Fishing While Under Sail, What You Need To Know

August 5th, 2022 by team

by B.J. Porter (Contributing Editor)

Fishing when you’re sailing can be a lot of fun and give you a great meal. Depending on your preferences and on how serious you want to be, you can get started for only a few bucks. Or if you’re looking for sport, you can get a full standup rig.

Offshore cruisers often view fishing more like grocery shopping – it’s not about the sport, it’s about getting dinner. But inshore on day trips and short coastal passages, you can catch fish for fun too. Unless you stop the boat near a school of fish feeding at the surface, you’re going to be trolling most of the time, so that’s where we’ll focus.

Stand Up Rigs

A stand up rig is a short, stout boat rod with a reel, and a lot of line. When trolling, secure the rod in a rod holder, let out enough line to get the lure behind the boat, then you wait for something to strike and start peeling out the line. You don’t need to be a mile behind the boat. We like to set it so the lure was sliding down one or two waves back.
While you can use a longer, more flexible surf rod that can handle larger fish, we found that the trolling really bend them over too much and they were awkward on a moving boat.

With a stand up rig, you’re going to have to fight the fish. You can handle some pretty big fish with one, but it may also be a workout to bring in an enormous fish on a boat rod. You can get into some pretty big fish out there. Set your drag lighter so it doesn’t break when it hits, then tighten it as needed as you fight the fish in.

When you hook something on a stand up rig, slow the boat as much as you can. Dragging a fish behind you at six or seven knots will tire it quickly and drown it, true. But trying to reel a big fish in while you’re moving that fast will tire you out, too. It will make a little tunny feel like a 40 pound yellowfin.

Be careful not to slow down too fast, or make sharp turns that slack the line. Crafty fish will take advantage of any slack in the line to spit the lure out and you’ll lose your catch.

Hand Lines and other options

Our preferred fishing method offshore was hand lines. You don’t have to hold them in your hand, but when you catch something, you need to put on a pair of gloves and haul it in hand-over-hand. For good instructions on handline setup, check out this link. You’ll need a length of line, some leaders and fishing tackle, and a bit of shock cord or surgical tubing.

The rig we used was like that, but instead of a heavy 350 lb fishing line and surgical tubing, we used 1/8″ braided polyester messenger line and shock cord. There were several reasons for those choices but the biggest were that the 1/8″ like was much easier on the hands to pull in and still had 580lb breaking strength, and we already had the materials on board to make the hand lines so they didn’t cost us anything. With a 15-20 foot monofilament leader, we didn’t have a problem with fish getting spooked by the 1/8″ rope as we caught plenty.

The handline is easy. You set it, then just look back now and then to see if the shock absorber has pulled taught. You don’t get the “screaming reel” alert of a fish peeling yards of line, so you have to check often. Smaller fish will get dragged to the surface in short order.

To get the fish in, you just slow the boat down, put on some gloves, and haul it in. If it resists too hard, just drag it for a bit to tire it out.

Other options cruisers use include mounting just an offshore reel to the boat, or using large spools of line with crank handles instead of hand lines.

We also kept smaller casting rods on board in case we ran into a school of fish at the surface or wanted to fish from the boat at anchor, but they rarely saw use under sail.

Lures, Bait, and other gear

Since you’ll be sailing, you won’t use much bait. At sailing speeds, all but the toughest baits shred apart, and live bait is a pain to deal with on a boat without a live well. Artificial lures are your go to, though you can jazz them up with fluttery pork rinds and other bait-like things.

There is no recommendation for the “best” lure, since what works varies by where you are, the season, what’s around, and I swear, the mood of the fish. We used an assortment of soft squid lures, cedar plugs, and splashing surface rigs. You’ll have to experiment with your local waters and ask around to see what sport fishers are using.

Get a good long-handled gaff hook to get the fish on board. They will not want to come, and lifting a thrashing 10-20 pound fish over the lifelines by a taught leader isn’t easy. It’s also a good way to lose your fish.

Cleaning and Filleting

Once you’ve got your fish on board, keeping your boat from looking like the set of a slasher flick is a challenge. Carry a tarp and a line you can use to drag it behind the boat to clean it. Sharp knives are a must, as a is some means to dispatch the fish.

Schools of thought vary on how to kill the fish, from a quick stab to the brain with a fish spike, to spraying cheap vodka or rum directly into the gills. If you’re going for the booze method, put your cheap hooch into a spray bottle. It will take a lot less vaporized rotgut to kill a fish than a straight pour!

And for the love of all that is decent, do not use fruit-flavored vodka. Especially watermelon. It will make you think something is wrong with your fish. Don’t ask me how I know this…but it took me a little while to figure out that fish in the Pacific ocean don’t actually “all smell funny.”

Get fillets on ice as fast as you can and chill them, and only rinse them in salt water until you’re just ready to cook them. If you’re serious about getting fresh fish when you’re out for a sail, check out a book like The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing for a lot more depth and detail on handling the fish.
Have fun, and good fishing!

12 Responses to “Fishing While Under Sail, What You Need To Know”

August 09, 2022 at 4:23 pm, ricardo olivera said:

Nice article, except … none of the people in your photos are wearing a life jacket. I’d understand removing your lifejacket if you’re sitting quietly in your cockpit while underway in nice weather, but for any form of activity on deck, in or out of the cockpit, a lifejacket is a must. And it seems all these people in the photos are fishing offshore, outside bays or other protected areas. Just sayin’.


August 19, 2022 at 12:31 am, max said:

I owned a sail a 42 foot cutter and sailed around the world an I only wore a pfd in bad weather! But I had 38 inch safety lines. In very bad weather I used jack lines that ran from now to star on both sides. We both are scuba divers. And my wife did all the fishing, she was good at it.


August 09, 2022 at 10:42 pm, Paolo said:

… and whatsapp about bare feet?!?


August 10, 2022 at 5:12 pm, Grant said:

How about including some links to typical equipment a cruiser could purchase?


August 10, 2022 at 10:21 pm, Patrick said:

When I fish off the back of the big cat, I tie myself to the boat as well as have a life vest on in case of unseen wave action which might cost me my footing while fighting a big fish at 7-9 knots.


August 11, 2022 at 5:36 pm, B.J. Porter said:

I do too, I wear a PFD and a tether.

I wrote the article, but did not choose the pictures…I will pass this back.


August 12, 2022 at 1:14 pm, Tom said:

Can we get a little more detailed look at your hand line and how you have everything tied together? 1/8 inch polyester, got it. 20 feet of monofilament leader, got it. Long handled gaff hook, need to get it.


August 13, 2022 at 7:52 pm, Rex Brewer said:

Determining what is “safe” is a personal choice. I respect all points of view. We each have different capabilities and risk tolerances. Stating a view as “right” does respect personal choice.


August 14, 2022 at 7:45 am, Sergio Mauri said:

While underway sailing the easiest method I found is to attach a reel with ratchet to the stern with jubelee clips on the pushpit or handy vertical fixed pole, fit a good lure, let out a couple of boat lengths and set the ratchet fairly tight. Then forget the whole thing until the ratchet screams out and everyone shouts FISH, FISH!!


August 18, 2022 at 11:40 pm, Horst said:

Good article , I have used a hand reel and cedar plugs while cruising for many years with great success, especially in the Pacific


September 04, 2022 at 5:26 pm, BaBaLu Fleege said:

I like to use the plastic hand reel…no moving parts often called YoYo’s. Very easy to hand retrieve the line to prevent knots etc. if the line is retrieved loosely in the cockpit. I also made a short gaff from a telescoping boat hook. That can extend over 8 feet. Put a gaff hook on the end. Allows for easy storage. I almost always drown or let the fish die on the gaff so no blood in the cockpit before cleaning.


September 13, 2022 at 11:04 pm, B.J. Porter said:

That’s the type of reel we used too. You can just bring the line in and drape it on the deck, then pool it up later.


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