Suc­cess­ful sea fish­ing

Huw Wil­liams on the tech­niques and tackle that re­ally work for coastal and open wa­ter fish­ing from a yacht

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

Tech­niques and tackle that work for fish­ing from a yacht

Ilike to fish, and I like to eat fish. Ever since I caught my first mack­erel I’ve been hooked. I re­mem­ber it well: I was sit­ting on the beach with my fam­ily when the wa­ter a few yards from shore be­gan to boil. Then small sil­ver fish be­gan leap­ing onto the sand – hun­dreds of them! For an eight-year-old this was be­yond thrilling. In­stinc­tively I picked up my toy shrimp­ing net, ran to the wa­ter’s edge and saw the sea was thick with tiny fish. I waded in up to my knees and scooped up a net­ful. I don’t think I’ve ever been so ex­cited. Then I saw them – there were larger fish chas­ing the white­bait. Much larger! I plunged the net into the wa­ter and pulled it out with two of these fish kick­ing and shim­mer­ing in the mesh. They were beau­ti­ful.

Since those first two mack­erel, I’ve caught hun­dreds of fish from the beach, from rocks, from kayaks and from pur­pose-built fish­ing boats. But fish­ing from a yacht is dif­fer­ent. I know lots of sailors who reg­u­larly try to catch fish, but with no suc­cess and we’ve all heard sto­ries of lines wrapped around keels and divers called to un­wrap pro­pel­lers. And if you do catch some you end up with the sa­loon stink­ing of cooked fish for days. Is it re­ally worth the has­sle? Yes, it is – if you fol­low the three rules.

Rule 1 Lo­ca­tion

You must fish where the fish are. This seems ob­vi­ous, but how do you know where the fish are? First, let’s look at the species we want to catch. Be­cause I’m sail­ing I want to be able to catch them while the boat is un­der way, I want them to be tasty and I want to catch them us­ing artificial lures rather than smelly worms. Most peo­ple sail in the warmer months, and that cor­re­sponds nicely with the two main species we’ll be tar­get­ing – mack­erel and bass.

Both these species are vo­ra­cious preda­tors and mainly eat other fish like sandeels and white­bait. Larger bass will swal­low a whole mack­erel with ease. I once caught a twelve pounder that had four whole mack­erel in its gut! And they’re very easy to catch us­ing artificial lures – if you’re in the right lo­ca­tion.

Like all preda­tors they like to hunt with an econ­omy of ef­fort. They like to have an ad­van­tage over their prey, so big­ger bass tend to hang out in ar­eas we don’t want to sail in, for­ag­ing around un­der­wa­ter struc­tures like rocks and wrecks. For­tu­nately for us, both bass and mack­erel also hunt in more open wa­ter, – par­tic­u­larly when the tide is run­ning when small fish have more dif­fi­culty in swim­ming quickly and avoid­ing be­ing eaten.

You must fish in the flow – noth­ing is more im­por­tant. If you’re on a sail­ing trip, study the tidal streams along your route. The faster the flow, the bet­ter your chance of catch­ing. You’ve prob­a­bly al­ready planned your pas­sage to take ad­van­tage of tidal streams, so fish­ing en route will be easy. If the stream is over a seabed fea­ture like a sand­bank so much the bet­ter. Sand­banks, ledges, wrecks (safe ones!), head­lands and har­bour en­trances are all hot spots. If you have the time, it might be worth a slight change of course so you pass over or along the edge of such fea­tures, and if you see birds div­ing, head to­wards them. I mainly sail in the Solent, and I al­ways try to get as close to the forts as pos­si­ble, but re­mem­ber: our hobby is sail­ing, for oth­ers it’s fish­ing. If you see boats al­ready fish­ing give them a wide berth – they may have lines out a lot fur­ther than you think.

Rule 2 Keep it sim­ple

Most of our fish­ing will take place while we’re un­der way – trolling. This means tow­ing a lure or lures be­hind the boat un­til the fish grab it. It’s sim­ple, ex­tremely ef­fec­tive and is used around the world for most preda­tory fish.

I own sev­eral fish­ing rods and reels, but I never take them sail­ing. Never. They take up space, get dam­aged on rig­ging and it’s too easy to hook up a crew mem­ber or poke them in the eye. While you’re en­joy­ing the sen­sa­tion of the rod be­ing bent over (it’s a big one!) and the reel’s drag is buzzing, you run the risk of the fish swim­ming around the keel and rud­der – or even worse, the prop.

I rec­om­mend us­ing a han­d­line. They’re cheap, fool­proof, main­te­nance-free, take up min­i­mal stor­age space and work re­ally well – par­tic­u­larly if you fish in the flow! When you hook a fish, you just haul it in hand over hand. It only takes a few sec­onds and dras­ti­cally re­duces the chance of foul­ing the boat.

Rule 3 The cor­rect depth

Imag­ine this scene: up ahead, the sea is boil­ing with fishy ac­tiv­ity – what we call a work-up. Dozens of birds are div­ing, and oth­ers are fly­ing in to join the feast. You trail the mack­erel lures be­hind the boat, you can see them pass­ing through the boil­ing sur­face, the ex­cited an­tic­i­pa­tion on board is pal­pa­ble. But you sail through the work up and don’t catch any­thing.

As you sail on, the birds con­tinue to feast. This hap­pens all the time and can drive rel­a­tively sane peo­ple to dis­trac­tion. Why aren’t we catch­ing?

The fish you see boil­ing on the sur­face aren’t the mack­erel and bass – they’re the white­bait and sandeels that are be­ing driven to the sur­face by the preda­tors be­low. To be suc­cess­ful, you must fish un­der the bait­fish; some­times a lot deeper than is in­stinc­tive. There are two ways to do this when trolling.

The first is to use a heavy weight – and to get your lures down when you’re sail­ing at five knots needs a re­ally heavy sinker. The trolling sinkers – ‘down­rig­gers’ – in my lo­cal chan­dlery weigh al­most 2kg. A sinker this heavy is un­pleas­ant to use, in­vari­ably gets bashed against your pris­tine gel­coat and for small chil­dren be­ing in­tro­duced to fish­ing it can be im­pos­si­ble to pull in. They also cost more than my en­tire set of yacht fish­ing gear! Don’t use heavy weights.

The sec­ond and far su­pe­rior method is to use a par­a­vane. This is a de­vice which at­taches to your line in front of the lures and causes them to dive. They weigh just a few ounces and have sev­eral at­tach­ment points which can be used to vary the div­ing depth. You can also at­tach them in a way which makes them run off to port or star­board, so you can run two lines with­out the risk of tan­gling. Or you could run two sets of lures at dif­fer­ent depths. They even help get the fish to the sur­face by flip­ping over when you get a hook-up. Par­a­vanes are the way to go, and to use them suc­cess­fully we just need some very sim­ple gear.


This will all fit into a small sand­wich box and shouldn’t cost more than about £25. It’s re­ally all you need:

30m of 1.5-2mm ny­lon cord wrapped around a suit­able holder Par­a­vane. Keep the in­struc­tion leaflet in the box. It tells you how to rig it for dif­fer­ent depths re­lated to boat speed Spool of 20kg break­ing strain clear ny­lon (much thin­ner than ny­lon cord) Mack­erel lures

20cm rub­ber sandeel lure

150g jig (sil­ver metal) lure

150g sinker

A cou­ple of 25g drilled bul­let sinkers Pack of 6/0 stain­less steel hooks Pack of quick re­lease links which will en­able fast rig changes. These are also use­ful if you have a tan­gle – just un­clip and carry on fish­ing.

Pa­per clips

First, a note on mack­erel lures. Mack­erel shoal in huge num­bers and com­pe­ti­tion for food is in­tense. When the tide is flow­ing they will lit­er­ally throw them­selves at any­thing that moves. You can buy ready-made mack­erel rigs that range from pieces of white feather to holo­graphic sil­ver film, tiny rub­ber sandeels and lu­mi­nous shrimps. They all work, but they also have

a prob­lem in that they’re sold in strings of six or even ten lures. A string of ten (or even six) mack­erel on a yacht will cause chaos, so trim your shop-bought rig to two or three and you’ll have just as much fun and with none of the grief. They’re of­ten rigged on quite light ny­lon line, so switch them to 20kg break­ing strain which is bet­ter suited to use on a han­d­line. Or make your own from tin­sel and beads.

Pre-rig the gear. It will save hours of frus­tra­tion aboard - par­tic­u­larly if there’s a shoal of mack­erel nearby. Ev­ery­thing is tied on us­ing a three turn uni-knot and a sur­geon’s knot is used for drop­pers.

First, sort the han­d­line. Tie a tether line and small car­bine clip to the holder. Us­ing a three-turn, dou­ble uni-knot, tie 5m of 20kg clear ny­lon to the busi­ness end of the 1.5-2mm ny­lon cord. Then add a quick re­lease clip to the end for fix­ing your rigs to.

Next, sort the rigs. I like to hedge my bets when I’m trolling, so I usu­ally com­bine two small mack­erel lures with a larger bass-ori­ented lure like a large rub­ber sandeel.

Trolling rig: tie a 20cm sandeel to 3m of 20kg ny­lon. Then use the sur­geon’s knot to add two mack­erel lures on short drop­pers. Add a quick-re­lease clip to the other end.

Bait rig for bass: tie a 6/0 hook to 2m of 20kg ny­lon. Thread on the bul­let sinkers and tie a quick re­lease clip to the other end.

Store these rigs by loosely wind­ing them on to pieces of foam or card and re­sist the temp­ta­tion to buy umpteen dif­fer­ent lures in dif­fer­ent sizes and colours – you’ll just spend time chang­ing lures rather than ac­tu­ally fish­ing (or sail­ing!).

Let’s go fish­ing

If you’ve not pre­vi­ously caught a fish, the slime and blood (when you dis­patch it) may sur­prise you, so be­fore you put a line in the wa­ter, have a bucket ready to re­ceive the fish. It’s a good idea to mount it out­board of the push­pit, par­tic­u­larly if you have a teak deck! Also de­cide who is go­ing to dis­patch the fish be­cause it’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity to do this quickly and hu­manely. Don’t let the fish suf­fo­cate slowly – it’s com­pletely un­nec­es­sary. Two hard blows to the head with a winch han­dle works well on a bass, but this will re­duce a mack­erel to a fishy smear and prob­a­bly dam­age what­ever it’s rest­ing on. In­stead, hold it firmly in one hand, put the thumb of your other hand in its mouth and lever up­wards – the neck will be bro­ken in­stantly.

Sail­ing with a sin­gle trolling line

Use the par­a­vane with the 20cm sandeel on the end of a 3m leader and two mack­erel lures on short drop­pers. Rig the par­a­vane to run mid-wa­ter and check the gear for weed ev­ery 15 min­utes.

Sail­ing with two trolling lines

Use the same rig as above and set the vanes to run at one-third and two-thirds wa­ter depth, and slightly off to port and star­board.


At­tach a 150g jig on a 1.2m leader and two or three mack­erel lures on drop­pers. Lower un­til it bumps bot­tom, jig it vig­or­ously for a few sec­onds, haul it up

2m, jig and re­peat un­til you reach the sur­face. You’ll find the fish higher in the wa­ter as the tide slack­ens. At slack wa­ter you prob­a­bly won’t catch any­thing be­cause the bait­fish can swim more eas­ily and the preda­tors are con­serv­ing en­ergy. If you add a tiny strip of mack­erel to the hooks you might catch a bream or two – par­tic­u­larly if you’re fish­ing over a ledge and near the bot­tom. If you’re drift­ing over a snaggy bot­tom re­place the jig with a lead sinker and use a pa­per clip to at­tach it. If you snag the bot­tom the clip will bend open and you just lose the lead.


You’ve caught your mack­erel and de-headed and gut­ted them. Keep the heads. Once you’re an­chored, at­tach the 6/0 hook rig and im­pale a head or two through the eye sock­ets. Lower to the bot­tom and wait for a large bass. In shal­lower wa­ter rig a small plas­tic bot­tle to act as a float so you’re fish­ing at two-thirds wa­ter depth. Not only is it ex­cit­ing to see the float dis­ap­pear – chil­dren love it – but it keeps the crabs off the bait.

Fish­ing fur­ther afield

Plan­ning a trip to the Ca­naries, transat­lantic or fur­ther afield? Not only is fish­ing good for morale on long pas­sages, but it’s a wel­come source of fresh, delicious pro­tein. Trolling is the method; tuna and mahi-mahi (do­rado) are on the menu. As al­ways, fish with heavy gear to min­i­mize the risk of a fouled prop and haul it in fast. On the World ARC we used the elec­tric winch! I’d rec­om­mend 50m of 3mm ny­lon cord (not Dyneema; you want some give in the sys­tem) with 5m of 100kg clear ny­lon on the busi­ness end. We’re fish­ing on the sur­face to mimic a flee­ing fly­ing fish, so no sinker or vane is re­quired. Just tie on a 20cm sur­face lure from a com­pany like Wil­liamson and in­cor­po­rate a me­tre of 8mm shock cord at the boat end. A 25kg mahi-mahi can hit that lure at 40 knots, and if it’s head­ing away from the boat the bungee takes the ini­tial shock. You may need to re­duce boat speed to get the fish in be­cause these fish are in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful, and you’ll need a gaff to get the fish aboard. Once aboard, dis­patch it with the winch han­dle and thread a line through the mouth and out through a gill. Then cut it’s throat and hang it off the stern to bleed out. It’s a very good idea to bring the line in be­fore dusk – you don’t want to deal with an an­gry mahi-mahi in the dark! And if you catch a bar­racuda, don’t eat it. They can har­bour the ciguat­era toxin.

Let’s eat

We have our fish, we’ve de-headed and gut­ted the mack­erel and de-scaled and gut­ted the bass. Here are a few sim­ple recipes that won’t leave the boat smelling of fish for a week.

Ce­viche This is my per­sonal favourite. Slice the fish into thin strips and place in a bowl. Leave the skin on the mack­erel; re­move it from the bass. Add lime juice, a thinly sliced clove of gar­lic, red onion and a few chilli flakes. Stir. Cover and leave to rest for at least an hour or as long as overnight – the acid in the lime juice cooks the fish. I like a two-hour ver­sion. This is ut­terly delicious, no gas is used and the in­gre­di­ents will last for weeks if you’re on a long trip. You can eat it as an ap­pe­tizer and it’s also won­der­ful in a salad, with rice and in tacos. Boat smell rat­ing – zero.

Baked fish in soy sauce Place fil­lets, steaks or whole fish in oven-proof dish. Add gar­lic, thinly sliced onion and/or spring onions, ginger, soy sauce and a splash of fruit juice. Cover with foil and bake for 30 min­utes. Serve with salad and rice.

Boat smell rat­ing – very low. Top tip – use a bak­ing bag and open it in the cock­pit for zero smell.

Baked bass Rub fil­lets or steaks with olive oil and place in the bag. Add sliced fen­nel, red onion, thinly sliced gar­lic, thin slices of lemon and a splash of white wine. Bake and serve with new pota­toes and sam­phire the crew col­lected. Open the bag in the cock­pit.

Boat smell rat­ing – zero.

Smoked mack­erel pate

Get a metal bis­cuit tin and a mesh grill shelf. Place some oak chips in the bot­tom of the tin and whole gut­ted fish or fil­lets on the mesh. Put the tin on a very low heat and let the chips smoul­der with the lid on for 30 min­utes. Flake the fish into a bowl. Add cream cheese, lemon juice and a blob of horse radish sauce. Mash with a fork for a coarse pate. Much bet­ter than the one from the su­per­mar­ket.

Boat smell rat­ing – do it on the beach with a camp­ing stove!

Sea birds div­ing and the wa­ter boil­ing with fish ac­tiv­ity

Fish­ing from a yacht can be suc­cess­ful if you go about it the right way

Lures at­tach this end Han­d­line at­taches this end with quick re­lease clip 20cm sandeel lure

Quick re­lease clip Han­d­line Bass/ mack­erel trolling rig Bass bait rig Tether Par­a­vane To boat Jig Mack­erel lures x 3 – use with the jig when drift­ing

Drop­per Sur­geon’s knot Mack­erel lure Three turn uni-knot Jig

Lures Quick re­lease clip on end of han­d­line Trolling rig at­tached here will cause asym­met­ric drag and make the vane to run off to star­board Boat

In­cor­po­rate a bungee into your trop­i­cal trolling rig

A home­made mack­erel lure tied on with a three turn uni-knot

Store your rigs on sim­ple hold­ers made from card or foam

A 20kg mahi-mahi caught on the World ARC

Place the tin on a low heat for 30 min­utes

Don’t over­load the smoke box

The per­fect re­sult – smoked mack­erel

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