The best cowboy is the one who’s in the way the least. Same goes for greenhorns—those of us who’re curious enough to try new things and ain’t afraid to suck. If you’re headed out on your first offshore charter trip this summer, here’s what to expect no matter where you are in the world. Get ready.
A sailfish bursts through the slick surface shining purple and blue and silver and gold. It tosses its head around like a bull three seconds into a PBR final.
“Reel reel reel!” Captain Pete yells from the bridge. But it’s too late. The greenhorn in the chair has one job: allow no slack. But I blow it. I stop reeling. Get caught watching. And let my first sailfish tail-walk off into the sunrise.
So, with fish fight in my muscles and shame on my shoulders, I hang my head, replay my mistakes, and watch the team reset for my buddy Bender. First mate Juma tethers a reel, lets a footlong pink and purple lure drift to its pre-determined distance from the boat, and engages the reel. As the lure skips, deckhands Ngala and Bali repeat the process to build the captain’s spread. Finally, a school of rainbow skirts dance a burlesque for pelagics on the prowl. Dramamine, fuel fumes, and the engine’s growl conspire with the sea to put me down.
The reel’s drag screams falsetto and snatches me back to my feet. Pete bellows from the bridge to choreograph the dance below. Juma sets the hook. Ngala escorts Bender to the fighting chair and straps him in. Juma clips the reel to Bender as Ngala and Bali pop lines free from the outriggers, reel them in, and stow the rods.
“Marlin!” Pete yells, smiling, then cusses a while for inspiration.
The greenhorn off the rod has one job: stay the hell out of the way. I do my job this time. So does our buddy Eric. Bender’s a stoic but he’s got fight in his eye. Juma pours water on the reel to cool it and keep it from seizing; and he tends the line across the reel so it’ll wind level and not jam. Ngala watches the fish and directs Bali, who turns the chair to keep the rod aligned to reduce friction and prevent breakage. Pete gives orders. Everyone follows—except the fish, who does as he damn well pleases, peeling line, running, bucking. Half an hour later, grit and meanness are winning slow inches through every crank of the reel.
“Leader!” someone yells.
“You got it,” Eric says, giving Bender another wind.
“Tag!” Pete yells.
Bali gets the bamboo-handled tag pole. Juma grabs the bill and leads the 10-foot fish alongside the puttering boat. Ngala sets the African Billfish Foundation tag into the muscle below and behind the dorsal. Pete snaps a pic of Bender and his 300-pound blue marlin. The fish regains healthy color. Juma releases the bill and the fish swims back into the pelagic sea. This went well, but in a few days Ngala will take a bill in the face from a 500-pound blue marlin.
Bender rests. I whistle the fish conjuring-est of all tunes—Funky Town—trying to pick a fight.
Whether you want to troll for billfish, dorado, wahoo, tuna, or other pelagics; fish the bottom for grouper, snapper, or other demersals; or something in between, here are some things Captains Pete and Sean Darnborough of Alley Cat Fishing wish every greenhorn knew. Here’s the run of show.
Meeting to Making Way
First, do your research to find a charter boat and captain that fits with your expectations, budget, and personality. Read our tips on how to choose a good guide here.
There’ll be no surprises at the dock if you’ve spoken to the captain and prepared. Chances are you’ll meet between 5:00 and 7:00 a.m., depending on how far you have to run. Get there with a full stomach and gear ready—and remember, no bananas. Pay the captain upfront but hold off on tipping for now.
Whether you have to walk a dock or ride a dinghy to get to the boat, the crew will be there to welcome you. Shake their hands and learn their names. Your success depends on them. Then, stow your gear where they say and get settled. If there’s a manifest, sign it. If there’s a safety briefing, listen up. The captain will head to the helm. As you get underway, the crew will sharpen hooks, ready rods, brush out skirts, cut bait, rig the tagging pole, and other such tasks.
The fishing grounds are often miles away. Use the time to decide who’ll take the first strike and those thereafter. Let’s assume you’re up first. The crew should get you familiar with the chair, the reels (which, compared to a Zebco 33, look more like Quint’s reel from Jaws), and other gear.
“Get the crew to show you how everything works before you get a fish on,” Pete said. “It’s easier than once you hook up.”
When it seems the work’s done, the crew will get comfortable and scour the water for birds, bait fish, the white churn of feeding frenzies, fish on the surface, or other fishy signs. It’s a nice gesture to ask if you can help or try to spot fish, but don’t take it personally if they don’t need you.
At the Fishing Grounds
If you’re trolling—common for billfish, wahoo, tuna, etc.—the outriggers will drop, the boat’ll slow, and the crew will set the spread. Outriggers—the long poles with cords, clips, and pulleys—are iconic and confusing. What you need to know is this: They make trolling work better. They let you use many lines without tangling to seductively present a “spread” of lures as a school of fish. The captain will occasionally adjust lines or switch lures to give you the best shot. Rest assured, the captain wants you to catch fish even more than you do.
If you’re fishing the bottom, you’ll be anchored or drifting along. You’ll have a rod in your hands, or one assigned to you. You may be soaking bait—alive or dead—or jigging with metal vertical jigs, bucktails, or plastic baits. You probably won’t need a fighting chair.
However you’re fishing, most of your time is spent waiting. Put both the waiting and the catching to use and learn how to move from dead weight to teammate.
Reels are often tethered to the boat. That should be an indication of the violence ahead. And where there’s fighting, there’s cussing.
“Expect a bit of shouting from the bridge,” Pete said. “Most of this is to help you land your dream fish and not meant to be offensive.”
If you’re jigging, you’ll feel the fish strike and you’ll know first-hand the fight is on.
But if you’re trolling, either the captain or the reel will scream to announce the strike and set the crew to work. One will set the hook. Another will get you to a fighting belt or chair (some boats fight from the rod holders). Others will clear lines and stow rods so lines don’t cross and burn off. Once it’s you vs. fish, the captain will give you directions: “reel,” “more pelvic thrust,” and such. The crew may help level wind the reel, turn the chair, adjust the drag, and so on. The captain will maneuver the boat to help you land a big fish without killing it.
The fish is fighting for its life, so no matter how big the fish, it’s a fight.
“Expect to be in the chair for a long while,” Pete said.
If it’s big enough, all you can do for a while is hang on. Between runs, you’ll pump and reel to gain inches. He’ll run again. You’ll cuss. The captain may back the boat up to give you line to catch. The gear is awkward. The process foreign. And it’ll take time to find a rhythm.
Slack is the enemy. Don’t try to reel two-handed; you could disengage the gears and lose the fish. Follow the captain’s directions. Let the crew help and learn what they’re doing for you so you can do it next time.
Chances are, there’ll be at least one moment—when the sun’s beating, sweat’s rolling, blisters are busting, and muscles are cramping—when you’ll want to quit. Don’t. As Eric might say, “embrace the suck!” Revel in it. Get through it and claim your prize. The crew and your buddies will cheer you on. In time, the reel will fill, the line will turn to leader, and someone will see the first chromatic colors of the pelagic fish. Out will come gloves, a tagging pole, or a gaff. Someone will grab the leader.
Catch and Release—Or into Grease?
The conservation posture of your trip should be sorted beforehand. Some fish are freezer fillers, others aren’t. Billfish are more likely to be tagged than eaten—though captains will hang a big one from a gantry to get attention and book days. No doubt, there is a catch-and-release conundrum. So, the fate of the fish must be sorted early.
The crew will get the fish to the boat and the captain will likely be ready to snap a photo. If the fish is tagged, you’ll fill out a conservation form. If it’s landed, it’ll go on ice. Either way, celebration all around.
The I in “TEAM” is in the A-hole
After your fish is landed or lost, your buddy’s up. Catching can come intermittently or not at all. So, your job is to be a good teammate. Don’t be a dick. Be an asset. Get on the bridge and learn from the captain. Watch for birds, bait, errant fins or sails, feeding sprays. When the strike comes, clear rods and do whatever the crew says. Get your buddy water. Encourage him or her. If there’s a double, it’ll be your job to take the second rod and keep the two lines from crossing. If there’s only one chair or only one belt, they’ll be in it, so you’ll have to fight the fish with what’s left and dance around the boat to help make sure they land the first fish. Their fish is the cake. Yours is the icing.
Back to the Barn
If you’ve caught fish, the ride back borders on post-coital bliss. Everyone’s relaxed, maybe drinking a beer and getting ready to share a meal. The crew may raise capture flags. They’ll clean and stow gear. Go ahead and pack your gear and get your tip ready.
In the harbor, everybody’ll be looking for those flags and waiting to trade stories. Back on shore, give the tip to the captain. He or she will distribute it to the crew. There’s usually a local bar where everyone gathers. Join them. It’s as good as the fishing. Buy plenty of rounds. Then, share the good news and reviews about the captain on social media or outfitter directories.
No guarantees. Money rents only the captain’s time and buys only a chance. Want to increase your odds of catching fish? Be intentional as you pick an experience in its high season, select a captain, and get your mind right. Lay the groundwork by sorting the details in advance, such as what you’ll fish for and how; the day’s plan; what’s provided and what you’ll bring (start with a dry bag, a soft cooler, water, instant coffee, sunscreen, hat, polarized glasses, multitool, snacks, towel, Dramamine, camera, and an IFAK); cancellation and bad weather policy; tipping norms; licensing; plan for the fish; price; fish cleaning; and anything else the captain thinks you should know.
“Most charter boats only carry conventional tackle,” Pete said. “So, if you want to speed jig or fly fish you’ll need to find out if tackle is provided.”
If you prepare well, you’ll have the best chance at a good day on the water. It’s all you can do. The rest is on the fishing gods. Whether you catch fish or not, you’ll be the best greenhorn on the water.
Feature image via Eric Hunsperger.