At the most basic level, party boat operations run a daily schedule of excursions, departing and returning midday, then heading out again after a quick turnaround to capitalize on the afternoon bite. Some even include a nighttime trip to the lineup. However, the truth is without breaking speed records to and from the grounds, these trips provide limited time and limited catches. On the other end of the spectrum, a select number of party boats cater to adventurous anglers looking for more than a 4-hour tour.
While several other options exist, Yankee Capts, Gulfstar and Florida Fisherman are by far the most popular and run a steady schedule of 2- and 3-day overnighters deep into the Gulf of Mexico. Detailed information about their respective operations and policies along with complete schedules and up-to-date catch reports can be found on their respective websites. With huge fishboxes, full galleys, hot showers and comfortable air-conditioned bunk rooms, anglers only need to bring their appetites for action.
Traveling to virgin grounds out of reach for most recreational boaters means a limited number of lucky passengers on each trip have the opportunity to fish the Middle Grounds, Pulley Ridge and dozens of fertile honey holes in between where trophy class snapper, grouper, African pompano and tilefish are in everyone’s crosshairs.
In almost every case, long-range headboat fishing can be an awesome experience or a total flop. Making sure you stay on the side of success is all about proper preparation and execution, understanding that it’s impossible for the crew to control Mother Nature or the fish. I know, not only from dozens of trips on my own, but more so from working the deck of a headboat for many years before moving to the wheelhouse. I think I’ve seen it all, including seasick passengers willing to pay 20 grand for a helicopter ride home to 30 guys simultaneously hooked up during a full on tuna frenzy! Even nowadays as a boat owner I still enjoy the occasional headboat trip. It’s the camaraderie and it definitely reminds me of my youth.
While snowbirds just looking to spend a few hours on the water typically dish out a few extra bucks for equipment and fish with the bait and tackle provided for a simple on/off experience, long-range anglers never count on rented gear. Multi-day trips are taken very seriously and the best of the best always know what’s ahead of them. Repeat customers never show up blindly and they are never afraid to ask questions prior to and during the trip. You can spot the guys who are dialed in from a mile away. They bring exactly what they need and little more. They don’t pull up in a fully loaded U-Haul and they don’t walk on the boat with a dozen outfits draped over their shoulder.
As for coolers and insulated bags, fish are tagged and iced by the crew for the duration of the trip and the goods are distributed back at the dock for all to see, so other than something for food and beverages, and a small bait cooler, you should leave the YETI locked in your vehicle.
Perhaps the biggest misconception with long-range headboat fishing is that you have to fish the stern in order to be successful. This is a total myth. The rail positions across the back of the boat are only advantageous when the boat is at anchor and even then, fish are still caught all around the boat. When drift fishing, the entire upwind side of the boat offers equal opportunity. I actually prefer the bow. Even though the front of the boat offers less protection from the elements there is far more elbowroom and you can hop over to the other side and cast downwind if you’d like.
In every case, overhand casting is strictly prohibited on headboats regardless of the duration of the trip, so sharpen your casting skills now! An underhand lob is the only way to effectively and safely cast your bait or jig away from the boat without the risk of impaling your neighbor with a hook or hitting a mate with an 8 ounce egg sinker. The back of my head still hurts from that one.
Bait is always a big deal and it should be, which is why the guys who show up with a variety of fresh baits walk off with the most meat. Keep in mind some of the most effective offerings and certainly the freshest are caught on scene with sabiki rigs and long-handled nets, including ballyhoo, squid, flying fish, bonito, mackerel, grunt and more. You couldn’t possibly count how many pool-winning snapper and grouper enjoyed a fresh slab of kingfish for their last meal.
Alongside everything else, proper fish-fighting skills are absolutely vital for walking off a headboat with your head held high. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you better read closely. It all starts with situational awareness and having a clear understanding of where your line is at all times, especially when you’re hooked up. With this many passengers and this many lines in the water the potential for disaster is real, and sadly not everyone listens. All it takes is one mistake with two tight lines crossed and you can kiss that fish of your dreams and your terminal tackle goodbye! This is also why rods left at the rail unattended cause the biggest turmoil. Mobility on a party boat is limited and regardless of what sort of sea monster you’ve hooked, the captain is not going to ask everyone to reel up so he can go chase your fish, so you better be on the ball and be ready to move! When you do get into a mess while fighting big fish, quickly back off on the drag until you’re free and can resume the battle. With any luck, you’ll still come out on top.
Chasing fish down the rail requires purposeful and skillful maneuvering in order to avoid tangles. Communication with nearby anglers is key and politeness pays. Make it clear that you’re coming down the rail with a sense of urgency, but do it calmly and respectfully. Wiggle your way in front of or behind fellow fishermen, over and under their lines, whatever you have to do to stay clear. Listen to the crew and you’ll be just fine.
Beating big fish on a party boat is one thing, but boating them is another thing altogether. Considering you’re fishing more than 10 feet above the water line, you have to work in unison with the deckhand standing next to you in order to provide a clear gaff shot. Work the fish to the surface, but never pull its head out of the water. Doing so could result in a pulled hook or parted leader. Once the fish is on the gaff, step aside and back off on the drag or shift the reel into freespool with the clicker engaged so you can effectively and efficiently manage what’s unfolding around you.
As far as tackle, options vary wildly depending on depth, venue and conditions. You may need power-assist equipment for deep dropping, which Gulfstar includes with the fare, and you’ll certainly need a beefy 20 to 40 lb. conventional outfit for manual bottom fishing. A vertical jigging combo loaded with 30 to 50 lb. braid is also a must on all long-range trips, and some boats encourage anglers to troll for wahoo, tuna and dolphin on the way to and from the fishing grounds. Inquire before so you don’t show up under-gunned.
Finally, don’t forget the crew. Like many service industries, deckhands earn a living from gratuities and exceptional service deserves nothing less than 20 percent of the fare. Headboats are home to some of the hardest working fishermen in the industry. They literally unhook every fish and undo every tangle around the clock so you can get right back in the game and enjoy the experience to the fullest