Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Hungry for blue water action but skeptical about venturing too far offshore in your 21-footer? Put your hesitations aside and learn how you, too, can score big from a small boat.

Capt. Steve Dougherty January 26, 2010

If the legendary image of The Old Man And The Sea piques your interest, then you’re not in the proverbial boat alone. However, mention big game sport fishing and the image of a well equipped 50-foot custom yacht likely comes to mind—a far stretch from Santiago’s wooden skiff. While high-caliber vessels definitely make it more comfortable when NOAA forecasts less than favorable conditions, anglers across the state are venturing 10, 20 and even 50-miles offshore in vessels hardly larger than anything you’d see deep in the backcountry.

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Photo: Dusky Marine

Sure, checking the spread from the confines of an air-conditioned fly bridge is a fantasy for most blue water aficionados, but the reality is that these extravagant vessels come with a laundry list of maintenance issues. If you head offshore in a 21-footer you may be coming home sunburned and salty, but one thing is for certain; you’ll be returning to port with a big smile on your face knowing you battled the elements on your own terms and emerged victorious with a fish box full of memories.

No matter how much of a superhero you think you are, the ocean is a serious force that cannot be taken for granted.

Head miles out to sea under calm conditions and you will soon realize that the days when blue water angling was reserved for large sportfishers are long gone. This is largely due to the fact that manufacturers are designing extremely versatile, and very capable boats in the 18 to 23-foot class with angler-friendly features that won’t break the bank. Within the last decade we’ve reaped the rewards of hull design and material advancements, tackle and accessory enhancements, as well as outboard motor performance and reliability. In today’s day and age, it’s not uncommon to see small to mid-size center consoles that are a direct threat to even the most well equipped offshore battlewagons. The drive to wet a line, as well as the challenge of battling Mother Nature is likely what drives anglers to venture further and further from shore in vessels the general population would deem far from capable of battling the deep blue.

Of course, we all dream of captaining a 65 Viking, but if you’re a dedicated angler, then you won’t care how you get your fix. The fish surely don’t discriminate, so why should you? Teak decks and air-conditioned salons don’t catch fish; skilled and determined anglers do.

First things first, safety should be of the utmost importance. Anytime you venture far from shore in a vessel of any size, you have to be familiar with the boat’s capabilities, electronics and onboard safety equipment. Be absolutely sure in your vessel’s safe operating zone as well as in your navigational prowess. Remember that your new boat’s maiden voyage is no time to go searching for that mythical piece of flotsam or magical current break on the other side of the Gulf Stream.

VHF radios are a must and receive signals by line-of-sight. If your small boat isn’t outfitted with a T-top, you may find it beneficial to utilize a longer whip antenna rather than a shorter, less obtrusive console-mounted type. A combination GPS/chartplotter is critical for safe navigation, as well as successful angling. Combo units also maximize space on small consoles. There will be a day in the not so distant future when all of your fish-finding, navigation and communication equipment are incorporated into a single, space-saving, user-friendly display.

An EPIRB or PLB (Personal Location Beacon) is also necessary, along with all of the USCG required safety equipment including, visual and sound signaling devices, life vests, and fire extinguishers. Even if you don’t plan on fishing at anchor it’s important you keep one onboard. It could be worth its weight in gold if you find yourself adrift without power. The anchor rode can also double as a makeshift tow-line in the event of a breakdown.

If you’re in the class of small boat extreme anglers then you don’t need me to tell you that your days will be limited. No matter how much of a superhero you think you are, the ocean is a serious force that cannot be taken for granted. With NOAA forecasting breezy conditions for the weekend and recent reports indicating the blue water bite has been explosive, what are you going to do? If you’re ever in doubt, simply don’t go. But if you’re confident in your abilities and your vessel’s seaworthiness, you’re in for some exciting fishing.

While the great state of Florida does indeed see its fair share of blustery days, we know that calm periods prevail between irregular weather patterns and during steamy summer months when high-pressure systems bring numerous days of flat calm conditions.

Now that your boat, safety equipment and electronics are up to par, it’s time to go fishing. Compared to a large sportfish with an impressively wide beam and the outrigger wingspan of a 747, you may be under-gunned, however, this doesn’t mean you can’t put together a worthy catch. Sure, limited cockpit space diminishes the number of rods you can fish, but don’t give up just yet. Fishing from a small boat does have its benefits. Not only is the increased cost of fuel, insurance, storage, and maintenance of a 50-footer vs. a 23-footer substantial, fishing from a small boat offers advantages in maneuverability and fishability. Whether spinning on a dime or cruising at 30-knots, small boats enable dedicated anglers to get down and dirty. Not to mention the fact that the next time your nosy neighbor peeks his head over the fence and asks if he can tag along you can honestly say, “Sorry Wilson, there’s no room today…maybe next time.”

When it comes to fishability, don’t be disappointed that you can’t effectively troll a dozen lines at once. It’s important to remember that a productive trolling spread with properly positioned offerings is more important than simply having lots of baits scattered in the water. There is no substitution for quality fishing skills, and educated anglers in small boats can do a lot to overcome their disadvantages. Even a small skiff that lacks outriggers can effectively fish big with the aide of a few strategically placed rod holders, tridents and flat line clips.

Spotting surface busting game fish or finding that one piece of debris can often make or break your day on the water. A small boat’s vantage point is no match to an angler perched high in a tuna tower, but you can fight the odds by investing in a quality pair of image stabilized binoculars. Space is premium on small boats so it will serve you well to bring only the essentials, but to be well prepared for any opportunity that may present itself. Keeping this in mind, when it comes to tackle storage weatherproof boat/tackle bags are the way to go. Your small boat’s hatches or compartments will likely lack adequate space for much more than the aforementioned safety gear. Organization is key to “big boat” fishing from a small boat.

If you plan on spending long days on the water comfort is also critical. Unlike luxurious sportfishers where anglers can escape into an air-conditioned salon to beat the heat, small boaters have nowhere to hide. Sun protection is critical. If you don’t have a Bimini or T-top, a long brimmed hat along with a buff and UPF technical fishing apparel will do the trick. Since you won’t be in the lap of luxury you will need some ingenuity to stay comfortable. Padded coolers make for great seats and a marine grade beanbag is also a great addition. If the weather is less than favorable, non-slip deck shoes will keep you surefooted and foul weather gear will keep you dry and warm.

Venturing over the horizon in a small center console or open-fisherman is definitely not for the delicate or faint of heart, but with the right equipment and proper planning it can be a boatload of fun. However, even though you may think of yourself as experienced and ready to handle anything, there will be days when venturing offshore simply isn’t an option. Become competent in weather forecasting but use these predictions only as guides to collaborate with your on the water experiences. You’ll soon be able to differentiate between days that are fishable, and those that aren’t.

Offshore Capable

When it comes to putting together a well-rounded trolling pattern, the standard four-rod flat line spread will put you in the game. However, mass appeal is what it’s all about and the more offerings you can fish properly, the more successful you will likely be. If you don’t have a T-top don’t fret. Gunwale mounted outrigger systems are available and will even out the playing field. The addition of strategically mounted rod holders will also help for both trolling and live bait fishing duties. A downrigger is also a worthy option for covering more of the water column.

For good reason, small boat owners who spend a ton of time offshore recommend auxiliary battery and bilge pump systems. Fuses, spare parts, tools and an extra prop are also necessary to ensure safe travels to and from the farthest fishing grounds.

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