Headboat Honor Roll

I recently asked myself exactly what it is that separates those who enjoy headboat fishing from those who really excel at it. The numbers don’t lie, and any party boat skipper worth his weight in bait will tell you that 10% of passengers catch 90% of the fish. This applies along the west coast, the east coast and across the Florida Keys.


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Massive squid enable anglers to make choice cuts and top-notch baits. Photo:

Often referred to as drift boats or party boats, Florida’s vast network of headboats offer resident and visiting anglers an affordable alternative to experience some serious fishing without the hassle of organizing a 6-passenger charter. Catering to groups from 10 to as many as 100, Florida’s headboats offer numerous options ranging from casual 4-hour trips to extreme over-the-horizon adventures lasting three or more days. And if it’s variety you’re after, depending on what inlet you depart you may target Spanish mackerel, snapper or swordfish.

As fish mature and transition into eating more rewarding meals they become wary of anything that doesn’t look right, move right or smell right.

Though I own my own boats, I still enjoy the hassle-free fishing headboats offer. But it’s not only about the experience. Anglers have the opportunity to score with some truly amazing game fish. However, success in this endeavor is in your own hands. If there’s one tip I can offer to increase your score it is that consistent success is a direct correlation to your level of preparation. Of course, tackle, terminal gear and proper execution play huge roles in any outing, but making the most of a party boat trip undeniably starts long before you ever leave the dock. Seasoned salts known as regulars probably spend equal time preparing for headboat trips as they actually do fishing. Their goal isn’t always a full cooler, and exactly how many fish they bring home isn’t necessarily a valid measure of their success, rather it is the successful pursuit and capture of an intended target.

While we can certainly dig deep into tackle preparation and proper technique for headboat fishermen, one thing that’s universal for all regulars is fresh bait. From Miami to the Middle Grounds, countless structure-oriented species and mid-water predators alike are typically enticed with a multitude of dead baits. The top tier of headboat anglers who make up the aforementioned 10% usually go to extremes long before their swivels touch saltwater.

First and foremost, they spend long hours catching their own bait or make a worthy investment purchasing it. Either way, they have what it takes to fool the most inquisitive predators long before the captain announces it is time to fish. These anglers know that pool-winning fish don’t get big by making mistakes. The largest fish do not reach the top of the class by devouring anything that resembles a meal. Of course, juvenile fish are likely to be more aggressive than mature fish simply because they have to be in order to survive in the fish-eat-fish world. That being said, from seatrout to swordfish wisdom comes with age. As fish mature and transition into eating more rewarding meals they become wary of anything that doesn’t look right, move right or smell right.

Would you eat potentially rotten steak that looked rancid or smelled foul? Now don’t be under the impression that I’m suggesting or implying all frozen bait is spoiled, rotten or in any way not properly handled. When cared for, frozen bait gets the job done. As a matter of fact, I’m very familiar with the inner workings of one of Florida’s largest bait retailers and know firsthand how much effort goes into preserving the quality of their baits. Nevertheless, bait that has been frozen and defrosted loses a level of appeal. Spanish sardines are a perfect example, as they are often supplied as free bait on headboats across Florida. If you’ve ever fished with frozen sardines you know they can be mushy and tough to keep on the hook. Fresh sardines on the other hand are firm, oily and reflect brightly colored hues of iridescent purple and blue. For headboat anglers targeting quality and quantity, the benefits to fresh bait are easy to see.

In order to reap the maximum rewards of fresh bait, it must be properly prepared and cared for. This means it is important for you to carry a compact cooler and bait knife. A bag of ice or ice packs will help keep your fresh bait in prime condition. I prefer to prepare all of my bait in advance and like to keep portioned bags packed in ice until I need them. Besides catching bait on the spot, it doesn’t get any better.

The bottom line is that before your next headboat trip you need to get your hands on fresh bait. It doesn’t matter if you catch it or buy it, just make sure you have a cooler full of fresh enticements. The crew will welcome you with open arms and you’ll very likely head home with high hook honors and a pocket full of cash.