November 21, 2023
The chances you'll be bit by the highly venomous Brazilian Wandering Spider while fishing for smallmouth bass aboard Capt. Matt Heath's boat in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River are pretty much one in a trillion gazillion. Maybe greater.
Heath (and for the record, us too) are supremely confident you'll escape the fangs of one of the world's deadliest spiders while on his 27-foot Sport-Craft. But Heath does tempt fate with his routine of casually bringing a banana on his boat and all.
Bananas, you see, have been seen as a totem of bad luck for boat captains for hundreds of years. The superstition likely harkens to a long-ago era when cargo ships sailed from South America with bananas as freight and the occasional deadly Brazilian Wandering Spider as a stowaway. Regardless of the fact those spiders have reportedly killed a grand total of 15 people worldwide since 1903, the belief that bananas on boats are harbingers of bad luck remains.
"The banana superstition is probably the most well-known," Heath said, "but I'm not a believer in that at all. I have a banana for breakfast on my boat every morning."
That, however, doesn't mean Heath is not superstitious. He and his son—who mates for him during the summer—both believe if they don't have their fishing pliers properly secured to their belts before a charter begins, a bad day of fishing is sure to follow.
"There will be days when he leans over and whispers to me 'Dad! Get your pliers on!" he said. "Without them, it always seems slow."
Other Lake Ontario charter captains believe firmly in the banana lore. Some even forbid them on their boats. "Why push your luck?" asks Capt. Jeff Draper.
As a whole, the charter captains fishing the big lake and its surrounding rivers and streams are a fairly superstitious group of anglers who often take great lengths to curry favor with Lady Luck. Here's a look at some of the rather unconventional approaches charter captains take to make a day on the water a resounding success.
THE NO-ZERO HERO
Captain Rob Westcott of Legacy Sportfishing goes to great lengths to make sure all of his equipment is in good working order aboard his Penn Yan 295 Prowler. Spoons are organized meticulously. Rods are secured and aligned in rod holders. Live bait rigs are wrapped carefully and stowed in drawers. Everything has its place.
Except for the number zero.
It's a non-starter for Westcott, who will not allow any of his line counter reels or downrigger settings to end in the number zero. Heck, if he sees a depth reading ending in zero on his fishfinder, he'll direct the boat to deeper or shallower water.
"We always use some oddball numbers," said Westcott. "One day, it might be 133 or 155 or 66 or 88 or 77."
Repetitive numbers are fine. Just not the dreaded goose egg. The presets on one of Westcott's Cannon downriggers reflect that. The four depth settings are 66, 77, 88, and 99 feet. He doesn't recall the genesis of his anti-zero campaign but sees nothing wrong with his commitment to the system he's devised.
"I don't claim to be superstitious, but it's what I do," he said. "I've been doing it ever since it started working. We never play with zeroes."
On the off chance that a downrigger gets set at 60 feet down, for instance, rest assured it was a mistake and Westcott will be quick to rectify it.
"It definitely gets changed immediately," he said. "I'll go over and change it to 59 or 66."
Westcott says it's one of the first rules he explains to whomever his first mate is on any given day.
"We just don't use those numbers," he said.
WATCH WHAT YOU SAY
Fishing on the western edge of Lake Ontario and in the lower Niagara River, Capt. Jeff Draper loves to talk about just about anything while on the water. But there are a couple of topics that are always off-limits.
"People will ask me how the boat is running and I never, ever want to talk about how the boat is running," Draper said, citing a time long ago when a client asked what seems to be an innocuous question and soon after his motor conked out.
In the same vein, he remains steadfastly cagey with clients when providing details about the fishing.
"It's common, pretty much expected, that you're going to be asked how the fishing is," he said, "and I always try to find a way to not really answer it. If you tell them how great it is, then you're bound to not have a very good day. I never say 'Oh, we're catching them great,' because every time you do that, it sets you up for failure."
NUMBERS ARE A NO-NO
Combining Draper's "Off-Topic" policy with Westcott's numerical aversions is Capt. Brian Garrett who operates Tall Tails Sportfishing out of Oswego Harbor.
"We fish for trout and salmon, and these are fish that people usually want to take home," Garrett said, meaning that one of the common goals for his trips is putting fish in the livewell. While anglers are often focused on catching their limit, Garrett refuses to let them know how close they are to filling it.
"Obviously, the mates and I know how many fish are in the box, but we never give the total out loud. We never want to get hung up on a number. We don't ever say we need one more fish or two more fish to get to the limit, that's bad juju."
EARLY SUCCESS EQUALS BAD LUCK
Interestingly, Heath and Garrett share the belief that catching a fish early portends a slower day ahead.
"I don't really like it when we're setting up rods and we get the first one down and suddenly it goes off," Garrett said. "That can be bad."
Heath fishes a lot of drop shots and he often takes a few minutes early in a trip to teach inexperienced anglers the best drop-shot technique. But that can be a recipe for disaster, he said.
"I never want to be showing somebody how to fish and catch a fish in front of them, right off the bat," he said. "That's a bad omen."