Head-boats, also known as “party-boats” or “drift-boats,” are a type of large recreational fishing vessel that charges a fixed fee per person – or per head – for regularly scheduled trips. Head-boats offer anglers an economical means of enjoying saltwater fishing. Head-boats can be found along the entire coast of Florida, and usually carry anywhere from 10-100 passengers on drift or bottom fishing excursions. Fishing trips on head-boats vary, and between the standard four hour reef trip and multiple-day extreme Middle Grounds jaunts, there is certainly a perfect trip waiting for you. Be aware that during tourist season, regularly scheduled day trips may be full of inexperienced anglers which is why many ‘regulars’ book trips during the off season, during periods of less than ideal weather, or during limited party excursions.
Almost every angler has experienced fishing on a head-boat at one time or another, and while many would argue that they are a waste of time and money and nothing more than a tourist trap, nothing could be further from the truth. For anglers who have basic fishing skills, head-boats provide a good chance of catching quality fish. All-in-all, head-boat fishing can be a great experience and if you are well-prepared and know a few key tips to help maximize your catch, you may just experience the trip of a lifetime!
What we’ll be covering in this guide:
- Before you go
- What to bring
- What trip to book
- Don’t forget about the crew
- Statewide list of head-boats
Before you go…
All party-boats operate differently, some work on a first come first serve basis, while others require a reservation as they only have a specific number of spots along the rail. This is especially true during special trips that may last as long as 72 hours. If you plan on purchasing your ticket in advance, ask the captain whether or not you can reserve a premium spot at the rail. If you can not reserve a spot, then I suggest you arrive at the boat as early as possible prior to departure so you can ensure a prime position along the stern. It always benefits to fish from the stern of the boat, because when the captain positions over a reef or other promising structure, he will without question position the bow into the current. Anglers who fish from the bow and sides will constantly have to deal with their lines running astern, towards the inevitable “tangle city.”
Be sure to ask the captain if his mates will actively fish while on the trip. Most professional operations do not allow this practice, however on some, this is a normal occurrence. When mates are allowed to fish, it tends to distract them from servicing paying customers. Before you pay, ask what the policy is, it will surely affect your experience.
Inquire if you are permitted to bring your own live bait. Some boats actually provide lockable bait-wells ideally suited for keeping pinfish, squirrelfish and other prime treats healthy and happy. Finally, ask about the galley – if they provide food and beverages – and if you are permitted to bring your own cooler or if the crew will be ‘marking’ and icing your catch.
What to bring…
All party-boats rent fishing equipment, but I highly suggest bringing your own gear if at all possible. I would never rely on someone else’s equipment to get the job done when powerful fish are on the line – no pun intended. I always bring my own rods, reels, terminal tackle, and bait. Even if I am going on a half day trip, I bring enough gear to suffice for any situation that may occur. Fishing licenses are normally included in the fare, but double check with the captain just to be sure.
To help protect from the suns harmful rays, I suggest bringing a long-billed hat, polarized sunglasses and sunscreen with a high sun protection factor. Extra clothes and rain gear are always good to have in case of a stray squall. Non-slip, rubber soled shoes or lightweight fishing boots are also helpful on wet, slippery decks. All of this is especially important during extended overnight excursions.
Because you are going fishing with strangers and not your neighbors, the captain will not turn the boat around if you start feeling seasick. If you are prone to motion sickness, I suggest taking Dramamine or an equivalent motion sickness remedy. Lastly, two other items that are important and often forgotten are bungee cords and a hand towel. Bungee cords can help prevent gear from slapping the rail or sliding around deck while the towel can be used to wipe off slimy hands. Whatever you do, don’t forget your camera, and remember cash in small denominations to tip the crew. If you are in doubt about anything, it is better to bring it and not need it then need it and not have it.
For a half or full day bottom fishing trip – four or eight hours – snapper and grouper are the most commonly targeted game fish. Because these great tasting bottom fish can be line shy, I suggest using light line and fluorocarbon leader. Be sure to check with the captain about the gear you plan on bringing, as some party boat crews are not fond of anglers fishing ultra-light monofilament or braided line. Typically, the old beater rods that head-boats supply are filled with heavy line in the 30-50lb. range. The reason for this is so anglers can bring in fish quick and avoid tangles. I would prefer to use a 20lb. spinning outfit for catching bait and manageable yellowtail snapper, while a larger 30lb. conventional outfit will tackle large mangrove snapper, grouper and incidental king mackerel.
Anglers fishing on extended Gulf Coast head-boat trips should bring a variety of outfits for different situations. As I just mentioned, first, a 20lb. spinner can be used to catch bait and juvenile snapper. A 30lb. conventional outfit can be used to target larger reef and wreck dwellers and mid-water pelagics, while a stout 50lb. outfit will haul wahoo, amberjack and large grouper. For swordfish, shark and tuna, a 60-80lb. stand-up outfit will suffice.
As far as terminal tackle is concerned, a variety of leader material in the 20-100lb. class, an assortment of hooks and plenty of egg-sinkers in the 1-8 oz. size will suffice for all of your natural bait needs. A variety of bucktail jigs will complete a well-rounded arsenal.
I already mentioned the benefits of arriving early, but be courteous to the crew and arrive no later than 20 minutes before the scheduled departure. On your head-boat excursion, you will be fishing in close proximity to other anglers and ultimately, close to other fishing lines. It is not uncommon to get in tangles and when it happens, do not get upset or frustrated. If someone near you hooks a large fish, it would be courteous to wind up your line until their fish has been landed. You would expect the same courtesy. When fighting fish, use the railing for support while moving around the boat, and watch your step and rod tip around other anglers.
While most head-boats allow alcohol consumption while on board, remember that you are on a fishing trip and not on a booze cruise. I guarantee your neighboring anglers will not be to happy fishing next an inebriated booze-hound. A few Budweisers is okay…chugging Bacardi straight from the bottle is not.
What trip to book…
In our great state of Florida, there are numerous party-boat fishing trips worth experiencing. Although it may sound obvious, before you make a reservation, be sure you know what type of trip you will be heading out on. Generally, there are three trips offered, half day, full day, and overnighters. Some boats offer specialty trips like night snapper fishing, shark fishing, 12, 24, & 44 hour reef/wreck fishing, swordfish trips, and long-range multiple day trips that target highly migratory species. The most basic half day trips usually last four hours, and are usually loaded with novice anglers.
The price of a half day trip is generally between $20 and $40, and includes bait, fishing license and equipment rental. Because time limits the area in which captains can explore, I suggest taking a full day trip if at all possible. Full day head-boat trips usually last eight hours and start at about $50 per person. These trips usually have more competent anglers with popular boats carrying many “regulars.” On these trips, if you are somewhat of an experienced angler and the fish cooperate, it is definitely possible to put together solid catches.
New to South Florida is the Catch My Drift, an 85′ party-boat that offers Friday night swordfishing trips departing from Port Everglades that last from 6:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m. The trip is limited to 15 passengers and the price is $100 per person. For $15 more, they offer heavy duty tackle rental. With a cruising speed just over 20 knots, the short run to the fishing grounds seems like nothing more than a hop, skip and jump. Although the crew provides squid and blue runner, don’t hesitate to bring your own offerings. Rigged mackerel are irresistible to hungry swordfish. To ensure that everyone leaves with some tasty table fare, all of the broadbills caught are evenly divided between the paying passengers. This insures an awesome trip is had by all. Because of high demand and limited space, I suggest you book your swordfish adventure well in advance.
The Viking Fleet out of Tarpon Springs, offers long range canyon trips that target wahoo, tuna swordfish, grouper and snapper. These extended trips are not for everyone. The hardcore anglers on these trips are serious, focused and extremely dedicated. The boat typically leaves at night and arrives at the famous Middle Grounds by dawn. Daytime hours are focused on trolling for tuna, wahoo, sailfish and dolphin, while evening hours are spent drifting for swordfish and tuna. Anglers on this trip also target deep water grouper like snowy, scamp, mystic, black and Kitty Mitchell. If you are interested in a trip like this, it is advised that you make a reservation early, as most sell out months in advance.
Due to the success of the extended Middle Ground trip, the Viking Fleet also offers a full moon deep water snapper and grouper tour. This trip involves deep water fishing for grouper during the day and during evening hours, the boat anchors over prime structure to target the elusive mutton snapper. This trip is limited to 10 passengers, and electrically-powered deep-drop outfits are available for rent for only $50.
Located approximately 20 miles from Key West are the Marquesas Keys. This tiny group of islands is known for its remarkable sportfishing, but because of its distance from the mainland, the charter fleet generally doesn’t make the long run and the fishing is virtually untouched. Several Key West head-boats offer trips to the Marquesas, so check the local docks for availability.
Even further west of the Marquesas are the fertile grounds known as the Dry Tortugas. The Florida Fish Finder offers two and three day overnight trips to the rich wrecks and reefs around the Dry Tortugas. They have packages that include meals, select spots around the railing and with a maximum capacity of 36 paying anglers, the spacious vessel offers private bunks and comfortable surroundings for all passengers.
The above is just a brief overview of some of the many exciting trips available to Florida anglers. If you are new to head boat fishing, I would suggest you start out by experiencing a half or full day trip before setting off on a three or four day full-blown adventure.
Don’t forget about the crew…
On most head-boats, the deckhands work for gratuities. Although they may get some “slave wages,” most of their income is derived from tips. Be as generous as you feel, and don’t hesitate to tip the mates well. As a general rule, 20 percent of your trip cost with an additional fee for fish cleaning services is adequate. If you do not feel that the mates were helpful and do not deserve a gratuity, then I advise you speak with the captain and let him know why you are disappointed. Speaking of the captain, remember that they are not overpaid individuals either. If the fishing was good and the captain put you on the ‘spot,’ then by all means show him your appreciation.
Remember, the crew can’t take “Thanks” to the banks. Without the help from the crew, your trip would not be possible.
In conclusion, regardless if you are a boatless angler itching to fish or if you are just visiting our wonderful Sunshine State and simply want to experience our bountiful waters, head-boats provide an affordable alternative that should not be overlooked. With a little preparation and proper execution, the results you’ll experience may very well persuade you, too, to become a “regular.”
Statewide List of Party-Boats:
Chulamar – 850.934.8037
Entertainer – 850.934.1613
Frances J – 850.937.9667
Lively One II – 850.932.5071
Native Son’s – 850.497.0852
Real Eazy – 850.932.6007
Quester – 850.698.5068
Total Package – 850.485.5940
Capt. Anderson – 850.234.3435
Gemini Queen – 850.234.3435
Jubilee – 850.236.2111
Treasure Island – 850.230.9222
Sweet Jody – 850.650.2500
Destin Princess – 888.837.5088
Destiny – 888.837.5088
Swoop I & II – 850.337.8250
New FL Girl – 850.837.6422
America II – 850.837.1293
Emerald Magic – 850.837.1293
Olin Marler – 850.837.7095
Miss Pass-A-Grill - 727.367.9833
Dolphin Deep Sea - 727.937.8257
Viking Fleet – 888.FL.TRIPS
Flying Fish Fleet – 941.366.3373
Miss Virginia – 727.862.5516
Double Eagle - 727.446.1653
Queen Fleet - 727.446.7666
Florida Fisherman II – 727.393.1947
Mayport Princess – 904.241.4111
King Neptune – 904.220.6363
Sea Love – 904.824.3328
Orlando Princess - 321.784.6300
Canaveral Star - 321.784.6300
Miss Cape - 321.783.5274
Ocean Obsession II - 888.FISH.FLA
Captain Lew - 772.231.8192
Lady Stuart II - 888.523.9788
Seven B’s V - 800.371.3474
Safari I - 772.334.4411
Lady Stuart I - 888.523.9788
Critter Fleet - 800.338.0850
Pastime Princess - 386.427.5393
Sebastian Lady - 772.581.6200
Blue Heron Fleet – 561.844.3573
Sea Mist III - 561.732.9974
Lady K - 561.588.7612
Fish City Pride - 954.781.1211
Helen S - 954.941.3209
Catch My Drift - 954.527.3460
Flamingo - 954.462.9194
Sea Legs III - 954.923.2109
Mary B - 954.525.4665
The Reward Fleet - 305.372.9470
Kelley Fleet - 305.945.3801
Blue Sea II - 305.358.3416
Gulfstream - 305.451.9788
Sailors Choice - 305.451.1802
Sea King - 305.289.0827
Marathon Lady - 305.743.5580
Miss Islamorada – 800.742.7945
Capt. Michael - 877.664.8498
Yankee Capts - 800.942.5464
Greyhound V - 305.296.5139
Tortuga IV - 305.293.1189
Gulfstream III - 305.296.8494
Greyhound V - 305.296.5139
Florida Fish Finder - 888.362.3474