Tom Roller- North Carolina

Tom-Roller.jpg

http://www.waterdogguideservice.com

After more than a decade of running his own charters off the southern coast of North Carolina, Capt. Tom Roller’s racked up a lot of fish tales. 

Ironically, most “don’t revolve around fish.”

Roller, owner and founder of the Beaufort-based WaterDog Guide Service, explains it this way: “I spend a lot of time in a small boat with people. It’s a great way to get to know people really well.”

In return, they get to know the salty waters Roller grew up falling in love with. They get to understand why you can visit North Carolina and, instead of heading 60 miles off-shore toward the Gulf Stream, hunting out the big-game sport fish the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s southernmost state is largely known for, they learn about fishing near-shore, in-shore and along marshy flats. 

While Roller never promises a big catch or perfect weather, most also walk away with incredible memories.

“Fishing has always been very important to me, and from a very early age, my father and grandfather impressed upon me that fishing was an avenue (to showcase) the importance of family, camaraderie, conservation and the love of the sport.”

A licensed U.S. Coast Guard captain, Roller rolled out WaterDog Guide Service after college in 2002. He offers fishing charters and tours throughout North Carolina’s Crystal Coast – from Beaufort and Morehead City to Atlantic Beach, Pine Knoll Shores and Emerald Isle. 

Roller isn’t technically from the coast, having moved around a lot as a kid. 

“We did spend a lot of time on the coast, though. My earliest memories are of the saltwater.”

When it came time to pick a place to start his own life, his own family, Roller made his way back to North Carolina, where, today, he lives within 200 yards of the water and spends every day on it. 

“Being a full-time guide…is one of the best things that I can offer my clients. Not only am I on the water every single day learning and moving with the habits of the fish, but the success of my business is founded upon the happiness and satisfaction of my clients.”

His feature? Promoting and educating his clients on the fun and intensity you can have with light-tackle and fly-fishing. 

“Fishing is not about who can go the fastest or who can sling the biggest fish on the dock – not every person wants to tug on a 300–pound sea monster. Some of us enjoy technique and style as much as anything. In protected waters and within sight of land, the miles of undeveloped barrier islands, winding tidal marshes and three local inlets, offer countless opportunities for fishermen to tangle with dozens of species.” 

Asked if Roller has a favorite fish to hunt?

“My answer is always the same – whatever is biting,” Roller writes on his web site. “If it’s a fish, I enjoy trying to catch it, particularly if it requires employing new tactics.”

Roller’s equipment, and tactics, easily vary each trip – likely one of the reasons he can boast multiple citation catches. 

“I have two different boats,” Roller said of his 23-foot Parker Deep Vee and a shallow-draft Jones Brothers Bateau. “Can’t really say what my key pieces of equipment are because I easily have 80 different rods. I could give you key pieces of equipment for every situation.”

And every client. 

“I love bringing kids out on the boat. One of the greatest things about fishing is being able to pass the love of the sport on to a young one. My Dad started me fishing when I was 3-years-old and I never looked back.”

Roller has a good reputation for working with children, and an even better reputation for working with fathers. Roller has helped fathers throughout the years understand why fighting a good Blue Fish could make a stronger memory for a youngster than searching out that 300-pounder. 

Blue Fish jump three feet in the air, Roller said. They pull on the line. And when you’re back at the dock, they are among Roller’s favorite fish to eat. 

“Paul Greenberg, in his book Four Fish, comes to this conclusion – (Blue Fish) are a perfect recreational fish. They fight really hard. They jump. And they taste really good fresh. It encourages you not to keep very many of them.” 

Greenberg may have written that passage specifically about Blue Fish, Roller said, but that philosophy is an admirable mantra to live by for all species. 

Skip Feller- Virginia Beach, VA

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Each summer in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Capt. Skip Feller watches as adults and children see the ocean for the first time, drop lines into the deep sea and near-shore waters, feel rolling waves and reel in salt-water fish. 

“We take everything for granted working here, living here, growing up here. But these waters, they are a special place.”

Feller, who hails from of a well-known Virginia fishing family, is a third generation charter boat captain. Among other accomplishments, he set the 2008 world record for yellow edge grouper and in 1992 was named Charter Boat Captain of the Year. Today, he manages the fleet of head boats and captains that run out of Virginia Beach’s Rudee Inlet. 

Feller earned his U.S. Coast Guard’s 100-ton captain’s license when he was 19. 

“I never really pictured myself doing anything other than this. When I was in high school, I worked on charter boats. In the 90s, I branched out and bought a charter boat and ran out of Pirate’s Cove (in North Carolina). Came back in 95 to work with my father.”

Feller’s father “was one of the first people to have a boat in Rudee Inlet (Virginia Beach) back in the 70s. He bought the head boat in 1976…and basically started adding to the fleet.”

He sold the business in 2006. Today, Feller manages the legacy his father built – a legacy fleet of three fishing boats, like the 90-foot Rudee Angler licensed for 140 people, and three cruise boats, like the Rudee Flipper, used for dolphin and whale watching trips. 

By the numbers, cruising the waters off the coast of Virginia is the most popular excursion Feller manages. Each summer, on the Rudee Rocket speedboat alone, Feller and his captains takes out more than 20,000 guests. 

But fishing is no small business. Each year, Feller averages about 10,000 people on charter fishing trips that range from 16-hour day trips to 36-hour overnight adventures. 

“The sea bass is a huge part of our fishery here. The fall, spring, winter - that’s what people come here to catch. September and October are our busy fishing months.”

While Feller prides the fleet on keeping up with the latest technologies on all the boats, especially the fish finding gear, the most important piece of equipment, by far, are the captains, Feller said. 

“You have to have good people working for you who also take it very seriously,” Feller said. “It’s not just a job. You have to really live it so you can produce week in and week out.”

The fishing community may seem really large, but when it comes to word of mouth marketing, it’s actually quite small. 

“If you have one bad trip, it’s amazing how fast the word gets out. These people, who are out for our 16-hour offshore trips, are paying $200 a person. That’s serious money.”

Unlike the guests he takes out fishing, Feller doesn’t always remember the fish he’s caught. Over the years, there’s easily been thousands. What he never forgets are the moments he stumbles upon a previously undiscovered sea wreck, marking a brand new fishing spot. 

“With GPS being so precise these days, word gets out quickly on good fishing spots. So when you find a new spot, where nobody has fished, you remember those days…that feeling of finding that spot.”

Like his father, Feller has already passed on the family tradition of loving and working with people on the water. Wes Feller, Skip’s son, marks the fourth generation of Feller captains that’s runs charters out of Rudee Inlet. 

“When he is in the wheel house, you could mistake him for an old salt with his talent on the water.”

Rick Etzell, Montauk, NY

www.breakawaysportfishing.com

There’s no doubt about it. Being a charter boat captain in Montauk, New York – dubbed the fishing capital of the Northeast, if not the world – is a competitive sport.

Not only do you go head to head with Mother Nature in hopes of bringing home an exciting catch, but you also compete with fellow captains for clients.

Years ago, all the “charter boats in Montauk were right here,” said Rick Etzel, nodding to a line of charter boats that includes his 43-foot Torres sport fisher, the Breakaway.

“Now, not only are there more boats, but they are all over the (Montauk) Harbor.”

Captains are also challenged by the reality of running a business that includes the hard costs of fuel, dock fees, maintenance and repairs and a boat.

“I learned early on from the old timers how to keep expenses down,” Etzel said. “Use the tide. Start up, work your way down. Watch your cruising speed. Do the work yourself. You aren’t just the captain. You’re a carpenter and electrician, a painter when you need to be, and an engineer.”

Despite the challenges many captains complain of, Etzel survives and day in and day out heads out on the water to face off with one of his greatest loves - “the thrill of the hunt.”

Etzel, a respected U.S. Coast Guard licensed captain in the recreational Montauk fishing community, is also the president of the Montauk Boatmen, Inc. where he works to help enhance the quality of the fisheries not just in Montauk, but also the entire state of New York.

He’s respected as a fisherman and for his history and love of his fishing community.

As a kid, Etzel called himself a “summer resident” of Montauk. His grandfather purchased a home at “The End” in 1945 where “I spent every summer.”

After graduating high school in another area of Long Island, Etzel moved to Montauk and worked in the fishing industry.

At 22, Etzel bought his first boat.  

“Was going to fix it up and sell it. Before I knew it, I was married with children and running a charter boat business.”

Today, Etzel logs between 200 and 250 charter fishing trips each year. Half day trips run about $650, with full day trips ranging from $1050 to $1400, depending on how far off shore the fishing goes. 

To make up income during slow periods, Etzel does a little commercial fishing with his rod and reel and sells his catch to wholesale fish dealers.

Somewhere in the mix, Etzel also does his volunteer work with Montauk Boatmen, Inc. The importance of getting involved in the legislative side of commercial and recreational fishing can’t be understated, Etzel said.

Like most fishing towns throughout the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s region, fishing in Montauk has an incredible economic multiplier effect.

“I take 1,500 people out on my boat each year. They stay in hotels. They eat in restaurants. They buy a t-shirt. That puts a lot of people to work. That makes fishing mean a lot more than catching fish.”

Jim Winn- New Jersey

NJ Recreational Fisherman Jim Winn.jpg

Can’t get in touch with Jim Winn in New Jersey?

As soon as his voicemail message turns on, you know exactly why. 

“Hey. It’s Jim. I’m probably out fishing.”

It’s true. 

Winn, a volunteer with the Recreational Fishing Alliance of New Jersey and avid, lifelong fisherman, retired from a career in sales and now spends two to four days a week on the water. 

If he’s not on the water himself, he’s probably with his grandson, who he taught to fish, or volunteering with the Alliance, because he’s determined to help protect the sport of recreational fishing.  

“I know my father taught me how to fish, but it was so long ago, I can’t remember catching that first one. Fishing, it’s my drug of choice.”

Winn particularly enjoys saltwater fishing in his 14-foot “tin can aluminum boat. We fish hard (for a variety of in and off shore seasonal species). It’s not going out with a six pack of beer to sit back and relax.” 

Many of the fish end up back in the water after Winn’s reeled them in. 

“I keep what I eat and the rest goes back. It’s more about the sport.”

That’s why Winn calls his work with the Alliance so important. 

“I go to boat shows, outdoor shows, fishing shows and try to convince people to join our organization. We’re lobbyists for recreational saltwater fishermen. You don’t even realize it, but fishing is so tangled up in politics, we need lobbyists for us, too.”  

Frank Watkins- Ocean City, MD

MD Recreational Fisherman Frank Watkins.jpg

It’s not that Frank Watkins believes that fishing has healing powers, or that reeling in a big sport fish off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland makes children with terminal illnesses forget about their own internal fight. 

“But you get out on the boat and these kids, and their parents, get to think about something else for a little while,” Watkins said. “They get to make some memories.”

Watkins is a lifelong sports fisherman and the President of the Atlantic Coast Chapter of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association.

“I’ve been fishing since I could crawl,” Watkins said, of growing up on the New Jersey Coast. “I’m retired now and I get to fish a lot more for tuna and mahi offshore, flounder in the bays, black sea bass. Pretty much, if it’s going to bite, I’ll go fish for it.” 

He also gets to work with children a lot more, teaching them how to fish, and volunteering with the association, where “we provide education and help improve the environmental habitat for fishing. It’s all so we have fishing – recreational fishing – available for our children and grandchildren. 

“God’s blessed me,” said Watkins. “My kids, my grandkids, are all healthy and smart. I’ve had such a good life, and I enjoy fishing, that this is how I give back to the community.”

His favorite projects?

“We taught an entire sixth grade at a local school how to cast. Went out into the field next to the school building. Set up a couple of stations. It was amazing to see. We had almost 200 kids.”

For the adult fishermen, “we have guest speakers come to our meetings to show us how to, for example, handle flounder so they don’t get killed when bringing them to the boat. You have to minimize mortality of fish getting released, especially if your catch ones that are undersized.” 

The association also works with local environmental groups to build mad made reefs off the coast of Maryland. 

“We received a grant to build what looks like these giant jacks made of concrete. Off the shore here in Maryland, unlike North Jersey and New York, we don’t have structure, like rocks and boulders, to support habitat for black sea bass and a host of other species of fish. These reefs on the bottom create the nooks and crannies for marine life to get in.”

It may sound like a lot of work, Watkins said. But it’s important work.

“Fishing is important. It’s relaxing. Whether you’re on a boat or fishing from a stream, it’s a place you can go to get away from it all.”

Bill Baker- Lewes, DE

DE Recreational Fisherman Bill's Sports Shop.jpg

More than 5,000-square-feet of floor space. Fishing rods – about 2,500 of them – as far as the eye can see. Five hundred fishing reels.

Not to mention rigs and hooks, terminal tackle, a walk in freezer for bait, and “everything, just everything, that a fisherman could possibly want,” said Bill Baker, who founded Bill’s Sports Shop in Delaware in 1994.

Baker considers his shop among the largest, busiest and most well stocked tackle shop on the Delmarva Peninsula. It started out as just him and it’s grown into a family business where two of his five children now also work.

“My favorite sport is fishing,” said Baker, who’s been fishing his entire life. “I figured (after a career in beauty supply sales) this was a great way to enjoy my sport and run a business. I thought I was semi-retiring. As it turns out I’m busier now than ever before.”

The success of the store means Baker doesn’t have much time to fish himself, despite being a U.S. Coast Guard licensed captain and enjoying the hunt for black sea bass and flounder.

But it does provide the opportunity to share the love and excitement of bringing in the big catch with each of his customers.

“We get to hear all the good fish tales,” Baker said. “Fishermen bring in their fish and we take a picture, post it on our web site, Facebook, and print out a picture for them.”

For those who don’t bring in the big fish to document, Baker gets to hear about the good days on the water.

“Fishing…is the type of sport that the average person can go out and within a few minutes be enjoying time on the water – whether standing on the beach or on a boat. There’s a tremendous amount of fishermen who enjoy the sport just for the camaraderie of being with family and friends.”

As a bonus, he also gets to be part of the educational process for first time fishermen.

“I’ve got jetty, jockey, surf fishermen, off shore – just about every type of fishing available within just a few miles of the store,” Baker said. “We work very hard at making sure our customers are totally, totally familiar with the regulations so they don’t’ go out there and get a ticket doing something they are not aware of.”

His favorite fishermen to work with?

“I have a whole bunch of grandchildren and they all love to fish,” Baker said. “Other than the depletion of some of the fisheries and nature’s kill ratio, the big challenge for fishermen today is conservation. We need to make sure we can conserve enough to keep the fishery going for our grandchildren.”