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Fishing for Sailors

One of the true joys of passage making is getting that first strike.
In the waters off Hawaii where I live, it's not uncommon to see sailors fishing for a variety of edible fish. A lot of cruisers who are passing through find our waters to be a great place to catch fish. I know because I'm an avid fisherman myself, and I get to meet even more of these folks because I am in the boat canvas business so I'm around to hear a lot of their stories. The value of all of this is that I occasionally stumble upon different methods and fishing techniques that help me when I'm fishing. Fishing from a sailboat can be very rewarding. Occasionally you'll catch that fish that makes the perfect meal. If you're a sailor who is inclined to fish from your sailboat, here are a couple things that you might want to keep in mind.

To successfully fish from a sailboat, I recommend keeping everything simple, especially your gear. Using a fishing pole takes a little more practice and having these items on board is certainly worth it, but a hand line can garner you the same catch. If you do want to use a pole, I recommend having a minimum of a 4/0 extended Penn [for 40-pound test line], and a 9/0 is ideal, if a little on the large side. Keep the pole short, four to five feet is a good length. I prefer using heavier line than the manufacturer recommends, like a minimum of 80-pound test. On a 9/0 rod, go with 130-pound test line. Don't use spinning reels for trolling because you'll end up getting your line spooled.

Before you can catch the big one, you need to rig your gear, and the author recommends doing that over the transom not side.
It's best to rig your poles while facing aft near the stern of the boat. Those people that rig their poles to leeward or even on the weather rail can run into the problem of falling overboard. This can happen when you have to reach out to get the line, or grab the leader. And most people think that if they angle their poles out, the lines will be spread out, in fact the forward motion of the boat will bring the lines back into your wake eventually anyway.

The lures that you choose are also an important aspect of fishing from a sailboat. There are several things that you should keep in mind. Boat speed, water conditions, and lure size are all factors. If your vessel can sail at eight knots, then use weighted lures that are three to five inches long. When you drop down to six knots or less, non-weighted lures work the best. We try to rig our gear so that the lures pop out of the water or skip at least every 20 seconds.

Now regarding what distance to set the lures behind the boat, I like to fish close, say maybe 100 to 50 feet off the transom. If your speed is slower, try bringing the lines in even closer. By doing this you can more closely watch the action of the lure. The popping and splashing of the lure attracts the fish and makes them hungry.

Some sailors set their lines and forget about them. If that's your style, the author recommends rigging a simple strike indicator by way of a rubber band.
Killing Tactics
    Once you boat a fish, the next step is subduing the fish and ultimately killing it. More than once I have heard that cruisers, and local sailors as well, keep a squirt bottle of cheap rum or liquor on board to shoot into the gills of a thrashing Mahi mahi. These sailors say that the alcohol instantly kills the fish by suffocation and shock! As for me, I prefer the seemingly more humane and less messy approach of covering the head of the fish with a towel, and holding it down until it dies.

Of course everyone has their own way of dealing with a live, kicking fish on the deck of their boat. I know of people that break out the old bat and club their fish, which can also damage the deck. And one of my good friends once had a fish kick the bat back at him, which resulted in a bloody nose.

Another approach is the Kage or Japaneese fish-killing stick. Like a bat, this is short stick, but this one has a three-inch, stainless-steel spike protruding from the end. It's a great tool for the purpose, but it takes lots of practice to kill a fish instantly with this because you need to know where the exact location of the brain is to deliver the one-shot kill.

Pay dirt for the fishing sailor—a delicious Mahi mahi.

For sailors, it's too bad that many of the fish that they'll catch at sea are too big for a net, because that's really the safest way to boat any fish. On one of my many sailing trips to the island of Lanai, we hooked a Mahi mahi and, after a short fight, I was able to hand line the fish up over the life line and hold it in the air above the deck while my buddy got a towel. He wrapped the towel around the fish's head and with a death grip on it, I laid the fish down and we suffocated it into submission. Of course we know a little trick that can help a lot in these situations: If you keep the fish's tail from touching anything it will remain fairly docile. The minute something touches the tail, the fish will go crazy—guaranteed!

OK so you've hooked a fish; now what do you do? First, make adjustments to your sail trim to slow the boat down. Then, get some gloves on. This is where the fight begins, and you'll want to tire the fish out so that you can more easily get it on board once you've won the fight. With your gaff at the ready, stand by to gaff the fish once it's alongside the hull so that you can get it in the boat. Don't forget to have a towel handy. By putting the towel around the fish's head you will calm it down and make it safer for you to deal with. I recommend cleaning the fish right away while you're at sea, however, if you're headed for port, cleaning it will likely be easier once your boat is secured in the relative calm of a harbor. After that, you're on your own. Just apply your favorite recipe and enjoy.

The Right Gear

The gaff on your boat should be able to reach the water, I've made two custom gaffs for friends that own 45-foot boats. Both required gaffs that were almost eight-feet long. The hooks on these gaffs were only three inches in diameter, but I like to add a barb on the tip of my gaff hooks because I hate losing fish.

You can make a simple strike indicator out of a rubberband. Just band the line to the pulpit or to the pole itself and if the rubberband is gone, you've had a strike. I have seen sailors coming back to the dock with a fish still attached to the hand line or fishing pole, because they did not know the fish was on.

Fishing lures designed specifically for sailboats are highly recommended due to the slower speeds of sailboats. The size of the lure is important too, a huge lure will only catch big fish and you will miss any chance to catch some of the small, good eating fish that abound. Have a look at for lure options.

Lyle Chong, the author, is the proprietor of, an avid ocean fisherman, and a sailor who lives in Hawaii.

Suggested Reading:

Fishing While You Cruise by Sue and Larry

Dangerous Seafood by Ralph Doolin

Blackened Fish by Sue Larry


Buying Guide: Saltwater Deck Washdown Systems

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