Most inshore anglers realize that boat handling plays a key role in how successful they are at catching fish. Positioning the boat for casting, noises created by the boat, and setting up for drifts are all important things we worry about. Yet in offshore waters, most of the concern seems to go right out the window. This is a big mistake, because how you handle your boat has just as much impact on pelagics as it does with fish in the shallows. The concerns are different, for sure, but just as important.
The first thing to keep in mind is that noise still matters. Bailing for mahi-mahi is a great example. You can often see these fish in the water, and if you watch them enough times, you’ll notice that when you shift a boat into gear, they scatter. The mechanical “clunk” of metal gears meshing clearly startles these fish—so one would have to assume it startles other species, too. Another noise that has an impact on your catch is the human voice. It travels quite well through the water, and during an experiment years ago, I towed a hydrophone behind a boat as we trolled offshore. Surprisingly, people yelling onboard was the loudest sound we heard. It drowned out engine and prop noise, the sound of water splashing against the hull, and everything else. This could be one reason why billfish hunters sometimes see a “window-shopper”. These are billfish that enter the spread and seem aggressive, but after looking at the baits they turn tail and swim away. The fact that you know the fish is there means someone spotted it, and in all likelihood, that someone yelled to everyone else aboard. Yes, the fish can hear that.
Another important boat handling issue offshore has to do with how you troll. Many anglers go in a more or less straight line, which is a big mistake. Instead, there should be lots of zigging and zagging. This will bring different baits back and forth over the boat wake, and in and out of the propwash. Both have an effect on how visible the bait is from below, and how it appears to be swimming. If you have an autopilot, most modern models offer an “S” turn mode, and this is usually a very effective setting to use when trolling.
Finally, consider how you handle your boat when a large pelagic fish is on the line. Sure, you need to turn the boat and possibly back it a bit when you have a hot billfish on. But when it comes to virtually any other species, you’ll do best by minimizing how much you maneuver the boat. Don’t back up unless you’re in danger of being spooled, or so much bowed line is out that water pressure could break it. And if you have a center console, it’s almost always a better idea for the angler to walk around the boat than it is for the captain to turn it.
Boat handling will have a huge impact on your success rate offshore, just as it does when you’re prowling the shallows. So keep these tactics in mind and every time you maneuver, set up for a drift, or troll through the blue water, consider how the way you handle your boat could be affecting the fish.