To the editor: Catching fish on a passage not only makes your provisons last longer, but fish from the sea are both tasty and nourishing. If you have never eaten really fresh fish, you have missed out on a great culinary delight. In addition, the scream of the reel as a big one is hooked does stir up the adrenaline and adds action to your passage making day.
When fishing from a yacht on an offshore passage, your catch will be pelagic fish: tuna, bonito, albacore, dorado or Spanish mackerel. Any of these species may weigh several pounds and will fight vigorously when hooked. Right from the start, forget about the sportfishing where you are expected to land a 25-lb yellowfin tuna on 5-lb line.
Fishing while voyaging is definitely a case of fishing for the pot and you will need strong gear: for instance, line with a breaking strength of at least 80 lbs. Furthermore, only fish for what you are going to eat: if you catch a 10-lb dorado (mahi-mahi), don’t stop fishing until you have finished it.
Towing two lines
Trolling — towing lures — is the only option for fishing while on passage, inshore or offshore. Two lines can be towed behind the yacht, one from each quarter, each with its own lure. These lines need to be about 400 yards long and wound onto 80-lb reels. The reels can be attached to fishing rods (ocean) or to a stanchion on the pushpit — or to any other suitable strong point.
At the business end of the line (the hook end), an 8-foot nylon trace of 110-lb breaking strength must be attached by a strong swivel, usually of brass. It is this trace that as the fish is brought alongside, may get dragged under the keel or chafed against the rudder — it needs to be tough.
The outer end of the trace should be a short length of stainless wire: most fishing shops sell it in various strength. The wire is to prevent the fish from biting through the line and freeing itself. Finally, the trace is passed through the head of the lure and then the skirt and a suitable stainless hook is attached, single or double. The curve of the hook should be level with the trailing end of the skirt.
You need strong gear because when a fish strikes it immediately fights. It will sound deeply, pulling out yards of line, then swim off to one side or the the other and then possibly surface, jump clear of the water and shake itself furiously to rid itself of the hook.
Learning the knots
For your part, you will have to learn a few simple fishermen’s knots, because nylon line does not respond to bowlines and round turns and half hitches. Stainless wire cannot be knotted, but can be hitched back on itself to form an eye and crimped (crimps are on sale in tackle shops). Swivels are important — without them the line will become twisted and will tangle into a mess.
When a fish strikes, the rod supported in a rod holder acts as a shock absorber. If you don’t own a rod and the reel is attached to a stanchion or other fixed support, there is no absorption factor and a strong rubber strop must be attached to the line and to the strong point; the purpose of this is to take the initial shock of the strike. The rubber hangs in a loop, but becomes stretched taut when a fish is hooked.
For trolling, live bait is not necessary. Lures can be inexpensive plastic ones that look like rubbery octopus, but the most effective — and most expensive — have stainless heads, pink glass eyes and multi-coloured plastic skirts. Some people make their own lures: even strips of white cloth attached to the shank of a hook have been known to catch fish. The color of the lure should be the same as that of the bait fish that the predators are hunting. If dorado are chasing flying fish, then you need a silvery-grey lure of that size and shape. Good colors for dorado, Spanish mackerel (wahoo) and tuna are green, yellow and a mix of pink, blue and silver.
Lures must skip on the surface — the splash attracts the fish. They must not spin, which, despite the swivel will put twists in your line. If your lure is not catching fish, try another color. Metal spinners, about the size of a soup spoon, with hook incorporated, can also be used — especially for Spanish mackerel.
Do not make tight turns in your course with two lines out or they will tangle. Troll with one long line and one short; the long one should be set with the lure about 200-feet from the stern, the lure of the short one at about 130 feet back. Test the performance of a lure by trolling it alongside and watch how it behaves — it should skip and splash, but not spin.
Best times for trolling
It is useless to leave the line out all day while you take a nap. The best times for trolling are just after dawn and in the late afternoon as the sun begins to sink. Take in the lures at night. Sometimes at dawn it pays to put out a very short line, only a few yards behind the boat, and jig it about, so that it skips and splashes. Dorado sometimes spend the night under the boat and are still there at dawn.
Birds circling and diving are a sure sign of fish — the bigger fish have driven the smaller ones to the surface; patches of weed or semi-submerged objects attract fish because of the mollusc attached to them and it’s worth towing a line close by; flying fish breaking the surface and winging away in droves means they are being hunted, most probably by hungry dorado.
Once you’ve hooked one, the pull of a fighting fish plus the 6 or 7 knots of the yacht’s speed puts a tremendous strain on the line. Remember that once on the line, the fish will usually sound — that’s why you need 440 yards of line on your reel.
The adjustable pressure of the drag on the reel should be set to one third of the breaking strength of the line. Pull the hooked fish by steadily and firmly raising the rod until the tip points to the sky; then lower it and quickly wind in the slack in the line. Repeat this action as many times as it takes to tire the fish and bring it to the stern. To get a hooked fish of any size aboard requires skill and a good strong gaff. You will have to slow or stop the yacht.
Finishing the fight
Many people don’t fish because they are disturbed by the spectacle of a large fish flapping and jumping wildly all over the cockpit, spraying blood and scales in all directions. But there is an effective remedy: as soon as the fish comes on board, drop a rope like a small lasso over its tail and cinch it tight; then pour a dose of alcohol, such as rum, into the gills. The effect is instantaneous: the fish is totally stunned, anesthetized, stops flapping and becomes easy to handle.
Fish, such as bonito and tuna with dark red meat, should be bled as soon as caught. These fish are best scaled, cleaned and chopped into steaks. Others are best filleted. For scaly fish you need a scaler — which you can make yourself.
For filleting you need a razor-sharp knife. It is best done as nearly as you can in a single stroke, from head to tail, with the blade sliding along the backbone. All bones should be removed. Wash blood off the boat before it dries, but in cleaning and preparing the fish use as little water as possible; keep the meat dry as this helps to keep it fresh.
To store fillets or steaks in the fridge they should be tightly packed in a closed container, such as a plastic box, with a little salt between layers; in a refrigerator they will keep fresh for several days. It is a misconception to think that all fish smells — it only smells when it is stale.
There are just as many ways of cooking fish as there are of meat, but fish is more delicate and cooks in less time. It can be fried, baked, grilled, poached, casseroled, curried or eaten raw, as in sushi or the French Polynesian poisson cru. Contrary to popular belief, fish is not salty: it needs salt added to bring out its full flavor. Herbs also enhance its flavor, especially fennel, bay leaf, coriander, parsley and garlic.
Fish taken straight from the sea has a special succulence of its own: the fresher it is, the simpler the cooking should be. For white fish, a gentle frying in olive oil or a gentle grilling is sufficient; small fillets can be rolled in egg yoke and fine breadcrumbs or in seasoned flour. Slices of lemon are an excellent garnish.
With blue meat the darker the color, the stronger the flavor. Marinating in lime or lemon juice and finely chopped onion takes the edge off the oiliness of these fish.
To make the most of fresh fish, it needs to be cooked and eaten almost as soon as you catch it; but what’s wrong with fresh fish for breakfast or in the middle of the afternoon?
—Jack Gush is a sailor and freelance writer currently based in Spain. He and his wife, Lella, have spent years voyaging aboard their 20-ton steel cutter, Jackella.