Captain Jim Barr of Skinny Water Charters guides out of Newport, Rhode Island, where anglers have the opportunity to pursue some of the most thrilling fish one can catch on the fly! Barr recently sat down to interview with Tim Harden for the Venturing Angler:
1. Why do you guide where you do?
My guide service, Skinny Water Charters, is based in Newport, RI. It is primarily a saltwater guide service although I also wade and boat guide anglers in cold and warm freshwater. Being based in Newport, at my doorstep is the open Atlantic Ocean as well as a myriad of saltwater bays, estuaries and rivers, many that are protected from the wind and waves that can make fishing in the ocean difficult and challenging. I guide here because I live here. Newport is a wonderful town, full of things to do for all ages and interests. It offers great restaurants, bars, museums, sailing, concerts, historical tours, shopping- the list is extensive. At Discover Newport, readers can quickly familiarize themselves with all the cool things to do here. Newport and Rhode Island in general offers world-class saltwater fishing.
I keep my boats (Mako 2201 Inshore Bay, Lund 16’ SSV, 16’ Ranger canoe, and several sit-on-top style kayaks) on trailers, and drive to launch areas that are near the wide variety of waters that clients want to fish, places where I can provide the best options for a great day or evening on the water. I am the only guide service in Rhode Island and nearby Connecticut and Massachusetts that provides this type of venue flexibility. I know these waters because I have lived and fished in them for most of my life.
2. What is your favorite fish species?
Tim, that’s a tough one and it depends on what the circumstances are. If I am fishing in saltwater as a guide, or for myself, my favorite species are probably the false albacore (little tunny) and ocean bonito. These fish are blistering fast, pull like a tractor, are nearly impossible to tire and are brilliant in color. On a fly rod there’s nothing else in our waters that can compete with the fun of catching these small tuna. I also love to catch Bluefish on the fly, they fight way better than any Striped bass, and generally are plentiful and have a wonderfully nasty attitude. Stripers are probably my least favorite fish to catch, they too are beautiful and pull hard, but in kind of a lazy way… but they are the fish that most of my clients want to target.
If I am fishing in freshwater, mostly for myself, I prefer fly fishing for largemouth bass in very heavy cover in the early morning when the mist is still hanging on the water and in the evening. We don’t have much in the way of smallmouth bass in our local Rhode Island waters, however a two hour drive brings me to the Housatonic River in western Connecticut for super smallmouth bass angling. When I vacation in Maine I target smallmouth bass primarily in lakes.
There are some days in the middle of the summer when an evening on a local pond loaded with sunfish is the ticket. A 2 or 3 weight rod, a floating line and a tiny foam or balsa popper is simply a blast.
Lot’s of favorites I guess.
3. What is your favorite thing about guiding?
The profit of course, not that it’s that significant- far from it in all honesty, as expenses are high sometimes driving margins considerably lower than you like. There’s a lot of charter service competition in Rhode Island so you are forced to be very competitive in your pricing. I don’t know how some guides do it at the rates they charge. In their effort to grab as much business as possible their margins have to be stupid low. Rhode Island saltwater guiding is a short season proposition (six months with many weather closeouts). For me guiding has to be profitable for me to continue which at times can be challenging particularly when I incur unexpected expenses. Guiding is not a charitable business although I do donate guided trips and fly casting lessons to a variety of not for profit charities. For me, I’m fortunate as guiding supplements my retirement income, and that’s nice.
Money however is not the singular driving force to being a fishing guide, it goes way beyond that. Late in my career as an insurance geek, I thought a lot about what I would do in my retirement years after pulling the plug on wearing a suit and hustling between airports five days a week. I loved to fish, bird hunt, mountain climb, sail, paddle and powerboat … almost anything field sports related, but at the same time I wanted to stay involved in some type of part-time business pursuit. I was a good angler, loved to take friends fishing, teach, take risk, lead in outdoor pursuits and meet new people. My energy levels are still at a high and I needed to pursue these interests but not in a capacity where it became a full time job. Guiding, and on a seasonal basis, makes lots of sense. It’s what I do now, and I love it (well maybe not the 3:30am wake-ups that start the prep for the early morning charters).
For me a better question is what I like least about guiding, and that’s an easy one … I don’t get to fish near as much as I would like.
4. What is the most memorable trip you’ve guided and why?
One of those kind of trips (there are many) happened a couple of years ago in my 22 Mako. I had a father and two son late afternoon charter. These gentlemen were accomplished trout fly fisherman but had ever fished in salt water aboard a bumpy boat in white water in a heavy chop. My charter business focuses on in-shore and near-shore shallow waters abounding in structure (ledges, cliffs, sand bars, beaches, etc). It was late in the afternoon. It was raining and the wind was building and there was a two foot chop that broke hard on numerous ledges throwing up plumes of frothy saltwater. It was a bit nutty. There were pods of striped bass feeding on baitfish that were disoriented by the rough seas. The bass were on top of and in between many shallow ledges and tight to several high cliffs on Newport’s Brenton Reef. As a backdrop to these swirling stripers, there were the many huge mansions that line the shoreline, summer “cottages” as we call them in Newport, that were built by industry magnates in the days before income taxes. Two of my guests were completely intimidated by the conditions and unable to keep their balance and to cast their lines to the fast moving bass. The third angler was in the bow, he was an athlete and had the agility of a shortstop and was very good with a fly rod. He repeatedly drilled his casts exactly where they needed to go and at times hooked up on every cast. I maneuvered the boat as close to the fish as I could without going aground and my guy in the bow just stuck striper after striper. The Mako can turn on a dime and draws very little water, and that afternoon she danced and sprinted like a hockey player evading defenders. Once hooked up, I would pull the boat into relatively safe water so I could unbutton the bass, and to give my guy in the bow a couple of minutes to catch his breath, take a sip of water, tuck his shirttail in again, etc … before I drove back into the lunacy… again and again. It was magic!
5. What is the funniest thing you’ve experienced while guiding?
Tim, there have been lots of laughs over the years and with my failing memory I’ll pick the most recent account. Last fall I had three anglers on board the Mako. Two were flycasting, the third was using a spinning rod. The Mako is 22 feet long and a bit tight for three big guys all casting at the same time. The mission of the day was to get each of these clients into False Albacore. Finding Falsies in our local waters last season was not a problem, as we had a great run of these fish and their brothers, the green gonito … and they stayed in our waters for weeks before they continued their migration west and south. None of these gents had ever caught one of these crazy ass fish. They had caught their share of stripers and bluefish but never a fish that can swim 60 feet a second and that can take you into your backing in a heartbeat. When a false albacore or bonito feel the sting of a hook, they go nuts. Typically they will make an initial run straight away from where they feel the pressure. You must keep your line hand clear of the reel handle otherwise you can break off the fish or worse yet mangle your fingers. These fish will then slow, turn and oftentimes come straight back to the boat at lightning fast speed. The angler has to reel like a madman to keep the line tight as the fish passes beneath the boat or around the bow or stern.
Before we set out that day I went through a ten minute briefing with these guys on what would happen when one of them hooked up and how all of us needed to be nimble by trading positions in the boat to give the angler who was tight, adequate room to play the fish. We affectionately call this ballet “The Abie Dance.”
As luck would have it, not long after we left the dock we were into massive surface blitzing pods of false albacore and bonito. Within seconds all three anglers were tight. As their respective fish screamed away, changed angles and reversed direction attacking the boat. The deployed bow-mounted trolling motor and lower unit of the outboard created fouling opportunities for their lines. As I coached (more like barked orders) these guys on who should go where, sprinted to the bow to hoist the trolling motor, then back to the controls to raise the engine…. you talk about the Albie Dance … man we displayed it in spades that afternoon- amidst hoots, howls, profanity, laughter. We must have been a sight to see by neighboring anglers.
This was one of those days you wouldn’t trade being a guide for most anything. Wonderful.
6. What makes your guide service great?
Let me take a shot at defining what you mean by “great”
1. For me “great” means the business is profitable, I get a lot of repeat clients, we catch fish, and I continue to enjoy what I’m doing.
2. For my clients “great” probably means: a) They have a good time when they go with me and want to go again. b) They catch fish in the kind of environment (waters) in which they like to fish. c) They feel they got good value for their charter fee, and perhaps d) They were able to fish with top of the line fly and light tackle equipment.
I see five key elements to having a successful, or great reputation as a guide:
1. The guide is very Knowledgeable about the Fishery and based on a variety of conditions, picks the best opportunity for his clients to catch fish and have fun.
2. The guide places an Emphasis on Safety of the client and the boat- it of paramount importance
3. Prior to the booking, the guide is Honest about fishing conditions a) how weather and tides may affect the outing. B) outlines a realistic expectation as to what we will catch
4. Good Equipment for the client to fish with and having an organized and Clean Boat.
5. Good Value for the client’s charter dollar.
Based on these definitions I would consider my guide service as “great.”
But let me continue to be honest here Tim:
There are some days it’s not all great, some might think it’s not so great at all. I think I am a good guide and operate a sound business because when I go out I give it all I have. There are many super days, with lots of fish, great weather, happy anglers, laughter and promises of returning another time. There are many days where the fishing is just so-so, and for me there’s not too much worse than mediocre fishing, except of course those days that just plain suck, where you work your butt off for a few fish or at times, no fish. There are those days where your guests go silent on you after you’ve tried your favorite and proven spots that on that particular day just aren’t producing … and you feel their spirit (and mine) slip away. It happens, it’s fishing. Some days I feel so bad about it I invite them back at a reduced cost or on a fully gratis outing in an attempt to make up for it. Some would argue that’s bad business, I would counter by saying it’s good customer relations because I feel those clients might become regulars because they were treated well.
Most people understand that not every day is going to be how they dreamt it might be. Catching in our waters is never a sure thing with some minor exceptions. I am always honest and fair with my clients. When they contact me about a charter, I give them realistic expectations based on history for that time of year. If they want to fish in May and June and September and most of October I can be very confident in most years that we will catch fish. If they want to fish in the heat of July and August and/or they want to fish in the comfortable times of the day (when fish go deep), I tell them straight up that the success profile doesn’t look very good and to think about changing their plan. If a potential guest tells me he wants to catch big fish only, I send him to another guide who fishes deep and with bait. As for potentially bad weather, I will take the conservative route and advise the client before booking that based on historical weather patterns, “such and such” is what they should expect.
I take a pass on my fair share of charters by being honest with the client whether it’s due to trending catch conditions, lack of baitfish, weather conditions, etc. People appreciate the honesty. So if I miss them this time, many will come back knowing that I gave them the straight scoop.
On the other hand I have many guests who are not so keyed into catching fish, as peculiar as that may sound. To some, a day on the water that consists of catching a few fish, having a good lunch, good conversation, laughter, perhaps a swim in a quiet cove can be the formula that works for them. I can give them all of that and more.
7. If you had only one day off all year, where would you fish and what fish would you target?
Assuming I could be “beamed around” at warp speed (Star Trek reference) across time zones and seasons of the year, my one day off would look like this:
– From 6am to noon I would be dry fly fishing on the Rio Corcovado in Patagonia/Argentina for big Brook Trout with a 6 weight rod I made.
– From 12:30 to 1:30 I’d have lunch at the Castle Hill Inn in Newport, Rhode Island
– From 2:00pm until sunset I would be on the foredeck of my Mako with a good boat handler at the wheel. We would be inching up on surface blitzing False Albacore and Bonito in flat water and I’d be sticking fish with my 9 weight Sage One.(I absolutely love that rod!)
– From 9pm till midnight I would be eating freshly caught Bonito sashimi style, sitting by the backyard fire ring, and sipping Mt Gay Rum and tonics (with a wedges of lime), and with good friends of course.
8. What are your favorite three flies?
1. Grasshopper (most any imitation) fished on a floating line on Montana’s Bighorn River in late August
2. Gartside Gurgler on a floating line for top water monster Bluefish on Newport’s Brenton Reef in July.
3. Bonito Bunny for false albacore and green bonito on the Watch Hill Reefs, Rhode Island in September.
9. What is the one piece of gear you couldn’t bear to leave at home?
Apart from the obvious stuff like rods, reels, flies, waders, boats, clothing…..without question it would have to be my Polarized Sunglasses.
10. Do you have any other passions?
– Bareboat charter sailing in the Virgin Islands
– Paddling my canoe and sit-on-top kayaks (usually with a fly rod aboard)
– Fly tying
– Building fly rods
– Writing/ Reading
– Presenting to groups (retail, clubs etc) on various fishing venues
– Backpacking into remote waters with my float tube and fishing for trout and largemouth bass
To check out Fly Fishing in Rhode Island on Facebook, please click here.
Disclosure: Skinny Water Charters is in a professional relationship with the Fly Fishing Guide Directory, LLC and the Venturing Angler. Though potentially benefiting from this relationship, we do not post what we do not believe to be true. To read more, click here.