Sometime offshore fisherman weighs in

I have several confessions to make about fishing. First, I’m not an expert fisherman; I am just now able to identify most species of saltwater fish. Second, we only use two or three different lures. Third, we have a sailboat, not a fishing boat. Fourth, we only fish for dinner. Fifth, if we catch a fish we can only slow the boat down and usually don’t stop it. To stop we would have to disengage the windvane or autopilot, round up, and let all sails flog. One of us would still have to steer to keep the boat under control, particularly in a seaway, all the while looking back to see if the fish is still on the line. We have developed an appreciation for sportfishing boats that have a dedicated helmsman able to maneuver the boat while the fishermen plays and lands the fish.

Our experience fishing from a moving sailboat has evolved to make the job as easy as possible. We first tried a saltwater rod and reel with a 25-pound test line held in a simple PVC bracket attached to the stern rail. This didn’t work as most of the fish bent the rod double, took all the line on the reel (even with the brake set) and finally broke the line and took the lure. I was even concerned that a decent-sized fish would pull the rod and reel out of the bracket, so I tied the rod it to the stern rail. Five or six knots may be a fine speed for trolling, but it doesn’t help landing a fish. We needed heavier line, an indestructible lure, and some means to hook the line to the boat. The rod and reel are my pride and joy, but unless we’re at anchor or drifting it stays below. Of course, if we had a third crewmember who could run the boat while we played the fish, it would be easier. Still, we can’t pass up the chance for a fresh fish dinner, so we developed a “meat” fishing routine where two people can keep sailing and land a fish at the same time.

We learned that, with the windvane or autopilot steering the boat and all sails set, it’s tough to slow the boat enough to play the fish and land it properly. Before I describe the tackle we use I should make it clear that catching a decent-sized fish, 10 pounds or more, while under sail is a fire drill. Usually, one of us is resting or otherwise occupied with one task or another while the boat is sailing itself between five and seven knots when a fish takes the lure. Not only must we slow the boat as much as possible by taking the wind out of the sails, we usually disconnect the windvane or autopilot and hand steer. All the while the fish (if it’s still on the line) is thrashing away 40 feet behind the boat.

At this point, Kathy is steering and I am trying to haul the fish alongside while still moving at five knots. The object is to bring the fish alongside, gaff it, kill it, and haul it up over the lifelines into the cockpit without getting blood and scales all over the weather cloths, Kathy, me, and the rest of the boat. We have learned that a three- to four-foot live fish in the boat is a wild thing since one of us has to hold it down in the cockpit and try to kill it. While steering the boat the helmsman is jumping around trying to avoid the thrashing fish that’s spewing blood everywhere.

We use 60-pound test monofilament line connected to a shock cord with a brummel hook. The brummel hook is looped through the monofilament line and is adjusted for the trolling distance behind the boat – usually a boat length or two, or about 40 to 60 feet. The shock cord is about four feet long with one end connected to the mating brummel hook and the other end tied to a cleat. A clothespin is also tied to the cleat and snapped on the shock cord near the brummel hook. The object is to give the fish some slack before the shock cord takes over, thereby setting the hook. Some of the other gear we use includes a four-foot gaff, a cutting board, and heavy gloves. A small squirt bottle is kept nearby that contains a measure of cheap gin, rum, or vodka (your choice) for killing the fish.

The 60-pound monofilament line has a six-foot stainless steel leader. Our lures are simple orange, yellow, or iridescent squids about six inches long with a single big hook (fishermen designate a hook number but I can never remember what it is). I sometimes attach a lead weight ahead of the lure to keep it under the water, depending on the sea. We have lost several expensive, very attractive-looking plugs, so now we stick with simple inexpensive squids. Even homemade squids work. Remember, the size of the lure determines the size of the fish, and all you want is a five- to 10-pound fish; perfect for two people for a couple of days. We troll the lure just below the surface; sometimes the lure skips from wave crest to wave crest. I bet our luck would increase dramatically if we took a lesson from real fishermen and trolled a ballyhoo lure or bait made with frozen mullet. I can’t imagine the two of us trying to land a 30-pound tuna, however.

We never know what kind of fish we will catch. We fish anywhere and any time we feel like it. If we troll all day offshore or inside the reef, we will usually catch one or two edible fish. Barracuda are caught most often inside the reef and we regret having to let them go.

We have learned that the fire drill routine is more organized (less shouting) when we plan ahead and get our fishing gear out and ready before a fish is on the line. We fish only during the day, not at night. I suppose night fishing could be successful, but two people trying to land a good-sized fish at night while sailing the boat is just too much; besides, a fish would strike during dinner or at 0200 when everything else happens.

When the snap of the clothespin is heard the routine (shouting) begins. Once we are sure we have a fish on the line, and not seaweed, we let out the sheets, disconnect the windvane or autopilot, and begin hand steering. I de-couple the brummel hooks, put on the heavy gloves, and haul in the fish using the hand line – all within a minute or two, hoping the fish stays on the line. Sometimes we don’t bother with the hand reel and just haul in the line hand-over-hand. I haul the fish alongside the port quarter while Kathy takes the helm. I call for the gaff and gin, which, if we have planned ahead, is already near at hand. Otherwise, Kathy rummages around in the lazarette while the boat sails its own way.

Before we learned about gin, rum, or vodka, I tried killing the wildly thrashing fish by clubbing it in the cockpit. I missed the fish more often than not, threatening the helmsman and resulting in more shouting. I do not recommend trying to club a thrashing three- to four-foot barracuda in the cockpit. It’s not sportsmanlike to simply cut the line, besides you lose the lure and leader. We do try to catch and release fish we don’t plan to eat. Finally, we learned that gin really works to kill fish. Even big barracuda soon succumb to a couple of squirts of gin in the mouth or gills. As far as we know the gin doesn’t taint the meat; it’s sometimes hard to tell, however, since the fisherman usually takes a squirt himself as a reward. I gaff the fish and haul its head up out of the water next to the boat, and Kathy leans over and squirts the gin while steering the boat with her right hand. Once we are certain the fish is dead, I lift it up and over the lifelines into the cockpit.

Once an edible fish is in the cockpit we reengage the windvane or autopilot, trim the sails, get back on course, and give up fishing for the day. I filet the fish on the cutting board on the cockpit sole using my special filet knife reserved for the occasion. If we have killed the fish before bringing it aboard there should be little blood to clean up later. The entrails are tossed overboard (we don’t have a cat). Meanwhile, Kathy has warmed up the frying pan on the stove and is deciding how we will prepare the fish. We try to eat the fish within minutes of landing. Unbelievable!

We have caught wahoo, Spanish mackerel, grouper, yellow-fin tuna, stripped bass, bluefish and, of course, barracuda and others. We’ve eaten most of the fish we’ve caught except for barracuda. Supposedly, big barracuda can contain the reef toxin ciguatera that infects fish that feed off the reef. The ciguatera toxin can be harmful to humans. I’m sure small barracuda are fine for an occasional meal. We check with local fisherman regarding ciguatera before we eat any reef fish. We have had no experience with ciguatera test kits on the market. Local knowledge is always best, and we get a second opinion whenever possible.

We love fish but we don’t fish every day at sea, especially if we are heading for an anchorage frequented by local fishermen. Instead, like many sailors we know, we carry extra beer to swap with local fisherman for the “catch of the day.”

By Ocean Navigator