The allure of offshore fishing is strong. Those big fish look fun to catch and are definitely good to eat. Every year more fishermen make the decision to try their luck in the deep, azure blue waters of the Gulf Stream.
But not all of those fishermen have large or even mid-size sportfishing boats. Many have vessels in the 20- to 30-foot range, and it is becoming increasingly common to see boats of that size fishing the rips and weed lines of the Gulf Stream. The fishing can be excellent, and most boats are plenty seaworthy for this task as long as Lord Poseidon is in a good mood.
But it’s a different ocean out there for a 27-foot center console compared to a 46-foot sportfisherman, and anglers preparing to test the bluewater in smaller boats need to understand how to bridge the difference.
If anyone knows, it’s Mark Chambers, a longtime mate and charter captain who runs a 58-foot boat from the Morehead City, N.C., waterfront but spends many of his off days on a friend’s 23-foot center console in the same waters.
“I really enjoy fishing the small boat,” he said. “This is my fun time. We go when we want to go, not when we are scheduled to go. This is fun fishing, and if the weather isn’t good and we are going to get beat up, we don’t go.”
Watching the weather forecast is much more critical when fishing in a smaller boat. Safety is paramount, Chambers said, but it’s also about not getting beat up by rough seas. He begins watching the weather several days before heading out, listening to the forecast and tracking the movement of fronts, looking out for systems that might shift towards the coast, bringing windy and rough conditions.
“I generally don’t head out in the little boat if the wind will be more than 15 knots,” Chambers said. “There are a couple of exceptions, but not many. One is to chase bluefins that are close to shore (in winter). wind is usually from the northeast, which gives us a lee for a few miles, and that’s all we’re planning to go. The other is when a front is passing and the windy conditions are forecast to lay out behind it. Sometimes, with this kind of forecast, we’ll take our time heading out in less than ideal conditions and then fish as the wind and seas lay out and run back home in near calm conditions.”
Chambers is a stickler for safety, especially in a small boat. He has had a couple of learning experiences over the years and believes in being prepared for the worst. He also believes in a diligent maintenance program to be sure everything is working and in good condition, plus redundancy in important equipment. He insists on dual bilge pumps and carries a waterproof, hand-held VHF radio in addition to two mounted units — insurance he hopes he never needs. He might not file a formal float plan, but having someone know the basics of his plans is a must. A formal float plan is standard operating procedure when you don’t have other charter skippers for backup.
Chambers doesn’t change much about the way he trolls for bluewater fish such as dolphin, tuna or wahoo.
“If you’re used to setting a good spread, it’s easy to do in a smaller boat, too,” Chambers said. “I troll eight lines on the Reel Country (his charter boat) and seven on the small boat. The only line I don’t use on the small boat is the second bridge line.”
Chambers said sturdy outriggers allow for double-rigging and trolling long- and short-rigger lines from each side. This is one of the primary keys to successfully trolling seven lines from a boat with an 81/2-foot beam. He likes sea witches and typically begins with five of them in his spread, and he’s partial to blue/white color combinations; they’ll often comprise half or more of his spread. He also uses red/black, purple/black, pink, pink/white, and he has other colors ready to test when action is slow.
He usually begins with a spread that has sea witches rigged with ballyhoo trolled long from both outriggers. To get some pop in the middle, he uses Iland Sailures — lures with concave heads that splash extra water when they break the surface — and sweetens them with ballyhoo.
The planer line goes out next, rigged with a sea witch/ballyhoo behind a No. 16 or No. 24 planer. The sixth line is a short flat-line, positioned just beyond the prop wash: another sea witch/ballyhoo. The seventh line is what would be the bridge line on a larger boat; it’s also a sea witch/ballyhoo and is positioned in the center of the boat to run as the longest line in the spread.
“I like wire leaders and probably run more than most guys,” Chambers said. “Even in the heat of summer when fishing is slow, there are some wahoo around, and I like to catch them. However, they have very sharp teeth and will cut right through even a heavy mono or fluoro leader. Wire can be a little more difficult to handle when catching lots of dolphin or tuna, but it will stand up to a wahoo’s teeth, and it bothers me to lose a wahoo. I’ll mix in some mono and fluoro leaders in June and July when the catch is mostly dolphin, but my planer line is always a No. 9 wire leader.”
The two most-important things to know when headed offshore in any boat are where the fish bit yesterday, how the Gulf Stream and its eddies have been moving and if potentially productive water conditions are moving into or out of an area. Chambers leaves the dock with this information, and when approaching his intended fishing area, he keeps his eyes peeled for any signs of bait and feeding fish. One drawback of the smaller boat is it doesn’t have the upper bridge to aid seeing bait, rips and such, so you have to be especially diligent.
Once he locates something that is potentially holding fish, Chambers works it multiple ways until he finds what the fish want or gives up. On some days, fish only strike while he’s trolling into the sea or current, while other days they prefer the boat moving in the other direction or across the current and through the wave troughs.
If something looks interesting enough to stop and fish, Chambers gives it a good try before moving on. Once offshore on a good mark with the spread set, the difference between a not-so-good day and an excellent day could be as simple as working that bait ball, temperature break, weed or grass line or rip until you find which presentation turns the fish on. It might take a while for the bite to fire off or you may have to accept that the bite isn’t going to happen and move on. However, you should always be alert and prepared, as your fishing fortunes can change quickly. When you find the right combination, fishing quickly turns to catching and the size of the boat doesn’t matter.