Sailboat Fishing Guide: How to Fish from a Sailboat
Sailboat fishing is one of my favorite activities during our boat trips. Fortunately, many of the most popular sailing destinations like the Bahamas and British Virgin Islands (check out my BVI specific fishing tips or Exuma fishing guide) are also excellent places to fish.
Even if you aren't an experienced angler, with a little planning you can have a lot of success. Here's what you need to know to catch some serious fish and turn your yacht into a fishing sailboat.
Table of contents:
Fishing tackle and equipment
Fishing techniques and the lures to bring
Where to fish while sailboat fishing
We've caught one, now what?
Fishing tackle and equipment
To rent, or to bring your own?
On our first few trips, we rented fishing equipment, but now we bring our own quality gear. A few things to consider...
Most charter companies should have an option to rent a rod, reel, and small tackle box for around $20/day. They will also provide a rod holder and gaff. Check in advance if they offer this option and what is included. You should expect to bring your own lures and additional fishing tackle.
Ye be warned: don't expect quality gear - we've had a lot of problems the few times that we've rented. The equipment gets a lot of use and tends to be poorly maintained.
Renting is the cheaper option if you aren't serious about fishing. Buying your own equipment is an investment that will take a couple trips to payback.
For smaller reef fish, the rented equipment should be just fine! If you want to go after the bigger pelagic deepwater fish, consider bringing your own setup.
Bring your own gear
The biggest factor to consider with bringing your gear on these fishing trips is the added headache of dealing with the airlines. You'll need to check your rods and potentially pay an extra fee. United, for example sometimes tries to charge $200 if the container is over a certain length. If you have preferred status with an airline, you might be immune.
You should also plan to check fishing tackle and filet knives.
I have two, 6 foot jigging rods that I bring. If you have a local fishing store (mine is Fishing Tackle Unlimited), ask them what they'd recommend - there are lots of options. You can get away with shorter rods for trolling - it might help save you money on airline fees.
I like the jigging rod since you can use it for lower speed trolling, jigging, and bottom fishing. If you bring spinning reels, you can also use them for casting.
I use this Plano rod tube to transport my rods for every trip - it's affordable, fits several rods, and is adjustable depending on the length you need.
I use Shimano TLD 30IIAs. This was a recommendation from a friend that does some serious marlin fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Here's why the 2-speed reel is great for sailboat fishing. When sailboat fishing under sail and you land a good size fish, you can't just stop and you can only slow down so much with course corrections. The 2-speed reel lets you use the low gear to deliver more power to the fight.
Check out this youtube video of the cero mackerel we caught on a 2022 trip to the USVI and Spanish Virgin Islands. We were sailing in 30 knots of apparent wind and had a reef in the main and jib. At the time we hooked up we were sailing at 9-10 knots and were only able to slow down to about 7.5 knots while we reeled it in.
I have the reels spun with 65 pound braided line (braid) and topped with 80 pound mono line.
Spinning reels are also great - if you come up on a school of mahi-mahi, stop or slow the yacht, and cast some lures out. Keep in mind if you plan to use them for trolling, you won't be able to have as much line on them as compared to trolling (or conventional) reels.
For my tools and knives, I use BUBBA products. You'll get their famous non-stick grip and high-quality materials that will within stand the saltwater. These things will last for years.
Filet knife - I highly recommend bringing your own, well-sharpened filet knife. The boat is unlikely to have a knife sharp enough for the job. You also want a blade that is flexible. We brought this BUBBA knife on our recent Exumas sailing trip and it worked great! Pliers- I use them to help remove hooks and to cut wire leader.
Casting net - I do not bring one of these, but you can if you are a serious angler and have an idea where to catch them. Some countries may not allow them, so make sure you double check the rules.
Trolling hooks - bring some #7 or #8s, such as Mustad Big Game Stainless Steel. The stainless steel are more expensive, but are resistant to saltwater. You'll use these hooks to set up your skirted lures and ballyhoo rigs (if you can find frozen ballyhoo).
Bait circle hooks- I like Gamakatsu or Mustad #7s. The circle hooks are best for bottom dropping with live/dead bait. The fish is most likely to swallow the bait whole, and the circle hook helps to prevent the hook from getting stuck in deep. Rather, they are designed to hook them in the mouth.
Live bait net - I'm usually able to catch a couple live bait on sabiki rigs each trip. I keep them alive in this Lindy Bait Tamer. Here's a few pictures of a fresh ballyhoo we caught with a sabiki rig after chumming the water behind our cat at anchor. I also rigged this one up with an Ilander torpedo style skirt. Lindy BaitTamer: This one is right-sized for a bareboat charter and has held up over several trips. You can keep it in the water when you are at anchor. When moving, put it in a bucket and change the water every hour to keep the fish alive.
Gloves - I would consider this optional. We usually have a pair on hand to search for spiny lobster. The gloves can make it easier to handle a fish without the help of a gaff or net.´
Sabiki Rigs - for catching bait fish. I usually bring 2-3 since they can get tangled and break easily.
Weights - you'll want a couple for bottom dropping. The deeper you drop, plan to go heavier.
Swivels - you'll attach these to your primary line to quickly swap out pre-rigged lures. Look for ~75+ pound rated ball bearing swivels with snap connections.
Wire leader - we attach 2 feet or so of steel leader often when trolling since we catch a lot of toothy fish (barracuda, mackerel, and wahoo). This will help you catch more fish and lose fewer lures. Check out Malin Hard-Wire stainless steel leader. No. 6 to No. 9 will do. Check out this youtube video that shows you how to rig up a wire leader with the haywire twist.
Fishing techniques and the lures to bring
What is the best way to go fishing from a sailboat? These are your best options.
Trolling from a sailboat for bluewater sportfish
Most of our fishing is done when we are underway. It's fun to always to toss a line knowing something could hit your lure at any time.
This is also the best way to cover a lot of distance, do some offshore fishing, and hook up on some game fish. We also do it in 30 feet of water too!
We bring our own rod holders to clamp on to the railings - not all sailing yachts come with them and the charter company may not have spares.
Amarine Rod Holders: These are an affordable option for clamp on rod holders in case you want to bring your own. We will usually pull one line at the top of the water (or slightly below) and a second 10-20 ft deep using a diving lure.
At the top, we use Iland Ilander Trolling Lures with weighted heads to keep the lure just below the surface. We use the 8 1/4 inch length and I like blue/white, pink, and black/purple. Get a variety! If we have dead bait such as ballyhoo or mahi belly, we will rig the skirt with them.
Iland Ilander lure: This is a great all-around surface lure that you can often catch mahi, tuna, and king mackerel with. Blue/white, pink, and black/purple are my favorites.
For the second rod, we'll use an artificial diving lure. I like the Rapala X-Rap Magnum and the Yozuri Bonita (look for them in 5-6 inch sizes). They have great action and will dive 10-20 feet below. These are your best bet for catching wahoo.
Yozuri Bonita lure: This has been my most successful diving lure recently, and I caught my first wahoo with it. In 6 3/4 in size, try the Flying Fish, Red Black, and Purple Black.
Rapala X-Rap Magnum lure: Try these in a variety of depths from 15-40 feet. I like Hot Pink, Bonito, and the Green Mackerel colors. Experiment with distances - we like to mix it up, and there is no perfect formula. We usually put one line ~75 feet out and the second ~125-150 feet behind the sailboat. You can mark the line with a sharpie to help you quickly get lures back in the water after checking them.
If you notice lots of sargassum seaweed in the water, check those lures frequently and clear them if necessary. While this can be frustrating, the good news is that mahi mahi like to hang out under seaweed lines.
Casting for mahi-mahi or tuna on the surface
This technique has worked for us a couple times. I also see it successfully done all the time on deep sea fishing charter videos such as StanzFam.
The idea is that while trolling in deeper water, you might come across a school of mahi or tuna. What do you look for?
Birds or a disturbed water surface. This usually means the birds and fish are attacking a bait ball. Go join in on the action! They are in a frenzy and will eat anything.
Mahi-mahi love to hang around weed lines or other floating debris. It is said they don't like the sun very much. Get close to investigate - you can often see them in clear water.
Stop the boat, toss in some lures, and quickly retrieve them with the reel. This is best done with a spinning reel, but it can work with conventional reels as well. Bring a couple popper lures such as the Rapala Magnum Explode.
If you have live bait, even better!
Here's a variation of this technique: you just caught a mahi. If you can stop the sailboat, see if it's friends come to investigate. They sometimes do!
Bottom dropping for reef fish species
Occasionally we'll stop over a reef and drop a couple lines down to target snapper and grouper. You can even use this technique when at anchor.
We use two hooks on a dropper loop knot and put on some live or dead bait (even if it's a piece of raw chicken). This video is a great overview of how to tie the knot.
Drop it down and wait for that monster grouper to hit your line!
This technique is hit or miss when sailing. Most fishing boats or fishing charters that use this technique have a sonar fish finder to help them target the fish. Doing it on a sailboat is somewhat of a guessing game, but it has worked for us before. Try and find something with good bottom structure if possible.
Jigging for bottom fish
This technique also targets bottom fish. Drop your jigging lure and let it sink close to the bottom. Once it's down, pull up quickly once or twice and then let it sink back down. You can also try this in different directions.
The obvious answer for me is: anytime we are sailing or moving the boat!
If you are trolling in less than 60 feet of water, you are likely to only catch mackerel, barracuda, and potentially some reef fish like mutton snapper.
To turn your sailboat into a sportfishing boat, let's head for deeper water. I like to use the Navionics Boating App to help plan our routes. The Sonar Chart and Relief Shading layers help you pinpoint bottom structure and shelfs where the water quickly drops off.
You can have a lot of success trolling over bottom structure - anywhere that might provide a habitat to fish. Where there are small fish there are sure to be bigger fish. Also look for non-dangerous wrecks on your charts.
Drops are where the water can quickly fall of from 100 feet to thousands in a short distance. Troll back and forth over this if it will fit in your itinerary. The BVIs, Spanish Virgin Islands, and Exumas all have drops that you can fish during your charter trip.
Each pin represents a fish caught during that morning we sailed around the eastern end of Vieques. We weren't able to reach the drop farther south (black and purple shading) due to sailing conditions (the trades were really blowing), but we trolled over the shelf drop and other bottom structure.
We've caught one, now what?
Well first, get it on the boat!! Our setups described above are usually strong enough to pull the fish straight up onto the steps on the back of the pontoons of our catamaran. We don't usually worry about the line snapping.
If you are sure you've landed a keeper, you can also grab it with a gaff to make sure you don't lose it at the boat. I have not seen many of these on charter boats, but you can ask for one if you rent gear.
For hook removal, we simply use a pair of pliers and gloves. The goal is to get that fish back in the water as soon as possible if it's catch and release.
How to fillet your fish
I think the absolute best resource to learn is by watching videos. Captain Nick Stanczyk is the expert I turn to. Check out his youtube channel StanzFam. He usually filets fish at the end of every episode, and the videos are really fun to watch. These are the fish that we would keep if caught:
Tuna (yellowfin or blackfin)
There can be some varieties of these, so just be sure you are keeping the good eating ones. For example, a little tunny looks similar to bonito, but are not good eating at all. Check out my guide to the different types of fish in the Virgin Islands. Most of these fish can be caught all throughout the Caribbean.
If you are fishing in areas with ciguatera poisoning, double check local guidance before eating any reef fish.
We always bring supplies to make fish tacos and ceviche (yellow tail snapper is great for this). Simply grilling up some filets with olive oil, garlic, and lemon is also hard to beat. If you've enjoyed this post and are new to bareboat charters or sailing vacations, check out our starter guide here.
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