By Jon Meade
It was so damn rough I kept wondering what we were even doing out there. The stiff breeze kept us working hard to keep the dink ballyhoo swimming and the spread tangle-free. But the bite had been good yesterday, and for the few boats that ventured offshore today, was still really good. But the seas were not making it easy on us. Fun-fishing, we had the option to head home anytime the conditions proved to be too uncomfortable or worse dangerous, but fishing in a tournament with big money at stake you’re much more likely to stick it out through adverse conditions. Remaining competitive when it’s windy and rough can require an added effort by the captain and crew alike. I caught up with five captains to get their input on fishing with bait in big seas. Here’s what I learned.
“When I know it’s going to be a windy and rough day I’ll take that into consideration on where I position myself in the morning,” explained Captain Greg Span. “By starting the tournament up-sea of where the bite has been or where the bait and fish are aggregated, I’m in position for a nice down-sea tack right at lines in.” Captain Ryan Higgins also plans ahead when the weather is going to be rough. “Seas don’t affect where I end up fishing. I’m going to go where I need to be to provide the best opportunity for success. If the seas are really big I’ll just leave a little earlier to give me the time to make the run to my spot.”
Higgins also gets a majority of bites during a clean down sea tack, and will go to ends to make sure he’s presenting his spread the way he wants it where he wants it. “There are times when picking up and making short runs can pay off.” And during a Cape May Ocean City shootout it stacked up tight the last day. “After catching each fish we’d make a short run back to my numbers instead of throwing the spread right back out and slowly beating our way up-sea and it paid off with the win!” added Higgins. Kevin Paul, known best for purveying mullets and prowess in the cockpit, took his skills upstairs and captained the team aboard the Lo Que Sea to victory in a previous Pelican Yacht Club Tournament. “Outfishing the guy next to you is about presentation, and rough seas just make it harder to get the presentation you want,” explained Paul.
Spending a great deal of time in the cockpit before heading upstairs, Paul has learned that there’s no perfect speed for trolling in rough seas. “The key is to keep an eye on the spread and make sure everything is swimming right and staying in the water. A good captain will work with the boys downstairs by constantly watching the throttles on every tack to keep the bites coming.” Captain Jason Parker mentioned he doesn’t pay much attention to his boat’s speed in rough seas, but just on how the baits are performing. “The spring tournament season can have its hand full of rough days here in the Abacos. You still end up fishing, since it’s only a short run to the edge,” added Parker.
While every captain noted the cleanest presentation in a rough sea was the down-sea tack, there was no discount to the possibility of getting up-sea bites. Paul commented that when the fish get slow and lethargic they’ll sometimes get their best bites going back upsea.
“I’m not afraid to bump it up a little heading back up-sea, otherwise it seems like you’re just not getting anywhere,” added Paul. Higgins also pays a great amount of attention to the direction his bites are trending to as some days they’ll tend to come going up-sea as well. “Who knows why but when you get bites going up-sea on rough days they tend to be aggressive bites. I’ve even found that if we get a couple tailers in the spread that we can’t get to eat, as a last resort I’ll make a quick turn up-sea, and it’s surprising how often a rigger will come down,” added Higgins. Hans Kraaz who captained the 72’ F & S Bandolera to victory in a Pirates Cove Sailfish Classic in Stuart, Florida also prefers a down-sea tack for many situations, but also likes to fish in the trough.
“In my younger days when I fished on much smaller boats it was often impossible to fish up and down-sea without burying the bow on every wave and sending the spread into a lurching halt. Fishing in the trough took patience from my anglers, but I was amazed at how many sailfish I’d see tailing down-sea. I’ll still fish that way sometimes and keep a keen eye out for fish coming down the face of the waves,” added Kraaz. With experience behind the helm of many different vessels in rough seas Kraaz remarked how each boat took big seas differently, and understanding how each boat trolled in big seas makes a difference in how he fishes each vessel.
Working the Pit
“When it gets windy and rough we’ll spread our baits out a little, run the long riggers further back, and keep them swimming,” explained Paul. The principle is not to minimize or reduce what he’s pulling, but rather to spread it out. His mates are constantly working to adjust outrigger halyards up and down with each tack.
“Rough seas will also wear out dredges quicker. We catch all of our own fresh mullets, it’s my other business and livelihood, and when it’s rough dredges will require even more attention and maintenance. Not only will we replace baits as necessary, but we continually change umbrellas and other hardware as soon as it looses its flex and action,” added Paul.
Greg Span takes a similar approach, but may pull a big bait in Virginia’s offshore canyons for the occasional big blue marlin. “If it’s really howling the only bait we may take out is the big bait, but only if there hasn’t been many blues around lately anyways. We will however always have lots of pitches ready to go at all times. We see a lot of whites coming right to the teasers and dredges and keeping plenty of pitches to toss to them, especially when it’s rough, is paramount.”
What Span does change on his teasers is his squid chains. Rather than pulling dangler chains he’ll go to inline chains that are less likely to tangle. Higgins who often pulls a squid spreader bar teaser will go to a squid chain or single bait. Parker will have his mate add a little more weight inside his squid chains to keep them in the water and not blowing across the spread.
“Everything gets run further back, especially the dredges because you won’t raise fish to dredges that are charging up and out of the water on the down-sea tack” added Higgins. “While the mates will be busy jockeying halyards and working to keep the baits swimming and performing properly in a big sea, it’s important to not discount how the anglers will need to be working harder as well.
When it’s rough it’s much harder to identify a fish coming into the spread. Fortunately, I’m blessed with great anglers that stay attentive and will even hold the long rigger rods to feel for a bite,” added Higgins. “When my guys are pitching to a fish on the teaser I’ll often give the boat a slight turn to make it easier to identify and feed the fish,” explained Span. “But when it’s rough, turning the boat while they’re pitching can be a bad idea if it’ll get the boat rocking and toss people around the pit.”
When it comes to fighting fish every captain agreed that backing into a big sea sucks! “Backing into a big sea can and should be completely avoided,” remarked Higgins. “We plan our turn so that we end up backing down-sea towards our fish to get the release. If a fish ever ends up up-sea of us, like on a double, I’ll point the bow into the waves and run up to the fish.” His turn also gets shortened in rough weather. “I tend to be more conservative in a big sea because it’s much harder to maintain visibility of both the line and the fish. The length of time I remain in a turn is also likely to be reduced,” added Higgins. Parker also tends to be less patient in his turn when it’s rough.
“We aren’t getting a whole lot of bites here in the Bahamas, and doubles definitely aren’t the ordinary, so we tend to get each fish quicker then to stay in a turn for a long time, especially if it’s rough.” And with the BBC’s being a photo verified event there’s a lot of effort paid into preserving the integrity of his release photos. “It’s important to keep the camera and its lens dry at all times to get legible photos. We’ll lift a rigger and run up on a fish if necessary, but throwing spray across the cockpit is not an option when trying to get a photo,” added Parker.
When Span makes his turn on a white marlin he puts forth effort in getting close enough to do very little backing down. “When a white marlin sounds on us and we end up having to wait it out, I am always positioning the boat so I’m backing down-sea when he finally pops back up again,” added Span.
What seems to be the key to success when tournament fishing in rough weather? Every captain stressed the need for extra attention and effort by everyone aboard. They all mentioned how the captain controlled the performance of the baits as much as the mates. Not only was jockeying the outrigger halyards up and down or dropping the baits and dredges further back necessary, but constant attention to the spreads performance and continual adjustments to speed in each tack as well.
Captains that failed to keep an astute eye on the performance of the spread when coming down sea were dropping the ball in the tournament arena. Although fishing in rough weather is avoided as much as possible, fronts and big seas always seem to push through right during tournament week like Murphy’s Law. And true tournament junkies rarely let waves keep them tied to the dock unless it proves to be just too dangerous. KP summed it up well when he said, “All you really can do is put your hard hat on and pray for better conditions.”
Sea Conditions Dictate Lure Selection
“Aside from what our target species is and its size, weather is the biggest factor on choosing which plugs I pull out every morning,” explained Jack Tullius of Black Bart Lures. “If I know it’s going to be rough I’m going to use more flat faced and jet headed lures.”
The challenge with pulling plugs in big seas is getting the proper performance on each tack. The key is to look for consistent movement in a plug that stays down in the water with a sharp pop. An aggressive and sparky bait that’s not out of control is best. Jumping, skipping, or leaving the water is bad. “I don’t fall in love with any one lure, but rather keep an arsenal to adapt to the scenario.
And that’s why Bart has so many different head designs and sizes,” added Tullius. The corner baits can be difficult to keep in the water on rough days and the angle from the rigger to the shorts can make them difficult to tune too. It’s usually a good idea to put your short baits out first and let the captain tune his speed for the day by looking at their action. Then when he’s got an idea of how he can troll in the conditions slip the rest of the spread out. “Speed can be a huge factor too, sometimes you’ve got to slow the boat down, and good captains will learn to make the spread look good,” added Tullius.