Catching dinner from a sailboat on passage is completely unlike sport fishing from a stationary boat. The goal is to get a fish on board for the grill and dinner. On passage the sails are up and you’re making the best possible speed, so stopping the boat to fight a fish is not much of an option. A rod and reel is one solution, though you’re working with lightweight line, a rod that can break, and if the fish is large enough you’ll have difficulty boating it without a net or gaff. Alternatively, a simple, strong, inexpensive handline pays big dividends.
Assemble the rig
The handline rigs I build use 400-pound test monofilament from the commercial tuna fishing fleet, attached to a 6-inch surface popping lure, an inline bungee cord to absorb shock, with a loop to hang on a stern cleat or winch. The handlines are simple to use, simple to maintain, and a great way to put fish on the table. If you’d like to put one together for your passages, here are the details.
Start with a coil of high quality clear 400-pound test monofilament — the line is thick, 2mm diameter, and uses compression sleeves to create loops, no knots. Dacron cord, 1/8-inch in diameter, can be used instead of monofilament, though I find fish are less likely to hit the visible Dacron as compared to the clear monofilament. Cut a 100-foot length from the coil for each line.
Store the line on a plastic yoyo reel or inside a zip-lock bag. The yoyo is a circular donut with hollowed-out rim, the line winds up on the rim to dry. To fit in a zip-lock bag the line needs to be coiled carefully and dried prior to stowage.
Create a loop at one end of the monofilament and tie 10 feet of 1/8-inch Dacron cord to this loop. At the other end of the Dacron create a large loop that will fit over a winch or around a cleat — this loop will anchor the rig to the boat. Tie two dropper loops six feet apart on the Dacron, hog ring a 24- to 36-inch length of 3/8-inch bungee cord between the loops – the bungee stretches to absorb the initial shock when the fish hits the lure. At the far end of the monofilament install a loop with a 200-pound swivel shackle on a thimble
The size fish you want dictates the size lure to use; bigger lure equals bigger fish. I like smaller fish that can be consumed in one day as I don’t have a freezer and sail shorthanded. Six-inch lures have worked well for fish that size. If you have a freezer or more crew then an 8- to 10-inch lure is likely to get bigger fish.
You are after predators with good size teeth and a sharp operculum that can cut through monofilament, so use a six-foot 200-pound vinyl coated stainless steel wire leader on the lures. Start by crimping a loop at one end of the leader, thread it through the lure (feather jig, squid skirt lure, or your preferred surface-popper), and finish with a crimped- on 6/0 single or double hook. A single hook should have a welded eye, double hooks won’t need the weld. When a fish hits it’s going to hit hard and I’ve had non-welded hooks open up. Sharpen the hook.
Fish seem to be hungry at dawn and dusk. I tie a two gallon bucket to a stanchion each side of the cockpit and store the fishing rigs safely out of the way in the buckets during the day. Come sunrise/sunset I drop the lures overboard and the fishing starts. Keep gloves and fillet knife handy in the bucket as well.
Gloves are important to protect your hands from the line. I wear them every time I touch the line, even when setting or pulling an empty lure — you never know when a fish might hit! Regular leather sailing gloves work fine. They will get stinky after handling fish–you might want to dedicate a pair just for fish.
Place the lure not more than two wave-crests behind the transom. Fish are attracted to surface disturbances and bubbles from the boat’s wake. The lure should pop along the surface, creating as much disturbance as possible. Tuna and Mahi Mahi are fast and have no problem chasing down a lure traveling at 8 to 10 knots. If the boat isn’t going quickly enough to get the lure to pop the surface, try running the line up the backstay and clamping it there with a clothes pin, creating an outrigger out of thin air.
While it is oddly mesmerizing to watch a fishing line towed behind the boat, you’re unlikely to see the strike. Take an empty soda can, drop some nuts and bolts into it, and tie the can to the Dacron line. When a fish hits the line the can will be jerked hard and start dancing around — lots of noise to hear as the nuts and bolts rattle about, even if you’re asleep at the time.
Boat the fish
With the boat scooting along a fish that takes the lure will be yanked to the surface and plane along behind the boat like a frisbee; there’s no fighting involved and it’s entirely unfair to the fish. The game becomes get the fish into the boat. Don gloves and haul the line in hand-over-hand. I like to send the loose line back overboard as I haul it in – there’s no chance I can get my feet caught in the line. As you haven’t altered speed the fish should remain on the surface; if it manages to dive then the line may pull so hard you’ll have to let go and try again.
If you hook a giant fish, say a six-foot tuna, odds are good you’re better off cutting the leader rather than trying to do battle with that fish. Sharks are a problem too. I don’t like to boat large sharks — though I have boated small makos to retrieve my lure and return the shark to the water undamaged.
When the fish arrives at the side of the boat continue hauling and lift the fish bodily onto the deck. Be aware the fish is not tired and is likely to start flapping violently. Avoid the teeth, the hook, and any sharp bits. I drag the fish across the deck and drop it into the cockpit well – this way the fish can’t slide back overboard if the boat rolls heavily. If you want to work on the side deck, have a short piece of Dacron cord ready with a noose at one end, lasso the fish’s tail in the noose and pull tight – even if the fish slides off the deck it should still be caught by the tail.
Fish are extremely slippery (there’s a reason that herons and penguins have super-sharp beaks —that’s so they can grab and hold onto a fish). I do not like to wave sharp fillet knives about on a rolling boat while trying to finish off a slippery flapping fish – it’s too easy to stab yourself or others. I pull out the handy-dandy plastic bottle of rotgut vodka labeled “Fish Juice” kept in the cockpit sheet bag, with a pour reducer inserted in the bottle neck. I spin off the bottle top, grab the fish around the top of the head or eyes, push the bottle into the mouth or beneath the operculum, and send in the vodka. The alcohol will hit the gills. Every time I’ve done this the fish goes completely limp in seconds.
Now that you have your fish anesthetized, you can carry on with dinner plans!
Rob MacFarlane has singlehandedly raced and cruised for 30 years on San Francisco Bay, the US West Coast, across to Hawaii, Mexico, Canada, and French Polynesia. He is currently in Southern California waiting for countries to lift Covid-19 restrictions so he can continue cruising the South Pacific aboard his 1983 Morgan N/M 456 IOR two tonner, Tiger Beetle. A retired database architect, he likes the idea that design and function can create simplicity.