Mention a center console among the sport-fishing teams in the Gulf of Mexico, and I guarantee the words “monkey boat” won’t be too far behind. But the monkey boats of old — once considered large at 28 feet — are no longer just for the weekend warrior; many of the teams fishing aboard them are downright competitive on the billfish tournament circuits. The advances in engineering — both in boats and outboards — have evolved this segment of offshore machines to points once thought inconceivable. Add improvements in tackle and electronics, and you can bet center consoles will keep showing up in the winner’s circle.
Center consoles have long dominated the edge off South Florida with kites a-blazing when the sails push through, but don’t overlook their benefits when on the troll for billfish.
Thanks to some new equipment, crews fishing on smaller boats can now adopt those tactics used by large battlewagons, and there are several benefits of a center console that even outweigh those of a larger sport-fisher. That’s as long as you’re OK without the creature comforts of an air-conditioned salon, a full galley and plush accommodations. But hey, it’s all about the fishing, right?
On the Troll
I’ve spent countless days targeting a mixed bag of game fish aboard a center console, yet I’ve always wanted to be on board when a billfish bite really turns on to see if they can hold their own compared with their larger counterparts. My friend Capt. David Salazar, down at Casa Vieja Lodge in Guatemala, added a pair of 35-foot Contenders to its stable of classic game boats, so with an almost-guaranteed shot at great billfish action, it was a perfect opportunity to put the popular design to the test.
The question in my mind before heading to Casa Vieja — as with almost every person I talked to about teaser fishing from a center console — was whether the outboards would raise as many fish as the larger boats. The harmonics, whitewash and spread all have an impact on the number of fish raised, so I was eager to compare the number of sails we would see on a center console.
It didn’t take long for the first sailfish to appear on the right teaser; I grabbed the rod, popped the line out of the flat-line clip, and fed the fish — just like on a big boat, despite some extra hardware hanging on the transom. No big deal, I thought to myself.
But the true advantage of a center console — aside from added speed — is the ability of an angler to fight and release a fish from the bow. This allows the crew to keep the baits and teasers in the water as the captain makes the initial turn toward the fish to increase the chances of hooking a second or third sail — an important factor if you want to ring up numbers in a tournament.
Capt. Franz Hoffman lifted the squid chain to clear my line as I walked to the bow before redeploying it back into the spread. Suddenly Hoffman screamed, “There’s another fish on the right-long bait!” and just like that, we were hooked into a double.
The second fish headed in the same direction as my fleeing sail, so the mate joined me on the bow as the boat made a final turn to see if a third fish would appear. The releases were easy: a quick grab of the leader from the bow as the boat continued its forward motion with the teasers still deployed. And just as Salazar had said before my trip, we raised as many sails aboard our boat as the other big boats fishing around us that day.
The Dredge Race
While we didn’t pull dredges in Guatemala, it’s no secret that they are the ticket when chasing billfish. But fishing aboard a center console doesn’t mean you can’t keep up in this arms race of dredge-fishing. There are several lighter and more-compact dredge options on the market today geared directly toward center consoles, but don’t be afraid to whip out the natural and large artificial dredges either — as long as you have the hardware to support it. Companies know anglers want to fish large dredges, so there are plenty of options for center consoles to meet preferences and budgets.
Through the Riggers
Outriggers made of carbon fiber, like Gemlux’s new 22- and 27-foot Deluxe Outriggers, are the real deal for pulling heavy loads like dredges or multiple teasers. Combine them with the company’s new Outrigger Base, which allows you to control the outrigger’s height and angle from the same handle, and it might be the best solution on the market for those who want to keep a clean gunwale and create a spread that rivals a larger sport-fisher.
These outriggers also have three halyards that allow a captain to pull a teaser as well as two additional baits. Add a dredge, and you can still pull a squid chain and a ballyhoo on the long. But the most beneficial part of pulling a dredge from an outrigger means the dredges can be trolled in the clean water outside the whitewash so a captain can see a fish in the spread.
Additional clamps are needed for the outriggers as the attachment points for the dredge’s double-pulley system. Most captains opt for the Lindgren-Pitman S-1200 electric reel because of the speed and ease of operation, but other options are available, and large conventional reels are fully capable for that job. Fishing the dredge through the outriggers also allows the captain to get the entire dredge out of the water so an angler can to get to the bow. Gemlux put these outriggers through their paces during testing, and with a three-year warranty, it’s worth gaining the big-boat advantage of fishing a large dredge.
A Boom Option
To solve the problem for center consoles with outriggers not strong enough to pull a dredge, the guys at Ledge Logic developed the Dredge Boom. Their system incorporates either a No. 4 or No. 6 bent butt and comes in either 6- or 8-foot lengths. Compared with other booms on the market, the Dredge Boom allows the crew to attach a reel instead of pulling in the dredge by hand.
By using a bent butt, the same one you’d find on a deep-drop swordfish rod, a crew can swap out the rod for the boom and go from deep-dropping to pulling dredges within a matter of minutes. Attachment points on the dredge boom for a double-pulley system make retrieving the dredge from the water an easy task, and an extra support cable makes the system fully capable of pulling large natural-bait or mudflap dredges.
One of the main advantages of the Dredge Boom compared with pulling the dredges from the outriggers is the angler’s ability to get to the bow with the dredge still deployed by simply lifting the rod tip up and over the boom. This gives teams a distinct edge because the captain can slowly chase the fish and keep the entire spread in the water. However, if a crew needs to pull up everything and really chase a fish, the dredges can swing into the boat (a task made easier with a swivel rod holder, similar to those used for deep-dropping) or someone can move the entire boom system to get it completely out of the way.
Another option for center console dredge-fishing is using downriggers, in either their manual or electric configurations. They are often more affordable than upgrading outriggers or investing in electric reels and dredge booms. On the upper end of the spectrum is the Digi-Troll 10 electric downrigger from Cannon that showcases several features other dredge reels should envy. The programmable reel not only has five preset depths, but it also has a depth-cycling mode that cycles the dredge between two depths at preset time intervals.
The Digi-Troll 10 features a soft-stop function as well, which stops the weight just short of the surface so the dredge is out of the way of the action but not popping up out of the water. The Tournament Series Uni-Troll 10 STX is Cannon’s manual counterpart and the simplest way to pull a dredge on a center console. While the company has not tested its downriggers to specifically pull a dredge, the products are fully capable of retrieving a 20-pound downrigger ball loaded with grass — plenty of power to pull an artificial-squid dredge while chasing billfish.
If you’re going to fish the kill category in a big‑money tournament aboard a center console, you should start thinking about the endgame ahead of time. Capt. J.J. Tabor, the owner of the 42-foot Freeman Double J, says the endgame is one place where center consoles are at a disadvantage due to the outboards. And he knows the scenario well: In 2015, Tabor landed a 716-pound blue during the Blue Marlin Grand Championship in Orange Beach, Alabama, that won top honors.
On the tackle side, Tabor made a switch to all wind‑on leaders. “A center console doesn’t give you the ability to sit back and hang onto a fish off the transom like you can do on a big boat, so this change gives us the ability to fight the fish closer to the boat,” says Tabor. He also instructs his anglers to fight the fish right next to him at the helm so he is in constant communication with the angler and is able to see the angle of the line coming directly off the rod tip. Tabor’s goal is to fight the fish off the front quarter of the boat. “Marlin always want to get under the boat during that last 50 feet, and it’s important we keep them away from the stern and outboards. I stretch out the fish by putting the boat in reverse because I’m not a fan of that tight circle you can get with them at the end,” says Tabor.
And then there is the question of how to land a fish, considering there isn’t a center console on the market that has a tuna or dive door large enough to accommodate a 700-plus-pounder. Tabor solved this issue by reinforcing his T-top and utilizing a come-along winch. After Tabor secures the fish with a tail rope, he puts a couple of half-hitches around the bill with a dock line and attaches the other end to the come-along to get the fish’s head up and over the gunwale. Game over.
Sit Back, Hold On
There are still large — and readily apparent — differences between fishing aboard center consoles and a sport-fisher. However, the gap is closing. Center consoles can now fish like big boats, thanks in part to advances that allow teams to use tactics not previously possible.
Add the ability to run faster than any sport-fisher — when sea conditions allow for it — and there are definite benefits for getting to the fishing grounds first or running-and-gunning to a new area if the bite picks up somewhere else. It’s a matter of preference: If you are willing to give up some creature comforts and gourmet meals, fishing aboard one of these monkey boats can give you a competitive advantage.