By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL
Thirty years ago, the invention of the electronic fish finder helped fishermen out in their boats find fish. Today’s great device, the computer hooked up to the Internet, helps the rest of us find fishermen who know where to find the fish.
The culture of the Internet has helped charter fishing captains just as it has helped a lot of other businesses.
It used to be that a charter captain could dock his boat at a prominent public pier and wait for customers. Those days are over. If old-timers were around today, they’d have no idea about the level of sophistication that goes with charter fishing.
These savvy fishermen operate in a digital culture of their own. Many aren’t listed in the phone book, in a local business association directory or in any newspaper.
But visit google.com and do a search for “charter fishing on Martha’s Vineyard” and a community of boats, captains, and prices arise. There are flashy photographs of big fish being held by smiling anglers. E-mail or call a cellular telephone number and booking a trip can be really quick.
Capt. Jennifer Clarke of Chilmark started her Web site six years ago, soon after stepping out publicly as a prize-winning charter captain. She said she was forced to create the site after winning an American Striper Association tournament in December of 2001.
Association staff, announcing the prize, urged her to put up a Web site so they could refer business to her.
“It wasn’t as if I was actively seeking business. Then, it was a new medium,” she said.
It didn’t take long for her to convert to that new form of advertising.
“I think the Internet is a great place for people to go see what I am all about, whether they are thinking or if they already have booked a charter.”
“In the old days we used to spend hours on the phone explaining what kind of boat we have, what kind of fish we caught. It is great way to show someone in Woonsocket or in Walla Walla, Wash. what I do,” she said.
Capt. Dick Vincent of Chilmark has been a charter captain for 14 years. He made the plunge into the digital ocean six years ago.
“It didn’t hurt to have two cousins that run Martha’s Vineyard Online, [an Internet service],” Captain Vincent said.
“I first started looking around the Internet myself for charter fishermen. Type anything and you can find what you want. I go online when I am fishing in Naples. I type what fish I want to catch. It is fabulous. If you got a business, you are crazy not to have a Web site,” Mr. Vincent said.
One Web site calledfishingthevineyard.com links to the following Vineyard charter fishing captains: Jaime Boyle, Tom Rapone, W. Brice Contessa and Rob Morrison.
Chris Peters of Oak Bluffs has a Web site called fishingmarthasvineyard.com.
There is another variation, marthasvineyardfishing.com, which is run by Capt. Russ Lawrence, 55, a charter fishing captain who works out of Edgartown.
“I have trafficked the hits and drawn numbers of charters booked. It is difficult to measure. The Web site produces charters from January to March,” Mr. Lawrence said.
But a lot of his summer clients are either returning, and or they are from off the dock. Word of mouth is still a great way of getting business, he said.
Capt. Buddy Vanderhoop of Aquinnah is one of the Island’s senior charter captains. He not only embraces the Internet, he is among the Island’s first to offer video. His Web site also offers a source for information that precedes the arrival of electronics to the Island. A Native American, he shares information about the Wampanoag Tribe and their rich presence on the Vineyard going back generations.
Capt. Tom Rapone, 26, of Edgartown has been working as a charter fisherman for eight years. He just got on the Internet this year.
“I did it because I didn’t want to be the last guy on the planet to have a Web site,” he said. “I definitely get access to customers I wouldn’t have otherwise. I think word of mouth was the most important way, now I think they go straight to the ’net.”
The customers have their own reasons for liking it too, Mr. Rapone said charter captains will post pictures of their customers with fish for the benefit of the world. “You can also catalogue your year of fishing,” Mr. Rapone said.
“The one thing that the Internet has done is gotten the word out that this is a great place to go fishing. It increases the awareness about how good fishing is during the spring and fall,” Mr. Rapone said.
The arrival this Sunday of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, a month-long fishing contest, is a busy time for some charter captains and not for others. Some charter captains said they are already pretty much booked for the month ahead. Others report that the Internet helps fill the void created by the derby.
Capt. Scott McDowell of Chilmark said that the 2005 photograph he has on his website of Molly A. Fischer with her 49.22 pound striped bass, a giant derby winner, attracts customers throughout the fishing season. She caught the fish on his boat.
He said as much as 35 per cent of his charters were booked through e-mails or telephone calls that began at the website.
When it comes to the derby, he said the Internet doesn’t necessarily help as much. For the month, many of his charters are returning anglers. But he added: “Even if you book just one charter through the Internet, it is worth it,” he said.
Operating down Island, Captain Lawrence said looks for those Internet customers in the fall. He said anywhere from 33 to 40 per cent of his business during the derby is through the Internet.
The value of the Internet will vary between charter captains.
Menemsha charter captains keep their boats in a slip that is highly visible. Edgartown charter captains aren’t so fortunate. Their boats are kept at moorings, so the Internet is far more important at attracting new customers.
Mr. Lawrence said from month to month, the clientele changes: “In the summer, the clients are more spur of the moment. They are on vacation. Derby fishermen are more deliberate. They know what they want.”
Capt. W. Brice Contessa of Edgartown said: “June and September are two of my busiest months. June is so good. And September is driven by the derby and good fishing. The derby has a special part in my life.”
Mr. Contessa said of the Internet: “I don’t have a shingle hung up somewhere, so the Internet is my virtual shingle. I am a small boat flyfishing kind of guy. I don’t troll the docks. Most of my target market in the modern era is online.”
There are hazards on the Internet for every captain. Mr. McDowell said he gets a lot of spam and is particularly weary of letters from Africa, which he ignores.
“They will send you a check for far more than the charter costs. Then they will request you send back the balance. I get those ten or 12 times a year. You know right away, their English is bad.”
Mr. Rapone said: “I think a lot of the guys who spend the time and have the pride of a good Web site are fishing hard and are running a good business.”
On the other hand, he suggests visitors be wary too. Finding a skilled charter captain shouldn’t be about who has the catchiest Web site.
A selection of Island fishermen and their Web sites:
Jennifer Clarke, captainclarkecharters.com.
Buddy Vanderhoop, tomahawkcharters.com.
Dick Vincent, flashyladycharters.com.
Scott McDowell, bassnblue.com.