“The right preparations can make or break your fishing trip. Our pros show how to organize your crew and cockpit for maximum success”
“A battle is won before it is fought,” is an adage that should be inscribed on every sportfishing boat. Organization, communication, teamwork, strategy and good safety practices are the hallmarks of any well-run boat that has a consistent history of fishing success. The epicenter of action is the cockpit where angler and crew can reap the benefits of preparation — or pay for their mistakes with lost fish or, worse, an injury. Whether you’re after school tuna with your buddies or grander marlin on a foreign charterboat, we share experts’ tips that will reduce mistakes and boost your catch rate. Eliminating clutter is the most basic step in keeping your boat and crew battle ready and prepared to capitalize on every opportunity. Even the best cockpit layout can be compromised by haphazardly stowed items or “clutter.” A wise practice is to stow personal gear completely out of the cockpit; necessary equipment should be out of the way but easily accessible. Seldom used items can be stashed in forward compartments. Cameras, binoculars and small tackle boxes need to be handy, but often pose problems when placed on a slick gelcoat surface. Tackle manufacturer Dennis Braid of Braid Products, Inc., an international angler who has caught bigeye, bluefin and yellowfin tuna all in excess of 300 pounds, solves this problem by laying strips of “Safe Shelf’ drawer liner on flat surfaces to keep items from sliding. As the day goes on, line remnants, dead fish, trash and other items that accumulate should be disposed of quickly and properly. Good crews will wash down the deck soon after a fish is landed and restore the cockpit to its maximum efficiency.
CLUlTER TO THE MAX
At times, getting rid of clutter requires more drastic measures. I once chartered a gameboat in a remote part of Australia that had a hardtop over the cockpit and built-in deck chairs that would make my light tackle casting virtually impossible. We spent half a day removing the heavy top and clearing the cockpit just so we could improve its fishability under a variety of fishing styles. On private boats, anything that you keep tripping over, banging your knee on, or hit your rod tip on while casting is a good candidate for removal or modification. The art of buying a boat is a different subject, but choosing wisely is critical to long term enjoyment. Before you visit the glittering boat show and slick-talking sales staffs, it’s important to first determine what your needs are. Most boats (at least in the larger sizes) feature some compromise between Spartan efficiency and comfort. In the extreme, comfort amenities such as raised aft staterooms, wide saloons that eliminate catwalks to the bow, or patio furniture squeezed into a narrow cockpit will render an otherwise perfectly good hull useless for serious fishing. Sometimes, getting rid of clutter can mean getting rid of your boat. Billfishing luminary Capt. Tim Choate, president of Artmarina, S.A., with head- quarters in Florida and charter fleets in Guatemala, Costa Rica and Brazil, is a strong believer that boat design can con- tribute to chaos. “Well-designed boats have neat, accessible places to stow gear, gaffs, Cockpit Chaos boat lines and other items to get ‘em out of the way,” Choate tells Sportfishing Boats. “One of our headaches in St. Thomas [U.S. Virgin Islands] was that we had to remove dive platforms that prevented us from backing down on fish. Also, if you have a situation where the captain on the bridge can’t see the cockpit because of built-in shade tops or poor location of the controls, you’ve got to do something because it will take about three guys to relay messages back and forth. You can’t get away with major handicaps like that when you’re working big fish.”
COMMUNICATION AND TEAMWORK
Clutter also can take the form of people. “Just knowing when to get the heck out of the way is important,” declares Braid, referring to situations when the cockpit gets too crowded at critical times. Going over your crew’s roles, assignments and fishing objectives before the action starts can eliminate a mob scene on the water. It’s important to develop a game plan to avoid confusion. Capt. Kit McNear, a winning marlin tournament captain and fishing seminar host from Studio City, California, says that establishing and maintaining communication with everyone onboard is critical to tournament success or just having a fun, productive day with friends. The type of fishing plays a huge role on how you formulate a plan. If you’re driftfishing or anchoring for schooling species such as bluefish you really don’t need an elaborate strategy. Minimal team-work with anglers cooperating with gaffing, chumming and cleaning chores will make for an enjoyable outing. “With big fish such as marlin,” says Mc Near, “you need to have clear roles for everyone, as well as alternative roles to handle multiple hookups. I have an “A” plan for one hookup, and a “B” plan for two hookups. Each scenario has a designated angler, a mate clearing lines, someone helping with the chair (if used), and a general rule that ‘surplus’ people stay clear of the cockpit, at least until things settle down.” Sometimes a mate may advise spectators to go to the flying bridge, but skippers may not appreciate a crowd that can interfere with their job, either. McNear likes to see the head mate in control after a hookup and signaling boat moves to the captain. Choate likes to see his captains in control, but the mate needs to respond to situations. Coordination is the common objective. Boat design has much to do with onboard communication. A larger sportfisher with a flying bridge may require the mate to assume more control of the cockpit because he’s closer to the action. However, installing cockpit controls can bring the skipper down to the cockpit and virtually eliminate signal problems. Small boats already have this advantage. The “saloon” or express style of boat whereby the traditional flybridge is eliminated and the controls are placed at the deck (or saloon) level also helps with communication — although visibility is reduced. Tuna towers or half-towers often are added on express designs in an attempt to regain a high, panoramic view of the action, as well as to increase visibility when searching for signs of fish.
It is important to have your fishing plan worked out in detail, particularly when fishing offshore. “Misunderstandings can get real sticky on the water” says Braid. “Even if you have a chair rotation or fish rotation agreed to, it’s recommended that you define beforehand what will cause an angler to lose a turn. A fish that is hooked, jumps, takes drag and throws the hook is usually considered as a lost turn even though only a few seconds have elapsed. A fish in the spread ora short-biter wouldn’t mean a lost turn on most boats.” There is no maritime manual for such things; anglers can work out any system they want. The important thing is that everyone understands and abides by the consensus. McNear likes to organize the trolling rods to avoid confusion. “I number the reels with a felt tip marker on the reel’s crossbar or side- plate, and may use two colors to separate port from starboard. Then anyone can yell out ‘one blue’ or ‘two port’ and everyone will know right away where the fish is, or where a tangle or other situation is occurring,” says McNear. You also will know where to re- place each rod after a fish is landed. This strategy is especially helpful when fishing with “guest crews” who are not familiar with your boat’s nor- mal routine. When going after big game, safety lines should be attached to each reel, especially with bent-butt outfits that pull out of rodholders fairly easily. Conversely, trolling rods with heavy reel drags may be difficult to remove after a hookup due to the pressure of the drag forcing the rod tight to the holder. Using natural baits or softhead lures that are typically trolled with light drag pressure either from outriggers or as flatlines allow for easier rod removal before setting the hook. The subjects of drag settings and new techniques are sensitive issues that can spark arguments even among friends. Anglers should approach the matter with diplomacy, with the goal of agreeing on a technique and strategy so everyone is on the same page when opportunity strikes. For example, in my opinion most anglers set the drag too tight when trolling with lures. I prefer softhead lures, and I like to use a lighter drag setting to allow a fish to turn with the lure before I strike with a heavier drag. However, you should not simply walk around the cockpit pulling drags and resetting them as you see fit unless you want to stir up some real chaos. The point is, compare your fishing style with your crew’s, then come to terms with the details that may differ. A compromise can also be reached by agreeing to use an “unfamiliar” lure or technique in a more limited way — say, by dropping only one lure back instead of the entire spread. McNear takes the guesswork out of drag settings by using a hand scale, such as a Chatillon, to calibrate each increment on the lever drag. “I set two marks in addition to the inscribed “Strike” level. Ona typical 80-pound outfit, I’ll set the strike pressure at 22 to 24 pounds, and then use a felt tip to mark settings at 10 to 12 pounds and 6 to 8 pounds. You can troll at the middle position before striking. If a big fish gets more than half the line out, you can easily instruct the angler to back off the drag to the third setting... avoiding a “freespool” disaster. Remember that drag pressure automatically increases as line diminishes on the spool, so you have to back off or risk breaking the line or pulling hooks, especially when using lures,” McNear advises.
THE COCKPIT TWO-STEP
Top crews like to have as few people in the cockpit as possible when a fish is on. They reduce foot traffic and crew movement, as well. Choate prefers to have mates on both corners when a fish is close. “The mates’ duties change depending on where the fish is. If a wahoo, marlin or tuna comes to the port corner, the port mate becomes the wireman and the starboard mate then follows up with tagging, releasing or gaffing. If the fish comes to starboard, the roles are reversed. This helps reduce movement when only one wireman is designated and he has to travel around the cockpit following the fish,” says Choate. In situations where two anglers are fighting fish with stand-up gear, Braid advises them to “get together.” “The worst thing,” notes Braid, “is for the anglers to stay far apart. With a double hookup the second guy needs to get over to the first guy so you or the mate can see where the lines are going and avoid a tangle. It’s much easier to see the line angles and direction when the rod tips are close together. When you’re at each corner the lines may look OK on top, buy down below they may be crossing and you won’t be able to notice it until a fish is sawed off.” Human nature may tell you it’s better to stay apart to avoid a tangle, but you can’t argue against experience and logic on this one. The consensus among pros and top private-boat fishermen is that the end game is the most dangerous part of big game fishing. Wiring or leadering big fish is a skill that is not found on all boats. The growing use of wind-on leaders has reduced the need to have an expert wireman because the angler can often reel fish within release or gaffing range, yet it is still important to have a competent crew that can clear a fish from the props, signal the captain and release the quarry unharmed. If everyone onboard knows the game plan, works together and keeps clutter to a minimum you are likely to have a lot of fun on the water. If you have a cockpit disaster it can be a good teacher, but only if you heed the lesson. Sit down with everyone involved and in a constructive way discuss what should have been done to prevent cockpit chaos from striking in the first place — because the other adage that should be inscribed on every sportfisher is that an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure.
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The Roving Angler