Embracing a calling: Captain J.R. Waits of Fish Call Charters
By Ford Walpole
When Captain J.R. Waits of Fish Call Charters began guiding fishing trips in 1996, Charleston was home to only a handful of professional guides. Though his earliest memories include growing up “on the waters surrounding Charleston and fishing with my father,” the Mount Pleasant native’s career path followed an unlikely course.
Earning a master’s degree in geology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill taught him a valuable lesson: “I thought that I wanted to go on to get my doctorate and teach at the college level. I started teaching in graduate school, but soon found it was not my cup of tea. The most important thing I learned in North Carolina was that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in Charleston. There is nothing wrong with Chapel Hill except there is no ocean. I never appreciated my hometown until I moved away.”
He returned to his parents’ home on the Wando River, after which his mother soon suggested: “You’re 26 years old and it’s about time you move out. Why don't you get a captain’s license and get people to pay you to take them fishing?” Capt. Waits recalls those early days: “It was awful nice to wake up every morning, walk down to the boat, go fishing, and then come home to Mama’s supper on the table, but she had a point. My father warned me to be careful and not ruin my hobby, but come to find out, I enjoy helping and watching others catch fish as much or more than catching them myself.”
For the past 18 years, Capt. Waits has docked his boats in a slip at the Isle of Palms Marina. From there, he fishes from Charleston Harbor to north of McClellanville. His fleet includes The Fish Call, a 17-foot, two-inch Action Craft and The Trophy Hunter, a 24-foot Canyon Bay. Capt. Waits divides his year-round operation into several seasons of angling: “From November to the end of March, I fish the backwater flats, sight-casting in shallow water for redfish, sea trout and flounder.” During this time, he fishes from the 17-foot Action Craft, which allows him to work shallower water with up to three customers.
From April through June, he shifts focus and boats. “From the Trophy Hunter, which can take up to five anglers, I fish the Charleston jetties and the harbor for trophy bull reds. I also fish offshore reefs out to 20 miles for species such as cobia, amberjack, spadefish and grouper.” Starting in July and running until the end of October, Capt. Waits works the inlets, the bays, and the Charleston jetties. He mostly targets trophy bull redfish, sharks and tarpon. During the warmer months, he also does “quick” trips for small fish with young children and bonnethead sharks for older children.
As a successful guide, Capt. Waits embodies the heart of a conservationist: “Redfish are my business partners. If I kill my business partners, then I will go out of business. These fish are very territorial, so I commonly catch the same fish multiple times. Every redfish on my boat is released, regardless of size. I typically allow clients to keep enough trout or flounder for dinner throughout the year,” he says.
“I am much more of a fishing experience-type of guide,” Capt. Waits explains. “A lot of species I target are trophy-size anyway, so they are not the kind of fish you take home. I won’t book a trip with somebody who is seeking their limit of any species. I will tell them that I am not the captain for them.”
Capt. Waits has assisted South Carolina Department of Natural Resources by hosting them on his boat to conduct a mortality study on adult breeding redfish through satellite tagging. The result revealed that “only two percent of the fish we were catching died after being released. Our low mortality rates are a direct result of proper rigging and handling of the fish to ensure the fish spends very little time out of the water.”
In addition, Waits uses a specialized rig that ensures proper conservation. He is featured on the DNR website in a video titled “Proper Catch and Release of Red Drum.” Capt. Waits’ rig is like the Owen Lupton rig that is required along North Carolina beaches when targeting red drum. He uses a three-way swivel with a very short leader (less than six inches) from the swivel to the circle hook, and the lead weight remains fixed to the three-way swivel.
“Redfish swallow their food to the back of their throat where they have crushers. With this rig, we hope the lead weight will hit the fish in the face before the hook gets to the back of its throat. That makes the fish turn his head and swim off; then, the circle hook will do its job and typically catch him in the corner of his mouth, ensuring a healthy release,” he says.
Capt. Waits prefers fishing with heavy tackle to protect his business partners. He uses 50-pound braided line and 80-pound fluorocarbon monofilament leader on a jigging-type rod. “I don’t like to use light tackle because if you fight the fish too long, the fish has a greater chance of dying. We land and release the fish quickly.”
An accomplished angler, Capt. Waits has won and facilitated many fishing records. “We hold multiple world records for bonnethead sharks. One special catch was with my daughter Greta. When she was five, she caught the International Game Fish Association’s world-record bonnethead for the women’s 16-pound line class, and she followed every IGFA rule.”
Waits has won a local redfish tournament, and on three separate occasions, he and his clients have won the Charleston Harbor Tarpon Release Tournament. Even with the fishing records, for Capt. Waits, catch-and-release remains paramount. “We keep fish in the live well, bring them to the dock to weigh them, and release them as quickly as we can,” he says.
One of Capt. Waits’ most memorable trips occurred on his day off while fishing with his son Guerin, who works as a mate for his father four or five days a week during the summer on charter trips to the reefs. “This summer on my birthday, we went out and caught a would-be state record tarpon that measured out to be more than 165 pounds,” Capt. Waits tells us. To qualify for the record, they would have had to bring the fish back to the dock, which he was not about to do, so he selflessly released the magnificent fish.
Fishing with Capt. Waits is not limited to local waters. From December to March, a slower time for charters, he hosts international fishing trips for clients. They pursue tarpon in Trinidad and sailfish in Guatemala. “Both locales are the best in the world for these species,” he says. “Down there, we fish with established captains who are the best of the best at what they do.”
Fish Call Charters offers a great overall experience. Perhaps 70 percent of Capt. Waits’ clients are repeat customers, and he does very little paid advertising, instead relying on word-of-mouth referrals. In reflecting on his career, Capt. Waits declares: “I just love fishing, and I love being outdoors. It sure beats the alternative of being in an office and working for somebody else which has no luster for me. I love being able to make my own schedule and decide when I am going to work and when I am not!”
Capt. Waits freely offers advice to aspiring fishing guides: “You must be personable, have patience, and you can’t get angry with your clients. To be a successful fishing guide, you don’t have to be the best fisherman in town, but people must just enjoy fishing with you so they come back and do it again and call their friends to recommend you!”
To plan your own trip with Capt. J.R. Waits, check out http://www.fishcall.com/ or call (843) 509-7337 (REDS).
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at email@example.com.