BATH — Capt. George Harris left one quintessential Maine profession – lobstering – to move into another just as romantic. Fourteen years ago he became a saltwater fishing guide.
But Harris knows as well as any Registered Maine Guide that chasing stripers is no easy task. He estimates there are roughly 100 boat captains with guiding licenses taking customers out to cast and pursue sport fish in the Gulf of Maine.
Even though the work can be feast or famine, Harris wouldn’t dream of doing anything else.
What prompted you to become a saltwater guide?
I was lobstering before that. And worked in Florida for five years before that, in the fishing industry. I had a plan in place before starting this. When I started, I knew how many trips I had to run. The first year, I blew that number out of the water.
The first year I wanted to do around 100 trips. I thought that would be a lot. I crushed it and did around 120 in July and August alone, and about 160 total.
Now I average about 130 trips a year. This boat runs nonstop. Now the majority of the people I take out are repeat (customers).
But it’s not an easy profession.
It’s very, very hard. A lot of people who are self-employed would know. Every year I have doubts. There is no certainty in fishing. The fishery could collapse, and people think we are on the brink of that, and I feel it could.
Even people on Cape Cod are not seeing what we’re seeing (as far as small numbers).
And yet this year you got a second boat to add to your fleet at Super Fly Charters, and a another captain to work under you.
That’s my brother-in-law, John Coppola. For years I’ve asked friends to help with overflow. If I get a call and I’m booked, I send them to another captain. So John got his captain’s license and a boat. He’s kind of an apprentice. I give him the gear and what I know.
The striper fishery has waxed and waned. How has the industry changed?
Oh, gosh, the fishery has declined drastically. When I started, 80 to 90 percent of the trips I ran were on the St. George River. The majority were right from my house in Warren into Penobscot Bay. It was loaded with striped bass. Since the fishery declined, I’m no longer guiding there.
When did it shift?
About six years ago. There were still striped bass, but not enough to take people out. They’ve even declined here in the Kennebec River.
What’s a day in the life of a saltwater guide like?
The alarm goes off at 2 a.m., although my eyes are open before that. I hop in the truck and I’m at the boat in an hour to an hour in a half. I prep from 3 to 3:30 (a.m.). There is a lot of chit-chat with guides at that time of day. We text message nonstop, helping each other. There is a fair amount of that. It’s a fairly small circle who guide, so it’s competitive but it’s not like it used to be, where we all chased seagulls (to find the sea birds feeding on bait fish).
Back then the Kennebec was a destination fishery (for avid fishermen). Now it’s just a tourist draw. You don’t get the fishermen here like you used to. Mostly it’s people on vacation looking for something different to do. I have a strong repeat business. That’s nice.
So what time do you start fishing?
I tell them 4 or 4:30. It’s better if you fish first thing. But a lot of them protest. Some will get here early, but others tell me 7 or 8 a.m. Those guys don’t care much about fishing, they just want a ride in a boat.
What do you do when you’re not guiding? Do you go to Florida in the winter to guide there like a lot of Maine guides?
No. I work from May to October, then I’m unemployed. I go to sporting shows, and try to be a good dad and husband. I help my wife with her business.
What’s the secret to surviving in this industry?
It’s a lot of marketing. I do a lot of social media. My blog reaches a lot of people. It gets a ton of traffic. I started that six years ago. People like to see that, they like to see the fish you’re catching. It’s so much work, but I enjoy doing it.
What’s your favorite fish story?
Several years ago I took out three brothers from Montreal. They were fairly athletic guys and one of them got into a fairly big striper. He was fighting it and the line breaks. So he throws his rod on the deck and dives in after the line. It happened so quickly. It was a fluorescent line so he could see it. And he grabs the line and climbs back in over the rail and proceeds to pull in this 20-pound striped bass. After he lands the fish, it’s 38 to 40 inches long, we took a photo, with him soaking wet. Then I said to him, “Don’t ever do that again.”
Is there anything about guiding today that you wanted to add?
There are a lot of aspiring guides. I get dozens of calls each year of guys thinking of developing a formula to use. I try to be open, but also not give away my secrets.
Do you dissuade them?
No. A lot of guys go through the guide test. Only a handful of them will last as guides. A lot of guys don’t want to do the work. It’s a real job. You give up benefits and that sort of thing. But this is what I decided I want to do.