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June 30, 2014

How Top Captains Analyze New Water

Earn success from day one.

As captains and anglers, we spend countless hours in preparation for our day on the water. All of the phone calls, rigging, emails, and research become justified when we can look back on the day and say, “Today was a success.” The time and effort we put into achieving our goal rivals those of NFL coaches. But for us, the off-season does not exist. We can’t afford the luxury of a week between tests of our willpower and planning. Every day differs from the next in our sport. The barometer shifts, currents switch, baitballs scatter, moon phases change, water temperature breaks and, sometimes, our competition doesn’t even show up to play.

I have had long discussions with other captains about the value of consistency in our chosen profession. If we could employ a system that worked even 50 percent of the time, it would be considered the Holy Grail of techniques. If I knew that taking the hooks off my lures would guarantee more bites, I would cut them all off today and worry about how to land the fish later. Without the bite, there is no success. Over the course of my angling career, I have read hundreds of books, watched every TV show, and highlighted every magazine article in search of consistency.  

Yet, the times I grow and learn the most as an angler and as a captain come when I leave my comfort zone and fish new waters sight unseen. By taking my particular skill set into an unknown area and putting it to the test, I can break out of the monotony of running the same gear over the same spots day after day and push myself to become better. The best captains in any fishery constantly fish new water. These individuals learn the rules of a new game each time they set their spread. I interviewed several successful captains to better -understand the basics of building a consistent pattern, and this is what they had to say.

Seeking Consistency

Capt. David Shinn has spent four decades at the helm targeting billfish. For the past 10 years, he has skippered the 80-foot Merritt Lady Columbo to all ends of the Earth, along with its mothership, the 160-foot Alloy S/Y Georgia. The most recent two-year voyage for the tandem proved to be Capt. Shinn’s greatest challenge yet. The itinerary included multiple marlin meccas in the South Pacific, -including Tonga, Tahiti, Bora Bora, Fiji, the -Solomon Islands, the Tuamotu Islands, New Zealand and Australia, among others. Who better to learn from than a captain constantly challenged by new waters with very limited information available?

“The moment I learn of our next destination, I immediately break out the charts,” Shinn says. “Structure is key. I look for mountain peaks, walls or if there are any FADs in the area. Next, I look at the data available online. Our membership at allowed us to pull sea-surface temperatures and chlorophyll data, look for temperature breaks, and pinpoint conversion zones. I would search for an area that had good structure to create current seams on the tide changes, clean water, and had a temperature break of at least a half-degree.

“I rely heavily on my electronics,” says Shinn. “The accuracy of Navionics chips these days allows us to pull up on the exact location of structure we found on the charts. I seem to do best on the down-current side of the peaks on an incoming tide. We would continue to fish these areas looking for bait. Once we found the bait, we would fish it hard. We start by trolling up-sea, then to the down-sea troll, and one last pass through the troughs. As we raise marlin into the spread, I immediately mark each location on my plotter. If no fish show, we quickly move on to the next wall or peak.  

“Regardless of where we went, we would fish four lures in the spread with two teasers and an occasional -shotgun,” says Shinn. “Running dead baits and dredges slowed us down to a point where I wasn’t able to cover the water I wanted to each day during the incoming tide. Our black-and-orange or black-and-purple Pakula lures always seemed to get bit, so we didn’t change our spread very often. Everything that worked for me during my years in Costa Rica worked well during this trip. However, I did push my teasers back two waves, and that made a world of difference in the South Pacific. If my plan doesn’t produce, I simply move. I know my spread will raise billfish … I just need to find them first. But just because all the factors I look for in ‘good water’ are present, doesn’t mean the fish agree.”