Offshore fishing - the basic tackle

 Catching fish for the table provides a valuable bonus for offshore sailors. Improve your chances by having the right gear.

When trolling offshore the chances of catching something larger than mackerel becomes very real. For, say, a tuna to take a fancy to the lure on your inshore handline could be very bad news for that handline. And it’s not just a matter of strength. A large and now extremely angry fish can prove a considerable adversary whose strength should not be underestimated. There’s no getting away with it; fishing offshore demands sturdier tackle. It’s at this higher level that rods and reels earn their place in your armoury.

Let’s start with reels. It’s important to know that the widely available fixed spool types are not really suitable for offshore fishing. They are designed to make casting easier ‒ an irrelevance on a sailboat underway. Better by far to go for a revolving spool type, where the line is handled in much the same manner as, say, a windlass might control an anchor chain or rode.

On Shindig we carry two reels specifically for offshore trolling. The first is a Penn 6/0 ‒ a ‘multiplier’ reel (below) which has internal gears to increase the retrieval rate.

The second is a majestic Alvey reel which relies on its considerable diameter to achieve the same effect.

Both have adjustable clutches that allow the spool to slip to ease the shock of a heavy strike; and also ‘fish alerts’ (loud clicking noises) to signal that a fish has struck; hopefully, that is since there’s always the chance that you’ve hit a patch of weed!

It’s common to see multiplier reels clamped to, say. a stern rail but that isn’t always convenient when it comes to landing your catch. A rod brings greater versatility.

The choice of reel fundamentally determines the choice of rod. This is because, as you can see above, multipliers are mounted on top of the rods while the centrepin Alvey types (and incidentally fixed spool reels) are mounted below. As a consequence the line guides ‒ rings or rollers ‒ are different for each.

Long rods are a menace on sailboats. They are also completely unnecessary because you don't have to reach out in the way a land-bound angler must. The fish are all around you. Boat rods are typically about a couple of metres long (say around 6 feet). Then there are 'stand up' rods which can be even shorter. These taper more towards their tips and are really intended for fighting large game fish. However their shortness and stowability makes them an attractive option for sailors.

The advantages rods bring are many:

  • Their flexibility brings some resilience to your rig. When a fish strikes the rod will bend, reducing shock loads.
  • The rod’s tip won’t be static. Along with the natural movement of your boat its flexibility will make your lure flick about, its movements becoming more enticing to its prey.
  • You, the angler, once you've hooked your prey, can move about the cockpit to play your catch and bring it around to where it can best be brought aboard.

Strategically placed rod holders are very useful. On Shindig we have a pair mounted on the stern rails to port and to starboard and a third which we move around as the whim takes us. Buy only the best. The cheap plastic ones age fast.

Tip: A sensible precaution is to rig a safety line from rod to boat.  More than one sailor has fumbled their rod to watch it disappear in the wake astern!

In principle offshore trolling lines are very similar to the inshore rig but beefed up. The simplest rig would comprise about 50 metres (164ft) of 300lb main line, a trolling weight and appropriate links, swivels and a lure as shown below. Before we look at variations on the theme, when it comes to lines let's look at the materials that are involved.

The first choice for the main line is usually monofilament nylon ‒ often known simply as ‘mono’. However, there are now some new players on the block: Spectra and Dyneema ‒ both trade names for 'ultra-high-molecular-weight-polyethylene' (UHMWPE) and becoming ever more familiar to sailors. For instance Shindig’s. running backstays are Dyneema. These are the strongest fibres yet known to man. Their strength allows much smaller diameter lines to be used, meaning you can load greater lengths onto your reels. The smaller diameter makes them less conspicuous to fish and, as an added bonus UHMWPE is almost impervious to UV degradation.

Surely a done deal, wouldn’t you say?

Well, no. And here I’m going to stick my neck out and say you should stick with the humble mono for the main line. Not only are those exotic substitutes more expensive but, should you be unfortunate enough to get a finger trapped, they are of small enough diameter to cut you to the bone.

However, where material for your leader is concerned, modern technology has succeeded in pulling another very intriguing rabbit out of the hat. It’s called 'fluorocarbon' and has interesting properties. For starters its refractive light index is almost identical to water which makes it almost invisible when submerged. Secondly it is stronger than nylon so a smaller diameter can be chosen. Thirdly, it has good resistance to UV degradation, nor does it absorb as much water as mono. The downside is that it’s relatively costly but that’s less discouraging for leaders which are comparatively short in length.

Striking a balance
When it comes to assembling the various components that go to make up an angling unit (if there is such a thing) you should try and match like with like. For instance there’s little point in loading a very strong line onto a reel that could barely handle half that strength.

The strength of a line is known as 'test' and is expressed as 'pounds'. It's generally accepted that this should roughly equal the weight of the fish you hope to catch. If say a 30-pound tuna featured high in your ambitions then a 30-pound test line would be a good choice. Indeed in competition fishing the line test is specified, since much of the skill lies in landing the fish with an only just adequate line.

But of course the cruising sailor cares nothing for this since it makes no allowance for some gigantic hungry fish that takes a fancy to the lure you've chosen and swims off with half the tackle.

Practicality must prevail. For offshore trolling with the Penn 6/0 I use a 50-pound rod loaded with 64-pound (25kg) line. The beefier Alvey is mounted on an 80-pound rod loaded with 100lb line. Leaders have all been switched to fluorocarbon of similar test.

Opening the door marked lures is like Alice must have felt when she stepped through the Looking Glass. For this is a world where fantasy abounds and the variations are dizzily improbable. A friend advised that when making choices I should 'think like a fish', but I'm not sure I have the ability to do something so deeply intellectual.

Artificial lures are very convenient. Unlike 'natural' lures they don't decompose, with all the odourous consequences of such a natural process. We carry nothing other than the artificial variety on Shindig (though may take advantage of some hapless flying fish that finds itself on deck).

There are various types of artificial lure:

  • Spinners, spoons and wedges: These are usually shiny metal lures that flash around underwater thereby attracting fish.
  • Plugs: Usually made of plastic but could be wood (the legendary cedar plug being for example). Most plugs are designed to operate at different depths, being designated as: surface plugs, shallow divers, and deep divers. Boat speed has a significant effect on how deep a plug dives.
  • Soft lures: Of soft flexible plastic. These are intended to simulate both the appearance and motion of real fish
  • Skirted lures: These usually consist of a metal head with a soft plastic skirt behind it hiding the hook. The head is often vented to create a bubble stream vaguely representative of a frightened fish

Paravanes and planers
There's a limit to how deep diving type lures will go on their own. The traditional way to troll at greater depths was simply to add heavier weights but this is a cumbersome solution. The modern answer is to use a paravane or planer. These are not only much lighter than their heavyweight forebears but, should a fish strike, they roll over and bring it up to the surface.

How a paravane works is shown above. a typical example (attached to a handline) is shown below.

Planers work on similar principles and can be considered the big brothers of paravanes, diving deeper and capable of being used with larger lures. But there's a price to pay for the drag produced rules out rods and reels leaving handlines as the only practical option. But not quite. The ingenious arrangement below shows how they can be used in conjunction with rods. The planer is towed by a separate line while a spring clip holds the main line abaft the planer. When a fish strikes the line pulls free and now the rod can be used to play the fish in the usual manner.

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