1. Cast a Fly into the Wind
Wind is a universal problem in salt water fly-fishing, as much of a hassle when casting from a Rhode Island jetty as on a Bahamian bonefish flat. Beating the breeze can get you fish, but takes a little forethought. These tricks will help.
If casting into a headwind, throw a high backcast, which a strong headwind will fully straighten behind you. A fully straightened backcast then facilitates a powerful forward cast punched downward, into the wind, toward the water’s surface.
If dealing with a tailwind, try throwing a low, sidearm backcast, keeping that portion of the cast down and under the wind. Then bring the rod back to vertical for a high forward cast, in which case the tailwind helps carry the delivery.
Crosswinds are a different problem. If the wind is coming from your casting-hand side, it will blow the line and fly into your body with a conventional cast. Try turning around and casting so your backcast becomes the delivery cast, in which case the wind will be blowing the line and fly away from your body.
2. Vent a Fish
Reef species with spiny fin rays have closed swim bladders that help produce sound and maintain buoyancy, plus they hold nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. When these fish are reeled rapidly to the surface, the gas molecules expand and rupture the bladder. The escaping gases then fill the body cavity, forcing the eyes to bulge, the intestines to pop out of the fish’s anus and the stomach to protrude from the mouth. If the gases aren’t released (or vented), the fish can’t submerge, which makes it an easy target for predators.
Based on extensive studies by Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory and other scientific groups, reef fish caught in water depths from 70 to 200 feet have excellent survival rates if the swim bladder gases are vented. To vent properly, follow these steps:
Step 1: Use a small hollow device like a hypodermic syringe or sharpened basketball inflation needle for a venting tool. Stainless steel is hygienic and resists rust.
Step 2: With wet hands or a towel, lay the fish flat on top of a cooler or the boat’s covering boards. Gently push the pectoral fin flat alongside the fish’s body.
Step 3: The venting area is in the middle of the trailing edge of the fin, in the fatty muscle tissue. Using a slight forward angle, slip the venting tool point under the scales and with moderate pressure, push the point barely inside the body cavity.
Step 4: You will see the belly deflate and hear the gases escape after the tool is inside. Take care not to puncture the stomach or intestines if they are protruding. Once the pressure is released, the fish will retract them.
NOTE Don’t use a solid object like an ice pick to vent. The gases won’t fully escape and bacteria may be introduced. Rinse the venting tool after use to clean it so that it is ready for the next fish.
-Capt. Dave Lear
3. Don’t Get Rocked
When fishing in tight to structure, it’s inevitable that you will get “rocked” – a term commonly used by fishermen when an aggressive fish grabs a bait or lure and buries its head in the rocks, weeds or kelp. Before you give up and resort to snapping the line, there are a couple of proven tricks to try.
Before pulling hard and possibly fraying the line against sharp structure, drop the rod tip and let the line go slack. By relaxing the pressure for a few seconds, a fish will sometimes respond by swimming out from the protection of its cover. For fish that are slow to respond to this approach, slowly bring the line tight, and as you ease back on your rod tip, start strumming the taught line like a guitar string. This works best in shallower water and seems to drive some fish crazy, often bolting to escape the annoyance.
If these methods fail and you can pull the boat’s anchor, try maneuvering around the structure. Pulling from different angles will sometimes allow you to work free. Where kelp is the culprit, a sustained pull with monofilament line will sometimes pay dividends by cutting through the supple vegetation and allowing you to resume fighting your fish.
4. Break a Giant
Setting the drag on a 50-, 80- or 130-pound stand-up outfit is a pre-game ritual. Knowing how to use it will keep you on top of the game when you encounter an adversary capable of really challenging your tackle and skill.
To break a big fish fast, you’ll want three clearly marked settings. First set “strike” at 33 percent of the line’s breaking strength. Then locate a “pre-strike” position at 25 percent, usually about a finger’s width before “strike.” Mark it with a piece of colored electrical tape on the reel frame. This is done so that when you push the lever to “full” it should generate approximately 50 percent of the line rating.
Why three? Beating big fish is as much about breaking its will as tiring it out and you can do it by continually increasing pressure as the contest unfolds. On the fish’s initial run, the drag is at “pre-strike.” The line should always be moving either in or out. When the fish stops, you pump. When it runs, you rest. When it turns and makes another run, push the drag up to “strike,” lean back, enjoy the ride. It stops, you pump. If it makes another run, go to “full” and lean back hard against the drag pressure. Use this method and you’ll find that you can break virtually any fish.
5. Run an Inlet in Heavy Weather
Running a rough inlet can be a nerve-wracking affair, but you can make it less so if you keep the following in mind. Know the depth, width and the exact location of any adjacent shoals and jetties. This will help you develop an understanding of what the seas are likely to do within the confines of the inlet.
If you’re unsure about how to exit a rough inlet, hang back and let a few other boats pass. Watch each vessel as it enters the inlet and note how the waves break on its bow and the skipper’s chosen course. Once you’re comfortable with the pattern, accelerate toward the inlet, slowing once you reach the chop. With the bow raised and angled slightly off-center of the waves, throttle up just enough to breast the first wave, not hop over or plow through it. Throttle back slightly as you approach each wave, then accelerate right before it meets the bow in order to gain power and lift. Use enough throttle to maintain control and keep the bow raised.
Running an inlet with a following sea that’s too high to run over requires careful handling and throttle work. Accelerate until the bow is just behind the backside of the lead wave, and use just enough throttle to maintain your position. Don’t overrun the wave or let the one behind you catch up.
A shallow inlet, in which the seas are breaking over shoals and forming large rollers, calls for you to time the wave patterns prior to sneaking between a pair. Take a compass heading and, if possible, choose the straightest angle in. Take note of any boats heading out and keep behind your lead wave until it subsides enough to pick up the pace.
Once you make the commitment and enter the inlet, follow through, even if you’re having second thoughts. Stay calm and maintain headway. If you feel the seas are too high and wish to turn back, proceed through the inlet until you can veer offshore to calmer water and then turn around.
Prior to running a very rough inlet, you and your crew should don lifejackets. Also, keep a long dock line handy and make sure the anchor is easily accessible. If you lose power in the middle of an inlet, deploy the anchor and be ready to toss the line to a rescue vessel if necessary.
6. Ask Before You Book
To avoid any misunderstandings or disappointments on your next charter, ask your captain these questions before booking a trip.
How much? What does the price of the charter include? Are there additional costs for fuel, fish cleaning, bait and others?
What about extras? What’s the usual tip expected for the captain, the deckhand(s) or the cook, and are there any other charges or gratuities I’ll be expected to pay?
Got a reference? Can you provide me with references for not only your successful charters but also unsuccessful charters? You’ll find checking the references for unsuccessful charters very important. Ask these references if the captain has plenty of equipment and bait and whether or not they would rebook with that same captain.
How big are the fish? What do you expect to catch if we book with you for a specific number of hours? Most captains will try to meet the expectations that they give their customers.
Refund policy? What is your rainy day or cancellation policy? Who decides to cancel the trip and why? Will I get my deposit back if the trip is cancelled?
The better understanding you have before booking a charter, the fewer problems you’ll have during and after the trip.
-John E. Phillips
7. Find the Thermocline
Vertical boundaries, known as “temperature breaks,” are easily identified and familiar to most offshore fishermen. But horizontal boundaries, known as “thermoclines,” can only be seen by a good fishfinder or sonar, so are much less well known.
The most important thermocline is the first, or upper, thermocline. In tropical waters it may be as deep as 300 feet and persist throughout the year, while in temperate waters it may disappear in the colder months and return as the sun warms the upper layers, gradually deepening and becoming more pronounced as the season progresses. It can be located by following these steps: slow your boat to eliminate turbulence, turn your fishfinder to its highest frequency to maximize its resolution, then slowly increase the gain until the thermocline shows up. It will appear as either a fine, rather sharply defined line or, if there is much plankton in the top layer, as a sudden clearing of the screen at the base of the plankton echoes.
The establishment of the upper thermocline in late spring heralds the northward migration of such species as white and blue marlin, dorado and yellowfin tuna. Look for these species where the thermocline is well-established and at a depth of at least 40 feet.
8. Read the Birds
It’s no secret that salt water anglers rely on birds to find fish. Seeing a flock of gulls or terns dive-bombing the water makes us feel like we’ve found the mother lode. But can you “read” the birds well enough to decipher the frenzy and catch more fish? Here’s a crash course.
While there are lots of different species of birds, the common ones we see are a blend of inshore and offshore birds. Terns, gulls and cormorants are inshore birds. While terns favor small bait such as silversides, sandeels, bay anchovies, and small butterfish, gulls target larger baitfish such as menhaden, mackerel and herring (when they’re not picking on dead horseshoe crabs or other debris). Cormorants are less selective and will eat anything that swims.
Offshore birds like petrels, shearwaters and gannets travel great distances every day. In the ocean, petrels like squid but they’ll move into bays and estuaries to feed on shrimp and plankton. Shearwaters key in on mackerel and squid but they also slum it with some crustaceans and plankton. The migratory gannet moves through New England in the fall, feasting on a buffet of herring and sampling a peanut bunker or two.
Take a few minutes to study your birds to see if some patterns unfold. Birds flying in a single direction reveal baitfish spread out in a current. It probably means that the fish are scattered as well. If the birds are all balled up, there may be fish corralling their next meal. Watch when birds suddenly veer off course because they’re telling you that they are on to something better. Fast-flying birds can mean fast-swimming fish like Spanish mackerel or bonito, whereas slow moving-birds can reveal striper schools. Birds hovering close to the water tell you that the bait is on top and birds flying high means they’re just looking. If a diving bird is underwater for a short time then the bait is high up in the water column and if they’re down for a long time they’re probably just doing some laps. And if a big flock of birds suddenly ditches and goes somewhere else, you probably should, too.
It’s easy to get duped by birds. When the bait is thick, birds dropping out of the sky in big flocks may be more about easy pickings rather than big schools of fish. Similarly, large flocks of birds sitting on the water may mean lots of fish have driven the bait to the surface and the birds don’t have to fly to feed. Watch their heads, as they are probably picking at more than just their feathers.
So before you start racing around wasting gas or blowing out big schools of fish, check out the birds. Chances are they’re providing you with invaluable information and putting you right on the prime locations of schools of fish.
– Tom Keer
9. Work a Pencil Popper
Ever since the late Stan Gibbs taught me how to use his creation, the pencil popper, it’s been my favorite lure. Gibbs carved his unique popper to attract big stripers. As it turned out, that plug will turn on any surface-feeding game fish.
The standard Gibbs wooden pencil popper has been copied in other materials and all will do the job in the hands of an angler working it properly. There are times when a fast retrieve with practically no action works, but it’s usually vital to impart lots of movement. Those used to conventional poppers often assume anglers working pencil poppers are wearing themselves out. Just the opposite is true. It is actually easier to impart lots of action to the plug and still cast all day.
In what is something of a misnomer, pencil poppers don’t really pop at all nor do they necessarily resemble a specific baitfish. It is the popper’s splashing action that often stirs up even the most complacent gamefish. To fish it properly, the lure should be mostly out of the water. All the fish sees is the butt end thrashing around.
It’s all wrist and tip action with pencil poppers. Select a rod with a fast-taper tip and a long butt. Rest the rod butt against your thigh or between your legs (whichever is more comfortable) and work the lure by shaking your wrist as you reel.
Because pencil poppers are effective at any pace, you will be able to tease up fish that might not otherwise respond to lures zooming through their lair. This effectively broadens the strike zone. For example, you can virtually stop forward motion close to the boat by lowering the rod tip and yet make the lure dance in place simply by increasing tip action. Salt water game fish will rarely hit a plug when it’s stopped next to the boat, but they’ll often blast one that’s still working at that point. I’ve caught dolphin, Pacific barracuda, rainbow runners, bluefish and other schooling species right at the boat. By taking a page out of the muskie angler’s playbook, I use the rod to whip the pencil popper across the surface in an “S” pattern off the bow. I get the fish worked up in their failure to get at the skipping lure and then slow it just a bit so they can nail it.
10. Brine a Bait
Every offshore fisherman should know how to brine a bait, especially if traveling to an area where fresh baits might be hard to come by. Brining preserves the color and scent of a natural bait while enhancing its durability. Start with fresh-caught baits that haven’t been processed or frozen and place them in a 48-quart cooler containing a slushy brine for a minimum of six hours (24 hours is better if you have the time). The brine is made of fresh water, crushed ice, a box or two of Kosher salt and a half-pound of baking soda.
With flash-frozen, pre-brined baits, which are carried by many major tackle centers, let them thaw naturally in the shade. Fill three-quarters of a five-gallon bucket with fresh water, mix in a liberal amount of coarse Kosher salt and about eight ounces of baking soda. The salt lowers the freezing temperature of the ice and draws moisture from the bait to toughen it, while the baking soda helps preserve the bait’s color and retard decomposition.
Soak the thawed ballyhoo in the brine and begin rigging them. After each bait is rigged, wash off any blood and loose scales by giving it a final dip in the brine solution, and place it into the bait cooler.
The bottom of the cooler should be layered with ice, followed by a liberal dusting of Kosher salt and baking soda. Lay a plastic bag over one end of the ice, then arrange the rigged baits side by side – belly-down – on the ice, with the leaders laying on the plastic bag. When the first row is complete, lay another plastic bag on top of the leaders, which keeps them from sticking, followed by another layer of ice and a dusting of salt and baking soda. Repeat until the cooler is full.
11. Gaff a Fish
Although there are no percentage numbers to back it up, it is fair to say the majority of fish lost during an engagement are lost at the boat just prior to or during the landing, wiring, tagging or gaffing sequence.
As the wireman or angler brings the fish to the boat, the object is to “lead” the fish into position to be gaffed, therefore the term “leader.” The best gaff shot is always from the head back to the shoulders, which helps to control the fish. As the old timers would say, “where his head goes, he goes.” The best fish position for a good gaff shot is alongside the boat, where the fish is sideways and a broad target, not at the transom where the fish is facing you and provides a very slim target for the gaff.
Once the fish is in position for a gaff shot, the gaffman comes in behind and alongside the wireman or angler, not in front of him. This allows for the cleanest shot. If the fish surges ahead, the wireman can move with the fish and the gaff is not in the way of the leader or in danger of breaking it.
The gaff should always be held with the hook down, not up. By keeping the hook down, the gaff shot is made over the shoulder or body of the fish toward the boat. It also plants the gaff in the solid part of the fish, rather than coming from beneath where there is soft tissue.
12. Rig a Live Bait
The critical key to all live-bait rigging is hook positioning. The bait must swim naturally but you need to be careful not to hook the fish so deep that you injure it, yet deep enough so the hook doesn’t tear free. Here are four basic rigs.
A popular method for slow trolling is to nose-hook the bait (through the upper jaw, not both jaws, if you want it to live longer). However, when anchored or drifting, a nose-hooked bait will eventually want to swim back under the boat.
To encourage the bait to swim away from the boat, rig the hook in the fleshy part of the bait’s shoulder, just ahead of the dorsal fin.
Rigging the hook sideways through the flesh at the front of the eye allows the bait to swim naturally at the surface or when trolled.
Finally, if you want the bait to swim away from the boat and down, hook through its meaty belly above the vent.
13. Stretch It Out
Longer casts equal more fish because you cover more water. One of the quickest ways to add distance to a cast is to go with a small-diameter, lightweight line and to keep the spool of the reel at capacity.
“When using a baitcasting reel, I’ll loosen the right-side spool tension knob as much as possible,” says Bruce Shuler, a veteran guide on the Laguna Madre, in South Texas. “I’ll make 1/8-inch turns of the knob until I get it so loose that the spool will turn freely when disengaged.”
With a spinning reel, you want to make sure the line-release trigger guard doesn’t have any nicks. If you can bypass the guard, barely tip your casting finger with the line and let her rip. Shuler select rods with a soft or very flexible tip.
“The trick is to let the rod’s soft tip load up, then come forward and make a smooth cast,” Shuler explained. Also, a clean reel will cast farther every time. Jeremy Ebert, a professional at cleaning and repairing reels for Fishing Tackle Unlimited in Houston, Texas, says a few drops of light oil on the reel’s shaft and the bearings is perfect for longer casts. “Don’t ever submerge the reel,” he says. “Use a light mist or wet cloth to clean it after each trip.” Make sure the eyes on the rod are clean and free of salt buildup. After every trip, wipe down the rod with a wet towel, then spray the guides with lubricant.
– Robert Sloan
14. Find the Holes on the Beach
Finding the deeper water, the pockets that hold fish, is the key to finding fish along a beach. Some beaches are flat with just slight depressions; while others have distinct holes with severe drop-offs. In clear water and bright sun, look for the blue-green holes contrasting with the sandbars. In low light or when the water is discolored, you need to look at the shoreline and watch wave action for clues. Along some beaches, sand walls form in front of the bigger holes. They can be three to four feet high. A bowl between two points usually is a deep pocket of water, if the beach’s slope is steep.
Watching wave action and how the white water moves over the beach’s contour is the best way to find good water. Along flat sections of beach, which are devoid of holding water, waves break then roll all the way to the shore. In sections with sandbars and holes, the wave breaks over the bar, rolls for a distance, then disappears. Where this wall of white water disappears is the inside edge of the hole. Watch surface bubbles to determine the flow’s direction. This flow moves from the corner back to the deeper water in the hole’s middle, or in the case of a very large hole creates a long section of moving, fishable water. Without wave action look for a current line indicating a sandbar with a drop-off on the backside.
15. Unhook a Bird
Uninten-tionally hooking up with a seagull can be downright humiliating or even frightening to some anglers.
STEP 1: To safely release the bird, drop a clean cloth, towel or jacket completely over the bird, covering its head, back and wings. Not only does this protect you from an errant beak, but if the bird can’t see, it calms down quite a bit. Place gentle but firm pressure on the bird’s back. Once it sits down, fold its wings to its body and wrap the cloth around it. Hold it away from your face. Take care not to hold the bird too tightly or pin it down, because it may lead to suffocation or broken bones.
STEP 2: Remove the line and hook. Snipping the line at a convenient distance rarely resolves the problem. The seabird may fly away but line can wrap around a bird’s legs, wings or beak. Unable to fly, swim or feed, starvation quickly results. Make every attempt to remove the hook, too. Leaving a hook in a bird will cause infection-plus you’ll loose your plug. Crimping the barbs on your hooks will make removal a lot easier. Push the hook forward through the bird’s skin, until the barb is exposed and clip behind it with wire cutters. Back the hook out. For treble hooks, cut them where they join, then push each hook forward and remove it.
– Capt. John McMurray
16. Wire with Care
The phrase “wiring” a fish means taking the leader in hand to lead the fish next to the boat for gaff and capture or tag and release. However, done improperly, wiring can be downright dangerous, especially on large, unpredictable fish. Many professionals with years of experience have been cut to the bone by the leader, pulled out of the boat or even drowned. Extreme care should be taken on any fish when bringing it alongside the boat. In those instances when you must lead a fish to the boat, here are a couple general rules of thumb to follow.
Try to keep the boat moving slowly forward or in a turn as this helps to lead the fish alongside the boat. A dead boat and a darting fish can create a lot of problems.
Wear quality cotton gloves or, when using mono leader, try a pair of yellow gripper gloves available at most tackle shops.
Keep your eyes on the fish at all times and be prepared for its sudden and often unexpected moves to free itself.
To leader a fish properly, you must take wraps of the leader. Begin by placing your palm up, under the leader and wrap the line around the meat of your hand. To prevent it from slipping through your hands, take two wraps and pull the fish to you so that you can get another set of wraps around your opposite hand.
Keep your elbows bent and try to finesse the fish to the boat – using brute strength results in lost fish and injury.
In the event you should have to let go to prevent a break-off or to keep from being pulled over, simply open your hand and point it toward the fish and the line will fall off your hand. Practice this technique on every fish you leader from bluefish on up so that it becomes second nature. Never second guess letting go. If you think you should, dump the leader off your hands and let things settle down for another try.
17. Fish the Rip
Rips form when swift currents hit a ledge, reef or shoal forcing the water to compress and sweep over the structure at an increased speed. A series of standing waves, called a “rip line,” is created when the faster, upwelling water collides with deeper, slower water behind a reef. Along the bottom, this surging motion causes a vacuum-like effect with relatively calmer, slower water just ahead of the structure, commonly called the “sweet spot.” Predators hold here to conserve energy and then rocket up to ambush baitfish trapped in the rip above, and this is where you should fish.
How to find it You can locate the sweet spot on the up-tide side of a reef where it slopes upward from a flat bottom. Because it takes time and distance for the upwelling water to reach the surface, the sweet spot will be located a short distance – depending on the depth – in front of the rip line.
How to work it Once you’ve found a rip line, motor up-current from the waves while watching your depthfinder. After the reef flattens out, stop the motor and fish while drifting back toward the rip. Drifting, rather than anchoring, allows the boat to keep pace with the tide-swept lure or live bait, and you’ll cover the sweet spot more effectively. Or you can troll by “stemming the current” so your deep-running lures pass through the sweet spot.
How to fish it Pay attention to where you catch fish on each reef. Using triangulation, electronics or an anchored float, you can return to that exact spot on successive passes.
18. Remove a Hook from Your Hide
Very nice work. Plenty of snap on the initial strike. A good, quick pump of the rod to make the hook set more meaningful. Now, depending on how deeply you’ve sunk the barb into your own flesh, your choices are good, bad and worse. If the barb protrudes from your epidermal layer, removing the hook is a snip. Just cut the wire below the barb and back the hook out. If the barb is embedded but close to the skin surface, it’s time to grin and (literally) bare it. Push the hook point the rest of the way out, cut it off behind the barb, and put it in reverse. A deeply embedded hook point requires a nifty bit of macram¿ff, line lashing, Newtonian action-reaction physics and a quick, courageous yank. It’s not so bad. Really. Here’s how.
First, double a two-foot length of fishing line (at least ten-pound test) and slip the loop around the midpoint of the bend in the hook. Hold the line ends between the thumb and forefinger. Now, with the free hand, press the hook eye down against the skin to keep from snagging tissue. Don’t let the hook shank twist. Grasp the line sharply, line it all up nice and straight, breathe deep and yank. As unlikely as it might seem, this little trick really works well.
-T. Edward Nickens
19. Take A Great Fish Photo
With catch-and-release being all the rage, taking great photos of your fish has become increasingly important in preserving memories of your catch. To take the best quality pictures possible, without buying fancy equipment, follow these easy tips.
Tip 1 Photograph on the boat – Shoot the fish while it’s alive and colorful. Avoid back-at-the-dock shots with faded, stiff and gutted fish.
Tip 2 Tell the whole story – Include photos of the guide rigging the tackle, the sunrise over the ocean, the birds working over blitzes or the marks on the fishfinder. Photograph your buddy with a bent rod and then his fish coming aboard or being released. Always include the tackle, and never cut off the fish’s tail.
Tip 3 Watch the background – Check for level horizons. Look around all four sides of your viewfinder for parts of other people or other distractions such as a rod seemingly protruding from the angler’s head.
Tip 4 Avoid hard shadows – To lighten black shadows thrown by hats, fish or boat tops, set your camera to flash during bright conditions when it’s not normally required. Or simply ask the anglers to stand in the sunlight and remove their caps.
Tip 5 Vary the fish and camera positions – A head-on shot of a big, toothy critter is exciting. Try lifting the fish two-thirds out of the water like it’s being landed or released. Hold the camera vertically if the fish is held vertically and then zoom in or step closer to eliminate “dead space.”
20. Keep It Fresh
Seafood tlc begins the moment the fish is landed. If possible, shuttle the catch directly into an ice-filled cooler or fishbox and shut the lid. Letting it flop itself to death on deck is not recommended, as this will cause bruising of the meat not to mention the crew. Try to dispatch the fish quickly and get it on ice. Note that some fish, most notably tuna, should be “bled out” prior to icing to maintain peak flavor.
No matter what the species, the most important thing is to keep it cool. With a small or medium-size fish, placing it on a bed of ice (chipped is best, but cubed is okay) is ideal. A very large or long fish should be stored in an ice-filled, insulated fishbag if it won’t fit in a fishbox. Keep the fish as flat and secure as possible, and do not place any heavy objects on top of it.
Once the fish has been filleted or steaked out on a clean surface, rinse it with salt water (fresh water contains chemicals that can taint the taste), place it in a clean plastic bag and keep it well chilled. The longer the meat is kept unrefrigerated or exposed to the air, the faster it will deteriorate. Obviously, this problem is compounded in hot weather.