In 2018, I took the step that so many of us passionate recreational anglers have dreamed about. I set the wheels in motion to turn a passion into a profession. No longer was I going to dream of making a living out of fishing, I was going to do it and, I was all in!
I’m ‘Tommo’ and this is my story.
Growing up in one of the most unspoilt and stunning National Parks in Britain, Exmoor fed my childhood imagination. With its babbling brooks and streams carrying beautiful wild brown trout and always to my absolute wonder, at the right times of year, salmon.
I’ll never forget the size of salmon that you would come across in the tiniest of tributaries. The stream at home was barely 10 feet across at its widest but as a tributary to the River Barle, which then fed into the River Exe, it meant it was always full of little brownies and once the salmon had returned to spawn it was full of tiny salmon parr. I can’t explain the fascination with watching and spotting fish in the water and the inner desire to try and catch them. Armed with a starter rod bought for me as a birthday present from my parents, I spent hours and hours catching these little fish using bread from the kitchen or worms discovered in the garden.
Progressing from playing about in the stream at home as a child, my next step in the world of fishing through to my late teens was very much coarse and carp fishing. However, by the time I was in my early twenties and working long hours as a County cricket coach, I no longer had quite so much time for 24hr or 48hr sessions by the lake and I decided to have a go at sea fishing. The spectacular views down from the moor over the Bristol Channel had always provided the curiosity of ‘what was out there?’. I remember parking up at Blue Anchor alongside the sea wall one day and seeing an angler constantly reeling in fish. I had to have a go at this! A cheap beach-caster setup was purchased and so the chapter in sea fishing had begun. It was amazing.
The passion for angling and the buzz had escalated to such a high level. I love every type of angling, but sea angling seemed so wild and the challenge, difficulty and unknown of what was possible to catch in a few hours over a tide if your luck was in really fired something inside me. The beach casting didn’t last long however because now I was catching from the shore, I was looking out on all this expanse of water in front of me and along with reading reports of catches achieved by local charter boats, I knew I had to get afloat somehow.
I was introduced to boat fishing through my good friend who was living with me at the time, Dan Hawkins. The stories, adventures, and capers (mostly fishing related) I could tell you about with Dan would need another article all together, and as many of you reading this might be starting to twig, Dan has gone on to become the incredibly successful and renowned skipper of “Reel Deal”, famed for some of the finest shark fishing in UK waters. Both Dan and I were members of the Blackdown Sea Angling Club. We headed out on charter trips once or twice a month and had a great time out of various ports. I wanted to do more however, and the daily craving was such that I decided to buy a SIB.
A 3.2 meter Honwave with an aluminium floor was my first purchase and that was swiftly followed by a larger 4.2 meter Seapo with a 25hp 2 stroke outboard… boy did this thing shift and my range hugely extended. I was now fishing all along the Exmoor shoreline which to me, is one of the most beautiful shorelines you could wish for and catching all manner of rays, cod, bass, smoothhounds and even cool things like trigger fish. I would go to work every day, watching the forecast, tides and hoping all conditions would come together to allow me to be back out on my next day off.
As with a lot of hobbies, I guess there’s always the desire to have better equipment and extend the adventures as you indulge in your passion. Time went by, the S.I.B. was sold and a 21-foot Pirate 21 named ‘Frankly My Dear’ was purchased from Guernsey and brought back to Watchet Marina. My fishing story had another chapter beginning. This one in the world of small boat fishing. Little did I know but this boat was set to change my life. The day I put the boat in the marina I was just Tom the cricket coach. Indeed, bar a few close friends and family, most people I met didn’t even know I fished.
But by the time I was to sell ‘Frankly My Dear’ I would be ‘Tommo’ and the owner of Heritage Charters skippering an awesome 11.2 meter catamaran sitting on hydrofoils powered by twin 4.6 litre V8 outboards. The incredible “Lorna Doone” would have been custom built by Swiftcat and I would no longer be Tom the cricket coach. For I would manage to do what is an aspiration for many with a passion… Jack in the day job and turn that passion into a profession.
Dreams to reality
After the purchase of ‘Frankly My Dear’ I suppose two things happened that first sowed the seed of wonder as to whether this fabulous way of life could become a reality. The first was the utter love for the spectacular Exmoor coastline. That simply gave me moments of wonder. I would be in awe as I fished with the backdrop of the most wonderful scenery, sunrises and sunsets. You know, those feel-good moments where you just think ‘life’s good right now’ and ‘how incredible this would be if it was a job’. And secondly, I was becoming aware that I understood the area well and was catching really good fish consistently. The two combined was progressing the idea from the stage of ‘oh wouldn’t it be a wonderful job’ to ‘I could do this’.
Initially, I put all thoughts of having a massive career change and becoming a charter skipper on hold. I suppose I just couldn’t really work out how to have such a big career change. The realities of leaving a job that I had done for years, that paid for everything I needed it to in life and that I could always do seemed a scary risk. So, I convinced myself that it was just a dream. Dreams that we all have when we have such a passion for a hobby. And that was that.
And then came ‘Tommo’.
During one summer I had a message from one of the most recognisable anglers in UK fishing, one of life’s characters and genuinely nice people. It was the very popular Graeme Pullen of the online success that is ‘The Totally Awesome Fishing Show’. Graeme had asked if I minded taking him out fishing so he could make a film for his show. Of course, I was delighted to. In truth I was very flattered. Graeme ended up coming and filming on a few occasions as we caught a range of fish such as bull huss, bass, smoothhounds and tope. It was great, we were catching good fish, in wonderful surroundings and I loved being able to share that with Graeme and subsequently his viewers.
Graeme always called me ‘Tommo’ on the show. I’d not really been called Tommo all that often before, not that I minded or indeed really thought anything of it. That was until I became aware that locally in the angling fraternity I was now also being called ‘Tommo’ and I had received a few messages through social media along the lines of ‘Hi Tommo… I’ve seen you on the show, can I come out fishing with you’?
I was receiving requests from people to come out fishing with myself that I recognised and perhaps I was garnering a bit of a name for what I was doing. That name was ‘Tommo’. A bit of an alter ego in a way. I don’t think the majority of people even knew my full name, but ‘Tommo’ had at least been noticed if nothing else. The cogs once again turned and the curiosity of the possibility of turning this passion into a profession was stewing. I’m the sort of person that does a lot of thinking but perhaps keeps a lot of those thoughts to myself. Boy, was I doing some thinking! From morning until night, I thought constantly about becoming a charter skipper. I watched the likes of AlyKat, Osprey and Teddie Boy of Minehead, Seafire and Scooby Doo Too of Watchet and of course my good friend, Dan Hawkins who himself had recently made the move to becoming a charter skipper and was going great guns. I was envious of them, possibly jealous even. They were living what had become my dream and I had started to want it so badly.
I desperately played devil’s advocate with all my thoughts, challenging every positive with the barriers and pitfalls with the desire to not be blinded by passion and ultimately end up making a foolhardy decision that would fail and cost me greatly. So, I didn’t rush into things, indeed I thought about it for a good few years. I still wasn’t convincing myself to commit despite how much belief I had in my ability to succeed, and I think I was happy with that really. Work was good, I loved helping players of all abilities from players just starting out in cricket to players that had gone on to perform on the world stage. Then, there was a moment I can recall so clearly. I remember coaching a player and I was looking at him dead in the eyes and reciting exactly what he needed but I was completely thinking about a charter boat as the sun was setting with the sky lit up. And that was the moment that the dream was going to become a reality. I had watched enough, thought enough, planned enough, and dreamt enough…This had to be the now or never moment!
‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat!’
So, I had now arrived at the stage where this was going to happen and I was going to need a bigger boat. Something built specifically for the job of carrying passengers for the purpose of angling but what exactly? Boats are really expensive for a start, and I had to decide where I was going to set my budget. I had very little experience in business, but I did have vast experience in coaching. And it was a little philosophy I used with players at times that I leant on. Simply put, there are no guarantees you’ll win but you can give yourself the best chance. If you give yourself the best chance, then a successful outcome is more likely. So, in boat terms I decided there would be three levels of boat I could look at, cheap and cheerful and hope for the best, somewhere in the middle which would be a far better boat, far more expensive of course, but possibly still hoping for the best. Or look at something higher end. High end would be every penny I could possibly muster up. That’s a scary thing to entertain but harking back to my best chance philosophy I believed that’s where my best chance of success would lie. So that was the level I was going in at with my first ever charter boat!
I looked around at various makes. However, Dan Hawkins had waxed lyrical to me about his Swiftcat built in Essex by Chris Dawson, a very talented boat builder. So, after speaking with Chris, I agreed to have him build me a boat. I sat outside at home on a kitchen chair, with a can of spray paint, a tape measure and sprayed lines on the ground as I tried to picture the configuration I wanted. Then I sent a few ropey sketches back to Chris along with a sizeable deposit. For the first time I got very nervous. This was real now, and it was costing me money. A hell of a lot of money actually and one of the things I had been told along the way to this stage amongst the few I confided in was there wasn’t the market for another charter boat in the area and where was I going to get enough custom from? I had nothing to prove the custom was there. All I had was my belief and desire. Not exactly the soundest basis for a business guarantee. But none the less I did believe, I believed passionately and there was no turning back now.
Over the next 9 months as the boat was built, I carried on coaching whilst I achieved my commercial endorsements to skipper and Chris at Swiftcat sent me regular updates with pictures. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I had sleepless nights in fact. Had I backed myself to make this massive career change and succeed through blinded passion? The pictures I had seen of the boat had consisted mainly of bits and then one day I opened a message from Chris and there it was. All together and looking every bit as I had imagined and more. It made me emotional looking at these pictures. It was stunning and I knew, I just knew that not only was I giving myself the best chance of success, but it was going to be a success.
By now the cat was out the bag and people knew that ‘Tommo’ was getting a charter boat. The boat was loaded onto a lorry and transported across the country to Portishead where the electronics were to be finished and then the survey to take place.
I was receiving messages from people spotting it on the road and there was no end of people paying me a visit in the boat yard as the finishing touches happened. I was buzzing.
I brought her down to Watchet in August 2019 amidst the town’s culmination of the Harbour fest. That evening, fireworks lit up the marina and I sat with friends aboard “Lorna Doone” (The boat was named in homage to the novel Lorna Doone which was set on Exmoor. 2019 was its 150th anniversary year of being in print). She had arrived with passion built into her from bow to stern. There was just one more hurdle to cross. Could I now put people on the fish as well as having this wonderful machine? Every component of the business is important to success but none of it will give success without each part working together. The inaugural trip set out towards the shallow ground near Dunster on a neap tide. The sun shone and the script had been perfectly written. For as I slid the net under personal bests achieved by anglers aboard, I utterly beamed with pride and it was a day I will never forget! That day a passion had been turned into a profession.