Billabong Sailboat Fishing Tips

We threw some old gear on board before we left and wondered why we never caught any fish. We have since changed our strategy and have developed a set of guidelines that will help you catch fish while sailing. Remember that you are sailing in world class game fishing areas and have the same chance to catch fish as game fishing boats that charge $500, and you get the boat part for "free".

Billabong Fishing

A Slow Start

On our initial jaunt across the pacific from Mexico to New Zealand (9000 miles) I caught a total of three fish while sailing; a slight embarrassment and a blow to my survivor instinct to say the least. After stocking up on lures and hand lines in both Tonga and then again in New Zealand, we finally started catching fish when we returned to Fiji. The key was running multiple lures and adding surface action increased our catch rates even more.

Game fishing boats typically run 10-12 lines with a teaser, but have the added benefit of outriggers to keep lines separated and in control etc. Well the good news for cruising boats is we usually have multiple things hanging off the back of the boat, which gives us plenty of points for release clips to attach more lines. You’ve got stern cleats and stanchion bases down low, stern rails a little higher up and the back stay even higher. If you have an arch, you are sitting under a configurable fishing machine. Catamarans, I can’t even begin to tell you how many lures you could run.

Manage Your lines

The key goal is to put out a manageable set of lines that won’t get tangled up through a turn, can be easily cleared if needed during a wild fish fight, and presents the best spread of lures to the fish. Your boats looks like a giant ball of bait-fish and your lures should be designed to look like small predators fighting for food, or weak/wounded stragglers hanging of the back of the school. You never know what a fish will be attracted to on any particular day, so the more lures you have out the better your chances.

Lures With Surface Action

The best lures for a sailboat are those that have some surface action. These lures should pop to the surface every five seconds or so, before returning under water dragging some air and creating a bubble (or smoke) trail. Make sure the lure doesn’t blow out of the water when it comes to the surface. You can adjust the action by changing the length of the line, it’s angle of entry into the water, the shape of the lures head, or the lures weight. If you are tending to blow out your lures, let out more line, lower (if possible) the attach point the line is pulled from, switch to a less active face, or add extra weight to the lure. If you need more action, shorten the line, raise it’s attach point, change the lure face, or remove weight.

Don’t be afraid to run lines closer to the boat. Most open ocean fish are not afraid of boats, in fact they are attracted to it; like a big moving FAD (Fish Attracting Device). A typical game fishing boat’s tuna trolling rig starts with lures 10 to 15 feet off the back of the boat and ends with a long single line in the middle, a 100 feet back (perfect for a backstay release clip). Once you get around shallow water and reefs the fish tend to get spooked a little easier by the boat, so increase the line lengths and give the fish a chance to recover before latching on to the lures.

Try A Teaser

Try using a teaser to attract the fish to the back of your boat. A simple teaser can be made from a small square plastic bottle (like Fiji water). Add a little weight by putting either sand or small pebbles (depending on the desired rattle), and then add some foil from chip bags etc to add some flash. Tie a loop around the neck, get it to pull off one of the corners and throw it behind the boat about 20 feet back. It should flip and flop, and occasionally dive under the water, causing lots of commotion. For calmer days replace the sand with a couple of stainless washers. The ultimate teaser also leaves a bubble trail which the fish follow and lock on to. It's sort of like looking up in the sky and seeing a jet's contrail WAY before you ever see the plane. I wasn’t sure how big and noisy a teaser could get until I read about one used for tuna. It was made from 2x6 lumber, was four feet long, weighed 30 lbs and required ¼ rope to tie it to the boat; tuna loved it!! Luckily we don’t have the room or I’d probably have one too! As you get closer to shore remove the teaser, unless there is serious surface fish action visible.

OffShore Fishing Tips

  • Fish typically dive deep during the day and come up to feed as the sun sets, so dusk and dawn are the primary fish catching times, especially tuna. The only problems here are cleaning a fish in the dark and waking your mate from a sound sleep with a “Fish on” call. During the day use a noisier teaser to attract the fish to the surface or try using a diving plainer to get a lure to run deeper. 
  • Bigger lures should be run closer to the boat. Smaller lures are effective further back or close to the teaser. 
  • Run heavier lures to windward and closer to the boat, make sure to set the windward lines lower to prevent them from getting blown across the rest of the spread. Lighter lures should be run to leeward and further back. Heavy lures can also be lure faces with rounder heads (bullet) to keep them below the surface longer or more “bite” on the water (chugger) to keep tension on the line. As the seas get rougher you’ll need to adjust the face or add more weight to keep the lure in the water.
  • Run dark colors (black, purple, blue) on cloudy days and close to the boat if presented near the stern wake bubbles (to provide a better silhouette). Brighter colors can be run on sunny days and further back where they will be in clearer water. Always run a mix of colors unless you have inside information on the local favorites. I find that lure action has more effect on a lures ability to catch fish than color does.
  • Add reflective shiny material under existing skirts, or as wings along the side of the lure head. This can be recycled chip bags or commercial Mylar fishing material. Cut the material into smaller strips at the trailing edge, this gives a wider flash profile.
  • Don’t be afraid to run bigger lures, they can achieve the same effect as teasers by attracting more fish. I’ve caught tuna on lures that were about half the size of the fish. If there are bigger bait fish in the sea, the fish you are trying to catch may go else where for a more filling dinner. If you’re terrified of catching a huge fish, rig smaller or weaker hooks which provide a good weak link and still save your lure. We initially started with a maximum of 5 inches for a lure, now we typically run 10-12 inch lures with 10/0 hooks, which I used to think looked like the gaff!! 
  • Tuna have very good eyes. If you are not catching fish, try decreasing the size of your leader material. Tuna rarely hit stainless leaders unless in a frenzy. 
  • If you are fishing in an area with toothy fish (wahoo, barracuda, dog tooth tuna), run a stainless steel leader, at least on the hooks. Also make sure the lure head can’t creep forward on the leader after a strike (jam a toothpick into the leader hole behind the lure head). Sometimes during the frenzy a second fish will strike the lure after it has moved up the line, cutting the leader. Wahoo are attracted to flash so you can add a spoon to the hook which hangs out the back of the skirt. Be careful because shiny swivels and clips can also attract them and they’ll bite through there as well.

Hand Lines Work

We run hand lines attached to large swivel clips with 15 foot lure leaders so that can quickly change lures or lure heads. To increase the spread of the lures (and hide the swivel) I also add small squid skirts on the swivel. Occasionally I have even added a small double hook to the clip under the skirt but this greatly increases the complexity and danger while fighting to get the final leader on board. I always make sure I have a cork ready to jam into the hooks that I have pre-tested it’s fit to make sure the hooks won’t snag me on the way by if the fish lurches at the end. Remember this is their last chance to live; they’ll do almost anything to stay alive. I have caught two yellow fin tuna on the same line with this technique.. but it can get a little crazy. Be careful around wahoo as they can hit the first “lure” and cut the hand line. 

We use multiple “Fish-is-On” snubbers and don’t stop or slow the boat down, we just keep going. We let the snubber fight the fish a bit (30 seconds) to tire it out before we start hauling in the line. This also gives you time to put on proper gloves, clear the inboard line(s) and prepare the boat to receive your catch. If the fight is still too much or we are sailing too fast, we can roll in the jib. If you’re running heavy monofilament or nylon line you can even wrap the line around the winch to help haul it in. We once had a six foot marlin that kept trying to get under the boat. As it got close I kept letting a little bit of line go until it got clear. After a couple times it got tired enough where I could walk down to our swim step and grab the lure from it mouth to cut the hook free.

Safe Hand Line Technique

Safe hand line technique is critical to avoid injury while fighting a large fish. A good pair of rubberized gloves allows you to grip even wet monofilament line. While fighting a fish don’t try and wrap the line around the storage spool. Use both hands, making sure that the line does not get wrapped around your thumbs/hands and feed the line into a small pile beside you. Make sure you keep everything away from the pile and that it will be out of the way when you go to gaff the fish. I prefer to use a palm down hand over hand technique because I can balance the use of biceps and triceps during the fight. If the fish surges violently let go or let the line slide loosely through the gloves and NEVER wrap the line around your wrists, hands or finger. A fast 50 lb tuna can swim at 40 knots.. imagine what that force would do to you if the line went tight and there was something in the way. Make sure your line can run freely at a moments notice.

Safe Landing Spot

Have a location where you can safely gaff and haul the fish onboard, and that you have a plan and communicate it with your crew. We have a low swim step that makes a great place to bring a fish aboard, although I have to make sure I’m clipped to the boat before I go out. Our cockpit has a life raft compartment underneath which we do not want to become infused with dead fish scent for the obvious reason. We haul the fish into a large bag which we made from tarp material, wrap it and place it in the cockpit. This covers the fishes eyes and calms them, and keeps the mess in one place. Once the fish is away in the fridge the bag is easy to clean. Kill the fish with a bat or winch handle, being very careful not to take a chunk of the deck with you. We tried to use booze on the gills once, but our cheap Mexican tequila had a rate control stopper that was clogged. By mistake, I got a huge swig for myself as I tried to clear it and ended up coughing it all over the cockpit. Anyway I save the booze for me now but some people swear by the technique. Tuna can be killed easily with a brain spike (awl) to the soft portion of the head above the eyes, this also helps slow down the neurological activity which can ruin the sashimi. Buy a great knife and learn how to properly clean a fish.

Histamine Poisoning

Be very careful with tuna as they can cause histamine poisoning if they are not cleaned and cooled immediately. After we left Funafuti in Tuvalu we caught two yellow fin tuna on the same line, but didn’t realize it until we pulled in the lines for the night. They were probably struggling against the snubber for a good half an hour or more. We kept a good 35 pounder, bleed it and then placed it whole in the top of the fridge to be dealt with in the morning. We ate great sashimi for lunch had more for dinner and some of us started getting hot flashes with red spots on our chest and diarrhea that night. As tuna fight they start to heat up and release histamines during the struggle. Because the tuna was at the top of the fridge it didn’t get enough cooling and the process continued for a while. Luckily we didn’t get any worse but now we clean our tuna immediately to avoid this rare phenomena.

Change the Lure Action

If your not catching fish try playing with the lures action, position in the spread, it’s depth and it’s reflectivity. Since we use hand lines we can’t just let out more line from the reel. I have an arch with multiple release clips covering both it’s width and height which I use to change the angle of entry and its position for side to side. If that doesn’t work I change the face of the lure or add more weight. 

If you use release clips, you should be able to run at least six lures without much problem. Run two heavier big lures on each corner low, straight off the stern cleat or base of the stanchion with a drop back loop on the snubber. Run two longer lines behind this, with the snubber still attached to the stern cleat but with a release clip off the stern rail or higher if possible. In the center, run the teaser in close, with your longest line on a release clip off the back stay or center of the arch. You can work around your self steering gear by attaching a line with a quick attach clip on the back. If you are uncomfortable running six lines, remove the inner two medium lure lines and shift those lures to the outer positions. Once you start running multiple lines you’ll be hooked. We’ve recently converted some old fishing poles to outriggers with taglines that give us even more spread adjustment.

Sailboat Specific Adjustments

Typical Sailboat Six Lure Spread
Typical Sailboat Height Adjustment

Good luck and may you always have fish to eat..

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