Today’s ocean voyagers are taking full advantage of the technological advances that make the endeavor safer, more comfortable, and more efficient. One of the biggest such revolutions for sailors falls somewhere between a hobby and a necessity, depending on the individual, and that’s fishing.
Not so long ago, the typical sailor knew next to nothing about fishing. Sailor fishing ineptitude was a standing joke. Even the ex-fishing pros among them had to adapt equipment, lures, and technique to optimize success under sail. It was natural for me, just as it was for other fishermen who became sailors, to do just that when I began participating in ocean voyages some 30-odd years ago, first as crew, then aboard my own 41-foot centerboard sloop Elan; first coastal cruising, then heading across the West Indies and eventually out the Panama Canal to Pacific Central America, Polynesia, Micronesia, New Zealand, Melanesia, and Australia. Eventually I co-wrote a book The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing (CHOF).
Fishing success for voyagers
Eleven years later, CHOF has sold out of a number of print runs and continues to sell at the same rate. Dog-eared copies seem to adorn shelves on many voyaging boats. Feedback, reviews, and reactions from fellow sailors of assorted ages, genders, and nationalities indicate the book seems to work. Fortunately almost all of the information in the present edition of CHOF remains current. Nonetheless, technological advances in fishing, some of which are relevant to sailors, constantly occur, so that I get many questions in the category of “is this or that new technology something I should employ on my vessel?” The short answer is, you can still do exactly as it says in the book and be perfectly fine. The long answer is, some incredible advances in fishing technology have occurred.
The new world of high-tech fishing
The single most significant development since CHOF first came out is advances and proliferation of gel-spun (polyethylene) braided line, as opposed to monofilament or wire fishing line. Commonly called “superbraids” or “super lines,” these don’t twist or stretch like monofilaments. Their diameter is but a fraction of the diameter of same-strength monofilament. This means that the same sized spinning (fixed spool) reels, once unable to hold enough high-strength, large-diameter monofilament needed to target big fish, and fish close to heavy cover, now have the capacity to do so. Since the reels themselves were designed for the weaker monofilaments (for example, the Penn Spinfisher series), manufacturers had to beef up the drag systems and internal gearing to handle the added strain, for example, of using 100-lb test superbraid on models originally engineered for 20-lb test monofilament (for example, the Shimano Stella series). The latter cost much more than the former. For revolving spool (overhead or trolling) reels, like Penn Internationals or Shimano Tiagras, or Alvey rail-mounted fishing winches, it means line capacity and range of line strength is also sharply increased. Since the drag systems and gearing on these reels are already strong enough for higher-strength lines, superbraid provides a viable, readily-applied alternative to either monofilament or wire line. Basically, dump the mono and load with superbraid, and you’re away.
In general, the knots for monofilament work for superbraids, except that as a rule you need to double the number of twists, wraps, or turns for superbraid. In other words, instead of, say, 25 turns for a Bimini Twist, use 50. Further, you must master two new line-to-line connections for attaching superbraid to monofilament, the “loop to loop” and the “Cairns quickie.” You will also need a different set of fishing pliers armed with a superbraid cutter, or scissors. It’s tough stuff, and remember, in a manner unlike monofilament, it’ll cut you too. You’ll want to purchase protective fishing gloves to fish with superbraid — otherwise casting with a spinning reel will make your index finger so sore you won’t be able to fish. You also wouldn’t want to get a turn of it around your neck and then get a strike.
The bottom line is that superbraid gives you much more strength for landing a hooked fish. Not only did this overstrain spinning reels, it also rendered a lot of terminal tackle — split rings, swivels, and hooks for example — useless, because what worked with eight pounds of drag disintegrated under 38 pounds of drag. This led to much stronger, high-tech rigging components across the board, like 200- to 300-lb test split rings and swivels the size of former much weaker versions, and hooks that wouldn’t straighten or break. Then, the split ring pliers began snapping and breaking under the added strain, making it necessary to develop new, high-strength versions. Treble hooks on larger lures have gone by the wayside for cutting-edge fishermen, replaced by ultra-sharp singles that hook and hold fish much better, and also cause much less collateral damage so that released fish survive at much higher rates.
The alert reader will have been girding for the next news: All of this new-age stuff costs far more, across the board, than the more pedestrian tackle that preceded it. Do you have to take the plunge? Not necessarily, or at least not entirely. Might it be worth considering? Quite possibly, and, in part, almost certainly. You’ll have to decide how far to go based on your own budget, voyaging plans, and priorities. My aim is to provide a window on the information you need to make the right decisions.
Spinning tackle is the most versatile of any hand-held gear. It’s light, easy to handle, you can cast, troll, or fish vertically to significant depths, off your vessel or from a dinghy. The superbraid revolution, if you will, has impacted this gear category more than any other. Let’s get specific. A versatile, 20-lb-class Penn Spinfisher reel and Shakespeare Ugly Stik rod you’d use with 20-lb test monofilament costs about $250 (and remains highly recommended). A Shimano Stella 20000 and Ripple Fisher rod you’d use with 100-lb test braid costs about $2,000, but with the latter gear you can hold and land fish you’d never before dreamed of being able to catch, and in environments previously unavailable to you for such captures.
Unlike with trolling reels and Alvey winches, in order to realize the full potential of superbraid on spinning tackle, particularly at the heavier end, you need to take the plunge on the commensurate high-tech gear. A lot of it hasn’t hit the market in the U.S., as it has been developed largely in Asia. My baptism by fire for this gear came working as a charter captain for Nomad Sportfishing in the Coral Sea after voyaging to Australia aboard Elan. All I can tell you is this gear, and the associated techniques and tackle, will change your ideas about fishing forever.
Horizontal fishing with stickbaits, minnows, and poppers
“Stickbaits” are cylindrical, elongated, torpedo-shaped affairs that imitate various sizes and colorations of baitfish. They now catch everything from panfish to 1,000-lb marlin. They work near the sea surface, splashing and wiggling, taking shallow dives, followed by rises back to the surface, leading to the next splash, thrash, and dive. When casting, the angler snaps the rod tip horizontally to initiate the dives, slowly retrieves slack as the lure rises, and repeats. Trolled, stickbaits naturally pull under and resurface, and they can also be manually “jigged.” Top voyager target species, like mahi-mahi, wahoo, yellowfin tuna, bluefish, striped bass, mackerel, groupers, and snappers, go crazy for them. There are a number of effective models with subtle differences in how they move and work, with the newly developed Nomad Dogtooth 150 epitomizing this technology.
Minnows are similar hard-plug swimming baitfish imitations, but these have a fixed chin bib of metal or plastic that digs in against the water flow and causes the lure to dive deep and wiggle hard. Like stickbaits, this design has been around for many years, but never in versions that could effectively hook, hold, and sustain the strain and punishment of being fished on strong tackle for tough saltwater predators. For the sort of trolling best suited to voyagers, the River2Sea Downsider 200 is perhaps the very top candidate, with the caveat that these lures, like the stickbaits referred to earlier, must be precisely custom rigged with the right split rings and hooks.
Poppers, like stickbaits and minnows, are hard-body baitfish imitations, but they have a cupped-face head designed to pop, chug, throw water, and smoke along the surface, leaving white trails of bubbles. The noise and action draws predator fish rocketing from depth or distance and elicits explosive, aggressive topwater attacks. Again, nothing new with the fundamental design, just colossal modifications in terms of size, strength, and nuances, and in the fish now landed on them, provided they are precisely custom rigged with super-strength terminal tackle. Working the largest of these properly while casting involves long distance casts, and fast, energetic retrieves punctuated constantly with very hard horizontal rips of the rod to make the lure pop explosively. From the voyager wish list, for example, surface-feeding tuna and wahoo are vulnerable to this technique.
Metal jigs and soft plastics
CHOF also covers deep jigging and soft plastics, but, here again, applying the new super-strength, high-tech spin technology to these techniques considerably expands the possibilities. Slim, elongated metal jigs, with shiny finishes and varied paint jobs, in a variety of sizes, and custom rigged with specialized hooks suspended from short lengths of 400-lb Kevlar braid, now dominate the scene. New high-tech jigging rods are short (mostly in the five-foot and change range), light, easy to handle, and immensely strong — strong enough to drop a new-age metal jig down on top of an offshore seamount and hook and land 200-lb tuna, or wahoo, amberjacks, groupers, snappers…you name it. The experts often drop straight to the bottom (even if it’s 600 feet deep), reel up a bit, then bob or snatch the metal jig at depth in search of a bottom dweller strike. Then they rapidly reel to make the lure streak upward, punctuated by vertical jerks of the rod tip to make the jig accelerate and pause erratically, interspersed with rapid straight bursts, all the way to the surface. It’s exhausting, but productive.
What about something more restful? Switch over to the new soft plastics, from the right sources now with lead heads molded onto super-strong hooks, upon which all manner of squishy, “worm” or fish-shaped plastic “baits” — including some quite large offerings — are impaled. In addition to natural texture these baits even have attractive (to fish) odors. Technique here is the antithesis of metal jigging — generally “less is more,” and this lure is “fishing” from the moment it begins dropping down towards the bottom, wiggling seductively. Once down, one can drift along and fish it like a natural bait; or, give the rod the odd twitch; or, jig it a bit more, reel up a bit to try a different depth stratum; reel up steadily, with twitches; reel up faster, with and without jigging action.
The variety of predator fish that will eat these lures, from reef denizens to bluewater speedsters, is endless. One drawback for voyagers is that you can’t count on a soft plastic “tail” catching more than one fish, although sometimes you can stretch one plastic into two or three captures before reloading the lead head with a new one. Because these lures are soft and pliable, they tear easily.
What if you haven’t lost all your marbles, or, in the interest of budget sanity, aren’t about to pay two grand for a spinning outfit? You should still seriously consider re-loading your trolling reels and Alvey reel with superbraid, purchasing at least a couple of stickbaits with all of the necessary custom rigging tackle and accessories, and re-rigging your current offshore skirted trolling lures with higher-tech hooks (Owner Jobu). The payoff in fish caught will justify these added costs.
What you needn’t change at all is your monofilament-based spinning tackle, especially at the lighter end of the spectrum. Having heard all about the boost in capabilities conferred by switching to superbraid-based spinning tackle, you can certainly go right on using exactly what you have to effectively catch the smaller range of fish. Note too that the smaller, lighter swimming plugs and other lures still mostly feature light treble hooks and may or may not be through-wired or otherwise beefed up, and that superbraid would in some respects be wasted in these cases since cranking your drag setting up would result in terminal tackle failure anyway.
The other side of the coin is you could, with even the lightest (30- to 50-lb test) superbraid spinning outfits, limit yourself to lures and hooks strong enough to pressure some fat, tasty fish, from snappers and groupers to tuna, away from the reef and up from the depths. It’s your call.
Scott Bannerot, a sailor and voyager, holds a doctorate in marine biology, and U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Marine Officer 100-ton and Australian Master Class 5 licenses, and has worked as a writer, scientist, commercial fisherman, charter business operator, and recently as a seaplane fly-in fishing charter captain for Nomad Sportfishing at remote sunken atolls in the Coral Sea.
Fishing for sailors
Getting started in high-tech spin
Here is a very specific list of gear for a sailor who wants to get a bare-bones start, in this case with high-tech spinning equipment. I applied these ideas in the field while captaining for Nomad Sportfishing — it worked, and it represents a sailor’s adaptation for budget and efficiency. All items listed refer to the online store www.nomadtackle.com, except the Shimano Stella reel and monofilament for leader material. I also highly recommend taking up Nomad’s website invitation to call up and ask specific advice from their captains about any and all questions.
High-tech spin fishing rod — Ripple Fisher Jig 5215, 5’2”, can handle 100-lb superbraid, and, although designed for jigging, can be used for casting and trolling too to save money.
High tech spinning reel — Shimano Stella 20000
Superbraid — 100-lb test Tuf Line XP sufficient to fill the above reel.
Monofilament leader material — 100-lb test for twisted leaders, 200-lb test for shock leaders.
Owner split ring pliers, scissors, and pliers pouch — for rigging lures, undoing tangles, trimming knots, and keeping it all handy.
Fishing gloves — to protect hands from superbraid.
Fighting belt — absolute must for stand-up battles on high-tech spinning outfits.
Owner 250-lb test split rings — used for myriad rigging applications.
Shout power assists — For rigging stickbaits, minnows, poppers, and metal jigs.
Owner Jobu — For rigging stickbaits, minnows, poppers, and skirted trolling lures.
Owner SJ71 — For rigging stickbaits, minnows, poppers.
Stickbaits — Watch the video “Types of Stickbaits” and also see their tackle kits, pick out what you like; get at least three Nomad Dogtooth 150s.
Minnows — Get a color selection of River2Sea Downside 200s.
Soft plastics — Get some 4-oz heads and 5-inch Bozo Mullet, and a selection of others after checking the videos and store contents.
Poppers — Check out the Jai and Nomad custom poppers and pick one or more, for those quiet days when you need to call in the fish from a distance.
Metal jigs — Here again, check out the online store and videos, and make a few representative selections based on the depths you’d like to fish and target species you wish to catch.