Fishing inshore

Sailing provides an almost irresistible opportunity to catch fish, whether for food or sport. Here's how to go about it

There a few more activities that fit together so comfortably as sailing and fishing. And here I’m not talking about fishing of an epic kind ‒ you know, harnesses, fighting chairs and leaping marlin. No, my subject here centres on the sort of catch of that would look good on a frying pan or barbecue ... and then taste even better.

And here I must confess that I bore easily and that there are few activities more likely to make me feel drowsy than sitting on the transom with a rod in my hand. So this article starts a short series about fish as a source of food rather than sport ‒ though of course if you relish the latter that’s a considerable bonus.

Let’s start by saying that fish aren’t the most intelligent creatures on the planet. In order to stay alive they are programmed to respond to certain stimuli which they perceive of as food. It therefore falls to fisher-folk to provide said stimuli in order to pluck them from their natural environment and bring them to the table.

This article describes a simple method of capture ‒  for many sailors the one and only method of fishing while underway; yet one that can be very productive in terms of equipment cost per catch.


The favourite dish for many types of fish is other fish. Trailing a lure behind a boat is known as ‘trolling’. Such lures are usually artificial, since synthetic lures don't decompose. The most likely catch around the UK coast are mackerel ‒ one of the dimmest amongst a notably unintelligent fraternity. Proof of this lies in the fact most lures don’t look at all like their favourite repast ‒ other fish. Lures might be of plastic, metal ‒ even feathers are very effective. Yet mackerel (and indeed other fish) are sufficiently flummoxed by the spinning, flashing, vibrations and other sensations to believe that lunch has conveniently presented itself. Look like other fish they may not, but lures are intended to simulate fish; and it’s this counterfeit illusion which attracts the genuine articles to their doom.

The inshore handline should be somewhere around 30m or so long. It comprises a main line which, if of monofilament nylon (often referred to simply as ‘mono’), should be of about 80-100lb breaking strain, along with a weight and ‘leader’ which terminates at some form of lure. Swivels are usually introduced at strategic places to accommodate the twists that naturally occur. A quick release link might also join the main line to the leader, allowing a lure change in a matter of seconds. To bait your handline with the occasional new lure is to explore the potential of your home waters. What works in one place may not work in another.

But first a mild warning. It's not necessary to go overboard with the money. It’s said the intention of tackle shops is to catch customers not fish and there’s lots of truth in that. I speak as something of a sucker myself

Anyway, returning to the theme, a typical arrangement is shown below.


The mackerel we’re talking about here are members of the Scombridtae family (which also includes tuna) but the mackerel label is also used to describe other species. They are pelagic fish, meaning they live neither close to the bottom nor very close to the shore. This makes them ideally placed for coastal sailors. 

Along with many other species, mackerel congregate in shoals - often in company with other species. This means that if you catch a single mackerel you will have missed many of its pals. Mindful of this, many sailors prefer to troll multi-lure rig like the one shown here. That way you might catch a meal’s worth of fish in one hit!



Note that so far there’s no mention of rods and neither will there be in this introductory article where handlines are sufficient.

Handlines can be stowed wound onto a number of different objects. Recently, in the Caribbean, I saw a fisherman doing a sales round of an anchorage, whose line was wound around an empty plastic soft drink bottle. The fish that lay glinting in the bottom of his dinghy testified to his successes.

A few other stowage options are shown here.





Of these perhaps the yo-yo is the most interesting, since the line can be allowed to spill out astern without effort from you.

And note the handlines' weights, the obvious task of which of is to carry your chosen lure down to the pelagic fish’s habitat ‒ typically 3m to 5m below the surface. Unsurprisingly they will be of lead and therefore heavy. Add a desperate fish (or fishes) and you’ll be very much aware of a weight's presence when it comes to recovering the line.

Ingenious alternatives to those leaden lumps are paravanes or ‘planers’. The blue object that accompanies the plywood line holder above is one such. These are basically inverted foils that use the water's flow over their surfaces to cause them to dive. Not only are paravanes of negligible weight but their depth can be regulated by changing the position of the handline’s attachment point. The further aft the attachment, the deeper they will dive. And that’s not all. They confer another trick. With a fish (or fishes) on the hook, they flip over and come to the surface, hopefully signalling your success.

Fish taste better when they are fresh, but that’s never truer than when talking about mackerel which has quite oily flesh. The sooner you get them off the hook and into the frying pan the better

Fishing knots are the subject of a book on their own. But there’s one knot you should learn at once ‒ it’s known as the uni-knot and is hugely versatile. The sequence below shows how to do it…






Sea Books