It was a “fudge up” that still haunts me to this day.** Many, many moons ago, two friends and I were enjoying a solid day of dolphin fishing off Key Largo. With a boxful of fish, we began the 22-mile cruise back to the boat ramp. To save cleanup time, I put my friend behind the wheel and unrigged our trolling baits, save for one large mackerel and an unrigged ballyhoo that might serve as a pitch bait.
About 15 miles from shore, we spotted an excited frigate bird low on the water, and under it was the largest bull dolphin I had ever seen. I’m still embarrassed to guess its weight for fear people won’t believe me, but it appeared to be as large and nearly as wide as a screen door. To be conservative, it was an easy 70-plus pounds.
I grabbed a 20-pound-class spinning outfit, impaled our one and only fresh ballyhoo on a dolphin jig, and stood ready to cast, just behind the console. My heart raced when the huge dolphin swam toward the boat. I reared back to make a cast, thinking, “I’ve got this fish now.” But when I launched my cast, something terrible happened: I snagged the outrigger and halyard. Line, leader and outrigger were so tangled that I couldn’t undo the mess. The big dolphin swam out of sight. We trolled the big mackerel around that spot for at least 30 minutes but never saw that fish again. Had I taken one brief second to calm down and look behind me before casting, I swear that fish would now be hanging on my office wall.
Paying attention to what is around you before casting is paramount to averting disaster, like my flubbed cast. I learned the hard way; I’ve never made this mistake again. There is a lot to fine-tuning your casting, to consistently place a lure or bait smack in front of a fish’s snout. Here are some of the fundamentals necessary to transform your casting into a fish-producing art form.
Offshore fishing provides latitude, and sometimes even forgiveness, when casting to individual and schooling fish. That’s mainly because there are few fixed obstructions and confined areas that demand precisely accurate casts. Land a bait near an offshore game fish, and it will usually swim to it. For those reluctant feeders, reel that same bait up ahead of the fish, and try teasing it into striking. Rarely do inshore anglers fishing in tight confines have this luxury, save for locating schooling bluefish, striped bass, jack crevalle and, occasionally, red drum and tarpon in open waters.
Ready, Aim, Fire!
To precisely deliver a bait to within inches of your target, think of your rod as a gun, and imagine the front guide is the sight. Hold the rod vertically in front of you, and then lower it until you line up the tiptop with your target. Wind the lure to near the rod tip, open the bail, bring the rod back to vertical, and make a quick, sharp and straight cast. This tactic delivers more accuracy than a side-arm cast.
Of course, the velocity of the cast and any directional compensation should be determined by wind direction and strength, and the speed of a cruising fish. In a stiff breeze, it’s essential to put more power behind the cast to drive the lure through the wind. A slower, softer cast will be influenced greatly by strong winds, causing the lure to miss its mark like a Florida State field-goal kicker aiming for the uprights. Also, when dealt a brisk side breeze, compensate by casting a bit more into it, so the wind will still deliver the lure on target rather than downwind from it.
When pitching to a cruising fish, calculate the fish’s heading and speed, and any wind, and then aim to place the lure in front of it. The goal is not only to intercept the swimming fish with your bait, but also to prevent the splash from spooking it. This is most crucial in shallow water, where fish are ultrasensitive to threats.
Lead distance varies with species and depth of water. As a general rule, inshore cruising fish require greater lead — roughly five or six feet — than offshore fish, which often pounce on a bait dropped a few feet in front of them. When a fish is rooting on the bottom, it becomes a matter of casting a few feet in front of and beyond it, and slowly working the lure into their path of travel.
Side-arm inshore casting is the trick for pitching a lure underneath docks, mangrove overhangs, around bridge pilings, and parallel to bridge pilings or seawalls when you’re underneath a bridge with limited space overhead. Side-casting provides the low trajectory needed to get a lure up underneath hanging structure, right into a fish’s den, where they await a free meal.
Not unlike swinging a baseball bat, hold the rod off to your side at a 90-degree angle to the water, open the bail, bring the rod back a couple of feet, and then cast. The objective is to keep the lure and line as close to, and parallel with, the water as possible. Sometimes squatting down to make a successful cast is required. Again, put power behind the cast to compensate for wind. Before approaching the target, make a few warm-up casts to acquire the feel necessary to make a perfect cast. You’ll want to be dead-on with your initial cast, as that might be your only shot.
One trick for getting up under thick overhangs, those too challenging for even side-arm casts — such as when you are baiting snook, redfish, sea trout and even winter gag grouper — is to utilize the tide and wind. For example, when the situation presents itself, I’ll make a side-arm cast up-current of the overhang, and immediately dip my rod tip into the water, sometimes to the third rod guide. Submerging the fishing line helps prevent snagging protruding structure. I’ll let the tide carry the bait or lure underneath the overhang, and right into the strike zone. And when setting the hook and fighting a fish out of the mess, keep the rod tip down until the fish gets into open water.
When pitching baits in between tight pilings and groins, especially those underneath bridges, overhead casts are nearly impossible, and side-arm casts lack accuracy. A pendulum cast can get a bait well into the zone and on a straight trajectory. This one might take a bit of practice to master, but it’ll certainly pay off.
Face your target, and point the rod down and just off to your side. Open the bail and strip off a few feet of line. Hold the line coming off the reel with one hand (at least a couple of feet away from the reel), while with your other hand you apply pressure on the spool with a finger or two. Swing the rod from low to high, back and forth, causing the lure to swing like a pendulum, while holding the line taut. Once you have the momentum, make the cast by raising your rod and simultaneously snapping back the line you’ve been holding. This will launch the lure toward the target, provided you immediately release your grip on the line and reel spool.
As mentioned earlier, there’s more latitude when casting offshore to fish like dolphin, tuna and the occasional billfish. Here, overhand casts are best for accuracy and distance when pitching a chugger or jig to busting tuna, or a bait at dolphin under a frigate bird. Whenever distance and accuracy are required to keep fish from sounding, this is the cast of choice.
However, when pitch-baiting to a fish that’s on a teaser or darting about the spread, or when baiting schooling fish such as dolphin, chummed-up tuna or a large, single fish lurking under a weed line, side-arm casting is fine, provided you have the casting skill to get the bait in front of the fish.
Wind can actually be a friend to the offshore caster. Because there are no permanent obstructions to worry about, simply maneuver the boat upwind of the fish and use the breeze to help carry your cast to the target. This is a great way to sneak up on breaking fish.
One bit of advice before launching that lure: Pause for a split second and look behind you, or you’ll risk never getting that horrible sound and sight of snagging an outrigger out of your mind. Trust me.
To Make Those Long Casts
Keep your reel spool filled to capacity.
Don’t use line that is heavier than what is recommended for the reel.
Match the rod to the reel and the chosen line class.
Braided line often casts farther than mono due to its much smaller diameter for the same breaking strength.
When possible, use small wind-on style knots, which allow you to reel the lure close to the rod tip, where you’ll have better control of casting accuracy.
Acquire the touch so you take advantage of the top one-third of the rod to execute your casts.
After casting a spinning reel, manually close the bail. This helps reduce the line twist that can substantially limit your casting distance.
Inspect guides for the slightest nicks and abrasions, which can interfere with casting distance and also damage the line, ultimately costing you a fish.
Change line regularly. Finishes on monofilament and braided lines reduce friction, which results in longer casts.
Freshwater washings are essential for removing salt from the reel and line. Salt deposits on fishing line and the spool will hamper casting distances and accuracy.