Not every day is going to be bluebird calm with light and variable winds. There will always be times when the wind is honking, the seas are running heavy and you question whether the reward is worth the price you know you are going to pay. And in tournaments, that question becomes moot: With money and prestige on the line, weather be damned. For some, fishing in rough water is a choice to head offshore or stay at the dock. For others, it is a way of life.
There are locations where big marlin roam in unforgiving sea conditions, such as Cape Verde, Ghana, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Madeira and Brazil. And there are hot spots where vast numbers of billfish can be found, but you’re forced deal with winds that rarely lie down and seas that are less than cordial during the prime months of the season. St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Isla Mujeres, Mexico, come to mind. But you don’t have to leave the continental United States to find plenty of rough-water fishing either. The canyons off the mid-Atlantic, Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, the winter sailfish run in Florida and the distant offshore fishing in the Gulf of Mexico all offer plenty of days when you’d better take off the flip-flops, put on your dancing shoes and keep a firm grip on something solid.
So how do skippers with years of experience chasing billfish in sloppy weather conditions approach fishing in rough water? Capts. James Roberts, Clay Hensley, Greg Mayer, Neil Orange, Juan Carlos “Juanca” Torruella and V.J. Bell collectively have more than 150 years of on-the-water experience, much of it spent in rough-water marlin meccas. We interviewed each of them and found that there were areas of broad agreement when the seas are big — but also instances where opinions and tactics differed.
The first area of agreement was that safety should be of foremost concern.
“Making sure everyone is safe comes first for my anglers and crew,” says Torruella, who runs the 57-foot Spencer Predator in the challenging waters surrounding Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and St. Thomas. “As the captain, I am responsible for making sure everyone is safe. The worst days I’ve fished are in tournaments, when you just have to suck it up and go, but I’ve scratched many a charter or fun day of fishing because the conditions were just not safe for the people on board.”
Mayer concurs. “In rough water, the captain has to keep his head on a swivel and be constantly aware of what’s happening around the boat, while also watching the weather, tides and currents, because conditions can deteriorate rapidly. Not paying attention, even for a moment, can be disastrous.” He runs Fishin’ Frenzy, a 53-foot custom Carolina boat, with 27 years of experience fishing out of Oregon Inlet. “Just remember, everything becomes more difficult when it’s rough.”
When asked about fishing in a big sea, the advice was mixed. Most captains agreed that fishing in the trough or quartering was the best way to approach big seas, but not always. There will be times when you might be forced to fish up- or down-sea to get or stay on fish — or to get where you want to go.
Hensley, of French Look fame, probably has as much time fishing the rough conditions of Cape Verde, Ghana and Madeira as any captain alive. Today he runs Chupacabra, a 64-foot Hatteras based in Los Cabos, Mexico.
“The best way to troll is to fish in the trough,” he says, “which requires making constant adjustments. I like to troll aggressive, slant-headed lures for big marlin. That’s easy in calm water, but more difficult in big seas. The lures want to fly out of the water, so keeping them down and swimming becomes a major concern. I can switch to flat or cupped heads, but if I work hard to keep my approach angle correct for the sea direction and height, I can make the slant heads work properly. This works even in Cape Verde, where the seas can look like the moguls on a ski slope.”
Roberts, another big-marlin skipper who prefers lures over baits, chimes in.
“The object is to keep the lures in the water, whatever it takes,” he says. He spent most of the 1990s with French Look in Cape Verde — which he says is “consistently the windiest, roughest place I’ve ever fished” — and many more seasons in Madeira, where he caught 37 monster blue marlin in a single 45-day period in 1994, with 11 of those fish going over the 1,000-pound mark. Add in Ghana and the Canary Islands, and he has lots of experience in rough water.
“I try and stay in the trough or quartering big seas,” Roberts continues, “but it’s extremely difficult to maintain boat speed going up- or down-sea. No matter what, speed is critical. You have to be on your game to keep the lures working correctly for them to produce bites. When the wind is a problem, I will raise the halyard position on the leeward side and lower it on the windward while quartering. That will keep the lures spread out and working. I run more weight on the teasers to keep them from falling off waves, pull my favorite slant heads shorter and from a lower rigger position, and even switch to flat or chugger styles if necessary.”
The Bait-Weight Debate
Bell has run charter and private boats out of Stuart, Florida, since 1992 and is a tournament-winning captain. He has spent multiple seasons in the Dominican Republic and St. Thomas, plus 14 seasons in Isla Mujeres, where conditions are regularly rough. He runs the charter boat Unbelievable, a 61-foot Richie Howell.
“Fishing the trough in rough weather is nice, but sometimes it just can’t be done, and you have to be able to make the transition, he says. “Making tacks up- or down-sea with quick turns to change direction 180 degrees has to be done carefully. The cockpit can be dangerous if your anglers aren’t nimble enough to maintain their footing, or forget to keep a grip on something, but I can do this comfortably enough and still get my spread to work. Speed should be monitored and adjusted constantly. We rig our ballyhoo with a little more chin weight and run them farther back to keep them in the water. And we use dredges with 12-inch squids and add extra weight to keep them working. It’s nothing revolutionary, just attention to detail and a lot of extra caution.”
The Flip Side
“I don’t like to add extra lead to my ballyhoo, even in rough weather,” counters Orange, skipper of the 66-foot Spencer Bandolera. He is a rigged-bait specialist with years of experience fishing and winning Florida’s winter sailfish tournaments and pocketing cash in tournaments around the Caribbean. The past few years, he has been fishing full time out of Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic, where rough-water marlin fishing is the norm. “I stick with 3/8-ounce chin weights on smaller ballyhoo, and up to a half-ounce on the larger ones. I feel that going any heavier makes it harder for the angler to feel the bite, especially with the baits on the long rigger. To keep my baits in the water, I drop the spread back farther, run everything lower on the riggers and I never use a center rigger.”
In the Spread
Orange went on to explain he doesn’t make any big changes to his dredges but runs his green squid daisy-chain teasers farther back — on the fourth or fifth wave — and he adds an Ilander Express with a mackerel for blue marlin or a ballyhoo for whites to help keep the squid chains tracking in the water.
“For big blue marlin, I prefer the heavier Black Bart Braziliano and Bost Little Tunny lures for my bridge teasers,” Torruella says, providing more details on his approach to various marlin species. “If I’m running cockpit teasers, they will be either teardrop or chuggers, so they track straight. My go-to long-rigger lures are Moldcraft Wide Ranges or Bart Prowlers. For smaller blues, whites and sails, we use a standard squid chain from Squidnation but add more lead to the first squid to keep the whole chain touching the water.
“I also add weight to the dredges, and my swimbaits are weighted according to sea conditions,” he says. “Our typical trolling speed is 7 to 7.5 knots. When it’s gets rough, I don’t use dredges. If I can’t see them, I don’t use them. I’ve been fishing Cap Cana for blue marlin the last three months and haven’t put a dredge in the water once.”
One interesting aspect of trolling in big seas came up during conversations with Hensley. While discussing running the boat in the trough, he mentioned that when he first took the helm of Chupacabra, it did not have a Seakeeper gyrostabilizer, but the owner installed one a few seasons back.
“That Seakeeper changed my mindset on rough-water fishing,” he claims. “Since getting it, I plan rough-water days completely differently. I can go where I want and fish more effectively. I think it’s the best thing that has happened to boating since fiberglass, and it’s a critical fishing tool for rough-water fishing. It keeps the boat stable, and it reduces the white water in the wake too, so the baits are running in cleaner water. It also makes a big difference when fighting fish, and during the endgame. Since the addition of a Seakeeper, I live in the trough, and I love it.”
Bell agrees. “I’m running my first boat with a Seakeeper right now and I am able to troll in the trough, side-to the sea, far more effectively and way more comfortably.”
Read Next: How to Troll in the Trough
He said the added stability makes it much easier to keep the baits in the water because the riggers aren’t swinging up and down wildly as each wave rolls under the boat. He also mentioned that the Seakeeper makes fishing in big seas safer for both the crew and the anglers because they aren’t getting thrown around — but even with one, the captain must remain vigilant because you can still take a wave into the cockpit.
Maneuver to Win
Fighting billfish in big seas is challenging, to say the least. It might look exciting to bury the transom backing down into a huge swell, but the reality is that filling the cockpit with water is dangerous and scary. Orange has some good advice that is particularly pertinent for light-tackle stand-up fishing.
“I’m always trying to get an angle, whether I’m trolling or fighting fish,” he says. “Obviously, when it’s rough I’m constantly watching for that big wave so I can react before it hits us, and thankfully the Spencer handles rough seas really well. When we get a fish on, I like to position the boat to keep it jumping on one side or the other rather than straight off the stern. I get the angler tucked tight in the cockpit corner on that side. If the fish takes off, I’d much rather chase it at an angle going forward than backing down on it, especially if I have to go up- or down-sea. Taking the seas bow first is less dangerous for the angler and mate, and it’s easier on everyone aboard. It is easier on the boat too.”
Fishing out of Oregon Inlet, Mayer has much to add about fighting fish in heavy weather.
“We routinely fish 25-knot sou’westers in the summer, hoping we can find the millpond when we hit the 3- to 5-knot northbound Gulf Stream. Sometimes we find the fish there, and sometimes we’re fishing in rough water all day. But try that with our 25-knot nor’easters in the fall and the water along the edge and into the Gulf Stream can be treacherous,” he says. “Not only does it make fishing challenging, but when you’re fighting a big fish, you must be constantly aware of the sea state. Fighting a blue marlin, I try to keep the boat up-sea as much as possible, planning on backing down on it going down-sea for the release. Fishing for bluefin tuna is the exact opposite. I will keep the boat down-sea of the fish because when it gets close, the last thing I want is the boat getting blown on top of it. I’ve got to stay on the controls and be prepared to move the boat at a moment’s notice.”
On the Bite
Torruella says that his billfish bites are usually aggressive in bigger seas, while fish are more likely to window-shop the spread when the weather is calm. Fishing the North Drop off St. Thomas, the rougher the seas, the harder the bite.
Roberts remarks that he saw greater numbers of big blue marlin tailing on the surface in rough conditions in Cape Verde.
Hensley, who still owns Hooker, a 43-foot G&S located in Madeira, agrees with Roberts on tailing big-blue sightings when the water is rough, and adds that similar circumstances occur off Cabo San Lucas when the Pacific gets sporty. His experience with black marlin on the Great Barrier Reef was “the rougher it gets, the better the fishing.”
Mayer notes that he doesn’t necessarily catch a greater number of fish in big seas, although many of his fellow North Carolina captains say they do. “I’ve disproven that claim many times,” he says. Orange mentions that big seas and high winds have a positive effect during winter sailfish season in South Florida. “A cold front with strong northeast winds gets the waves rolling counter to the Gulf Stream, and the sails will surf the wave fronts, making for some really exciting fishing,” he says.
Sloppy seas and wild winds can mean uncomfortable conditions, as well as adding more safety concerns to the mix. But big weather can also bring some incredibly fast fishing for marlin and sailfish, if you’re prepared for the conditions.