Offshore Fishing Tips: Becoming a Better Angler

A Marlin University instructor reveals offshore fishing tips to improve your bite-to-release percentage

cockpit fishing
If you're a better angler in the cockpit, the entire crew benefits.Austin Coit

I have been in the sport-fishing industry for over 30 years and have been fortunate to work with some great captains and anglers as a mate before I started running boats myself. Along the way, I’ve taught others to become more-proficient anglers, and I’ve seen them gain much more enjoyment from their fishing because of these acquired skills.

The Tackle Transition

We started with heavy conventional rods in the chair and moved to shorter stand-up rods. In some places, we went from dead bait to lures and back to bait again. Then the hooks started changing, from larger to smaller, long-shank to short-shank, and then to circle hooks. I’m pretty sure I have seen and tried every technique currently known in an effort to catch more fish. Some worked, and some have not — sometimes it was not the technique as much as it was the angler’s ability, or even something related to the fish and the other conditions, which we did not take into consideration.

fishing offshore for billfish
A Marlin University angler receives ­hands-on instruction from an experienced staff member.George Sawley

It wasn't until 2003 that I was hired to run the 57-foot Spencer, Stalker, a position I had for the next 13 years. During that time, we fished pretty much everywhere you could go on your own bottom, from Florida to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and everywhere in between, even down to the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador. Fishing on the same boat with the same anglers for that amount of time gave me the ability to fine-tune my anglers' skills. My job was to make good anglers out of two recently retired corporate executives and their family members.

To get started, we had to complete the build and prep the boat to fish five destinations in our first year. I picked Cancun, Mexico, to kick off the trip, followed by St. Thomas, Venezuela and Panama, and finally we would end up in Costa Rica. I figured the best training would be catching sailfish off Mexico on 20-pound-test gear in rough winter conditions, and in the end it paid off. In our first season together, we caught more than 1,000 ­billfish and had a great time doing it. We followed that same schedule for about five years before I was invited to join Marlin University as an ­instructor. The ­opportunity to teach new anglers was a strong draw.

Passing the Torch of Knowledge

With multiple sessions each year in some of the world's top fishing destinations, Marlin University is always a great time. There are enthusiastic anglers from all over the world who attend to learn more about becoming better in the cockpit. At first, I was a bit rusty after working with tuned-up fishermen, but it's been a worthwhile experience that has me thinking much more about what we were doing on Stalker and why it was working so well for us.

No matter the skill level, all anglers want to up their game, and as an experienced captain, I can appreciate that. If you could hook every fish that bites, it would be great, but that’s not a realistic expectation. However, there are a number of things the anglers and crew can do to get your bite-to-release ratio into a much higher percentile. Proper drop-back technique, teamwork, rods and tackle, bait, fishing pressure, and consistency — to list a few — are the key points I stress when ­training any angler.

Proper Technique and Working with the Crew

Most anglers already understand the mechanics of dead-bait fishing: picking up the rod and going into free-spool while feeding a fish all in the same smooth motion, giving them a five-count, locking up and coming tight. If it were a perfect world, you would hook every single one, but as you probably know by now, it's not that easy. I always hear from the captains and crews on the dock who say their anglers were terrible and they missed a ton of fish. I understand the frustration, but crews and anglers must work together in order to be successful. Most crews generally have more experience in a certain fishery than the anglers, so taking the advice and direction from the captain and mates almost always helps fine-tune your hookup ratio.

Pacific sailfish jumps
A fired-up Pacific sailfish explodes across the surface of the ocean.Austin Coit

Take advantage of each encounter you have with a fish by breaking down what happened: what went wrong, or what went right. I have seen anglers do some off-the-wall moves and still catch the fish, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to have bad form, because it usually comes back to bite you when the fish are less aggressive. I have had anglers slop their way through bites on the days when the sailfish are eating out of your hand, but as conditions changed and the fishing slowed, they struggled mightily. After they miss a bunch of bites, they are usually ready to listen or, worse yet, they have lost all confidence in themselves. Let the crew walk you through it again; maybe you were too fast to feed the fish or too slow. Having an outside perspective from the crew will help fine-tune the situation. Don’t take the critique personally or as an insult; instead, it’s just an on-the-fly ­evaluation to help you hook the next one.

I have seen some boats use floss loops to clip the line into the outrigger release clips. I feel that this is bad form and should not be done if you are using dead bait on 30-pound-test and under tackle. The line needs to pass through the clip once you feel the bite in order to have a better hookup ratio. I understand why a lot of charter boats use the loop because the anglers don't have a feel for the bite, but waiting for the fish to pop the line out of the clip will never give the angler a chance to feel it, and they will never have the opportunity to improve.

ballyhoo bait
Good, high-quality bait can mean the difference between a successful day of fishing and a mediocre one. The best ballyhoo are quickly brined and then blast-frozen within just a few hours of being caught.Courtesy Scott Kerrigan

If the rigger comes down and the fish is not there, the angler now has to be ready to feed the fish on a second attempt, but it’s even tougher because the bait is much farther behind the boat. Learning to drop back through the clip allows an angler to actively engage the fish. I prefer my anglers to be the attackers, not the other way around. After all, we are the higher species.

The Tools of the Trade

I don't care if you are the best angler in the world, without the proper tools for offshore fishing, you are not going to be consistently successful. Good custom rods with high-end components are always worth the money. Gear failure is never a situation you want to be in — there are no tackle shops on the rip, so you need to be geared up correctly. Over the years as I have moved around South Florida on different boats, I have built relationships with three different tackle shops: LMR Custom Rods and Tackle in Fort Lauderdale, Tom Greene's Custom Rod and Reel in Lighthouse Point, and Bill Buckland's Fisherman's Center in Palm Beach. I know there are a lot of good shops all over the world, but collectively these three have built rods for many of the top boats out there fishing competitively today.

rigging baits
By consistently rigging baits in the same style, each one as identical to the others as possible, you can remove one variable from the hookup process.Austin Coit

Custom hand-built rods can make all the difference in hooking and landing marlin and sailfish. You can get a consultation from any one of these shops, and they can build you a set of rods to perfectly match your needs and style of fishing.

In 2003, I went to Bill Buckland's Fisherman's Center to have rods built for Stalker, which we used for the next 13 years to catch over 6,000 billfish. Buckland walks you through the process of what you want to fish for and where, always emphasizing durability of the equipment down to the last component. He says that over the past 10 years — primarily due to the use of circle hooks — anglers have moved away from shorter rods to using rods a bit longer with an easy tip. He builds rods that are light enough to be used with 30-pound-test line for sailfish but with enough backbone to put the heat on a blue marlin. That combination is critical for not only getting a high hookup ratio, but also ­getting a fish landed or released in short order.

A Common Denominator: Bait

Unless you have the time and resources to catch and store your own bait, this key point becomes one of the hardest parts of the equation to control. Good bait can make a poor angler good and a good angler great. When it comes to purchasing bait, there is not only an availability issue, but also variations in the quality of what's frozen in the pack, especially when you are working with high volumes of ballyhoo. The quality and size of the bait are major factors in hookup ratios that I think a lot of crews don't keep in mind. I see a lot of boats rigging baits that are too large, in my opinion. Too big and a bait is hard for a sailfish to turn in its mouth and eat headfirst. Poor quality and a bait blows apart as soon as the fish makes contact with it. Either way, it spells disaster for any angler, no matter how skilled.

I prefer small, good-quality ballyhoo, and in most cases, I have to buy them months in advance and store them for later. I also like to buy my bait when the boats are catching them during the colder months of the year. Bait caught in colder weather tend to hold up better because there is less interaction with ice, fresh water and salt on them as they make their way through the processing stage. Not all bait is the same. The best are going to be the ones that were processed first and the quickest. When ballyhoo sit in ice with too much salt, they get dry and leathery. Worse, the ones at the bottom of the box that took too long to process sat in too much fresh water without enough salt and tend to become mushy. The best a bait will ever be is in the first few hours after it's been thawed out. If it's kept as cold as possible once thawed, it will last longer.

sailfish jump vertical
Becoming a better angler means paying attention to each bite, especially when the sailfish turn finicky.Austin Coit

I know it’s easier for the mates to pull everything out and start rigging the night before to stay ahead of a good bite, but stacking a bunch of bait in the cooler and loading it up with salt isn’t doing your anglers any favors. I don’t mind a couple dozen to start with from the night before, but if it’s tournament time — which is how I like to fish every day — then I want ballyhoo that are thawed and rigged the morning we are going to fish.

Having good-quality baits will help an angler know if he is doing things right. Good bait will also give you an extra shot or two if the fish are not being overly aggressive.

Fishing Pressure and Gauging the Bite

There are several things that change a fish’s behavior: meteorological conditions like wind, tide and moon phase, and the constant fishing pressure from a large fleet of boats. When I first started fishing in Costa Rica in 1990, there were only a few boats out with us. It was not uncommon to go all day without seeing another boat. The sailfish back then were much more aggressive. All we did was troll two teasers while fly-fishing, sometimes raising 40 or more sails that would tease all the way to the transom with nothing more than a crude dolphin belly teaser in the water.

Times have changed, and the fish are not as aggressive as they once were. When you think about how many boats there are now in most of our fishing spots, I would say every one of these fish either has been hooked or at least spooked by the boats trolling around them. Naturally, they tend to be less aggressive once the fleet starts pounding on them, and that is going to affect your hookup ratio. This means you must have a great drop-back and not ever let the fish feel you on the other end. I like to see anglers feed a fish for about five seconds, then slowly lock up the reel and see if it’s there.

fishing offshore for sailfish
Be ready for input from the captain and crew, especially in the heat of battleAustin Coit

If they miss one, I ask them to give it a little more drop-back on the next feed. If that doesn't work, give it even more. Maybe it took two drop-backs to get the fish hooked; now you average it out to seven seconds on the next fish. On Stalker, we found that gauging the fish was a daily routine we needed to do in order to keep up with the changing bite. You really never knew why the fish's feeding habits changed, but we knew that gauging the aggressiveness of the bite was a must if we wanted to maintain a high hookup ratio.

Consistency Is Key

This is where a lot of anglers and crews get stumped. On Stalker, I was fortunate to have the same anglers for many years; we were a well-oiled machine because everyone knew the drill. Rods were always kept in the same spot and baits in the same position in the spread for the most part. Our hook sizes and line classes did not change much, so drop-back times and how much pressure to apply on a fish during a fight did not have to change much either.

We went from 20- to 30-pound-test, depending on the class of fish, and pitched with 50-pound-test for marlin. The pitch baits always stayed the same too: a small Mold Craft chugger in front of a medium to large ballyhoo. I found that pitching different baits like mackerel, mullet or bonito changed the hookup ratio (not that the marlin didn’t like them), so why take the chance if you have a ballyhoo stitched up and ready to go? For us it just made sense.

light-tackle leaders for fishing
Light leaders mean less drag pressure during the fight, so know the limitations of the tackle ahead of time.Austin Coit

The key to maintaining a higher average hookup ratio is reaction time. Things need to stay the same so it becomes second nature. If you have to second-guess which rod is getting the bite, you are already way behind the curve. Know which rods are yours, and be on point when the bite happens. When your hands are on the rod before there is tension on the tip or the rigger clip, your hookup ratios will always be higher. Top tournament teams will have each angler either holding their rod or with their fingers on the line to feel the bite as it happens. Don’t be the angler who wants to help the mates all day either. Yes, it’s teamwork, but pick the right situations to help; remember that mates are not anglers and anglers are not mates. Don’t allow yourself to get in a position that would keep you from getting to a rod and feeding a fish.

blue marlin boatside
The payoff for a hard-working angler is a blue marlin at boatside, ready for release. Whether fishing with lures or bait, having a quick reaction to the bite always helps.Austin Coit

Each of these points plays a part in hooking and releasing more billfish. But in the end, if you don’t spend a lot of time fishing in target-rich environments on a regular basis, you will not gain that much-needed consistency to stay in the upper percentile. So, above all, go fishing as much as you possibly can and have fun doing it. That’s the best advice for becoming a better angler.

Become a better angler at one of these Marlin University sessions:

  • Los Sueños, Costa Rica: February 6-11, 2018
  • San Cristobal, Galapagos: March 13-20, 2018
  • Casa Vieja Lodge, Guatemala: April 23-28, 2018
  • Cap Cana, Dominican Republic: May 16-21, 2018

About the Author

Globe-trotting captain and longtime instructor for Marlin University, Capt. George Sawley is now building boats as a partner in Chittum Skiffs, a line of technical poling skiffs built in Palm City, Florida.