Offshore Angling

By Lenny Rudow

Always dreamed of taking your boat offshore in search of pelagic fish like marlin, wahoo, tuna, and mahi-mahi? With the right preparation, you can make it happen.

Offshore fishingThanks to the reliability of modern marine power plants, advanced safety gear, and the volume of recreational boat traffic at good fishing spots, heading offshore on your own boat is safer today than it's ever been. (Photo: Lenny Rudow)

The difference between playing a game of touch football at the local park and playing for an NFL team in the Super Bowl is no more gaping a chasm than the difference between fishing for bluegills in a cove or lake and fishing for blue marlin at the edge of the Continental Shelf. One distinction: You don't need to have superhuman abilities and the body mass of a medium-sized grizzly bear to go fishing offshore. In fact, with the proper preparation, some basic know-how, and a modern powerboat, just about any competent captain can take his or her boat big-game fishing. And if you've always dreamed of making this trip but aren't 100-percent sure what it entails, read on.

Safety Is Job Number One

Obviously, running Mom's Mink offshore is a much bigger deal than the average fishing trip. Any time you go out into the open ocean, the dangers are very real, and safety must be your top priority. So we'll address that first while cautioning that we can't say whether any individual captain is truly ready to handle taking his or her boat offshore or not. There's a huge range in factors: personal experience, the distance you may want or need to run, seasonal weather predictability, and the size and age of your vessel. All must be taken into account.

Someone living in Florida who wants to try to catch mahi-mahi, for example, may be able to stay relatively close to the inlet and keep a close eye on the weather with a smartphone and VHF. In this case, fishing from an 18-foot center-console in good mechanical condition may be perfectly reasonable. Someone living in the Mid-Atlantic, however, may have to run 30 or 40 miles from shore to target that same fish, which are only present during the summer, when afternoon thunderstorms are a good possibility. Attempting this in an 18-footer would be exceedingly poor judgment, to say the least. The bottom line? A significant amount of good decision-making is called for before deciding to fish offshore on your own boat. If you question your own judgment or captaining ability, don't attempt this endeavor. You may want to learn from a good professional charter captain first, for a learning experience and a treat.

No matter what sort of boat you own or where you run it, there are some items you need to add to your U.S. Coast Guard-required basic safety gear prior to leaving the inlet:

  •  A VHF radio in good working order with active digital selective calling (DSC) and properly registered with the Coast Guard
  •  A backup fully charged handheld VHF radio, preferably waterproof
  •  Some form of electronic distress signaling device, such as an EPIRB, PLB, or satellite messenger
  •  A backup handheld GPS
  •  Backup batteries for all of your handheld safety devices
  •  Extra flares and visual distress signals
  •  Consider Type I offshore life jackets for everyone on board
  •  A first-aid kit
  •  Especially if you're out alone, a PLB attached to you is a must

Those who plan to venture dozens of miles from land would be smart to add a satellite phone, life raft, and ditch kit to the list. And there are some additional safety measures you should always take before venturing offshore. Filing a float plan is critical. The Coast Guard won't know anything's amiss unless a reliable friend or relative knows if you're overdue.

Fishing on weekends can be considered something of a safety measure, too, as good fishing spots anywhere near populated areas are generally well-trafficked on sunny weekends. And obviously, if you're running into the ocean, mechanical maintenance becomes an even bigger safety issue. If your boat isn't operating at 100 percent, don't attempt the trip.

Tactical Advantage

With safety taken care of, your next big priority is making the trip a success. Unless you're thoroughly experienced from fishing offshore on other people's boats, your best approach is to use the KISS (keep it simple, stupid!) method. What that means varies from region to region and season to season, and you'll have to monitor local fishing reports and internet fishing chat sites to get an idea of what's biting in your area at any given time. Keep things as basic and simple as possible when choosing which tactics you'll apply.

David Levine and his big catchAfter buying a boat and spending several years learning the ropes in the bay, David Levine (right) ventured offshore — with quite a bit of success. (Photo: Lenny Rudow)

Let's take yellowfin tuna fishing off the New Jersey coast, as an example. Lately, you may have heard that trolling rigged ballyhoo has been the most effective way to hook into the fish, and that some people are getting them by chunking. Those reports may be 100-percent true, but if a relatively inexperienced angler tries a relatively complex technique like rigging and trolling ballyhoo, he or she isn't likely to have a heck of a lot of success. Chunking, on the other hand, is a much more straightforward and simple technique, the basics of which just about anyone can learn within an hour or two and a little help from Google. So an inexperienced angler has a much better shot at hooking up by choosing chunking.

A similar example can be found with mahi-mahi during the summer months in North Carolina's waters. Sharpies may prefer to troll from weedline to weedline, constantly searching for new territory and bigger fish. But choosing the best lures and trolling speeds for the given conditions takes serious knowledge. Anglers taking their own boats offshore for the first time will have a much better chance at success if, instead of trolling, they give bailing a shot. You say you don't know how bailing for mahi-mahi works? The basic concept is easy to grasp. Search "how to bail for mahi-mahi" online, and you'll get it in 10 minutes flat.

If you're a savvy angler who has a solid grasp of fishing in general, hopefully you've noticed a similarity in the two above-mentioned KISS tactics. They both rely on bait. Though it may not be true 100 percent of the time, as a general rule of thumb, fishing with cut bait — as one does when chunking or bailing — is simpler than mastering how to effectively fish with lures, trolling techniques, or advanced methods, like kite fishing. Added bonus: It's also quite effective.

Gearing Up

Again, variables like where you fish and what you fish for will dictate the specifics when it comes to the type and size of rods and reels you need. But that doesn't mean we can't help you make some good decisions. Generally speaking, get rods, reels, and lines rated for at least half the weight of the largest fish you're likely to encounter. Remember that yellowfin tuna chunking example we used earlier? If you're hearing that most of the fish are 60 pounds or less, 30-pound-class gear and lines should be hefty enough to do the job. Or, if you learn that most of the mahi-mahi being bailed are 20 to 40 pounds, opt for gear that's at least in the 20-pound class.

Beyond rods and reels, there's other gear you're going to need to outfit your boat. Leave that landing net you use for stripers and blues at home — most pelagic species will have the oomph to swim right through the mesh. That means you'll need to land them with a gaff.

A billy club is another item you may want to add to the list. Many fish found offshore can be downright dangerous if you don't dispatch them quickly. Hard plastic is better than aluminum, because it's less likely to chip your gelcoat if you swing and miss a flipping, flopping fish.

Unless your boat has extremely big fishboxes, a fish bag may also be in order. These soft-sided coolers can be purchased in sizes large enough to hold hundred-pound fish, yet they roll up and stow in relatively small areas. Finally, if you plan on bringing any fish back to the dock in that bag, don't forget to outfit your boat with a National Marine Fisheries Service Highly Migratory Species Recreational Angling permit. This is required to fish for pelagic species in federal waters along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. But check with your regional Marine Fisheries office.

If you feel ready to go offshore fishing on your own boat, remember to closely monitor the weather prior to your trip, check and double-check your safety gear, and when in doubt, err on the side of caution. If you don't feel completely confident, get more on-water experience captaining your boat before you go. When you do leave the inlet and hunt for those deep-sea pelagic fish, you'll find that tackling them isn't an impossible dream — unlike making a tackle in the Super Bowl.

Offshore Fishing Tips

  •  Use fluorocarbon leaders instead of regular monofilament. It's less visible to the fish, especially in clear ocean waters.
  •  Use circle hooks when possible. They usually lodge in the corner of the fish's jaw, so the metal hook shank is the only thing touching the sharp teeth many pelagic species have, so line chafing becomes much less of a problem.
  •  When running offshore in the early morning hours, remove frozen baits from the cooler and let them sit on the deck. Otherwise, when you arrive at your destination they won't be thawed. You can speed thawing with a spritz from the washdown hose.
  •  Always choose ball-bearing swivels over the less expensive barrel-swivel variety. They're better at preventing line twist, a common problem when fishing offshore with cut baits.
  •  Always check your bait before you leave the tackle shop. Yellowing indicates freezer burn, and fish don't like rotten bait.
  •  When fishing for large species in deep water, conventional gear usually is a better choice than spinning gear because the reels have significantly more line capacity. 

— Published: October/November 2017

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