Simple tips for making your first offshore trips relaxing and productive. Join an East Coast crew as they head out for dolphin, tuna, and a whole lot more.
A couple years back, as I rigged ballyhoo for the annual Yacht and Country Club fishing tournament, I couldn’t help but giggle at the thought of trolling on Dr. Richard Loew’s family cruiser, a 45 Sea Ray. The other boats in the tournament were center consoles and serious sportfishers. But there we were, heading out of the inlet on the Third Times a Charm with the trolling setups lined up in the gunnels. You have to work with what you have, and what we had was a big cruiser style boat with no outriggers, a shallow cockpit, and a giant swim platform (not ideal for an efficient trolling spread). No matter our circumstance, we made it efficient, and with more ease than originally suspected.
The electronics were more than adequate to locate fish. The radar was very useful in watching for incoming weather, and the plush salon made the trip a real pleasure; you see, we had about eight people on the boat for the tournament. Any other style boat simply could not have accommodated that many people as comfortably as it did. As I worked the cockpit, everyone was able to relax inside in the air conditioning, as well as kick-back and get a view from the bridge. The fridge was filled with an ample supply of cold beverages, food, and snacks. The large glass slider entryway facing the cockpit made it easy for everyone inside to know when the action was happening outside in the pit.
Looking for weedlines, floating debris, rips, slicks and other fishy signs was made simple with the fully open view from the bridge. The full bimini top covering the bridge kept everyone cool as the sun rose from the east, and as I managed the lines from the cockpit a small canvas overhang proved the perfect place to hide from the heat when the fishing got a little slow. Trolling just a simple four line spread of ballyhoo and a spreader bar down the center was more than enough to raise some hungry pelagics. The storage locker on the transom of the boat turned into a fishbox stocked with bags of ice and quickly began to fill with peanut dolphin. The higher gunwales made gaffing an interesting proposition, but this is where the large swim platform began to shine. A transom door on both the port and starboard sides of the boat made it easy to gain access to the platform, and from there you were just above water level. Gaffing a dolphin from here was almost too easy. Once on the hook it was simple to swing them up into the cockpit and onto the ice.
Dolphin were not the only species that made their way up to the propwash generated by the twin diesels. Sailfish also came batting their way into the spread. We ended up taking second place overall, first place in the dolphin category and second in sailfish releases, all from the comfort of a Sea Ray. The other captains and anglers in the tournament were impressed. I was convinced that fishing off of a boat that usually spent its time cruisin’ was more than possible, in fact it was quite enjoyable and many more fishing trips ensued.
With his busy schedule, Richard Loew does not make it out on the water as much as he would like, usually only a couple times a month fishing. He and his wife both love the creature comforts of the boat. They enjoy cruising down the river for late night dinners and showing guests the scenery of Stuart’s waterways. But, the cruiser is clearly capable of fishing. This rig even makes it over to the Bahamas trolling for pelagics, deep dropping for snapper and grouper, and off the shores of South Florida night-time sword fishing.
However, many of those who do plan on fishing off of their cruisers may not have much experience offshore and may not think that their rig is suitable for offshore fishing with any ease. On a more recent trip, with a different crew, this came to my attention. We were to be fishing on a 26 Twin Vee Catamaran, with a bunch of great guys who had a real passion for fishing, but don’t make it out very often. The times they are able to all get together and fish are few and far between with their schedules. When they break out the fishing equipment it usually just involves cruising offshore and kicking back with a cooler full of cold beverages and hoping for a bite; catching fish is considered a bonus. They regarded trolling and running out to find fish as somewhat of a chore. Thinking back at the ease of going out with Dr. Loew on his Sea Ray, the goal was to show the guys that heading offshore on their Twin Vee with a little know-how and the right gear can be just the opposite of a chore.
Not needing a fishing battlewagon, their Twin Vee provides a stable platform to troll and bottom fish from; however, it lacks some obvious things that boats rigged for offshore fishing usually have. Being a catamaran, storage is minimal, so there is no dedicated fishbox. The cabin made space a little tight in the rear quarters of the boat and made walking to the bow to fight a fish challenging, if possible at all. Not to mention, there were no outriggers to separate the trolling spread. But after a day of fishing, all these things became minimal and the rig proved to be quite the fish attractor.
Sam Hudson and I took out the fishing chart and devised a simple plan the night before the trip. The plan was to head south out of St. Lucie Inlet, first hitting some good bottom for snapper, then troll east and let the currents of the Gulf Stream pull us north back towards the inlet where we would finish the day by bottom fishing once again; a good way to hit all the bases and up our odds of bringing home dinner.
With an impressive livewell set-up that keeps live bait healthy and kicking, we were able to pick up a couple dozen live baits before leaving the inlet, just in case. Once we cleared the rocks and started the ride down south we pulled out the fishing chart and plugged a couple bottom numbers into the chart plotter. As soon as we arrived we began marking good bottom; with plenty of little dips and drops, it felt fishy. The boat drifted slowly and sideways, making it easy to get a few lines to the bottom without tangles, allowing the whole crew to fish. Drop after drop yielded lane snapper, triggerfish, porgies and other tasty bottom dwellers. With no fishbox, a large cooler placed under the leaning post was made into a home for all the fish in need of chilling. The crew kept opening the lid and inspecting the haul in excitement. Well, I may have been peeking, too.
When we finally had our fill of bottom fishing, we picked up and pointed the bow east in search of dolphin. Twin four-stroke outboards pushed the boat along quickly while sipping fuel. The full canvas top and eisenglass enclosure kept us dry as we broke the waves into sprays of white mist. We kept our eyes peeled for anything that looked fishy: formed weedlines, debris, color changes, frigates circling, slicks and rips. A patch of weeds that ran north to south for some distance came into our sight, and despite the recent winds, remained somewhat un-scattered. The lack of outriggers was solved with the addition of “kingfish” outriggers (welded or clamp on rod holders pointed out on an angle from the top for trolling) and we were able to pull a four line spread with no tangles throughout the day. As soon as the spread was set out drags started to sing and mahi began to dance behind us. Slinging fish into the cockpit was made simple by the boats low sides and if a fish of appropriate size made its way hull-side, sinking a gaff would have been a pleasure.
When the dolphin bite dwindled off, we pulled out our chart once again and punched in the numbers of an offshore “hill” that had been producing good numbers of blackfin tuna. When we arrived at the southeast peak of the hill we noticed a small plastic crate floating among some scattered weeds. Tripletail took shelter under the weeds, so I managed my way to the bow with a small chunk of squid. While I was fiddling with the small tripletail, Sam suggested one of the guys drop a vertical jig down to the depths. Wouldn’t you know it, I look back and the rod is bent over and the drag peeling. Sure enough, a black and gold football came boat side and slung into the ice, purple vertical jig still dangling from the corner of its mouth.
By the end of the day, the cooler was loaded with a variety of colors and more than enough fish for everyone on board. It was a day filled with laughter, friendly jokes, cold drinks, good food, and a sprit of appreciation for how productive, yet relaxing, the whole trip had turned out to be. Back at the dock as we cleaned fish, I hear this remark, “We’ll be out there next week hitting those numbers…,” it looks like Sam and I had been effective at showing our friends that a day of offshore fishing can be as easy and relaxing as a day of cruising. Keeping lines tight and bringing home dinner proved to be a “chore” anyone can do, on any boat, with a solid game plan and just a little know-how.
>No outriggers? On rough days, setting up a spread without them can be a challenge. Adding rod holders to the gunnels and the addition of a trident allows for the spread to be set up in a variety of ways. A few companies, such as Fish Stix, even make outriggers that drop into standard rod holders, which are easily removable and stow-able. “Kingfish” style T-top rodholders, angled out, are a great way to separate the spread. Another way to avoid line tangles without outriggers is to add flatline clips on the transom, which keeps a couple baits (usually short baits), underwater and the lines low. I use a piece copper wire tied around a cleat or lifting ring on the transom of the boat and bend the end of the copper over about half an inch, putting my line under the bend. This makes a great clip that is adjustable by how hard you bend over the copper.
>No dedicated fish box? If you do have a large storage area that’s easily accessible and you don’t mind filling it with ice and fish blood, then just make sure it is insulated well and will drain properly at the end of the day. If you do not have such a compartment, having a large cooler or a fish bag is a must. Keeping your catch fresh is imperative; never overlook having a dedicated place for it.
>Need to invest in basic tackle? You don’t need the best stuff, but it is important to have the right stuff. A few lever drag conventional style reels on stout trolling rods is a good place to start. The stouter rods make it easier to horse in a large fish when the spool starts to look a little low, especially if you are limited to fighting the fish from the stern of the boat. A couple larger spinning reels in the 20-pound class loaded with monofilament with longer rods are ideal for pitching to dolphin, as well as drifting a live bait behind the boat. Also, a couple lighter spinning reels loaded with 20- to 30-pound braided line are great for making drops to the bottom. The braid makes it easier to feel the tiniest “tap-tap” from small snappers and other tasty reef fish.
>Need bait? Pre-rigged ballyhoo packs are quick to grab and de-thaw, ready to hit the water right from the pack. It never hurts to have a couple wire baits on board for toothy critters, but the single hook monofilament rigs will swim the best and are all you need for hungry dolphin. These baits can be spruced up with flashy mylar skirts and lures as well. For bottom fishing, it’s hard to beat a box of squid or sardines. If you really want to get a bite going, grab a box of chum and a chum bag and let the fish know it’s dinner time.
>Tackle box looking lean? You really need only a select few items. Many companies make great pre-rigged trolling feathers and lures that work well alone or with a ballyhoo. Some time-honored color patterns include green-and-yellow, pink-and-white and purple-and-black. Some lures, such as the Williamson models, come rigged and ready to go with a leader and hook. Also carry a range of egg weights for bottom fishing (one to six ounces should be adequate), as well as a good selection of hooks (I carry circle hooks from 1/0 to 6/0 in size). Vertical jigs are great for jigging up everything from amberjacks to wahoo. A selection of leader from 20- to 60-pound, as well as some light wire is also good to carry.
>Need a crew? If you have a friend or neighbor who knows his way around blue water, bring him along. You might even hire a local mate or captain to join in on your venture; odds are good they’ll show you how to make the best of your boat and use it to its fullest potential. Study local charts and read local fishing reports, have an idea of where the bite has been and what is biting. Consider looking at online fishing forums with regional reports, for instance, the Florida Sportsman Forum.
>Bring a chart and have a game plan. A chart that shows bottom contours and local wrecks and reefs is a huge help, whether you’re trolling for pelagics or bottom dropping for snapper. Plan your trip around covering different bases; this keeps your options open. Keep your VHF radio on local channels and listen in to where other anglers are catching fish or seeing fishy areas. Don’t be afraid to ask if anyone is doing any good. A lot of the time you’ll get that helpful hint you may need to make the day a success.