She Likes It Rough

Capt. Steve Dougherty January 20, 2011

It’s Friday afternoon and NOAA just upped the ante with their latest advisory. SATURDAY: SEAS 4 TO 6-FEET. SEAS HIGHER IN THE GULF STREAM. DOMINANT PERIOD 5 SECONDS. INTRACOASTAL WATERS CHOPPY IN EXPOSED AREAS. ISOLATED SHOWERS. The entire week calm conditions prevailed and now forecasters have decided to throw a wrench in your weekend plans. What are you going to do?

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Photo: Steve Dougherty

It’s important to understand that rough sea conditions is a relative term and under no circumstances should you ever jeopardize the safety of your vessel or passengers. On a squally day, crossing Pensacola Bay in a technical poling skiff can at times be questionable, while die-hards fishing modern battlewagons may hear “20-knots” and proceed to punch the throttles toward the horizon. With that being said, the advanced fishing platforms produced by today’s technology minded manufacturers are fully capable of holding their own in extremely impressive seas. The question is…are you up for the challenge?

When heading in our out of an inlet be sure to take your time and survey the situation before charging the approaching or following swells like a cowboy.

While it seems somewhat mind boggling as to how anyone could enjoy a constant barrage of salt spray with gut-wrenching pitches and rolls, there’s a certain breed that actually revels in the thrill accompanied with encountering a hot-bite in big seas. If you decide to tango with Mother Nature there are a few things you can do to stay safe and capitalize on the exceptional opportunity.

Remember that safe seamanship must be addressed long before casting off your dock lines. It doesn’t matter if you’re heading out in a gleaming 60-foot convertible or battle-scarred 28-foot center console. You need to be sure that everything is properly secured and ready to be punished. You should also have a game plan that’s tailored to the challenging conditions you expect to encoutner.

You may have previously stayed off the water when the weather turned nasty, but you should know that the fish don’t stop feeding just because the wind blows. When marine forecasts turn sour most sane individuals opt for a game of golf or capitalize on the opportunity to do some housework and earn a Get Out Of Jail Free card. If you decide to push it to the limits you should know that rough seas and approaching frontal boundaries are associated with fluctuations in barometric pressure, which is thought to have a dramatic affect on pelagic game fish feeding patterns. You’ll also have the added advantage of significantly reduced pressure.

If you don’t have much rough water experience, heading offshore under less than ideal conditions can be nerve wracking. But you can rest assured that any doubts you have will be squashed when your prize catch takes to the air. However, before you get the chance to set your spread you’ll likely face the most treacherous conditions of the entire day. Florida’s inlets often feature narrow channels with shifting sandbars that compound hazardous conditions. When heading in our out of an inlet be sure to take your time and survey the situation before charging the approaching or following swells like a cowboy. The more time you spend navigating rough weather the more comfortable you will be with your boat’s handling characteristics as well as your own competence at the helm.

Along the vast Atlantic Ocean the winter season means offshore anglers must deal with powerful Nor’easters. Accompanied with these blustery storms are winds out of north quadrants. North winds blowing against northbound current create testing conditions. However, the same winds that hinder your ability to get offshore enable pelagic game fish to cruise the surface and utilize the wind and waves to help push them south. You’re probably aware that sailfish enjoy tailing down sea with the surf, but you can also expect to encoutner sharks, cobia, dolphin and tuna riding the waves to cover ground in an effort to conserve energy.

Trolling is a great way to score on rough days but requires the teamwork of an experienced captain and crew. When the seas really kick up it’s best to troll by quartering down sea. By avoiding tracking straight down sea you can eliminate the erratic presentation accompanied with the bouncing and bobbing of each passing wave. With the right speed and angle you can get your lures and baits to swim down the faces of the waves with much greater consistency.

Eventually you’ll be forced to take the waves head on. To make the ride a bit more bearable you’ll want to troll into it at an angle. It should come as no surprise that slower speeds make for a more enjoyable experience. This presents the perfect opportunity to fish a chin-weighted swimming mullet or Ilander ballyhoo combo. Under rough conditions low profile feathers and sea witches should remain in the tackle box. For those with big billfish in their crosshairs, proven artificial lures like the Mold Craft Wide Range and Black Bart 1656 Flat Nose are excellent performers.

Another aspect that can greatly influence your trolling presentation is your outrigger setup. Excessive slack in your outrigger halyards will cause your baits to skip. You’ll also have to check release clip tension, as it will vary greatly from typical performance under calm conditions with more streamlined baits. You should also consider utilizing flat line clips to reduce the angle of your line and help prevent tangles. Finally, it will be in your best interest to fish your offerings closer to the boat.

If you’d rather drift and dream there are a few things you can do to make the experience more enjoyable. Typically, center consoles drift beam-sea when kite-fishing with live baits. This enables anglers to maximize fishability and spread their rods up the side of the gunnel. When the seas kick up this is not such a safe practice. To reduce the bouncing and pitching you will want to position your bow into the wind/seas. This way you can safely fish a kite off both the port and starboard corners. You can also deploy a sea anchor to help stabilize the drift, but take caution. If it is really rough you’ll likely want to power drift so you can chase a fish or maneuver away from a rogue wave.

When winds kick up bait selection is more important than ever. Dangling heavier baits off kites will help keep your offerings in the water for the ideal presentation. Tinker mackerel, goggle eye, speedo and blue runner all do the trick, while conditions may warrant the use of a specialized high wind kite. If you have experience kite-fishing you know that if these high-tech toys fall, they typically sink like a rock. They’re hard enough to retrieve under calm conditions, but throw in some serious swell and you’ve got a recipe for tackle failure. To avoid destroying costly gear, it’s a good idea to attach a small balloon to the centerpiece of your kite to keep it floating on the surface in the event it goes for a swim.

No matter how you get hooked up, if you are forced to chase a fish you want to make an effort to get up wind of your adversary so the fish is forced to head down sea, giving you the upper hand in maneuverability. While those in center consoles have unobstructed fishability on their side, if you fish from a large sportfish you’ll eventually be forced to back down and take waves over the transom. Not only is this a great way to upset your angler, but also a dangerous task.

While fighting fish in rough seas demands the full attention of captain and crew, the most crucial part of the fight is when the leader is within reach. In addition to an already stressful situation the boat will be rocking and rolling and you will be forced to keep a solid footing under slippery conditions. Don’t force it, but if you’re connected to a species destined for the dinner table and you get the opportunity, take it. You can use the boats rocking motion to time your gaff shot, but remember that no fish is worth your safety. Even with years of experience don’t ever think you’re invincible. There are some days where even the most seaworthy vessels and seasoned captains shouldn’t leave the dock.

Foul Weather Gear

Whether you stay in tune with the weather forecast and head home when it turns nasty, or you routinely push your vessel to the limits, at one time or another you are going to be faced with unwelcoming conditions. To make the situation bearable you need to be outfitted with dependable foul weather gear. Whether you choose to don gear with a dependable PVC coating, or highly breathable nylon with tight-fitting seams and waterproof zippers, there’s no need to sacrifice comfort on the water. There are numerous options available with different levels of durability, breathability, weight and price.

Stay Connected

While weather forecasts and marine advisories give you a general idea of what to expect, Florida’s wacky weather patterns are completely unpredictable and foul weather can creep up out of nowhere. This is when you need state-of-the-art marine electronics at your fingertips. You can certainly tune into the marine forecast on your VHF, although more in-depth weather subscription services do exist. SIRIUS Marine Weather is a forecasting tool that’s compatible with many of the industry’s leading electronics providers including Raymarine, Furuno, Simrad, Northstar, Nobeltec and Lowrance. Providing users with wind forecasts as detailed as 1nm, radar and satellite images, precipitation and cloud coverage, lighting strikes, and visibility, boaters can make accurate decisions based on real-time information.

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