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