Fishing Under Sail - SailNet Community
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Fishing Under Sail

There's rarely anything quite as satisfying for a blue-water sailor than landing the first fish on a passage, but you won't succeed in fishing if you don't have the right gear.

The single purpose of a big sportfisherman is obvious the minute you step aboard. A throne-like fighting chair (or chairs) looks out over the boat’s intended kingdom. Cabinets bracketing the cockpit’s forward end are packed with enough fishing gear to open a tackle shop. Overhead racks in the saloon hold rod and reel combinations that can number in the dozens. Even the garbage can tells the same story, holding discarded packaging from the latest "fish-getting" lure to hit the market. This is a boat that justifies its existence by catching fish and no potential aid is overlooked. Her captain is prepared for every contingency, ready to seek out any type fish in almost any conditions.

But this is SailNet, not fishnet. Our interest in fishing is far less intense. Still, most wandering sailors eventually come to recognize the gastronomic and economic potential of some level of fish-catching ability. That raises the question of what equipment is needed.

For the fishermen (fisherpersons?) among you, this article is not for you. While there are substantial pleasures to be had from fishing as a sport, my focus here is simply dinner. I don’t claim to be a fisherman, in the sporting sense, but over the years I have learned how to get fish to the table when the urge arises.

For this kind of fishing, rod and reel selection won’t have much of an impact on your success rate as long as your tackle is not too light. If you already own a rod and reel combination suitable for salt water use, by all means take it aboard. If it turns out to be less than ideal, the knowledge that allows you to make that assessment will also provide you with a much better idea of what to replace it with.

The salt water rod seen just over the skipper's left shoulder is deployed almost constantly when this boat goes offshore.
If you need to buy a rod, you want one intended for salt water use. That means stay away from plain wire guides; at the very least, you want aluminum oxide or carbide inserts. I recommend a medium action rod for versatility; you want to be able to use the same rig for trolling and for casting (I use the latter term loosely here). Appropriate length is between six and seven and a half feet. A shorter rod is easier to stow, and I tend to like the balance better. Unless you have a very small boat, shy away from two-piece rods; a short one-piece is a better choice. A quality rod lasts a very long time, so spend a little more to get a good one.

"What else do I need?" This was the question I once posed to my fisherperson friends. I didn’t recognize back then that I was offering to take them on a vicarious shopping expedition.

"I knew that didn’t need half of the stuff my friends had in their tackle boxes. The problem was I didn’t know which half."
The tackle box was the first thing. Apparently size does matter. My friends all displayed huge, multi-jointed wonders with stacked trays that popped up like a child's birthday card. The hundred or so compartments contained lures of every color and description. These boxes held hooks in a dozen sizes and lead weights in similar variety. Knives, pliers, lengths of bead chain and other esoterica shared the bottoms of the boxes with numerous spools of line and wire.

I was perceptive enough to realize I didn’t need at least half of the stuff in my friend’s tackle boxes. The problem was I didn’t know which half. So I went to the fishing tackle area in a large discount store, selected a tackle box half the size of the monsters my friends had—after all, I was going cruising, not fishing—and proceeded to fill it with one of everything. It was a poor approach.

To start with, there is absolutely no place on a small cruising boat for a big, square tackle box; it is always in the way when you don't need it, buried when you do. Even more to the point, once we were away I used a different lure and fishing technique almost every day for a month without getting a single fish to the plate. The second month the rod stayed in the locker.

Then one evening, almost by accident, I tied a small hook directly to the line, weighted it just a little, baited it with a scrap of conch, dropped it over the side, jammed the rod in the spokes of the steering wheel and forgot about it—until the drag started singing. The snapper that came aboard fed two boatloads of appreciative sailors. It was the turning point. Over the years, on numerous cruises, we have since caught hundreds of pounds of fish.

Of course having a rod isn't necessary to catch fish. These sailors use a hand line to move a little closer to their next meal at sea.
For several more years, I juggled and cursed that oversize tackle box, but it didn’t occur to me to remove it until it opened accidentally in the cockpit locker one day, spilling its entire contents into the bottom of the locker. Picking up each item, I realized how few of them I actually used.

For our next cruise I gave the preparation of appropriate "cruising" fishing tackle similar attention that we afforded galley equipment or food supplies. My first step was to make a list of the items we actually used, then I bought a new tackle box, one that fishermen will know as a "Pocket Pak." Smaller than a lengthy paperback book (seven inches by four inches by two inches thick), it opens from both sides to reveal 13 compartments, seven large and six small. Those 13 compartments easily contain all the items on my list in sufficient quantities to last through a cruise of six months or longer. This kind of tackle box is readily available and normally costs around seven bucks.

In three of the large compartments I put hooks in three different sizes. Hook sizes are confusing. The basic numbering system goes from 1 to 22, with the hooks getting smaller as the numbers get larger. The "ocean" series begin with a size 1-0 hook, which is about the same size as a size 1, but in the ocean series the hooks get larger with the numbers. For billfish, the sportfisherman will use about a 12-0. For snapper or grouper, we have found we most often use a size 1 hook. We also carry some smaller size 2 hooks. We display our optimism with our third choice—size 2-0.

"For snapper or grouper, we have found we most often use a size 1 hook."
In two more of the large compartments, we carry our only artificial lures. One of the compartments has several small silver spoons, productive for both trolling and casting. In the other compartment are several small jigs ranging from one-quarter to three-quarter ounces. These weights are good in water up to about 40 feet deep; deeper water necessitates heavier. We have found white to be consistently the most productive and it is the only color we carry.

In one of the remaining large compartments we carry a small, flat, key-chain knife. These little knives last indefinitely and hold an edge well. Nail clippers also work well for cutting monofilament line.

In the other compartment a coiled length of 30-pound-test monofilament that we use for leader keeps company with a couple of made-up wire leaders for use where there is risk of the line being cut. One of the small compartments holds the crimp sleeves we need to make up these wire leaders.

Once you've refined your onboard fishing arsenal (and your technique) you can start playing host to your friends in the fleet with a full-scale feast.
Two other small compartments are filled with lead weights of two sizes. We prefer split sinkers for their ease of use. The larger of our two sizes is about three times the weight of the smaller. The amount of weight actually required is dependent on the depth and the current.

Of the three remaining small compartments, two contain swivels of different sizes (usually sizes 6 and 9) and the third holds a selection of swivel snaps. We also keep a small pair of fisherman's parallel-jaw pliers with the box for removing hooks from our catch and clipping leader wire. We have chosen to attach ours to the box with a short length of leader wire, using a swivel snap so the pliers can be easily removed.

Along with two rods and spinning reels, this is the extent of our fishing gear aboard, except for two items stowed elsewhere. Among other spare parts aboard is a spool or two of monofilament line. We typically buy six and 10-pound test. Anything stronger is unnecessary for the type of fishing done by most cruisers.

"Even with our modest selection of tackle, we are over equipped by some standards."
The second item is a pair of sleeve-crimping pliers that reside in the toolbox. We make up wire leaders in advance and carry them in the tackle box, so the crimpers see little use otherwise. The parallel jaw pliers that are with the tackle box could be pressed into service in an emergency.

Even with our modest selection of tackle, we are over equipped by some standards. In our travels we have watched many islanders catch fish after fish with nothing more than a cast-off piece of line, a salvaged hook, and a scavenged piece of bait. Having the right tackle is only half of the answer; the other half is learning to use it. You will catch far more fish using one rig well than using a dozen others poorly. Keep it simple and you won't go wrong.

Suggested Reading:

Fishing for Sailors by SailNet

Fishing Woes by Sue & Larry

Fishing While You Cruise by Sue & Larry

SailNet Store Section: Fishing/Saltwater


Don Casey is offline  
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