Steve would like to thank Matt and Nick Miller and Brian Davis, Jr. for their contributions to this column.
We just returned from the annual family vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Each summer, 20 or so Millers descend on OBX from the mid-Atlantic and the Chicago areas. This year the weather was great, the surf was warm and challenging, the soft-shell crabs simply other-worldly - and the fish were biting. Or were they?
Last year for the first time a group of six teenagers and adults embarked on a deep sea fishing expedition out of the Oregon Inlet (http://www.oregon-inlet.com/), home of the largest fishing fleet on the east coast. From spring through fall, several dozen 50+ foot boats depart each morning shortly after 5 a.m. to navigate the 40 plus miles to the canyons of the Gulf Stream in search of tuna, both yellowfin and bigeye, wahoo, dolphin (mahi-mahi) and the sport-fishing prizes, sail fish and both blue and white marlin. OI has developed a justified reputation for its fishing prowess over the years, with many sportfishing records and a history of ecstatic vacationing amateur fishermen.
Customers can make reservations with the Oregon Inlet for a specific boat or simply let OI make the choice from among those available. Last year, I contacted the reservation desk about a month before our visit to find very few slots open for the week of the trip. With no knowledge of the boats, captains, or mates, I asked for guidance. No problem, said the reservation office, each of the five boats/crews that had openings was excellent and all had demonstrated strong capabilities over time. To my subsequent inquiry on which of the five would be at the top of the list, the response was "all boats deliver a terrific fishing experience." That sounded a bit fishy to me, much like the "just buy the S&P 500 market portfolio" advice given me by a prospective financial planner when discussing asset allocation only weeks prior. I nevertheless reserved a day.
From my perspective, that eleven hour Monday trip was splendid, producing 125 pounds of great-eating yellowfin, more than enough to sate a house of ravenous fish-eaters for the week - and then some. Those 125 pounds were just two tuna, however, and all fishing action was over by 9:30 a.m. Our boat returned to the inlet early, so the three teenaged participants set out to check the catches of the others as they arrived. After boats were secured, the mates displayed the catches on the docks to crowds of admirers. The teenagers, to their surprise and mild disappointment, assessed our catch in the lower half of the day's boats. And, though happy with our output, they wondered whether we might have done better with another boat and crew. Were there differences in performance of the boats that we should know about for subsequent vacations?
The aspiring fishermen decided to continue their "study" of boat output for the remainder of the week, looking for intelligence to plan next year's outing. We drove from Nags Head to the inlet each of the next four days at 4 p.m. to observe the day's catch as boats returned from their outings. A makeshift spreadsheet organized by date and boat duly noted performance. The "analysts" began to notice daily variation, and by the end of the week had postulated a "model" for fishing output. Indeed, as the week progressed, they became more convinced that performance was relative - with both consistent over and under performers - and that variables including expertise of the crew influenced the day's yield.
The most important short-term factors related to fish output noted by the analysts were, of course, weather and conditions, especially offshore with the action. Last year there was no rain and little wind, and cooler water temperatures supported tuna fishing, so the daily hauls of yellowfin were noteworthy, even for the generally slower summer months. Fishing performance is certainly seasonal, with spring and fall offering optimal gulfstream conditions for tuna.
A second key is the choice of the intended catch portfolio, generally negotiated between crew and customer. While the crew will not impose their vision on the team - "I don't tell nobody what to do," opined this year's captain - they will point out the risk/rewards of prospective fish mixes so fishermen can appreciate trade-offs before they embark. Sportfishing for marlin is very high risk, with boats often shut out, though a single photograph of a caught-and-released 400 pound white might make a party's day. On the other hand, a focus on mahi-mahi might be seen as low risk, since boats can often pretty much assure the limit of 10-per-person catch with the attendant fast and furious action. Alas, mahi-mahi does not have the cachet of yellowfin - or the taste. Conditions might also dictate the portfolio, and crews often change course as the day evolves. Catch a couple of good-sized tuna early, then go for the frenetic action of mahi-mahi, finally taking a flier on a white or blue at the end of the day.
The teenaged analysts summarized their week of data, concluding that three crews had "outperformed" their peers with consistent top-quartile productivity and diversified portfolios. Their mandate? Reserve a spot with one of the three for this year's trip. A responsive parent, I made a Monday reservation with a chosen crew for the 2007 vacation.
The early morning of this year's excursion was ominous, with heavy cloud cover and noticeable winds. The captain was fretting as the boat embarked at 5 a.m. "Could be a tough day," he noted to no one in particular as the boat embarked.
We arrived back at 3:45 p.m. to pick up the heroes, first stopping at inlet headquarters to pre-gauge the day's results. "A bit of a sub-par day" noted the inlet reservation clerk. The mates from two early-arriving boats provided no more optimism. "No tuna today. Just 20 or so mahi-mahi," was the consensus. Several more boats arrived with solid catches of mahi-mahi only. Finally a boat with one tuna, then another with two.