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Posted on Feb 26, 2008 in Top Shots
Beware the Fish-Mount Bait-and-Switch

Just one rotten fish can taint a whole cooler filled with a fresh catch.

An unscrupulous crew on just one charter boat can raise a red flag for other charter operators throughout the area, the vast majority of whom are honest and work hard to engender public trust. That trust can be set back all too quickly when local headlines warn anglers/visitors who would charter an offshore boat to be cautious lest they find themselves ripped off in a taxidermy scam.

No doubt all the ethical, straight-shooting skippers in Florida were chagrined last year to see news reports of a group of Broward County fishing-charter captains and mates who had been doing some serious pocket-lining by cheating and lying to passengers for years. The scam's hardly new though it often remains below public radar, usually (and cleverly) preying upon tourists who haven't the experience to recognize it for what it is. The game works like this:

You're told at the outset of your trip that, by the way, the skipper has a fantastic taxidermist - by far the best in the business and most reasonable, etc. You say, "Thanks, but I don't figure on catching anything I'll want to mount."

Then, you or another angler hooks an "incredible" fish - one that the excited crew hasn't seen the likes of in years, maybe ever. What might such a momentous catch be? From a few online forum rants, I can tell you such catches have included various barracuda (probably the most common "trophy" in these scams, typically 20- to 35-pounders), amberjack, a 6-foot "rare golden hammerhead" shark, various sailfish (they're all "huge" sails, even the 5-footers), a bull dolphin (another "amazingly rare" fish), an African pompano and other species.

As, of course, the crew knows, you're a visitor and probably have little expertise with fishing salt water, and these experts' astonishment at your barracuda seems sincere. They make clear during the rest of the trip that you'd be crazy to not have it mounted; if you balk, they will emphasize how incredibly cheap it really is. If you still aren't sure, the skipper may try other tacks, such as insisting that you took far too long to decide, and now the fish is dead, so (ethically or legally) you have to get it mounted.

None of the crew ever suggested to you, before they eagerly gaffed your trophy, that releasing it alive was an option - as was a cheaper, longer-lasting replica mount (which is what nearly all fish mounts are, today).

Ultimately, as the final step of the hard sell, out comes the paperwork - and your credit card. Only later do you find out you were had, big time, since (a) your fish was a common species, not terribly large and in no sense the trophy it was reputed to be; (b) you needn't have killed it to have a great mount; and (c) the "full price" quoted to you was but a fraction of the true, final, total cost.

The root of the problem is, like most evils, money: The crew members get to keep as their commission whatever down payment they can squeeze out of you.

One of the more reprehensible fish-mount scams recently ended in indictments of four crew members from the 54-foot, North Miami Beach charter boat Therapy IV last fall. For years, according to allegations in the federal indictment, the crew had been convincing many passengers to have sailfish, including those woefully under the legal size limit, mounted. Federal indictments against the four included charges of making false claims (that Gray's Taxidermy required the skin to mount the fish), failure to report billfish killed as required by law and retention of undersized billfish.

As satisfying as it is to see con artists nailed, there will always be those pushing charter-trip rip-offs, scamming the naïve, the trusting, the easy mark. Again, it should be emphasized that we're talking about a very tiny fraction of charter-boat crews, but the unscrupulous are out there.

Do your homework before booking a trip. Know that most game fish do not have to be killed for a great mount. Don’t be in a hurry to sign on any dotted line.

Of course, I may be preaching by and large to the choir since most readers of Sport Fishing are well past the novice stage when it comes to marine angling. Even so, I'd urge you to pass along this advice to friends or relatives who may be headed on vacation to touristy coastal areas where sport-fishing charter boats are part of the scene, around the United States and much of the world.

Let's do what we can to keep bait-and-switch tactics focused on fooling fish, not fishermen.