Fishing is a Big Thing on Kenobi. We fish under way, at anchor, from the dinghy and usually bring a speargun when we go snorkelling. On this page I’ve put together some info on our setup and the techniques we use. This is by no means an exhaustive guide to blue water fishing - just something to get you started. Use google or the books in the "Further Reading" section for more detailed descriptions. The main reason for fishing when sailing is providing fresh fish for the kitchen. But almost as strong a reason, for me at least, is catching a trophy fish. Therefore the gear described here is sized to be able to handle 50+ kilo fish. If this is not in your interest you may be able to size down a bit and use only smaller lures (but big fish can take small lures too!). Lastly, I am not at all an expert in blue water fishing, just a keen fisherman who by now have some experience fishing while cruising and like to share.
Written 6-10th October 2016 during a calm passage from Bora Bora, French Polynesia to Aitutaki, Cook Islands.
Fishing under way - trolling
This is why I wanted to go sailing it the first place - being able to fish every moment of the day from your home, the sail boat. When I started I was happily surprised how well it works, as soon as you get the routine in. When we stock up Kenobi for a crossing we only bring vegetables, dry beans and rice etc - fresh fish is provided by the ocean! (or we go vegan for a while, that happens too)
The rods used are called stand-up rods and are made of solid glass fibre. They are very strong, I snagged one in the wind generator once but it didn’t break! Good rods are Penn Mariner or International, the latter being a bit more fancy with roller guides. You also need a fighting belt, “gimball belt”. They are only $30 and during a 1 hour tuna fight you would hate yourself if you skimped on this one. For reels I’ve used Penn Senator, and I really recommend getting at least size 9/0 - that way you can have enough line to fight a big fish and be able to stop the boat before it runs off with all the line. I have caught a 50 kilo yellowfin tuna on a 6/0 but that was a close call. Use 0,70 or 0,80 mm nylon, if 0,70 make sure it’s a strong high-quality line. Thinner line means room for more line on the spool, you can let the fish run off longer during the fight. During the Galapagos-Marquesas crossing I had a couple break-offs from large marlins and since then I always tie a 2 m “Bimini Twist” the the end of the line and attach a snap swivel to connect the lures leader. This gives you a length of doubled, permanently and tightly twisted line, providing shock absorption and abrasion resistance. If you want to catch trophy size fish of just not want to loose your lures you should do this. The Cruisers Handbook of Fishing has a detailed illustrated description on how to to tie one. The lure, almost always a squid, is attached to a 2 m leader of 1,3 mm nylon. Close to shore and areas with lots of wahoo and barracuda (sharp teeth), consider using steel wire instead. Or always use steel wire, however this may decrease the number of strikes you get if the fish is wary.
Gear like this is not available in all countries (e.g. Sweden, no big game fishing - no gear). I ordered reels and other stuff from TackleDirect.com (they also have pennfishingstore.com) and it was delivered to my home in Sweden from the US in 48 hours. I recommend buying as much as possible before you leave, good fishing stores “out in the wild” is hard to find and are often much more expensive.
What lure to use?
When sailing in deep waters I use squids 95% of the time. Usually bright fluorescent coloured in pink/white, green/yellow, blue/pink/white etc colour combos. Sometimes I try a dark one, maybe black/purple. Dark colours on dark days, they say. Favourite size is a 15-20 cm squid with a 6/0-7/0 hook. Buy good hooks - I strongly recommend Mustad 7732-SS. They are not cheap but well worth the money. Get at least size 6/0 and 7/0, better even the whole range 4/0 to 9/0 i you want to vary the lure size more. Squids have different shaped heads. Some are cupped in the front, called caviator or chuggers, and they produce a bubble trail in the water. Bullet heads go a little deeper and not so much splashing. Jet heads have holes that also produce bubbles. They all work great! Keep switching it up to see what the fish like today. I usually use a bullet on one rod and a chugger on the other.
The other 5% of the time fishing is vobbler time. I use them in shallow waters (squids work here too) or low speed as a vobbler has a good swimming movement already at 3 knots. Yo-Zuri, Halco or the classic Rapala Magnum are good choices. They will also serve in higher speeds without starting to spin. Make sure the vobbler you use has very strong hooks, they need to be intended for big game blue water fish, otherwise a tuna will straighten it easily.
Always spray the lures with fresh water after use, the hooks will rust fast otherwise.
The lures go in as soon as we leave the anchorage, reefs and other underwater structure close to land often hold fish. Just make sure you do a wide circle when going upwind to set the sail to avoid lines near propellers. We usually don’t fish at night, it’s just impractical as crew will have to be woken up to help handle boat and fish. Only when we are really hungry we do this. Also in rough conditions or when we are going so fast it would be hard to stop the boat in time we usually don’t fish. Early morning is good for fishing so have the guy on shift at 05:30 drop in the lines! Evenings are also very good, feels like we often get a bite around 17:00 that inevitably changes the dinner plans. But fish can bite all though the day. While sailing, keep a lookout for flocks of birds circling over an area or floating debris and try to steer close.
Keep the lure close to the boat, fish in the ocean don’t get scared of the boat, they are attracted to it. That’s lucky for us, fishing in 6000+ meters depth of water would be really hit and miss otherwise. Keep one rod close, 1-2 boat lengths and the other a couple lengths further back. The short line, the “short corner”, should be on the windward side and the long corner on the lee. That way you don’t get tangled lines. We want the lures to be swimming just behind the turbulent white wash in the wake of the boat. The wake will attract fish and having the lure out of the water foam will make it easy to spot. Very important is the action of the lure in the water. Your squid should swim just under the surface, and break the surface with a little splash every 4 seconds or so. To achieve this you need to consider the weight and shape of the squid head and line length in relation to your speed. If you’re going fast you need a heavier head and/or to let out a longer line. So in any case the lure with the heavier head should be on short corner. What about speed? A minimum speed of 5 knots seem to be a magical number when it comes from trolling squids. Under that try using a vobbler instead. For a typical cruising sailboat max speed is not an issue, tuna will bite up to 12 knots or more. I set the reel drag quite hard to make sure the fish is hooked as it strikes. When I need both hands to be able to drag line off the reel it’s enough.
When the fish strike - if it’s a smaller one, up to maybe 3 or 5 kilo depending on species, try and just reel it in fast, having it surf on top of the water. This way you can get the fish in while continuing sailing. For a big fish it is a must to stop the boat. First thing we do is roll in the genoa, then we sheet in the main, turn on the engines and head upwind. During this someone also reels in the other rod to avoid tangled lines. The fish will be taking line but you have 500+ meters on your 9/0 reel. Once the boat has slowed, help the designated fish fighter to put the gimball belt on as the fight begins. A very strong fish can threaten to empty the spool of line as it rushes away, then we drop the main and follow it by motor. For a tuna over 20 kilos the fight can take over an hour, pumping and reeling it in close only to see it do another deep run. Marlins are generally more explosive with lots of jumps and not as long lasting fights, you either manage to get it in or it breaks the line, often in a jump by thrashing its bill. Once the fish is tired, grab the lure leader and guide it close as another crew member gaffs it behind the head, shaft of the gaff going over the back of the fish, hook facing down. Or in panic mode just gaff wherever you can! Lift the fish aboard and spray some alcohol into the gills - kills the fish instantly and without getting blood all over the boat. Rum or any alcohol works but we like to keep that for ourselves and use cleaning alcohol for the fish. Bleed it, fillet it and cool it in the fridge as soon as possible.
Fishing from the dinghy / at anchor
The good thing about predatory fish is that they work much the same all over the world. They feed on other fish so my lures and spinning rods from back home work perfect here too! Warmer water and quicker fish so reel a bit faster, that’s all. Try fishing early morning and sunset. Fish where there is interesting underwater structures such as reefs or drop-offs. In atolls the channels with a current is usually the place to be.
The reel should not be too small and must have a solid drag break. Using vobblers, poppers and jigs you can catch groupers, jacks, barracudas and they can take off at a high speed. When fishing close to coral reefs it is essential to be able to put a lot of pressure on the fish to stop it before it reaches the coral, otherwise your line is cut in a second.
Another true and tested technique that will work everywhere is doing a simple setup with a hook and lead sinker 20 cm above, use some fish meat for bait. Just watch out for those sharks!
Spear gun fishing
This is a new hobby so here I’m truly a novice. Anyway, this is what I’ve learnt so far, mostly fishing through French Polynesia.
Watch out for ciguatera. A food-borne illness caused by a toxin growing in coral reefs. Some fish are affected but most are not. Talk to locals, get more than one opinion. Smaller fish are safer than bigger fish. The pelagic fish in the ocean don’t have ciguatera so fish such as tuna, mahi-mahi, marlin, wahoo are safe. Read about our own experience getting poisoned in Ciguatera poisoning in Aitutaki
Shark danger - those black tip reef sharks are everywhere! In the Tuamotus they were, anyway. A bit scary at first but you soon get used to them. When you shoot a fish, carry it back to the dinghy/boat over the water and the sharks won’t know it exist. If they start to become agitated and come to close I stop fishing. When using the dinghy in a Tuamotu lagoon you can go from coral head to coral head, shooting one fish at each and having no problem with sharks. If possible, don’t clean your fish at the boat, sharks will swarm and stay by your boat making it hard to fish and unpleasant to snorkel there.
- Wear a weight belt, good fins and learn to free dive better. This is the key to becoming a good spear gun fisherman. We try to improve in this and can now stay down easily one minute and up to two minutes, usually enough to dive down some 10 meters and take a shot. The guys who really know this can stay for more than five minutes and go down 30 meters if they need to.
- Different size guns. A longer gun gives you longer range (the string is always three times the length of the spear), but is harder to move sideways, more water resistance. So we use a shorter 65cm when spearing in more shallow coral reefs for parrot fish etc and a longer 100cm one for deeper waters where we will attack a hopefully unsuspecting pray from above and from longer range.
Preserve your catch
The fresh fillets will only last a couple days in the fridge so after the initial feast of sashimi, ceviche and steaks you will have to preserve the catch is some way so not to waste anything.
Pickling with vinegar
Very easy to do and a great way to preserve large quantities. I learned this technique from an old fisherman in Lisbon, Portugal:
- Cut chunks of fish, about 5 x 5 cm, and boil in sea water until cooked through (5-10 min, cut and see).
- Pick up the pieces with a spatula and place in jar that has air tight lid (Lock & Lock boxes are awesome for this, high with narrow diameter is best).
- As the meat cools it will drain liquid, add a little more fresh water so half the fish is covered.
- Cover the rest of the way up vinegar - I use white most of the time. Salt, pepper, maybe bay leaves, onions, whatever you like. I go easy on the spicing though since it will be used in many different dishes, sandwiches, pasta sauces etc.
- Finish by adding about 3 cm of vegetable oil on top, this will keep oxygen out.
- Attach air tight lid, store in cool place, preferably fridge (on my first boat I didn’t have a fridge so I put the jars in the bilge. Still lasted for weeks in the Caribbean).
- Eat! We use it pretty much like canned tuna, it has a more sour taste from the vinegar but not too strong.
We do this in two ways for two different purposes: in salt brine to produce a rock solid, long-lasting result or in soy to make more like a tuna jerky that you can use as a beer snack. We have dried tuna, wahoo and mahi-mahi, all was good. In sunny weather it only takes a couple days to dry strips of fish that are 1x2cm thick/wide and 10 cm long. We hang them on doubled line with knots every 10 cm or so, this keeps the lines tight together and you don't risk having any fish falling off (see pic below). A line with a smooth surface will be easier to get the dried fish off. If it rains a little it’s OK, will just delay the process. Much rain is no good as it rinses out the salt/soy.
Salt brine: put lots of salt in saltwater until it can’t dissolve any more. Put strips of fish in. The fish meat should float. Ideally put something on top so it is completely covered in brine. Need to be de-salted in fresh water before eating. Or add to stews etc in stead of salt/stock cubes. NOTE: you can also leave steak-size chunks of fish in salt brine in a tight jar and it will keep forever.
Tuna jerky: Put a couple kilos of strips in jar, cover with soy. I like to add a table spoon Srirasha chili sauce. Any dried spices is fine. Blend around, press down the meat and it should be covered with soy. Maybe 1 dl per kilo meat. Leave in fridge over night, hang midday the next day. You can eat them all along the drying process, usually takes three days to get all the thicker pieces rock solid.
Final words and a 44 kilo yellowfin tuna
The things on this page is what has worked well for me and therefore what I do 95% of the time. But remember to always keep experimenting and try new things if the fish are not biting; that’s what I do. To illustrate that, here is what happened yesterday: it was day four of the passage from Bora Bora to Aitutaki. The wind has been weak and right in our back. We blew our gennaker in a squall on the second night and now we’re more drifting than sailing with only genoa, doing 3-4 knots. Not a good speed for fishing and we hadn’t had a bite for the first three days. The day before yesterday I was trolling two vobblers (blue/silver Yo-Zuri, gold/black Halco) all day and it gave nothing. So day four I tried something new, I put my largest marlin squid on the short corner with a daily chain before it, only 10m behind the boat so it splashes a little even in 3kn. This was to act as teaser. Then on the other rod the gold Halco vobbler 10m further back. In the afternoon I see to my amazement a couple small mahi-mahis come skipping in the surface towards the teaser and start attacking the daisy chain! Then the rod with the vobbler goes off. The line is screaming out of the reel so this must be something else. 45 min later we land the biggest fish of the trip so far, a 44 kilo yellowfin tuna! More pics etc on this at the Passage to Aitutaki post. Was it because of the teaser setup this happened? Who knows, but I know that I will keep experimenting with teasers and vobblers when sailing in low speeds from now on.
For the newbie who wants to get quick and simple advice how to get going/catch some fish for the pan:
RYA Fishing Afloat by Dick McClary
Link to Amazon
For the aspiring black-belt fisherman who want to catch trophy fish, the “Bible” of fishing for cruisers:
The Cruiser's Handbook of Fishing by Scott Bannerot
Link to Amazon
Fish Preservation Simplified - a wonderfully illustrated practical guide book directed to island inhabitants of the South Pacific. Most of it useful to cruisers but some techniques maybe not; for example smoking involves “lighting a small fire in your hut” to smoke the fish you’ve laid out in your banana leaf baskets. Available as PDF here.