As a charter captain, Brad Clark gets to go fishing all summer long, but fickle fish, rough weather and seasick clients mean it’s not always fun
The life of a charter boat captain is simple.
That’s assuming you’re prepared to spend 60 to 70 hours each week out on the water in the summer and another 20 hours on land cleaning and maintaining the boat.
That’s the life of Brad Clark, the captain of Harbor City Charters in Port Washington.
“When the fishing is good during the summer, there are weeks where I don’t go home (to Milwaukee) because I’m so busy,” he said. “I just sleep on the boat.”
Clark’s passion for the water began when he was a child growing up in Saukville. He would spend every waking moment on Lake Michigan with his father Don.
At age 13, he would ride his bike to the marina every day in the summer and wash boats when captains would come in from their trips.
He became a first mate for charter captain Danny Fox at age 14 and continued that work through high school and college.
After spending a few years working in graphic communications management, it was time to get back on the water.
“Being out on the water is my passion,” he said. “The people you get to meet in this business are incredible. You develop relationships outside of fishing.”
Clark became a captain at age 25, which is no easy task.
Candidates must pass a written test, document their sea service hours, be certified in first aid and CPR, complete background checks, pass a physical with hearing and eye tests and obtain several letters of recommendation.
Once all that is complete, the application must be sent to regional and national branches of the U.S. Coast Guard for approval.
The waiting period is about three months, Clark said, adding he must pass periodic drug tests even though he’s been a captain for nine years, including the last three for Harbor City Charters.
The charter operation, owned by Port Washington businessmen Tom Didier and Jordan Schwanz, has a 35-foot Bertram powerboat appropriately named Harbor City, and Clark is the captain.
He doesn’t employ a first mate.
“It’s tough to find a kid who wants to work seven days a week from sunup to sundown,” Clark said.
His day starts well before dawn to make sure the boat leaves the marina by 4:30 a.m.
After cleaning the boat and getting it ready for the day, Clark sets out from the marina with a group of up to six anglers, who pay between $500 to $600 for a five or six-hour charter, depending on how the fish are biting.
On the water, Clark will set up rods to troll for salmon and trout.
“I usually head out to where I went the day before and work from there,” he said. “You’re really just roaming around trying to find certain water temperatures that the fish like.”
Some customers want nothing to do with reeling in the fish, while others want Clark to explain every step of the process.
After his customers catch their limit of five fish per person or if the fish just aren’t biting, Clark brings the group back to the marina, where he cleans the fish and sends the group on its way, suggesting they try local restaurants for lunch.
Then he cleans the boat and gets ready for another group in the afternoon.
“The weekends are obviously our busiest time, but I remember weeks when I was a first mate where there were maybe one or two open time slots for an entire month,” Clark said.
Last year, Clark bagged his first 30-pound fish in almost 14 years. He said the biggest fish he’s caught was a 33-pound king salmon on Lake Michigan.
The marina is open April 1 to Oct. 31, and weather is always a factor, he said.
This year, Harbor City’s season didn’t start until the middle of May.
Rough seas can be a problem, so Clark breaks conditions down into three categories.
If the lake is just choppy, he will warn customers, but it’s probably not enough to warrant a delay in their plans.
If the seas are a little rougher, he will leave it up to the group to decide whether they want to go out.
At the lake’s roughest, Clark will cancel.
“I try to keep in mind when we have a group that comes in from somewhere like Minneapolis to try to get them out if we can,” he said.
Clark recalls a time before he was a captain when a “particularly cocky” group came from out of state for an afternoon trip.
“The fishing was really good but the lake was pretty rough,” Clark said. “They were a little arrogant and said they would be fine, but they’re worried about the women.”
The group decided to go out, he said, and within the first half hour, all three men were throwing up over the side of the boat while the women were reeling in the fish.
“The fishing was phenomenal,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, if you get seasick, it’s going to affect you.”
Clark doesn’t have any secrets to preventing seasickness, but recommends a Transcop patch be worn the day before.
“I have regulars who come out that are susceptible to it, but thankfully I’ve never experienced it,” he said.
His goal is to make sure that even when the fish aren’t biting, his customers have a good time.
“If a group comes out and the fish just aren’t biting, I try to get them out again when I know they will be biting,” he said. “People can still have a good time and not catch fish.
“Some will catch a handful and that’s enough for them. Others will catch 20 and want 30.”
Clark particularly enjoys fishing with kids because it reminds him of his youth.
“They’ll reel in a seven-pound salmon and think it’s the biggest fish in the lake,” he said.
“I remember the feeling I had when I would go fishing with my dad as a kid, waking him up at 3:30 in the morning. I still get that feeling at age 34.”
The charter company has a lot of regular clients and tries to appeal to local residents who have never been on a trip, said Didier, a local real estate agent.
“I lived here my whole life, and until five years ago I had never gone out on a trip,” he said. “This is a different option besides Brewers or Packers games for our clients.”
Clark is the ideal captain for their boat, Didier said.
“A lot of clients are customers of mine, and I follow up with them after to see how everything went,” he said.
“Brad knows everything there is to know about fishing on the lake, whether it’s how a certain weather pattern will affect the fish or how to fix a problem on the boat.
“He’s also extremely personable and understands that although it’s great to catch a bunch of fish, it’s more important that clients have a good time.”
When the charter companies shut down for the season, Clark gets the boat ready for the following year, and works as a leasing agent for a property management company that Didier owns.
He also likes to go hunting and ice fishing.
“But my mind is always on the water, thinking about next year,” he said.
Image information: Captain Brad Clark held a king salmon caught by one of his charter parties last week. Photo by Sam Arendt