Fishing from a Sailboat

We spent two weeks in May sailing through the Leeward Islands of French Polynesia. Our shipmates were two good friends, who actually know how to sail! Together we chartered a bare boat (meaning without crew), the 43 foot Utrillo.

This is our second sailing adventure. Two years ago we joined the same friends for an eight day journey through the Whitsunday Islands of Queensland in Australia. I trolled several lures during that trip, including one recommended at the marina, but had no action at all.

Before this trip I tried to do some research to increase our odds of catching fish but I did not find very helpful information. A lot of the specific tips came from sailing websites and seemed to focus on the fish, how to get them on board or how to kill them. This makes sense because sailors are not necessarily fishers, but I was more interested in how to hook fish, not what to do afterwards.

After having some success, I thought I would write down a few things that we learned so that I and others don’t have to start from scratch on the next voyage.


What Type of Fishing?

The rigging of a sailboat pretty much precludes casting, especially fly fishing, so our boat based fishing consisted primarily of bottom fishing while at anchor, and trolling while under way. I will probably write about bottom fishing later, and the crazy sea monster we caught, but in this post I want to focus on trolling from a sailboat. Trolling means towing lures or baited hooks behind a moving boat.

Rods and Reels

I considered buying a low end trolling rod and reel for the trip but ultimately decided against it. I brought two 7′ rods. Longer rods aren’t necessary for trolling because there is no casting involved, and long rods are a pain to move around in the confined space of a sailboat. One rod was a two piece Ugly Stik Bigwater Spinning Rod, which I liked because it was very durable and pretty cheap. The reels I brought, an old Penn and a newer Shimano Spheros, had pretty good drags and held nearly 300 yards of 50lb braid.

Rod Holders

I wasn’t sure there would be a rod holder on board, so I cut one out of PVC to bring along, just in case. Not knowing where it would end up, I drilled a bunch of holes and brought a handful of plastic cable ties so that I could attach the pipe in a variety of positions. In fact, our sailboat came equipped with one rod holder on the starboard side, so I attached the makeshift one to a port railing. Another thing I brought was carabiners and heavy line so that I could attach the rods directly to the boat as an extra precaution.

Here are the two takeaways: always clip your trolling rod and reel directly to the boat, and cable ties are not strong enough to attach a rod holder – our first fish tore all of the cable ties loose! I re-attached the rod holder by tying it with heavy nylon line, which held up to several subsequent fish.


I felt pretty comfortable with 300 yards of line. I knew that if we hooked something big, it could easily strip the reel and I would have to break it off, but we weren’t fishing for trophies, just to have fun and maybe catch some dinner, so I decided that was fine. I also wanted to use the trolling rods for other types of fishing and I felt that braided line was the best compromise. However, braid turned out not to be great for trolling because it tended to get very twisted, which can result in terrible tangles. I think that a slightly larger reel with monofilament line would be the best all-around choice for trolling. To minimize problems with twisted line, I periodically let out a bunch of braid with no lure and let it unwind while it trailed behind the boat.

Playing and Landing a Fish

One thing to consider, especially while under sail, is that it is difficult to dramatically slow down or change direction quickly. That means that, no matter where the fish goes, you will have to fight it from the stern and you have to factor in the movement of the boat. Backing down on a fish is not going to happen. It is very helpful to slow the boat down as much as possible while playing the fish, but a little bit of forward motion seems good because it’s less likely the fish will swim under the hull and tangle the line on something.

Once the fish is close, secure the rod, either put it back in a rod holder, or give it to someone else to hold. If you are going to keep the fish to eat, don’t unhook it unless the hooks present a major hazard. That way, when it flops or slips free, you won’t lose it overboard!

I just use a sharp knife to kill fish by stabbing them through the top of the head, just like when spear-fishing. Then I cut or tear the gills and trail the fish briefly in the water to drain the excess blood away. The fish we kept, I butchered on the stern and then threw the unwanted pieces back in the water for the other critters to clean up.

Lures – Which One?

Trolling with bait is an option, but I don’t really know anything about that. Also, lures are pretty simple to rig, and way less messy. Of course, lures come in all shapes, sizes and colors. I tried several but quickly settled on one, a classic squid skirt. The lures I brought were rainbow colored and had a small plastic head that popped a little bit in the water, which I liked. They were rigged with hooks that had a straight shank, long enough to put the bend behind the plastic head of the lure. I used either 60 or 80 pound test mono-filament leader, about six feet long. The leader was tied to a large swivel that attached to the mainline, which in my case was 50 pound test braid.

Lures – How Fast and How Far?

Most lures have a range of speeds that produces the intended action. I found that the squid skirts performed well at wider range, between 3 and 7.5 knots, than the other lures I tried.

I read various tips about how far away from the boat to run trolling lures and decided that there are no hard rules. Essentially what I learned, and what was confirmed by experience, is that the lures need to be running correctly in the water. a turbulent wake can hide a lure in the whitewash, or just cause it to ‘swim’ incorrectly. Sailboats, especially while under sail, do not create a massive wake, and I was able to hook fish within 50 feet of the stern.

When you have more than one lure out, stagger them a little bit to reduce the chance of a tangle.

Where to Fish

Our most successful trolling was done in and around large channels in the reef. The current usually flows through these passes and concentrates a lot of food in the area. Predators also like areas where the bottom drops from shallow to deep quickly. You can locate these areas using charts or by fishing in the blue water outside the surf zone. (Carefully!)

Eating Fish

Pretty much any fish caught trolling in open water is safe to eat. Closer to shore, it is wise to follow advice of local people. In general I like to eat predators that chase (like jacks), rather than ambush predators (like barracuda). I also like to eat smaller fish, which generally have fewer toxins built up in their systems.

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