Fishing while on board a ship requires alternative techniques using a rod and downrigger setup or the outrigger technique. Also, lures that cast and sink well can be used and combined with natural baits. When fishing at night, light from the boat attracts squid which can be caught by net.
FISHING, PART II
How to fish from a stationary sailboat, whether in an anchorage, over a reef, or offshore waiting for wind
It was our last evening anchored in the lee of Malden Island, Republic of Kiribati. We were preparing a rainbow runner for the grill when a yellowfin tuna began to eat the fish scraps we were throwing overboard. I couldn’t help it. I chucked a piece out on my 300-pound-test monofilament hand line, and the fight began. Ten minutes later, I called Wendy to interrupt her work in the galley as I was ready for her to gaff the fish. She grabbed the gaff as I muscled the fish’s head into position only to see the hook fall out of its mouth. Wendy flopped down on her belly and free-gaffed the tuna, got to her knees, ordered me to “hold this,” grabbed a second gaff, nailed the tuna a second time, handed me the second gaff handle, and calmly headed back for the galley. I was holding the two gaffs and staring at the lifeless 70-pound yellowfin as Wendy paused, halfway down the steps, long enough to say, “Well, you said you wanted it, didn’t you?” She then casually disappeared below.
Catching fish while becalmed at sea, drifting, or anchored over wrecks and reefs is often more exciting than trolling.
The Thrift of Fishing Adrift
You’re becalmed offshore. Suddenly, you spot a tree trunk. You approach it carefully and splash your bait close to it. Several neon-blue shadows appear in the spread, but nothing happens. The dorado and other pelagic species hang around but don’t bite. Here’s what you should do. Maneuver to within casting range and stop the boat. Toss a bucktail jig (3/8-ounce 3/0 white Millie’s Roundhead Jig) or a weighted strip bait (3/8-ounce Captain Brown’s Hookup Jig with squid or fish) on a 20-pound-test spinning rod out toward the log, leave it in free spool, and let it sink 60 feet. Now close the bail, reel in fast, and rapidly retrieve the jig upward with sweeping jerks of the rod and fast winding of the reel handle. If you have a foot of No. 4 wire at the end of your 50-pound monofilament shock leader, you’ve slightly decreased the action of your lure, but you’ve covered the possibility of a strike by a toothy wahoo or silky sharks. Your first strike will be a dorado or a colorful rainbow runner. Your drifting vessel becomes a mecca for a variety of pelagic sea life, much of which may not be readily visible.
For this type of fishing, use lures that cast and sink well. These include plastic bait imitations hooked onto either bucktail or plain jigs and flashy metallic lures like diamond jigs and crippled herring spoons. If the fish follow but still don’t bite, use natural bait. Chunks of fresh tuna, flying fish, squid, or other fish all work well. Keep a small container of such offerings handy in your refrigerator. Match hook size to the baits and to the targeted fish: try 3/0 to 7/0 Mustad 7691 s; if they still don’t bite, go to Mustad 9174s or 94150s and lighter monofilament leaders. Toss whole flying fish or squid baited on 8/0 7691 s for tuna, dorado, wahoo, and other species 15 pounds and greater. If you’re near debris and you’re desperate to catch a dorado, use light line and No. 10 gold-hair hooks with tiny baits or baitfish quill lures to catch small fish (jacks, filefish, triggerfish). Then hook these live baits onto your big spinning rod and pitch them out in front of your quarry. While still in free spool, let the dorado eat the bait for a few seconds before reeling up all the slack and raising the rod tip sharply several times to set the hook.
If this doesn’t work, throw a surface plug (Pacific Lure Innovations and Yo-zuri) out a distance and retrieve it fast and erratically, making it pop and chug. The dorado will flash their feeding colors and follow closely. One may take the plug. If not, cast a second lure or natural dead or live bait right behind the plug and you’ll get a strike. Otherwise, continue the surface-plug retrieve right along the side of the boat and free-gaff the fish with a fast overhand stroke behind the head. But beware: free-gaffed fish are full of energy, and you should subdue them before they cause damage.
Adrift or Anchored, Night or Day
When you’re waiting for wind, your sailboat becomes a fish-attracting device. This is equally true of your anchored vessel, particularly if you’re by a steep drop-off near the open ocean. At night, lights attract swarms of zooplankton that become, food for small fish and squid; these in turn attract larger fish, sharks, and sometimes marine mammals. Turn on your spreader lights, find a comfortable seat, and watch the show begin.
You can use several rigs to fish while you relax. Deploy a snubber line or a rail-mounted reel or stand-up rod-and-reel outfit in a rod holder with a natural dead or live bait. Rig a bell or tin can to make noise if it’s a hand line, set the drag to strike position (25 percent of the breaking strength of the line), and put the click lever on if you’re using a reel. Deploy the bait deep with a sliding sinker rig or downrigger rig, or hold near the surface with either a fishing kite or balloon. The downrigger allows deep fishing with heavy sinkers. It attaches to the fishing line with a quick-release clip. The kite is also tied to the fishing line with a quick-release clip.
Another variation is to tie a length of dockline to a floating ball, suspend a fish carcass on heavy steel cable and a large hook, and secure the entire rig to a transom cleat. When the boat lurches, spilling your coffee, you’ll know a big shark is hooked. Simply watch the fireworks as the ball zigzags and throws a white wake behind the boat. Wait until the shark tires, “handline” in, photograph, unhook or cut the leader, and gently release.
One last tip involves offshore night lighting. If you’re running some deck lighting, particularly while adrift on a moonless night offshore, you’ll often notice squid around the boat. You can capture them for consumption or for bait with light spinning tackle, no leader, and special jigs with a ring of sharp barbs at the base to entangle the tentacles of the squid. Cast and retrieve as though you’re fishing a bucktail. You can also use a long-handled dip net for squid and flying fish that wander by within range.
Let There Be Fish
If you’re anchored in an unproductive area, the remedy is a day trip to a nearby reef, wreck, or other bottom structure.
Shallow bottom structure (under 120 feet): A wrecked ship, fully or partially submerged, or a natural coral or rock formation provides a habitat for a variety of species. The general strategy is to anchor so that the boat ends up 10 to 40 yards upstream and to windward of the structure. The goal is to draw fish out and away from their habitat, then hook them and get them to the boat by thwarting their frantic efforts to hide and “lock” themselves in a crevice.
Chumming is the best way to attract fish. Use frozen blocks of ground fish or any fish scraps suspended in a mesh bag or tossed periodically overboard to send an oily slick of fish odor and particles in the direction of the structure. Numerous rigs work for chumming at depth: suspend the chum in a weighted container or off the anchor line; drop to the bottom conch shells stuffed with fish scraps; wrap chum in banana leaves and weight them with rocks; or mix it with sand and pack into balls before tossing overboard. One trick is to push the baited hook into the middle of a sand/chum ball or weighted leaf packet, wrap the line a number of times around it or attach it using a quick-release knot, and send it down. This gets an unweighted bait deep in a bursting cloud of chumNvery effective.
Besides this approach, here are three bait-fishing techniques to use with or without chum. First, “freeline” live or dead baits on small hooks and lightly-weighted line, hand-strip lengths of line off the spool to match the speed of the current, thus creating a natural drift, and use a light hand line or spinning rod (20-pound test or less) with either no leader or a light, No. 2 wire. When the line speeds up, a fish has taken the bait. Let the fish swallow the offering, then set the hook. This works well for such reef fish as snappers, mackerels, and jacks that respond to chum by rising up into the water column to feed.
Second, for larger, deeper-dwelling snappers, jacks, sweetlips, grunts, porgies, hogfish, wrasses, and groupers, suspend a sliding rig on medium tackle (20- to 40-pound test) on a long leader (20 feet of 20- to 50-pound-test monofilament) at varying depths close to the bottom; if it’s open sand, let the rig rest on the bottom. Fish with the drag in strike position (bail closed on a spinning rod), lower the tip when strong contact occurs, wind, and set the hook.
Third, fish for the big groupers, sea basses, wreckfish, amberjacks, and trevally with heavy (over 50-pound test) revolving spool reels or hand lines and a three-way sinker rig with a heavier, longer leader (20 feet of 50- to 100-pound-test monofilament). Drop a sizable live bait, a whole dead bait, or a fillet or cut bait down to the bottom, then reel up 15 feet of line. Set your drag a bit heavier than strike position to prevent large bottom fish from diving back inside a reef or wreck. Use an offset circle hook, drop the rod tip upon contact to horizontal, then reel it in as fast as you can and don’t set the hook.
Deep bottom structure (120 to 1,000 feet): Fishing on deep wrecks, seamounts, and ledges is more often done while drifting rather than anchored. Any of the techniques discussed so far can work in deep water, including chumming and the use of surface baits and lures.
Freelined dead baits are effective for pelagic species. These fish, though speedy and wide ranging, will be attracted to floating items or bottom-associated features and will respond to chum by swimming slowly up and sucking in a dead bait if undistracted by fast-moving schools of bait fish or squid. Live and even dead baits presented with a fishing kite can be highly effective.
You can catch some of the reef species targeted on shallower structures with the same medium- and heavy-rig bottom-bait techniques in deeper areas.
Another method is to deep-jig: drop a bullet-headed baited or unbaited 6- to 20-ounce jig to the bottom on heavy gear, and retrieve rapidly in big vertical sweeps of the rod, winding madly in between, redropping when you’ve brought the lure above the strike zone for the targeted species. You can practice this with lighter gear in the shallower part of this depth range, particularly in light current.
You may want to catch deep-dwelling bottom species: bright red snappers, exotic groupers, and other species that live on coral walls and volcanic slopes below 150 feet. A wire-line outfit will outfish any other gear.
Position your boat over the feature, and drop a heavily-weighted vertical array of cut squid, tuna, or other fish on small circle hooks until you hit bottom, then immediately reel up 15 turns. The response is immediate if you’ve reached the seafloor on or near the feature. Your wire rod will start throbbing, and with experience, you’ll be able to gauge the number of fish hooked up. We normally start cranking at three fish.
Feeling the bottom takes practice, and any time you over-drop, you risk hanging up and losing appreciable lengths of expensive wire. You can reduce this risk by assembling the hook and sinker rig with monofilament of less strength than your 100-pound-test Monel wire. Heavy current and/or rough seas can make deep dropping next to impossible. Also, many of these spots feature dense, mid-water shark populations that quickly home in on the activity taking place.
Deep blue (outside the 1,000-foot contour): Consider two options the next time you’re adrift in blue water and feeling well rested: by day, fly a kite with a small live tuna or dead flying fish, squid, or strip bait for a shot at billfish and other large pelagic species; by night, use the downrigger to drift a dead squid or fish bait deep for broadbill swordfish.
The daytime fishing kite requires only a light, steady breeze of about 4 knots. If you target billfish, leave the reel in free spool with the click on, and drop back to the feeding fish for a count of 10 to 30 seconds, depending on bait. Target wahoo, dorado, and tuna by leaving the reel in the strike position. This lure may work when all else fails due to the vertical suspension of the bait and to the fact that the little leader is below the water surface, and therefore almost invisible.
Nighttime swordfishing is simple. Although these fish can exceed 1,000 pounds, the average broadbill captured in the Caribbean weighs under 100 pounds. Broadbills, manageable on 50-pound-class stand-up tackle, are delicious to eat and come armed with an impressive sword suitable for scrimshaw.
Use the downrigger to drift a whole dead bait on 25 feet of 300-pound-test monofilament leader with a 9/0 Mustad 7691 hook at 60- to 250-foot depths. Increase your chances by attaching a Cyalume chemical light stick to the leader with a thick rubber band 4 feet above the bait. Fish with the reel in free spool and the dick on, and drop back as the fish eats the bait following the characteristic initial small taps.
When the run-off steadies or picks up speed, throw your reel into strike position, wind like crazy to take up any slack, and set the hook when you get tension. Tire these fish thoroughly, and always try to gaff them at least in the head, preferably in the eye socket. Always use one hand to control the heavy, dangerous bill, and quickly subdue them once aboard. Cut into fresh steaks and broil.
Remove the bill with a hacksaw and suspend it overboard on a line until bacteria have consumed the clark outer cover and the oily interior, leaving a white sword that provides an exciting and smell-free showpiece.
While targeting broadbills, you will catch many other pelagic species, including sharks, tuna, marlin, other billfish, dorado, and wahoo.
And now, let’s light the barbecue. . . .
Natural-Bait Rigging When Adrift or Anchored
When rigging natural bait for stationary fishing, remember two points: 1. The hook should be well concealed but with point and barb exposed. 2. The bait should be well secured to the hook, but the hook must be able to pull out of the bait and become imbedded in the gut or jaw of your quarry.
Scott and Wendy Bannerot left Florida in 1995 after careers in biological consulting and commercial fishing. They are in the South Pacific. Their book, The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing, is scheduled to be published by International Marine in the spring of 2000.
Editors’ note: For fishing equipment and a list of suppliers, please see Part 1 of this series, “Sea Hunt” (February 1999).