By Ric Burnley
A good mate is worth his weight in gold. From wiring a blue marlin to serving cocktails, the second in command on a professional sportfishing boat has many jobs to master and many people to please.
So, how do you quantify the value of excellence? How do you compensate a person for unwavering dedication, extensive technical knowledge, a crushing physical toil and a winning attitude? Paying a mate what he’s worth would quickly run most operations out of financial resources. With all the adventure, excitement, drama and sheer fun of professional fishing, at the end of the day, it all comes down to a wad of cash passed from the fisherman to his best friend on the water.
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Charter vs Private Boats
From one boat to the next, the mate’s job requirements may vary greatly. James Breen has traveled all over the world fishing tournaments. While Breen has been able to chase the most prestigious fish in the most exotic locations, the job has required a lot of time away from home and a lot of time off the water doing maintenance, rigging tackle and waiting for the boss. It’s a dream job, but there are a lot of challenges, Breen admits.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Capt. Tim Hagerich, who has worked as a full-time mate out of Hatteras, North Carolina. Unlike Breen, Hagerich has experienced fishing every day then going home each night. But the job has its own challenges. “The pace is exhausting,” Hagerich says. “When we fish all day then stay late to change oil or fix broken stuff.”
Not only does the job description change from boat to boat, but the way mates are paid can vary from one operation to another. Like many charter mates, Hagerich got $100 to $150 dollars per trip from the captain and tips from the anglers, which run 15 to 20 percent of the charter price. On the private boat, Breen received a steady salary from the owner that works out to about $150 to $200 dollars per day.
In the end, it’s the moments of extreme chaos that make the hours of labor worth every minute. Without a passion for fishing, a hopeful mate won’t last long. “No one is doing this job for the money,” Hagerich laughs. “You gotta love it.”
While all mates share the trials and tribulations of professional fishing, the way deckhands are paid differs from boat to boat. Working in Hatteras, Hagerich expects $130 to $150 dollars from the captain plus tips from the anglers. “If you’ve been working on the same boat for years and you’re doing a really good job, then you should get a little more,” he says. However, he does remind mates to be aware of expenses the captain may face before expecting more boat pay. “Fuel, dockage and maintenance aren’t getting cheaper,” he points out adding that a good rule of thumb for boat pay is 10 percent off the top. “We’re getting $1,400 to $1,600 per day,” he says, “but up north they charge up to $2,000 for a trip.”
Of course, the size and complexity of the operation also plays a part in a mate’s compensation package. Captain Glenn Cameron is a 30-year-plus veteran of charter fishing and a past InTheBite Captain of the Year. “When I started as a mate, boat pay was $30 dollars a day!” he laughs. Not only has the pay changed but the job has changed. The switch from meat fishing to big game hunting has required the higher skill set of a professional fisherman. “The size of the operation can also have an effect on boat pay,” Cameron says. “A bigger boat requires more work and more responsibility.” That should be reflected in the mate’s take-home pay.
Of course, tips are the bread and butter of a charter mate’s pay. In addition to the daily boat pay from the captain, the mate will also get 15 to 20 percent of the cost of the trip. “Catching fish definitely helps to improve the tip,” Hagerich says, “but not as much as being nice to the people on the charter.” Cameron backs him up, “I’ve seen some of the best tips on the toughest fishing days,” he says. “The most important thing is that people are having fun.”
For Breen and other private boat mates, the pay structure is completely different. Since these guys can’t expect tips, they work for a higher daily rate or even an annual salary. Again, the pay rate depends on the experience of the mate and the size of the boat. Breen says that the typical pay is $150 for day work and $200 for fishing trips. “The rule of thumb for a good traveling mate is $1,100 dollars per week,” Breen says. Captain Kevin Deerman, on the Draggin’ Up out of Texas, says the typical salary can run from $20,000 to $40,000 per year but a mate who has years of experience should expect $300 dollars per day or a salary of up to $70,000 per year. “That would be for a guy with 15 years of experience,” he adds, “and there aren’t many jobs like that around.”
The mate on a private boat can score other forms of compensation, too. Breen says that some guys get gas cards or even a stipend for living expenses in high-priced ports. Other guys get airfare to fly home or fly in their family and friends. “Whatever you negotiate with the owner,” he says, “if you get more benefits, you’ll likely get less salary.”
Extra Hands and Foreign Ports
During tournaments, many teams pick up an extra deckhand, especially when fishing overseas. While skippering the 59-foot Spencer, Sea Check, Captain VJ Bell, hired a second mate and matched the first mate’s salary. Overseas, Glenn Cameron checks with the local fishing fleet before negotiating a local mate’s pay rate. “You’ve got to ask around and see what everyone is doing,” he says. “Each place is different and you have to stay on top of it.”
For mates freelancing overseas, the pay rate can vary from country to country. When Hagerich was working in Latin America, he did about as well as when he fished at home in Hatteras. But when he spent the summer chasing big blue marlin off Portugal, his bank account took a hit. “Europeans don’t tip like Americans,” he said, “so we were lucky to get $50 per day.” He suggests negotiating a higher salary with the captain at that point. Capt. Deerman adds the story of a friend who fished the Great Barrier reef one season. “He couldn’t get paid by the Australians so all he made was tips,” he says.
Defining a Good Mate
For charter or private mates, salary negotiations should be open and honest. Captains and mates agree on what is required of a high-dollar deckhand. “Fishing is just a small part of it,” says Hagerich, “I’ve known great fisherman who couldn’t keep a job because they all they wanted to do is fish.” Breen adds that an angler’s passion for fishing must fuel every aspect of the job. “Not only do I take care of the boat and tackle, but I buy groceries and even help maintain the owner’s overseas properties,” he says.
For captains, the most basic requirement of a mate is reliability. “Nothing is worse than having people waiting at the dock and I have no idea where the mate is,” Deerman says. Breen and Hagerich agree that drugs and alcohol can be a mate’s worst enemy. “Guys will work a few days then get drunk and not show up,” he says. “Boats are going through guys every few days.”
Professionalism extends to the mates appearance, too. “I hate to see a fat, sloppy mate coming down the dock smoking a cigarette,” says Cameron, “That’s the face of my business. I’m upstairs all day but they’re in the cockpit dealing with the people.” Appearance is everything on a sparkling, sleek private boat. “Stay clean cut and dress nice,” Breen implores his colleagues. “Everything should be perfect when the owner steps on the boat.”
Most of all, a mate must be good with people. Besides being friendly and courteous, Glenn Cameron recommends the mate include the party in the day’s fishing. “Slow down,” he says, “and show the people what you are doing and why.” He reminds mates not to forget how important this trip is to the party. “We do this every day,” he points out, “but this may be their one trip of the year.” Bell emphasizes the importance of people skills when the angler is the boss. “When we come back from a hard day of fishing, the mate may need to become bartender and mix the owner a drink,” he says. It’s up to the mate to define his value to the captain and owner. “A guy who is confident and willing to do those things will move up,” he adds.
Mates who are unhappy with their compensation have two options: find a new boat or negotiate with the boss. Both mates and captains emphasize keeping all concerns in the open. “Don’t sit and stew on it,” says Hagerich, “and never tell other people you’re unhappy with your situation.” Instead, bring concerns to the captain or owner. Breen suggest gathering evidence to support his concerns. “Bring in receipts to show expenses and think of good reasons for being unhappy.” According to these pros, a good mate is hard to come by. “For some reason, guys can’t stay sober and show up to work,” Hagerich chorts. Cameron complains, “A lot of guys will tell you they can do things and then it quickly becomes apparent that they cannot do what they said.” And Deerman reminds mates, “A bad reputation will follow you forever.”
It’s isn’t easy to find a mate who fishes hard and works hard. For guys who have a passion for fishing and a dedication to the sport, the opportunities can be limitless. “A mate makes his own way,” points out Breen, “you have to advocate for yourself.” But VJ Bell wraps it up best, “A guy with a lot of experience who knows what to do and takes care of the boat, the tackle and the people—I wish we could pay that guy a lot more because he’s priceless.”