Landing fish

A LOT OF BLUEWATER SAILORS I know complain that they never catch fish while on passage. I once had this problem, too, but since perfecting my technique I’ve never once been skunked on a passage during which I have tried to catch fish. It’s really not very hard and is a great way to vary your diet at sea.

Some hardcore “veggie-lantes” I know do like to argue that it is immoral to catch and eat fish. But the way I see it you have to look at things from the fish’s perspective. A fish that is bigger than you normally will not hesitate to eat you if it is hungry. But it also probably won’t kill you for sport and prominently display your remains in its home. Thus, rule number one in my guide to ethical fishing: never kill a fish for fun.

As far as the actual catching of fish goes, the experience from their point-of-view must seem supernatural. The closest equivalent, in our terms, would go something like this: you’re walking down the street minding your own business when suddenly a delicious cheeseburger appears in front of you. You succumb to the temptation, grab the burger, and take a bite. Next thing you know, you are suddenly yanked into another spatial dimension you never knew existed, then are butchered and eaten by aliens. There is no way to make this a pleasant experience, so there is no point in prolonging it. Hence, rule number two: do not “play” a fish on a line, but land it and kill it as quickly as possible.

People who kill fish for sport, besides driving boats that burn way too much fuel, are often obsessed with gear. Therefore, as a matter of principle, I also believe ethical fishing sailors should use as little gear as possible. This is both more convenient and more effective. Rods and reels, after all, are a real pain to store on a sailboat. Plus, near as I can tell, they don’t really help increase the number of fish you catch.

The one time I went head-to-head with a real gear freak fishing off a sailboat–his fancy rod and reel and amazingly expensive lures versus my ratty old handlines–I totally smoked him. This was on a passage from Massachusetts to Bermuda aboard a 47-foot cutter. We agreed beforehand we’d each have one corner of the transom to fish from, and while he fiddled with his lures on an almost hourly basis, I just plunked my handline in the water and forgot about it. I soon caught two nice tuna, then put away my line for fear of snagging more than we could eat. I urged my shipmate to do the same (citing rule number one above), but he refused, as his pride by now was sorely offended. Fortunately, there was nothing for me (or the fish) to worry about. His pride remained offended, and the only thing he ever caught was a bird that persisted in diving on his lure.

To achieve such results, the first important trick I’ve learned is to put multiple lures in the water and show the fish a real meal instead of just a snack. Instead of trailing just one lure on a single line, I now routinely trail four lures on two lines (that is, two lures in series on each line) and almost always catch something. The lures I use are cheap rubber squids, which look tasty to both tuna and dorado. My lines are 200-pound test monofilament. Using such heavy line is more humane, in that you can land a fish very quickly (see rule two above), and, again, is more effective, as 200-pound test line is very unlikely to break under load. I find, too, it is tough enough that you needn’t put a steel leader in front of the hook.

Handline for fishing

I store my lines on plastic yo-yos and set them up with bungee cords and metal clips at the end. When deploying a line, I simply clip the end of the bungee cord to a lifeline or stanchion base. I then gather the bungee cord in a loose bight and fasten the end of the monofilament line to a lifeline with a clothespin. This serves two purposes. First, the clothespin popping off the lifeline alerts you to the fact that you have a fish on the line. Second, the slack bight of bungee cord, combined with the cord’s great elasticity, act as an excellent shock absorber when a fish first hits your lure and prevents it from being ripped from the fish’s mouth.

Handline deployed

Another important trick: keep your lines short. This may seem counterintuitive, as many assume fish won’t hit a lure near a boat. In fact, however, fish in the open ocean are often attracted to boats, as long as they don’t hear engines running. The best technique is to let out just enough line that your lures don’t sink too far into the water and occasionally skip on the surface. This sort of action is highly attractive to ocean predators.

Having short lines also makes it much easier to land a fish once you’ve hooked it. You won’t need to slow down the boat to get your catch aboard, as the lack of scope in the line, combined with the speed at which it is being trailed, will keep the fish bouncing along on or near the surface. This prevents it from getting under the water where it can get its tail working and put up a fight. How short is short? Probably shorter than you think. The lines I currently use, which have worked very well for me, are only about 50 feet long.

Killing fish with alcohol

As for killing a fish once it’s aboard, conventional wisdom has it that pouring alcohol down its gills is the fastest and least painful method. Whenever I try this, however, I am never impressed with the results. First, it seems a horrible waste of a valuable resource. Second, in my experience, the fish goes absolutely crazy as soon as the alcohol touches its gills and flails around frantically like a possessed demon for several minutes. To me it does not look painless. Another popular alternative is to bludgeon the fish with a winch handle, which is quick, but messy. My preferred method is to simply let the poor creature “drown” in the atmosphere. It takes little time and causes little fuss.

Culinary Imperatives

Once you have mastered these techniques, your only problem will be deciding how to prepare your fish for dinner. I’d love to suggest this, too, is a moral issue, but really it is only a matter of taste. That said, I do feel it is almost a crime against nature to do anything other than eat your catch raw. To this end, I always carry some wasabi, ginger, and soy sauce whenever I sail offshore. And when I do catch a fish I usually compel my crew to at least sample it au naturel. They often complain about this beforehand, but never afterwards. I’ve found there’s nothing like a meal of truly fresh sashimi to help philistines open their minds to the more sublime aspects of bluewater sailing.

Eating fish raw

Developing a taste for sashimi does have other benefits. For one thing, if you ever end up in a survival drift aboard a liferaft, you won’t have any trouble getting used to the cuisine. Also, if a cheeseburger from another dimension does suddenly appear in front of you someday, you’ll be less likely to take a bite out of it.

Preferred Targets

The fish you are most likely to catch sailing to and from the tropics in the North Atlantic are tuna and dorado. Both are very good to eat (raw or cooked) and are fast swimmers that like to feed near the surface of the water. This makes them excellent prey for bluewater sailors itching to trail lines behind their boats while on passage. Trolling lures at speeds from five to eight knots usually works well for both species.

There are several different species of tuna. Lesser tuna such as albacore and skipjack generally never grow longer than four feet, while bluefin, the most prized species, can reach nine feet in length and weigh over 1,000 pounds. Tuna are unique among fish in that they are warm-blooded and have very oxygen-rich blood. The ability to generate body heat not only allows them to swim in a wide range of water temperatures, but also helps make them very powerful swimmers. Described as having a “perfect” hydrodynamic body form, they can hit speeds of 40 mph over short distances. They grow rapidly and are relatively long-lived and, unlike dorado, will also feed in deep water as far down as 1,600 feet.

Yellowfin tuna

The species of tuna you will most likely encounter fishing from your sailboat is the yellowfin, so-called because its second dorsal and anal fins are both bright yellow. Yellowfin generally grow to a maximum length of six feet. They love to form schools, whether with their own kind or other species of the same size, and are especially attracted to floating objects in the water.

Because tuna have such a large quantity of rich red blood in their bodies, you should first drain away the blood before cleaning the fish. After the fish is dead, make deep incisions with a sharp knife behind its gills, then drag the fish in the water by its tail behind your boat for 30 minutes or so. This way you’ll make much less of mess when butchering the animal, and its meat will be sweeter.

Dorado, also known as mahi-mahi, or dolphin, don’t live nearly as long as tuna and grow to a maximize size of about five feet. Most are smaller and on average weigh 15 to 25 pounds. They are distinguished by their brilliant coloration—an array of vivid yellows, blues, and greens. These colors change rapidly when the fish is landed and fade to a dull yellowish-grey by the time it is dead.


Dorado often travel in mated pairs. The males are easily identified by their bulbous foreheads, which grow more and more prominent as they mature. The fish are surprisingly loyal to their mates—if you catch one, the other will continue to follow your boat in mourning, and you will likely catch it, too. On one memorable occasion, I snagged both a male and female simultaneously on the same line and came within an inch of landing the pair together.

One thing a dorado is very apt to do once hooked is put up a fight. If you fail to follow my advice about short lines and allow a dorado enough scope to manuever freely, you may be treated to an exciting display of aerial acrobatics before you land your dinner.

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16 Responses
  1. Nick Kats

    What a great article Charlie.
    I fish too, mackerel in Ireland, cod in Iceland, tuna in Azores. The dorado got away. Totally with you on sashimi.
    Marinated & ate the seabirds that got hooked – very good.
    Most sailors don’t fish. I never understood that.. why?
    I forage as well. picked about 10 different wild greens in Iceland alone – handy given that veggies can’t commercially be grown there & must be shipped in. Nice n fresh.

  2. Charlie

    @ Nick: Seriously? You eat seabirds? That never ever occurred to me. I always thought they must taste terrible. I may have try one now! charlie

  3. Charlie

    @SailFar: Thanks, mate. All handlines is definitely the way to go on a sailboat, IMHO. I don’t need gloves to reel them in. I wrap the line on to the yo-yo turn by turn, and the heavy monofilament presents no problems re hand abuse. That is not me in the first photo, but it is my old Alberg 35. That was shot en route from the Cape Verdes to Antigua; the guy landing the fish is my old buddy Mike Csenger. The shot of me is the one further down where I’m licking raw tuna on a scoop transom. charlie

  4. Charlie

    @Denny: Thanks, mate! I’ve been thinking the same thing. If I put up a PayPal button, would you hit it? Or just think I was begging? charlie

  5. Ted

    Just loved this. Tried on passage between Tortola & St Croix– 6-8 hour reaches each way at 6ish kts, no joy!
    Any ideas on how to fine tune it? (We were towing a dinghy, could that be a problem?)

  6. Charlie

    @Ted: Sorry to hear that! The dinghy might be an issue, I don’t know. Personally I wouldn’t troll lines while towing a dinghy just for fear of them getting tangled up with each other. If you feel you have to do it that way maybe letting out more line would be a good idea. Also, that’s not that much time with lures in the water. I do this over multi-day passages. I catch fish every passage, but not every day. Keep trying! charlie

  7. Hoser

    Re: Nick Kats. Years ago in my old hunting grounds I came across a bunch of Hippies who had set up a summer camp in an old disused cabin near a secluded ocean beach and they routinely roasted Seagulls as if they were Chickens. I passed on their invitation to sample the Gull and proceeded onward to hunt my ducks and geese.

    I suppose one can eat anything that is edible, and to be honest the difference between eating Duck, Pelican, Goose Chicken or Gull is one of degree and not one of kind.

  8. Miles

    I am going to be living on a 43 foot dufour, I have no idea how to sail it yet but I spent a winter fishing in Key West. I too also thought it was such a waste not to get fish while on a sailboat. My idea was to just spear fish, but I will definitely add this technique for travel days. I do something similar as a canoe guide, fish while traveling. Very grateful for this article. Can you give more detail like a shopping list and I’ll echo the thoughts of others on how do you connect the elastic to the mono or is it done by connecting both to the yoyo? Please excuse my ignorance, just learned the words “tack” & “jibe” today. Great article.

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