How to Get a Job on a Fishing Boat
Commercial Fishing Boat
Before We Start
Before we get into how to get a job on a fishing boat you need to make sure that this is the lifestyle for you. And rest assured, it is a lifestyle, not just a job. Know what you are getting into.
An Introduction to the Fishing Industry
If you are still interested in a job on a fishing boat, there are a few things to consider. First, what kind of fishing do you want to do? Do you want to work on a charter boat, taking people fishing for the day? Or do you want to work on a commercial boat and make a living by catching fish and then selling them to the fish house? Both types of fishing have their advantages and disadvantages.
Charter boat deckhand positions are generally more seasonal type jobs. You will work 6-8 months of the year with the peak in the summertime (when school is out) and then you are done for the year. How busy you are really depends on the reputation of the boat you work on.
New boats generally don't get as many trips booked as long established boats. This means you may have to have a second job to make ends meet the first few years the boat is operating. The upside to a new boat vs an established boat is that it is generally easier to get hired on.
Head boats or party boats are where most new deckhands get their first taste of work. These boats take out large groups of people for a fish trip that lasts anywhere from 5-12 hours or more. The upside to a party boat is that it is usually very steady work, and some even run in the off season. Deck pay is usually at or just a little bit below a private charter boat, but tips are split between all deckhands (if you get tips-different boats have different rules).
After spending a few years on a head boat you may want to move on to private party charter boats. On this type of boat you are usually the only deckhand. The pay is better (no splitting tips if you are the only deckhand) and the work load is generally a bit less (only 6-12 customers on average rather than 30-100). Most captains will want you to have a few years experience before you will get hired on.
Commercial boats are a different animal. Many boats have high turnover rates and there is almost always an opening for someone who is willing to work hard and learn. Preference normally goes to those who have experience but some captains actually prefer 'greenhorns' so they can train them up the way they want things done.
A commercial boat doesn't take people out fishing for fun. Instead you will be catching fish to sell at the market. The captain/owner of the boat will have the proper license to sell the fish.
Pay is done differently depending on the boat you work on. Some boats give you a fixed percentage or share of the trip profits after expenses each trip. These are called 'share boats'. Other boats will pay you a percentage of the profits of fish YOU personally caught during the trip. Exact percentages vary from boat to boat, but 50% of the profit after your share of expenses is the norm.
Some boats don't pay a full share to greenhorns until they have proven their worth. And some shrimp boats basically pay the greenhorns out of the 'by-catch'—fish caught while shrimping—and not on the value of the shrimp itself.
Of course knowing how the various boats pay doesn't help you if you can't actually get a job on a boat. The next sections will describe what you need to do to get hired on.
Outlook for Careers in Fishing
- Fishing Jobs Outlook BLS
This link is to the BLS entry for fishing jobs. It has info on basic requirements, average pay, and expected job growth/decline.
Getting a Job on a Charter or Party Boat
The charter boat industry is regulated under the Department of Transportation. They set the rules about boat inspections, what types of safety gear you have to have, any special training you may need, and what special qualifications you may need to work in the charter boat industry. Basically the DOT considers any boat that people pay to get on as a 'for-hire' vessel.
The DOT has determined that in order to work on a for-hire vessel you must submit to random drug testing. This drug screening includes a pre-employment screening, enrollment into an approved random-drug testing consortium, and an agreement to take a drug test after any incident that occurs while the vessel is under-hire. All members of the crew including the captain must have a valid 'drug card'. Even if you are only 'filling in' on the boat you are required by law to have a valid drug card.
Normally the cost of the initial drug test and entering the consortium lies with the fisherman. While exact prices are subject to change the pre-employment screening should run you about $25-50 and the consortium fees are around $75-125/year. You will also have to pay if you are randomly selected for drug testing which will cost you another $25-50 each time. Every year you will be required to take a drug test. On the upside, once you have a drug card you can transfer between boats freely without having to do a pre-employment screening each time.
Once you have you drug card you need to start looking for a job. The only sure-fire ways to get hired quickly are 1) own the boat or 2) Family owned boat. For those of us who don't own the boat, or weren't lucky enough to be born into the life, finding work can be a daunting challenge.
It is unlikely, though not impossible, that you will simply walk down to the dock one day, drug card in hand, and get hired right away. Especially if you haven't been seen around the docks before. Most likely you will have to 'pound the docks' day after day, talking to everyone who is willing to listen, asking questions and helping out anyway you can before you even get a shot. It is easy to get discouraged and give up, but if you truly want to work on a fishing boat you have to put the time in.
Luckily you don't have to starve while doing this. Many deckhands will pay to have you wash their boat or help ice the boat down in the morning. If you have shown yourself handy with a knife they may pay you to help clean the catch. In fact, it is entirely possible to make a living just cleaning boats and helping out where needed.
The best boats to try to get hired-on are usually head boats or party boats. These are the larger fishing boats in the harbor that take out anywhere from 25-100 people at a time and usually employ several deckhands. Many a fisherman has gotten his start as a 5th mate or relief mate on a large party boat.
If hired as a 5th, 6th or relief mate you normally don't get tips, but you will get deck pay. You are also gaining valuable experience and if you work hard you will gain a good name for yourself. Eventually your hard work will pay off and you will either be advanced to full time (with tips) or another boat will need a deckhand and hire you.
Getting hired on a private party charter boat without experience is probably not going to happen. It is very rare for a charter boat captain to hire on an inexperienced deckhand unless it is a smaller boat where the captain can assist him. And honestly, if a captain can assist the deckhand he really doesn't need a deckhand in the first place.
You can however be hired by the first mate as a 'second mate' to help him out with larger parties. Sometimes a first mate will bring you on a trip to help train you so that later in the season he can have a day off and know that the guy filling in for him knows what he is doing. Most of the boats I worked on it was the responsibility of the first mate to find a replacement if he needed a day off and if the replacement wasn't up to par it could cost you your job!
You normally receive no deck pay from the owner or captain of the boat when you run as second mate like this. Instead the first mate will tip you out himself, taking money from his tips to do so. As second mate you will be doing all the annoying work- icing the boat, cutting bait, cleaning the boat once you get back while the first mate normally interacts with the customers, cleans the fish and then supervises you cleaning the boat. To be honest I used to bring on a second mate from time to time just to get a break from the more mundane work!
Getting a Job on a Commercial Boat
It is generally much easier to get a job on a commercial boat. Commercial boats often have high turnover rates due to a variety of causes. Sometimes the deckhands/captain have a falling out, sometimes the deckhand gets drunk/stoned and doesn't show up for a trip, and sometimes a deckhand is burned out and wants to take a trip off.
Since commercial boats aren't for-hire boats, there is not a legal drug testing requirement for deckhands. You also don't need a captains license to captain a commercial boat. However some captains/owners may require a drug test and most owners want a licensed captain running their boat. You can also be sure that if you are injured on the boat during a trip the insurance company will require a drug test before paying for your medical expenses.
To find a job on a commercial boat you need to talk to the captain. Sometimes it is easier to approach the deckhands and ask them if they know of a boat that needs somebody and have them direct you to the captain. It is not unheard of for a guy to walk down to the docks, talk to a commercial captain and be hired on the spot. In fact the first fishing job I had I was giving 3 hours to pack my bag for a week long trip!
Even if you don't get hired on immediately you will find work on a commercial boat. If all the boats are full crewed up at the moment ask the captain if there is anyway you can help. Sometimes the deckhands will pay you to help ice the boat. Make sure to find out how long a boat is likely to be gone, and be sure to meet it at the dock when it returns so you can help offload the catch/clean the boat or whatever they need done. Just make sure you don't get in the way, and don't let them take advantage of you. If you help ice down the boat they should pay you something, even if it's only $30-50. Cleaning the boat after the trip should also be worth at least $50 to the crew. If they had a bad trip and can't pay you can offer to help clean the boat but don't do it yourself.
It also helps to spend time with the crew while they are prepping for a trip so you can see what they do to get ready. That way you at least have a basic grasp of what is going on in case they need a replacement crew member on short notice. Make sure all the captains and crew have your phone number for the same reason. You'd be amazed at how often a deckhand ends up in jail, insensibly drunk, high on drugs, or 'falls in love' and can't make a trip.
General Tips to Help You Get Hired
Forget everything you know about fishing. This is especially true for commercial boats. Unless you fish the same way the charter boat/commercial boat does then you don't know what you are doing.
Learn the most commonly used rigs in your area. Then practice making those rigs until you do it perfectly every time.
Look the part. You know how most fisherman dress, so make sure you look like they do. I personally didn't follow this advice and probably made things harder on myself than they needed to be. With competition being tighter now than ever you need every advantage you can get.
Be ready to go at all times. Show up at the dock about 4:45 am everyday and have your drug card, de-hooker, polarized glasses, hat, drinks and whatever else you may need with you. You never know when some deckhand might be late for work and the captain decides to give you a shot.
Talk to everyone who works in the fishing industry. Ask the girls in the booking booth if they have heard of anyone looking for a deckhand. Talk to the deckhands and ask them. Ask the captains. Hell if you can figure out where the 'fish head' bar is, ask the bartenders. Just be polite and don't be a nuisance.
Stay positive. It may take a while, but if this is what you want then keep at it.
Be helpful-offer to help out where you can. Ask if you can wash the boat after a trip. In the morning help a guy get his ice from the dock to the boat. Just make sure not to bother the deckhand/captain when they are dealing with customers.
Always try to learn. If you don't know why someone is doing something ask them. Again just don't irritate someone. If they are really busy then wait to ask them at a different time.
Give your number to everyone you meet who might help you find a job. Networking is key when you want to get hired in any job but even more so in the close-knit fishing community.
Never Say This to a Captain
Whenever you talk to a captain or deck boss one of his first questions is going to be "Do you have experience?" Unless you have experience in the fishing industry your answer should be "No, but I'm a hard worker and I learn fast."
The worst thing you can say is: "I've never worked on a boat, but I've been fishing my whole life." Translated that means "It's fishing. How hard can it be? Besides I already know everything I need to know." Not a good impression to make on a captain. As soon as you leave, the captain and mates will have a laugh at your expense: "His whole life? Kid looks like he is 12," and then forget you.