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Subscriber Roland Gerencer is not happy with a tarpon fishing trip set up for him near Apalachicola, Florida, this past February by Flycastaway, a fishing agency in South Africa. He writes:
When my fly-fishing companion, Alessandro, who lives in Rome, Italy, e-mailed me this past February proposing a fishing trip for monster tarpon near Apalachicola, Florida, I thought it would be a great idea. He told me he had found an agent, Flycastaway, to arrange the trip. I reside in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I have been saltwater fly fishing for more than 10 years. Together, Alessandro and I have a combined total of 57 years of fly-fishing experience. We both employ fishing guides and outfitters on a regular basis.
The tarpon season for most of Florida extends from the end of March in the Keys to June in the northern Gulf regions. When Alessandro booked us to fish tarpon during the last week in July, I put my confidence in the experience of the agent and the outfitters he was working with. What follows is a description of our very disappointing experience.
Alessandro and I met in Tallahassee and drove the short distance to Apalachicola, where we checked into our modest accommodations. Despite recent e-mail communication with the Flycastaway representative, Gerhard Laubscher, indicating when and where we were arriving, there was no message for us when we arrived in Apalachicola. We had no idea where or with whom to meet in the morning to begin our five days of fishing. Fortunately, it was still relatively early in the evening, and I had an e-mail with me that listed three guides that we might be using on our trip. We were able to contact our guide for the following day, whom I will refer to as TH.
We met TH the following morning around 8:00 a.m. and proceeded to drive out to the launch site a half hour away in Port St. Joe. On arriving at the ramp, we launched the boat and took a 45-minute boat ride to a bank in St. Joseph Bay. I knew we were going to be in for a difficult day because of an approaching southwesterly storm system. What really surprised me was that TH put me, a lefthanded caster, on the casting platform with the wind approaching from my left when we were told to expect fish to swim toward us from the 12 o’clock position. It turned out that his odd positioning of the boat didn’t matter because we didn’t see a single tarpon. By 10:30 a.m. a storm system was approaching and we had to get off the water. We sat in his truck for about an hour until we decided to go into town for a cup of coffee. When we returned, the system had passed so we relaunched the boat.
I was more that a bit dismayed when TH took us straight back to the same spot, the only difference this time being that there was another non-flyfishing boat 75 yards to our left (which is where we expected tarpon to come in from), plus a group of kids swimming less than 100 yards directly behind us. TH proceeded to stake out, and there we sat without moving for the rest of the afternoon. Not surprisingly, no tarpon swam by. Granted, local waters had been churned by wind and rain, but it was clear from our experience that day that TH did not have a plan B. Alessandro and I were quite upset and disappointed.
The Flycastaway Web site describes the Apalachicola area as having tarpon in many areas, including St. George Sound, St. Vincent Sound, East Bay, St. Vincent Islands, Cape St. George Island, and Dog Island. It goes on to call the area the “prime sightfishing venue for tarpon . . . in the world.” Our anger at our situation was increased by our knowledge that Gerhard Laubscher himself was fishing for tarpon in the area that very day, but 50 miles to the east.
After a couple of frustrating telephone conversations, the best he could do for us was to set us up with a different guide for the following day. With the local weather not looking to improve and our confidence in the Flycastaway organization shattered, Alessandro and I decided late that evening to salvage our week of fishing by getting in our car and driving 600 miles to fish the Florida Keys. I quickly sent out a number of emails to guides that I know in the Keys, and we were able to arrange three days of guided fishing out of Islamorada.
I believe our experience should raise some questions regarding what constitutes fair practice among agents and outfitters in the fishing industry. Clearly, there were elements that contributed to our poor experience that were beyond the control of Flycastaway. However, there were some elements we believe he did have control of – namely, the quality of the fishing guide he put us in contact with. Also, local guides were well aware of the very poor weather and water conditions, so why was Mr. Laubscher not informed? If he was informed, why did he not pass this information along to us?
When international agents book anglers around the world, I think allowances for poor fishing conditions need to be made, especially if the poor conditions are known about ahead of time. There are a number of possible ways to handle these situations. A voucher system offering the client credit toward a future trip is one possibility. Some outfitters in Australia, Alessandro tells me, require clients to pay only for an agreed-upon fraction of the number of fishing days one books. For example, for one week of fishing, clients might have to pay a deposit on only five days. That would provide a two-day bad-weather buffer. If the weather permits and the client chooses, he/she can fish the full seven days and, of course, pay for the full seven days. An arrangement like this would have been much fairer in the situation we were in. At this writing, Alessandro and I have asked Flycastaway for a full refund of $1,875 per person, but we have not heard back from him. – Roland Gerencer.
Gerhard Laubscher replies: I was not surprised to receive this complaint, as Mr. Gerencer had already informed me that he was going to be badmouthing my agency if I don’t refund him the entire fee he paid for this trip. Here is what happened: on the 19th of February 2013, I received an e-mail from Alessandro asking if Flycastaway could arrange a tarpon fishing trip to Apalachicola Bay at the end of July. I told him that I was going to be in the area myself at the same time, and I could make some of the guides I have used annually for the last four years available to him. I also offered to make recommendations on places to stay, what city to fly into, etc. The dates of the trip were requested by the guests; I did not force the dates on them. I spoke to Alessandro and Mr. Gerencer at length after their first day of fishing. Indeed, the fishing was terrible. I have been fishing this area during the same dates for the last few years, and this year was by far the worst I have ever encountered. Typically, I spend 10 days in the area per trip (I usually make two trips per year). Last year, during the same dates, two of us jumped 13 fish in one day. This year, I spent nine days on the bow of the boat, and I cast to a total of three fish. To say that the fishing was terrible is a massive understatement. There are four guides that I fish with in this area: Gjuro Bruer, Doug Henderson, Keys legend Harry Spear, and Travis Huckerba. I typically bring a group with me from South Africa and book three boats for 10 days during the same dates. We all fish with different guides every day. Alessandro and Roland fished with Travis Huckerba the day that they fished. I fish with him every year myself. He is a good guide, and I have caught many fish from his boat. Clearly, Alessandro and Mr. Gerencer thought I picked the best fishing spot for myself, and that seems to have contributed to their frustration. Nothing could be further from the truth. As anyone experienced in saltwater fishing knows, when the fish are not there, you need to look for them. I discussed the fishing areas with the guides and our approach was to station boats in different areas along that section of coast to see if we could run into fish. The idea was that once we found the fish, we would know where to concentrate our efforts the following day. Unfortunately, we did this for 10 days, and we never found them this year. When I spoke to Alessandro and Mr. Gerencer after the one day that they fished, they were blatantly insulting toward Travis. As a guide myself, I can honestly tell you that given the circumstances he did everything he could to find them fish. The weather was simply terrible, and he had to pull his boat out of the water to get away from a storm. When the weather is bad, the guide’s number-one priority is the safety of his guests. Travis tells me he fished the area he fished because it afforded some protection from the wind. They had a chance of seeing fish there, and it wasn’t too far from the marina should the weather go south. I was in the same situation myself. There were some areas where I would have loved to look for fish, but we just could not access them given the weather conditions.
Regarding payment, I explained to Alessandro and Mr. Gerencer that I cannot refund them the fee they sent me because I booked their guides for the dates they requested and I paid them for those dates. There is no way a guide can find clients when anglers cancel at the last minute. Our terms and conditions are very clear on our invoice, and it also stipulates that we need payment in advance exactly for this reason. As an agent, I need to look after the interests of the guides and operators I use as well as the clients I book. Experienced anglers who fish with guides a lot know that this is the norm: you pay your money to book your guides and then hope that the weather is good. You cannot demand a refund because of bad weather. I wish we could do that!
Upon returning to South Africa after my visit to the United States, I contacted Alessandro and Mr. Gerencer and, as a gesture of good faith, offered them a credit of $1,000 each with FlyCastaway to be used against any trip in the future. I believe I have conducted myself ethically in all my dealings with these clients, and I stand behind the character and competence of the guides I work with in Apalachicola. What I didn’t do is control the weather, and that is something none of us can do.