The Mating Game

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The Mating Game” was the title of a fairly popular 1959 MGM romantic comedy starring Tony Randall, Debbie Reynolds and Paul Douglas. It’s one of those timeless movies that had a second life for years on AMC. It contains this classic funny exchange about a stubborn pig borrowed for mating purposes: Why’s he have to be so ornery? Well you’d be ornery, too, if they took you away from your sweetheart. Not if she was a pig, I wouldn’t. Apparently, it’s also the title of a circa 2006 song  done by “Bitter:Sweet”, an electronic trip/hop (whatever that is?) duo out of L.A. More personally, however, it’s an apt name for the game I played for several months recently trying to find the right new fishing mate for our boat, the “High Class Hooker.” The movie title of course refers to the sometimes convoluted process people go through in the dating scene to find, woo, and land the right mate. As they say, a girl has to kiss a lot of frogs before she finds the handsome prince. Conversely, a girl can be extremely attractive and a wonderful person, yet still not be the right match for every guy. I know - I met several of them in my dating career. (By the way, based on results, I guess I was always one of the “frogs.”) And, even if you do find that apparently “right” someone, life can still throw you a few curveballs before things finally work out. Well, the same basic principle is true in the search for the right fishing mate. It’s just that the “game” isn’t as much fun. Dating may cost you money, but at least you’re usually enjoying yourself while you’re doing it. Not having a good fishing mate definitely costs you money too, in lost trips and lost repeat customers but - and trust me on this one - you’re not enjoying the process at all. Until last September, I had managed to keep the same fishing mate for about four years. That’s probably a lot longer than the average celebrity marriage (no offense, Kris Humphries) and an extremely long time in the Key West charter biz. Circumstances caused that streak to end, and I was suddenly faced with having to find a new “partner.” Because a captain and mate spend so much time together  - sometimes ten hour days for weeks on end  without a break (how many married couples can say that) - and because their interaction can be so critcal to achieving successful results both fishing-wise and income-wise, finding the right guy for the job is critical. You’re not looking for a “one-night-stand” or weekend fling but rather, someone who can be an effective partner for the long haul. As I didn’t want to have to do this same dance again in a few weeks/months, I was definitely looking for that “special someone” who wanted to be my fishing mate for the foreseeable future and with whom I could have fun as well as make money Complicating the search was the hard fact that the supply of known, really good, dependable (this is, after all, Key West) mates is relatively small at any one given  moment. Because of that and the large number of charter boats we have in Key West, just about all of the good ones usually have a regular gig going on another boat. Also, Key West is the classic “small town.” Just as it’s not cool in a small town or school to get the reputation as the guy who tries to steal someone else’s steady, I was conscious of not wanting to offend another captain or leave him in a hole without a mate by approaching someone who already had a regular gig.. So, while I had a “wish list” with a few names on it,  I initially had only one of them on my “call list.” Although he was someone regularly working on another boat in another marina, he had previously subbed for my old mate one day a couple of years back and specifically asked me to call him if the position was ever available on a long-term basis. So I did, and we had several meetings to discuss his availability, job/pay expectations,  and general job attitudes, as well as to see if our mutual ideas of how  trips should be run meshed. Because my parents ingrained me with the old “do unto others” philosophy, I was careful to stress to him that, if he was going to leave his then-current position, it had to be with more than adequate notice to his boat’s owner, even if that meant time to train a replacement. That contact eventually didn’t pan out for several reasons, one being that he didn’t know if he really wanted the job for the long run, not just until something better/different came along. The rumor had always been that he wanted to get his own boat eventually.  During that discussion process, however, I got the word out through friends in and outside the biz that I was looking. Suddenly, candidates began coming out of the woodwork. That wasn’t necessarily good. It just meant more potential “frogs” to kiss. Some I brushed off immediately based on my own personal experience with them and/or their general reputation.  Because of the type of up-scale boat we have and the clientele it attracts, I wanted someone who was not only a top-notch fisherman but also someone that could make our customers feel comfortable, laugh, enjoy their day and want to come back. My mate and I often get invited by customers for cocktails and dinners, and I wanted a mate who could add to the atmosphere at those times, not detract. A boat such as ours also requires a mate who takes pride in the way the boat looks and operates. It needs a person who is willing to be a “dock rat,” i.e., someone who just likes being around the boat, wants it to be the best in town, and wants it to be booked every day. I stressed both of those points - developing friendships with/ loyalty from the customers and taking pride in the boat - to all the candidates, emphasizing it even over great fishing skill. You can learn to improve your fishing skills a lot faster than you can unlearn being a jerk. Over the course of the next couple of months, I “auditioned” a handful  of additional experienced candidates, two of whom I initially believed might be “Mr. Right.” I told both that it was “their job to lose,” only to have both do just that. Not because they weren’t good fishermen  - we caught a lot of fish with each - but because of the last factor mentioned above, pride in the boat and its appearance.  I stressed to all the candidates that I wanted a  “self-starter,” not someone over whose shoulder I had to keep looking to make sure things that needed to be done were. Admittedly, that’s a subjective standard, but I was looking for that guy who could figuratively “read my mind” about what I wanted and do it. When I just didn’t see them taking the initiative to notice/find things that needed to be done cleaning/maintenance-wise, I decided to “dump them” and keep looking. Fortunately, I think I finally found that guy. Cullen Gage is a 30 year-old “good ole boy’ from North Carolina who came to Key West about four years ago. He was referred to me by a couple of “free-lance” captains  who previously worked with him at Charter Boat Row here in Key West. In the other “mating game” that’s known as getting “fixed-up.” (As an aside. I’ve only “fixed-up” two couples in my life and they’re both still married - going on forty years and twenty years, respectively. I still feel guilty about that to this day!) Our new mate has an unusual background, having actually been an art major (his parents were artists/artisans) at East Carolina University, but he’s got solid fishing/marine experience. That includes previously working at a boatbuilding yard in Carolina and then being a mate on multiple private sportfishing and  charter fishing boats in Carolina and here. For the last two years, he was a mate on two of the busier boats at “the Row.” Last year he even took and passed the exam to ultimately qualify for his USCG Captain’s License. Cullen has been working with me for a few weeks now and has been pushing all the right buttons so far. He has that sense of knowing when he needs to be around  and when something needs to be done on the boat.  We’ve been catching some good fish even though fishing has been slow in general. Perhaps most importantly, the customers have loved him. Not only have they communicated that to me, they’ve also demonstrated it by being extremely generous with their tips, which is probably the best measure of their satisfaction. (That, and the fact that all of them swore they’d be back again!) I rightfully figured that, having “cut his teeth” offshore in North Carolina, he could catch big game in deep water, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that he does a great job around the reef as well. We’ve had to spend a lot of time around the reef because of a slow offshore bite as well as rough sea conditions in the “blue water” and we’ve had unbelievable success trolling up large yellowtail snappers in big numbers. Our success has been so noticable that two private boat guys at our dock asked us to teach them the special yellowtail rig Cullen uses to get the majority of that catch. Since then, both have come back to thank us for making yellowtail fishing so easy and successful. That’s the kind of word of mouth “PR” that can only help build the business. On top of all that, Cullen also has been doing a great job of assisting me in keeping the boat looking and running  great so that we continue to have the “curb appeal” that attracts new business. It’s always gratifying to hear passers-by and potential customers rave about how great the boat looks. The bottom line of all this is that the customers are happy again - and that makes me happy. Hopefully, it will also make both Cullen and I a little richer as the new trips keep rolling in and the repeat customers keep coming back. I really hope that, at this time next year, I’ll still be just as happy and still be bragging about my new mate. Maybe I’ll be one of those lucky winners in “The Mating Game” after all.

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