hydrated. This means drinking plenty of water each day and especially the night before! Mix in an occasional electrolyte-containing beverage to replace salts lost to sweating.
It is also important to wear proper clothing for both protection from the sun and avoid overheating. You want to wear something close fitting that breathes and a hat to protect your ears.
Finally, always wear sunscreen. Skin cancer is no joke and many fisherman who don't properly protect themselves will end up having to have painful surgeries to remove malignant tumors from their skin. Skin cancer can also result in death—you've been warned!
Extreme cold will kill you even faster than extreme heat. Even if the cold isn't enough to kill you outright, it is never fun to deal with. Your hands stop working right when you get too cold, and your thinking slows. Combining this with sleep deprivation and fatigue can easily lead to mistakes that can cause injury or death. Frostbite is another worry for the cold weather fisherman. Frostbite is the death of tissue due to the tissue being exposed to extreme cold for long periods of time.
The same steps you would take to prevent cold injuries on land apply to fishing. Wear cloths in layers, always cover you head and ears, and wear gloves. One caveat though—while you need to layer your clothing the risk of falling overboard is always present on a fishing boat. So layer loose fitting (but not too loose) clothing that you can remove easily if the worst should happen. Otherwise, the weight of your clothing could end up dragging you straight to the bottom.
Rough Seas and Storms
When you fish for a living you have to fish the conditions. This may mean going out in rougher weather than the recreational fisherman would like to. Most boats fish unless the weather is so bad that fishing is physically impossible or the risk of injury and or death is too great. Everyone has probably seen the show Deadliest Catch on Discovery Channel. Thankfully, most fishing isn't that extreme, but bad weather is a constant consideration for professional fisherman.
Rough weather can be anything from larger than normal seas due to steady high winds to a hurricane. Most boats don't fish in hurricane conditions but it is not uncommon for a boat to get caught in one because the storm changed track or developed more quickly than expected.
Any type of storm at sea, whether its an afternoon thunderstorm or a hurricane, will be accompanied by large seas, possible torrential downpours, possible hail, and usually lightning. Lightning normally means a suspension of fishing activities until it has passed as the risk of a lightning strike is elevated on a fishing boat.
Fishing on a commercial boat and many charter boats will continue even if there is a steady rain so long as there is no lightning. When I worked on a head boat that was open to the elements customers used to ask me "What do we do if it starts raining?" and my answer was always "get wet." A good set of rain gear is vital for anyone serious about working on a fishing boat.
Some Other 'Fun' Things That Happen to Fishermen
These three things—extreme heat, extreme cold, and bad weather—are the most common detrimental conditions you will experience on a fishing boat. There are many, many possible things that can and will affect you while you are fishing.
Ever been stung by a jellyfish? Well imagine a 20-mile long stretch of longline gear that drifted through a school of man-o-war jellyfish in the night. Now imagine that 'hot jelly' (what we call the stingers that stick to the line) striking you on the face, arms, neck, maybe even in your eye as you retrieve your gear.
Or handle a lionfish the wrong way and get pricked—lots of fun, trust me. Or have lines get wrapped in the propeller and have to dive into the water to cut it free. Think sea turtles are 'cool' or 'cute'? Wait until the first time one gets tangled in your gear and you have to free him. Here's a hint: stay away from his mouth. The list is nearly endless of things that will go wrong and make what is already a tough job even tougher.
Time Away From Home
One of the biggest things you will have to accept when you start a career as a fisherman is that you will be spending a lot of time away from home. This means missing your children's sporting events or class plays. Not being home for the holidays. Not being there when the car breaks down and your wife/significant other needs your help.
And don't think, "Oh I'll be a charter fisherman so i get to come home every night." Sure, you come home at the end of each day. Generally you come home, eat, and go to sleep. Maybe you get to spend a few minutes playing with your kids or watch tv or talk to your loved ones. But if you are on a good boat that runs steady, you have no life. In fact, a commercial guy may have the edge during the spring/summer/fall period since most commercial boats usually have a few days downtime between trips.
If You Haven't Been Scared Off Yet...
If you've read all this and have decided that fishing for a living sounds like a job for you, congrats. You may have what it takes to make a living fishing. I know it sounds like I was trying to dissuade you from getting a job in the fishing industry but that wasn't my intent. I just wanted to make sure you knew what you were getting into.
Fishing definitely has its perks. The pay is usually pretty good. You get to do something you love. And you will see things that the majority of the population never gets to see. I could probably write a few dozen articles describing some of the cool/crazy/unusual things I have seen while fishing. And who knows, maybe I will.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.