Party time! Fishing from a head boat 101

head boat
Grouper are a prime target for head boats operating out of ports along the coast of the Carolinas. A tasty bottomfish, they are prized by most anglers and captains. (Picture by Brian Cope)

Head boat trips provide access to deep water species

Fishing from a head boat is one of the quickest and least-expensive ways to catch a lot of fish to which most anglers don’t have easy access. All along the Carolina coastlines, these boats, aka party boats, head out every morning for a day of bottom-fishing. Getting aboard one of these can help you stock your freezer with grouper, snapper and a number of other great-tasting fish.

If you’re worried that you don’t have the proper gear, that’s not a problem. These boats are loaded with all the rods, reels and other gear you need to rip gag groupers out of reefs and pull amberjacks up from the depths. All you need is a cooler to haul your catch home.

But first things first — before heading out, follow your preferred ritual of avoiding seasickness. Whether that means taking Dramamine or Bonine the night before and/or the morning of, or wearing an ear patch, wristband or some other method you believe in, do it. All the “I don’t get seasick” bravado isn’t worth a dime when you find yourself hurling over the rails while your buddies are reeling in trophy triggerfish.

“Everyone is prone to seasickness at some point in their life. Just because it’s never happened to you before doesn’t mean it never will,” said Capt. Dave Tilley of “I can’t count how many anglers I’ve seen bragging about never being seasick, only to see those same anglers never get a hook in the water because they’re too busy throwing up.”

Tilley (910-264-3973) has captained boats of all sizes, including a stint on the Continental Shelf, a 100-foot vessel currently based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that formerly fished out of Morehead City, N.C. He’s got a few tips for anglers fishing from a head boat.

Step to the rear

“On a lot of head boats, especially the bigger ones, anglers in the rear and rear corners of the boat seem to catch the most fish. I’m not really sure why that is or if there is any scientific reason for it. But it’s easy to see that’s the case after you’ve been on enough head boat trips. I’d advise anyone to try fishing from the rear if you get the chance,” said Tilley, who currently captains the Wild Rover III out of Carolina Beach, N.C.

One of Tilley’s golden rules for bottom-fishing from one of these big boats will go a long way to keeping peace with your fellow anglers, and for keeping your bait in the strike zone longer.

Bottom’s up

“When you drop your bait down and you feel it hit bottom, don’t let any more line out,” he said. “Either reel up slightly to avoid getting hung in the structure, or just let it sit. Anglers who let more line out at this point will end up tangled with the angler next to them. Or with an angler on the opposite side of the boat. It leads to a lot of unnecessary tension onboard, not to mention all the time wasted getting lines untangled,” he said.

head boat
The longer the headboat trip you can book, even overnights, allows your captain more time to get you to the fish so you can catch them. (Picture by Brian Cope)

For anglers wanting the most bang for their buck, Tilley said go with a full day — or even a multi-day trip when available.

Timing your trip

“If you’re booking a half-day trip or even a 6-hour trip, your captain is very limited as to where he can go and what fish are in his range,” Tilley said. “He can only go so far. And more often than not, that means black sea bass, mackerel, small snapper — not bad fish, but not as big of a variety on what you’ll have access to with a full-day or longer trip. Of course, if you’re bringing kids or if you just want to test the waters and see if you’d like to do a longer trip, these shorter trips are great.”

Tilley prefers trips that are at least 10, 12 or 14 hours. His main reason for this? Lots of grouper.

“Grouper are the most-prized bottomfish for a headboat. And with these longer trips, we have time to get where they are, time to fish and time to get everyone back to shore. These are the trips when we often catch limits of gag, red, and scamp grouper. All while catching numerous other species as well.

“I don’t want to discourage anyone from booking a 6-hour trip. We’re happy to take you on a 6-hour trip and will show you the time of your life while doing it. But if you’re really after the most fishing bang for your buck, book a full day (or longer) trip. It will be a trip you’ll never forget.”

About Brian Cope 2800 Articles
Brian Cope is the editor of Carolina Sportsman. He has won numerous awards for his writing, photography, and videography. He is a retired Air Force combat communications technician, and has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of South Carolina. You can reach him at

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