by Capt. Joe Kent
July and August are the top months for offshore fishing off of the Texas Coast and each year when calm conditions set in during the Dog Days of Summer, the urge hits to try offshore fishing.
This time of year varieties of pelagic fish are roaming the waters of the Gulf of Mexico within easy reach of the “Mosquito Fleet” of smaller sea-worthy boats. If you are one of the many newcomers to offshore fishing in this manner, let’s discuss some of the most common mistakes made by those new to the scene.
While this might not be one of the common mistakes, the Cardinal Rule for all captains is to check the weather forecast before departing and to keep monitoring it.
A book easily could be written on all of this; however, for purposes of our discussion, we will divide this topic into two segments, the boat and the fishing and address some of the key mistakes.
Preparing Your Boat
Fuel: Fuel use for an offshore trip is going to be much greater than for most bay and other inshore trips. Carry at least 30% more fuel than you estimate you will use.
Float Plan: Before leaving dock have a float plan, meaning a compass course from the jetties, an estimate of how far you will travel, the estimated time of return to dock and leave it with someone who will be the first to realize you are late returning. Most of all stick with your plan.
Communication: Carry your cell phone fully charged with the number of the marina or bait camp you departed from, the coast guard and sheriff’s offices. If possible have a VHF or Citizens Band Radio with you.
Navigation equipment: A good quality compass is a must. A GPS system, either hand held or permanently mounted, is close behind in the pecking order.
Shade: Shade is important on the open water. The length of the trips is usually much longer which means longer exposure to the overhead sun. Any shade will be welcomed after a few hours of the sun beating down upon you.
Extra provisions: Take along much more water than you estimate you will drink. If mechanical problems crop up, it likely will take a good length of time before help arrives. Often disabled boats float overnight before being located and towed to shore. For the same reason, a more complete first aid kit is needed.
Flares: Flares are not required for many inshore boats; however, for running offshore they not only are necessary, but required by the regulations.
Life jackets: Life jackets called PFD’s (personal flotation devices) are required. While lesser grade PFD’s are allowed by law, offshore boats should carry type I PFD’s. They are the best and keep an unconscious person’s head above water. Along with the life jackets should be some light rope to use in the event the boat capsizes and several people are afloat in PFD’s. Tying each together with several feet of rope will prevent the group from separating. One of the rules in rescue is “bigger is better” meaning a cluster of life jackets are easier to spot than just one.
(equipment and techniques)
The biggest mistakes made by newcomers offshore are in the size of equipment, the lack of proper accessories and poor knowledge of Federal Fishing Regulations.
Too light and too heavy describe most of the problems with rod and reels. The equipment should be designed for the type of fish you are after.
Medium weight tackle is normally plenty for the pelagic fish, which are king mackerel, ling, Dorado, shark, barracuda and others. Heavier tackle is needed for bottom fishing for reef fish such as snapper, grouper, triggerfish and others. Normally when fishing bottom, it is necessary to bring the fish to surface quickly and heavier tackle is required.
For surface fish, the drag on your reel is a key element to a successful landing. Twenty- pound test line and a little heavier are all that is normally needed for runs up to 40 miles out.
Wire and coated wire leaders are necessary for the pelagic fish while heavy monofilament is suitable for bottom rigs. Circle hooks are required while fishing for reef fish.
A gaff and club are vital equipment. Most pelagic fish are gaffed and then clubbed (hit hard on the head) before bringing them into the boat. Landing nets are fine for smaller fish; however, for the really large ones, a gaff is required. Recently added to the list of required items in a boat fishing offshore are venting and hook-releasing devices.
Larger hooks and weights are required offshore. Trout tackle (except for possibly the rod and reel with heavier line) will not be enough.
The preference of size of hook varies among fisherman however for the conventional J-hooks, the size is usually within the 5/0 to 8/0 range for drifting and trolling and circle hooks in the 6/0 to 12/0 range for reef and bottom fishing.
The size of weights are determined by the strength of the current. The idea is to use the smallest weight necessary to get the bait to the bottom quickly. A ¾ ounce weight might work one day while the next it could take six ounces or greater. All of this will develop with experience.
Techniques differ from inshore fishing when fishing for pelagic fish. Drifting baits along the surface or just below and trolling both artificials and natural baits are the two main techniques for the pelagics. Watch the setting on your drag, as most newcomers set it too strong and the sudden strike is more than the line strength can handle.
The Federal Fishing Rules are more complex and confusing than state rules. Know the bag and size limits for the fish you are after and also if the season is open or closed. If you catch a fish you cannot identify or you are not familiar with the rules governing it, best to release it.
Have fun on your first voyage offshore and be safe.