Former U.S. President Herbert Hoover once said, “All men are equal before fish.” That saying is never more true than when deep sea fishing on a sportfishing boat. The great wide ocean is home to legendary fish and humans spend a great deal of time trying to catch them. Deep sea fishing is exciting, exhilarating, and exhausting, but there is absolutely nothing like it.
Deep sea fishing is different from inshore fishing. First of all, the fish are bigger. Seas, gulfs, and oceans provide a much larger habitat for fish to roam, and hunt each other. This means larger fish, but it also requires different techniques and equipment to catch them. The techniques you use to catch bonefish on flats aren’t going to work trying to catch a striped marlin, mahi mahi, or a bluefin tuna.
As opposed to inshore or near-shore fishing, deep sea fishing is usually done in waters at least 100 feet deep, and as far out as a hundred miles or more from shore. How far offshore you need to go depends on several factors. First, what type of fish do you want to catch? Most of the deep sea game fish species are pelagic fish, which means that they live in the pelagic zone of ocean waters – being neither close to the bottom nor near the shore.
Some fish species like hanging out on the continental shelf, around deep underwater reefs and seamounts. Other fish species like to hang out past the drop – which is characterized by a steep drop in depth from the continental shelf. In these areas there can be underwater canyons and structures, and different types of fish are found all over. Pelagic fish like to hang out in these deeper waters because there is an abundance of food sources, bait fish – also known as forage— which will migrate from place to place during the year.
The first thing you need to catch the big game fish is a fast, seaworthy vessel. These come in various types, from center console open motorboats with biminis or T-tops to large sportfishing vessels with air-conditioned cabins, some reaching 60 or 80 feet long. Engine size and speed are important, because your boat isn’t just going to get you to the fish, it also has to follow the fish, some which can swim up to 40 knots per hour. Smaller sportfishing boats will have a minimum of two outboard engines, and some have more. Larger sportfishing vessels such as Hatteras or Viking will have large inboard diesel engines that can be 1,000 hp each, and many have two of these! Top speeds of some of these sportfishing machines are in the 35 – 40 knot range.
Finding the fish, chasing the fish, and eventually heading back home safely all require a safe, seaworthy boat and a captain and crew who have the expertise to get it done. The next thing you need is fish catching equipment: rods, reels, gaffs, holsters— all the gear that make catching happen. Every piece of equipment is important, down to the size of the hook and the type of fishing line. For deep sea fishing braided line is strong and popular. Special monofilament line made from fluorocarbon is strong and practically invisible to fish. Add to that mix the ever-important lures and bait, live and frozen. A boat that has electronic fish finders and other underwater fish locators are one step ahead of the game, those crews mean business. Nowadays many private and commercial fishing vessels have underwater cameras to see exactly what is down there. Most modern fishing boats carry radar and chartplotters for increased safety at sea and in order to navigate accurately. Lastly, you’ll need the most important element of all — a captain and guide who knows how to find the fish and give you the experience of a lifetime. Ideally, this is a team that goes out fishing most days of the week. A captain that knows his boat and his fishing grounds, has all the necessary gear onboard, and a crew that will help you bring the catch of your dreams onboard.
Some of the most popular deep sea fish are also the most tasty: many kinds of tuna and mahi mahi (dorado) are hard fighting fish that are not only fun to catch but also a prize on the plate. Tuna fishing is its own science, and one could spend a lifetime getting to know what lures they will bite, and where to find them consistently. Mahi mahi are hard, fast fighting fish that are also beautiful to watch. They are known worldwide for their delicious meat and have entire fishing tournaments dedicated to catching them. They also migrate and are available seasonally in certain areas of the world.
These migrations are one of the reasons why deep sea fishing draws so many fanatics. When the fish are running there is nothing like it. Marlin is another species that attracts dedicated followers that travel the world to catch the biggest marlin they can. Marlin, like other pelagic species, like to migrate along underwater channels such as those created by the Mona Passage off the Dominican Republic, or the Yucatán Channel in Mexico. These are veritable fish highways dotted with sportfishing boats ready to pull monster fish feeding on forage. Another place you can find marlin are around underwater rock formations. These underwater rocks are attractive to pelagic species because they provide reef-like shelter and food sources for bait fish— this is what Saltwater Sportsman calls “marlin country”.
Certain species like Wahoo and Bigeye Tuna also like to hang in the deep canyons and around underwater rock formations. But, one thing is certain, you can’t find these fish or even access them without the right vessel. Deep sea fishing is not simply a sport, it’s a lifestyle that requires a certain dedication to the art and science of catching pelagic fish.
Different types of Deep Sea Fishing
There are many different ways to catch a fish, and the method you choose will depend on the fish you are trying to catch, as well as the time of day and how they are feeding or presenting in the area of ocean where you are fishing. The most common types of sport fishing are trolling, chumming (or chunking), popping, and jigging. The most popular method to fish for tuna, marlin, billfish, wahoo, even mahi mahi is by trolling. Depending on the species you are trying to catch you’ll want to maintain a speed of 5 – 8 knots. The deeper you set your bait, the slower you’ll want to troll. When trolling for different fish species, anglers spread their tackle out from the back of the boat in a variety of patterns. Some use outrigged poles called greensticks to create the illusion of a loose school of fish. Different lures are deployed to attract fish to strike. When trolling you want to keep an eye out for weedlines, changes in water color, and signs of life such as birds or jumping fish. Those are great places to troll for bait as well as your target species.
Another popular technique is kite fishing, which is a variation of trolling. As Salt Water Sportman magazine explains, “Fishing kites present baits splashing at the surface, emitting distress vibrations that travel through the water ¬column and over a broad swath of water. For example, when at drift, three to six baits can be fished downwind from one or more kites, whereas three to four additional baits can be fished upwind on flat lines, staggered at various depths.” Kite fishing is especially effective with dolphin, wahoo, sailfish and tuna.
Where you choose to troll will also depend on what species you are expecting to catch, as well as the bait fish spotted in the area. Paying close attention to detail will net you the best outcome. For example, bigeye tuna and wahoo hang out in canyons, so trolling along underwater contours at 250 ft or lower will draw the fish up, whereas fishing for bluefin can depend on the baitfish available – in certain cases you can troll around a school of bluefin.
Trolling is effective with all kinds of lures and bait, which on one hand can be great, but on the other hand may make it hard to choose what to use. It’s ideal to have a good variety of options onboard, and be ready to switch things up. But, one thing is for sure: it won’t be boring! Favorite all-purpose baits are squid and ballyhoo, and it’s common to catch bait fish while at sea to use later on the same day.
Chumming or chunking is a popular method of bringing fish near the boat, and is a technique that works with dolphin, tuna, shark, and wahoo. By slowly drifting and creating a wake of chunks of bait fish such as butterfish, mackerel, and even smaller tuna you can then set out a troll with live baits and lures to score a monster catch.
Another method of catching fish offshore is by casting spin reels and poppers. Believe it or not, anglers use high-end spinning reels and rods and precision-tuned custom lures to reel in all kinds of fish, including huge bluefin weighing hundreds of pounds. Light tackle fishing for large fish can leave you lightheaded and hooked for more. The anglers lure the fish to the surface with plugs that they “pop” up and down. If they’ve chosen the right spot, the fish will explode from the surface and take off with the lure. Some anglers end up boating the fish, others just want the thrill of the fight with a fish built for speed and power.
Jigging is another way to draw a large fish to the surface. In these scenarios, the boat will be drifting along an underwater canyon or a sea mount or ridge. Anglers will drop lines with lures at different depths and jig to attract the bite. The best place to drop a jig is in the middle of a bait school. There are few species that can’t be caught with a jig. Salt Water Sportsman describes how a jig works: “A metal jig with free-swinging hooks is dropped beneath the boat and retrieved with a rhythmic motion that creates a vertical walk-the-dog action that’s irresistible to fish. The technique works over featureless bottom, plus it’s effective when fished through suspended schools of bait. It works over wrecks, reefs and rock piles. It works for rockfish, yellowtail and yellowfin tuna on the West Coast, stripers and bluefin tuna in the Northeast, and grouper, king mackerel, wahoo, snapper and tuna in the Southeast and the Gulf.”
Deep Sea Bottom Fishing
Even when you are far out in 150 to 200ft water you can go bottom fishing. Bottom fishing scores a different kind of fish, demersal instead of pelagic. Demersal fish live and feed on or near the bottom of the sea in the demersal zone. They occupy the sea floors and are found in deep waters on or near the continental slope or along the continental rise. The objective for rigs that are used in bottom fishing is to take your bait to the bottom, where the water hits the sand, and lure in the fish. Bottom fishing mostly uses live bait like squid also uses artificial lures but. Fishing is done when the boat is stopped (anchored or drifting over “spots” where fish are known to lurk in shallow water – 100 – 300 feet deep). By dropping a weighted line in the desired location (found via fishfinder), you can catch a number of demersal fish such as snapper, grouper, barrelfish, halibut, and redfish.
The bait, of course, has to be appetizing to the fish, which is why live bait is often used more often than artificial lures. The live bait movements attract local fish and when they strike you’ll know because your line will start to pay out from the reel. Set your drag, reel it in and get ready for a fight. While bottom fish don’t usually get as big as the larger pelagic fish, you can still reel in some large fish! Snapper can get up to 35 lbs, grouper up to 70lbs, and halibut even larger. If you are fishing for larger fish you might want to use an electric reel to make it easier to bring large fish to the surface. Acting like an electric winch, these types of reels can keep your arm from falling off as you bring up your huge deep sea monster.