Fishing from your boat is one of the many fun activities while long-distance cruising. Dan Bower's advice on catching a fish for your supper is the last in our series of Bluewater Sailing Techniques
Catching your supper from the sea is a wonderful sensation – whether it’s quickly turned into sushi, ceviche or some other delightful meal, you can’t beat the freshness of ‘sea to pan’, not to mention the satisfaction of self-sufficiency.
Now there are as many fishing ‘golden rules’, guaranteed methods and fishy tales as there are fishermen. There are also some excellent books dedicated to the subject – these are rather large – so there is a lot to say. This is what works for us; it’s simple and we rarely go hungry.
Choosing your gear
There is a lot out there, racks of rods, reels and shelves of shiny, colourful lures of all shapes and sizes. The best thing is to seek advice from the shop and find out what works for the area you’re fishing in and what fish you’re looking to catch.
You don’t need a rod and reel set-up to land a fish, but it does make your life easier, and the bigger and stronger the equipment, the more it will cost, but the less work it will be to bring one in and the more ‘strikes’ you will land successfully.
On many of my early transatlantic deliveries our fishing kit consisted of some line and an empty 2lt water bottle to wrap it around. With this budget and easy-stow system we landed some fairly sizeable catch, but it required thick gloves, a bit of a fight and all three crewmembers pulling the line. We also lost a few, together with line and lures.
If you’re going for hand line, then it’s the thicker the better, without the clutch lessening the snatch, a bigger line is less likely to snap – it’s also much easier on the hands when pulling it in.
Aboard Skyelark we have a simple, short rod – Penn Tuna Stick with 345 GTI reel and 60lb line – mounted on a stanchion and tend to favour the squid-style surface lures in various colours as bait.
Before setting off on an ocean crossing we encourage our crewmembers to go off in search of their own favourite lucky lure and so we acquire an eclectic selection with all the bubble-blowers, rattlers and teasers that the salesman proffered, and to be fair most do quite well.
Blues, pinks, reds and whites are probably the winners in the tropics.
After selecting the lure and tying it on, it then comes down to line length, and you want the lure to be just beyond the effects of your wake. We usually go for around four boat lengths (60m), but the faster you are travelling the more line should go out. The boat’s wake causes a disturbance and intrigues the fish, they come up to take a look and, always peckish, they go for the lure.
If it’s too close to the boat the wake will hide it and too far out you may get fewer strikes. A good rule of thumb is 10x the boat speed to give metres – eg 5 knots = 50m,
6 knots = 60m.
We experiment by counting the number of passes of the line guide, as it’s hard to judge how far back a semi-sinking lure is. If you’re using a reel then you can set the break so it only lets out line when a fish strikes. If you’re not using a reel then you need something to take the ‘snatch’ – in this way the line doesn’t snap and the hook becomes more firmly embedded. A small piece of bungy works well.
Reeling it in
It’s called fishing, not catching . . . but hopefully before too long you will get a strike signalled by a satisfying clicking and the line running away. The first thing is to increase the drag (clutch) on the reel. You don’t want to stop the line going out completely as a strong fish will snap it, but you want to increase the drag to tire it out.
You can play the drag to exhaust the fish; however, the more you let out, the more you bring in, but it’s easier to bring in if it’s tired, hence the balance.
It’s also useful to slow the boat down at this stage – consider bearing away or furling the headsail. To wind in, set the drag on the reel so that the line will wind in, but not so tight that the fish can’t take some more if it is feeling particularly energetic.
Once the fish is surfing on the surface, you can make good progress; if it gains purchase and dives deep, the work will become slow. Be patient and if necessary allow out more line.
Getting your catch on board
Once you have the fish close to the boat, it’s time to consider how to get it aboard as quickly and cleanly as possible. It’s worth noting that under sport fishing rules ‘leader in hand’ counts as a catch so once you’re here, it’s as good as caught technically so even if it gets away it’s a victory.
The surest way of landing the fish is to gaff it. A gaff is a big sharp hook on a stick and allows you to hook into the meat before the fish is out of the water. Failing this, you can pull it up onto a sugar scoop or under a guardrail – but be mindful that during this stage a final flurry of rapid thrashing can set your meal free. A gaff is a good investment.
We once caught a beautiful white marlin, which was swimming beside the boat. Neither I nor my able mate was keen on the idea of simply hoiking a monstrous thrashing fish onto the deck and would have been quite happy to let it free, but surrounded by eager clients we had to try something.
The first attempt was to pass a loop of line over the fish and tighten it over its tail – the plan was to get a firm hold and pull one at each end. This wasn’t a success and neither was our hastily put together homemade gaff – the fish in this case jumped the hook and got away unharmed. After blogging our woes, a new gaff arrived for Christmas and the next marlin was landed.
Now comes the rather grisly bit: the fish does have to die, but how best to do it? Whacking it with something heavy – a winch handle is usually the instrument of choice – can be slow, bloody, inhumane and result in some chips in the glassfibre.
Our favoured method is to hold the fish head first in a bucket of water and cut into the gills with a sharp knife. This way the fish will pump its blood out into the bucket: no mess, no drama and it is better for the meat.
Another option is to inebriate it with hard spirits, straight into the gills, or knife in the back of the head/spinal column. Whatever method you use, it needs to be quick – this is kinder to the fish and better for the meat.
Next prepare for cooking. With a small oven-sized fish we would favour keeping it whole, so first it needs to be gutted – we do this in a bucket. For bigger fish this is not practical; even just cutting through the spine can require a cleaver and a mallet.
For these we fillet the fish there and then, running a sharp filleting knife down each side of the bone and removing the flesh. The fish doesn’t need to be gutted, and the head and carcass can be thrown back as part of the food chain. Watch how we do this in our online video.
Where to fish
We generally deploy a line whenever on passage, either across an ocean or just between islands. We don’t fish near reefs or in passes because of the distraction and the risk of ciguatera poisoning (see below). The best times are dawn and dusk, but there is no hard rule; you can strike any time.
We don’t fish at night for the practical reason of dealing with a catch in the dark, so our line goes out just before dawn and in after sunset – you have to be in it to win it!
A note on ciguatera poisoning
Ciguatera is a toxin that can accumulate in fish that feed off the algae on coral reefs (or eat the fish that do) and while it’s harmless to the fish it can be very unpleasant for humans. Although rarely fatal, symptoms occur within three to five hours, but can develop and worsen over four or five days and can last for weeks, months and even
Tingling and numbness around the nose and mouth, vomiting, diarrhoea, aching joints and muscle pain, weak pulse, feeling cold and weak, shocks and burning sensations are all possible – and medical attention should be sought.
The toxin is generally limited to reef fish and their predators, so is more relevant to spear fishing or trolling around the reefs. The bigger the fish, the more likely that the toxin levels will be high – they have eaten a lot of little fish – so keeping to smaller fish lessens the risk. However, the toxin levels can also build up in humans before becoming dangerous, so if you regularly consume reef fish, you are at risk.
Usually anything caught offshore is not affected and pelagic fish are safe (tuna, mahi mahi, marlin, wahoo). The only sure way is to abstain from eating reef fish, but you’re fairly safe if you take advice – local fishermen will know. Ask them what is safe from which areas (this can change from reef to reef). Groupers, jacks, barracuda and the moray eel are particularly predatory fish and are the most at risk, so should be avoided.
Our approach aboard Skyelark is to eat anything caught offshore and we prefer to buy any reef fish from fishermen or eat them in a restaurant where the chances are you should be OK.
Do’s and don’ts
√ Do experiment with different coloured lures.
√ Do slow the boat down to help reel it in.
√ Do throw a line out when on passage.
√ Do buy the best rod and reel your budget allows.
√ Do take care with the hook as you bring the fish on board. One crewmember on an ARC yacht needed surgery to remove a fish hook from his arm.
√ Do seek advice from local sailors about what works for them.
x Don’t take any risks with eating a fish that may have ciguatera.
x Don’t be afraid to cut the line if you end up with a fish much larger than you are happy to try to land.
x Don’t try to pull a fish in on a handline without slowing the boat right down and wearing gloves.
x Don’t Don’t troll around reefs or passes if you’re not sure about ciguatera.
- Reels can take a lot of punishment and it is worth buying some spare parts if you are away on a long trip.
- A gaff is a really useful piece of kit for getting the fish on board – it can be a big struggle without one.
- Two hours after sunrise or before sunset is the best time to fish.
- Make sure you have attached a swivel and leader before the lure.
- Use line thick enough and strong enough for the fish you hope to catch.
- Try making your own lures out of rubber gloves.
- Rig flying fish for bait.
There is a ciguatera test kit – see www.cigua.com
Baked fish (mahi mahi)
1 oven-sized whole mahi mahi, or fillets
2 onions, sliced
Garlic cloves to taste.
Splash of lemon juice or white wine
Cover fillets or stuff whole fish with onions, lemons and garlic, place in tin foil, splash over wine and bake for 20mins or until cooked. Serve with a bit of butter and sides.
Dan and Em Bower
Dan and Em Bower, both in their thirties, are lifelong sailors. Six years ago they bought Skyelark of London, a Skye 51 by American designer Rob Ladd, built in Taiwan in 1986, and have been sailing and chartering her ever since, making some 12 transatlantic crossings and covering around 60,000 miles.
12-part series in association with Pantaenius. Look out for our next series on Catamaran Sailing Techniques