There are many noises on a sail boat that quicken your pulse and one that that is often a prelude to a happy event is the sound of the fishing rod’s reel clicker ... fish for diner. But before your fish arrives on your plate there are many mishaps that can occur that will be menu changing from fresh to tinned fish.
     Ocean fishing consists of constructing a chain of knowledge relating to the type of fish you want to catch, correct sizing of the materials used, fishing technique and a little luck.  Any weak link in this chain will usually result in a fish-free boat.
     Our voyage was from the temperate waters of the Mediterranean to the tropical waters of the South Pacific via the Atlantic Ocean and the type of fish that we wanted was predatory game fish. This included tuna, spanish mackerel, dorado and sail fish (marlin family). The technique for catching these types of fish is similar and is close to binary in terms of outcome. You either land the fish or lose it and you get probably one chance per day. The point being is that you need to have a routine that allows you to regularly land fish. Our technique is not the only solution but it was successful enough that we caught a fish every time we wanted fish for dinner and only lost one fish in eleven months.  Our objective was to fish for food and when we caught a fish this would be enough for two or three days of meals. When we caught a fish we stopped fishing as we did not have a freezer on-board and did not want to waste or kill fish needlessly.  Our choice of fish is common in ocean fishing as there is little point in trying to catch lots of small fish when you can catch a 10-15 kilo tuna and have fresh food for several days.
     Having spent several years cruising in the Mediterranean and making all the mistakes that a beginner can imagine we needed to improve our technique if we wanted fish for dinner. We have come across many cruisers that still cannot catch fish and my analysis has been that they have one or more weak links in their technique.  On one three week cruise to the north coast of Tunisia we had ten bites and not one fish landed, we had successfully peppered the sea with lures, broken hooks, snapped fishing lines and various pieces of lead. Were we unlucky? No, we were just using inappropriate gear and techniques.
     You need a fishing rod capable of catching fish up to 30 kilos, trying to land anything larger needs bigger equipment all round and has other ramifications such as getting the fish on-board and conserving a large amount of raw fish. We use 50 or 80 pounds breaking strength line each has its own advantages and disadvantages. The lighter and thinner 50 pound line is less visible to the fish and you can put more line on the same size reel than the thicker 80 pound line. The 80 pound line is stronger but needs a larger reel to have enough line to play the fish. We have two reels and two rods just in case we lose one. One is a 6-0 reel with 500 meters of 50 pound line and the other is a 9-0 reel with 450 meters of 80 pound line. We have caught fish with both and the reels need to be matched to the rod. Reels are numbered in increasing size and a 4-0 is too small for offshore work and is better for coastal fishing and smaller fish. The rod should be a tuna stick or tuna rod. These rods are about 1.6 meters long and are stubby at the reel end. They have their rings pointed upwards, the reel is on top of the rod and a small metal wheel sits at the tip of the rod. Reels vary in price and you would expect to pay around USD 200 for a reel and rod. A well-known reel is a Penn senator which has worked well for us over the years and is sold across the world. You need to have at least 400 metres of line on the reel and preferably more. Most reels have an indication of how much of each line weight they can hold. Some cruisers we have encountered do not use rods and have a reel mounted on the back of the push-pit, many have told us that they have lost fish as they have been dragged behind the boat for hours and been eaten by sharks or other fish.
      A major reason why we use to lose fish was due to incorrect line tension on the reel. The reels have a brake where the reel handle joins the reel. These consist of a spooked wheel without a rim that you turn the spooks clockwise to increase the tension on the line and turning them anti clockwise reduces the tension on the line. If you have too much tension on the line when the fish strikes it will not be able to turn the reel and it will snap the line. If you have too little tension a large fish will run off with all your line and lure and in both cases you have lost the fish.  Our “luck” changed when we learned not to touch the brake. The brake tension was set before the lure went in the water. The setting was easy to reproduce each time we fished and consisted of holding the rod in one hand and pulling the line upwards near the reel up the rod. If we could pull the line easily with an ungloved hand the tension was too low and if we could not pull any line off the reel then the tension was adjusted downwards to where we could just move the reel clicker. I assume this tension equates to around 10-15 kilos of force and this system worked for all the fish we caught. Only on one occasion did I need to increase slightly the brake pressure while playing a fish and this was a 1.6 meter sailfish that took a large amount of line several times and I was in danger of running out of line. I only increased marginally the tension to tire out the fish that had been fighting for around twenty minutes. Smaller fish get tired more quickly and we never felt we needed to adjust the brake tension whist angling.
      The technique for reeling in the fish is performed by holding the rod almost vertically with significant tension and then lowering the rod quickly whilst reeling-in the slack as fast as possible. Use your back or your arms to pull the rod back to vertical and repeat this procedure until the fish is close to the boat. If the fish fights let it take the line and it will get tired with the correct amount of brake on the reel. Always keep the line under tension as this both tires the fish and stops it from biting up the line. You will need to reel in very fast if the fish swims fast towards you and to reel in faster you can switch off the clicker.
      To improve your chances of catching a large fish you need to point the rod at the fish as the rod is designed to bend only in a downwards direction. Bending the rod sideways may snap the rod. With only a reel on the push-pit it is not possible to play or fight a fast moving game fish and dealing with the final approach of the fish to the boat can be difficult without a rod.
     You could attach your fishing line directly to your lure and throw it overboard however without a swivel the line will probably rotate with lure. We use a leader line which is a short 1 meter piece of fishing line that is tied with a fisherman’s knot to the lure and the other end has a swivel and clip that is attached to the line from the reel. This way you can change lures quickly by unclipping the leader line. A fisherman’s knot has five loops and if you try to use less or a different type of knot there is a strong possibility of losing the fish. Some fishermen use metal cable leaders to avoid the fish biting through the line however I have found them unnecessary if you keep tension on the line when you are fighting a fish.    What type of lures do we use? Mainly rapala lures, which are plastic fish with two or three triple hooks attached to the underside. They have an oval spoon protruding from the front that points diagonally down and holds the lure underwater as it is dragged/trolled behind the boat. These lures come in many sizes and colors and we usually use the 12 -14 cms ones as large and medium size 3-20 kilo fish will attack these lures. In terms of color we usually use blue/green ones unless it’s very cloudy and then we would try red/grey ones. The advantage of the rapala is that you do not need live bait and it has multiple hooks. We have caught fish where the rapala has hooked both the mouth and the cheek of the fish. Tuna and Spanish mackerel will chase rapala. Another lure we have used with success is a metal headed squid with the tentacles made out of feathers and plastic green and black strips. The metal head has highly visible eyes and the weight of the metal keeps the lure underwater. This lure was used for the dorado and tuna and it had two joined metal hooks hidden in the tentacles. Another lure that we used only once was a plastic squid head with 30 cms of synthetic hair hiding a very large double hook. The lure’s hair was a vivid orange and royal blue color and when it is in the water it must look like a large squid. This lure caught a large sailfish two days before arriving in the Marquises and having had fish for dinner for two days on arrival we gave the rest to our friends on Kite who had a freezer. The double hook fitted perfectly inside the lower jaw of the sailfish and there was no escape. The sail fish put up a tremendous fight and leapt out of the water in rage and this is where you have to count on solid equipment and no weak links.
      Offshore fisherman will often discuss the best distance to troll the lure from behind the boat; some say three waves and others recommend five. I think that both groups can be right but what seemed to be necessary was to keep the lure out of the wake of the boat. This may be several waves behind the boat and depends on the sea state. In flat water the wake is visible for a long way whilst in choppy conditions the wake is dispersed within a couple of waves.
      Trolling speed is also important and the speed of an ocean capable sailing yacht of between 5-8 knots was perfect for the game fish we wanted to catch. Any faster and the rapalla is dragged along the surface of the water which will not interest many fish. If this happens you should just release more line until the rapalla sinks below the surface.The time of day was also important for catching fish and most of our fish were caught either at dawn or at dusk. It is because this is when the game fish are most active and the rising and setting of the sun creates lighting effects in the water that confuse or disorientate their prey and hence are vulnerable. You can fish twenty four hours a day however we did not fish at night due to the security issue of landing a large fish on the open swim deck of Trifon. We did however make sure that everything was in-place pre-dusk. This included gloves, baseball bat, alcohol, knife, gaff and pelvic rod holder and all this equipment was positioned close to the stern of the boat as you have no time to go and start hunting in your boat for these once a fish bites the lure. As soon as the fish strikes then take the rod out of the rod holder and make sure there is no slack in the line by reeling in quickly if there is little or no tension. Put the rod in the pelvic rod holder and start playing the fish and during this time have someone slow the boat down gradually to a speed of two or three knots. Trying to drag a 15 kilo tuna behind a boat sailing at 7-8 knots is very tiring and not very productive. We were mostly sailing downwind and the simplest way to slow the boat was to furl the jib or genoa. We caught a tuna in the middle of the Atlantic with the spinnaker up. This sail has a 230 square meter surface area which is larger than the floor area of most people’s houses. The sail had to be tamed and dropped which took several minutes and the angler, Robert caught, gaffed and landed the fish alone while the three crew members wrestled the spinnaker into submission on the foredeck. By the time we finished dropping the spinnaker and had returned to the cockpit the fish was already being filleted for dinner.
      There are other pieces of equipment which are very helpful to increase the likelihood of success. A metal rod holder on the back of the boat which angles the rod to the stern of the boat is necessary for long term trolling. Do not use the plastic ones as they are not strong enough and the cost of breakage of the plastic rod holder may include a new rod, reel, line and lure. We use a pelvic rod holder on the angler when we have a bite as this provides a pivot point and stability when you are reeling in the line. Without this equipment you would be holding the rod in one hand and reeling in with the other which can be very physical with a large fish. The pelvic rod holders are sold in game fishing shops and they consist of a wide piece of hard plastic with a swiveling open ball joint in the center where the rod locks-in. On the bottom of tuna rods there is a rubber cap which can be removed and there are one or two slots cut into the bottom of the rod handle to allow the rod to lock into the rod holder or the pelvic rod device. Without this device you can put a thick towel between your legs to create the required pivot point but it is far less efficient. We also had a game fishing jacket that is an armless foam jacket with two straps each with an opening clip on the end. These are designed to clip onto the reel of the fishing rod and give more support by using your back to play the fish. We did not use this jacket because if you are clipped to the reel a very large fish could pull you into the water you would not be able to release yourself by letting go of the rod. These jackets are for anglers in chairs on game fishing boats and should be avoided on the rolling swim platform of a sail boat. We did however clip the reel to the boat’s rail when the rod was in the rod holder so that if a huge fish took the bait it would snap the line rather than taking the reel and rod. We had one bite in Sardinia where the fish took all of the line and the braking friction on the reel was such that the line started smoking from the speed and friction of the strike.  An expert fisherman who was following us in another boat estimated that the tuna which jumped out of the water was in excess of 50 kilos and commented that I should have had a bottle of water next to the reel to cool it as the fish took the line (I presume he was joking).
     A strong fishing gaff is a requirement if you want to bring a large fish aboard as you should not attempt to lift a heavy and often thrashing fish out of the water with the fish hook as you will often tear the hook out of the fish’s mouth . We use a large aluminum pole with a large and sharp hook on the end. Before attempting to lift the fish into the boat put the gaff into the fish. The normal technique to gaff a fish is to pick it up by the gills and often a second person is used to do this while the angler keeps tension on the line with the fishing rod. On many occasions we have gaffed the fish in the upper half of its body as it requires less accuracy with a fast moving fish and to get the angle correct to gaff upwards into the gills you may waste precious seconds. Any time wasted in the final boarding can be very costly as large fish will prefer to seek the protection of your rudder and dive under the boat and snap the line. The gaff through the upper part of the body also has the advantage of partially immobilizing the fish when it is landed.     When the fish approaches the back of the boat it often has a final burst of energy with the fear of seeing the boat it will often try and swim off in another direction or worse under the boat. You should be prepared for this and act quickly, gaff the fish and land it, as any time wasted here allows the fish to think of an escape route.
     We normally use gloves if handling fish as all predatory game fish have defensive systems such as sharp spines and very sharp teeth. Sustaining an injury from a bite or beak offshore in the tropics is in a different dimension to cutting your finger in your garden. You can buy chain mail gloves but I do not think this is necessary and they may not protect you from spines, we use heavy duty gardening gloves and keep them on until the fish is pacified.
     Getting the fish on-board is not the end of the fight; you now have to kill the fish. Our principal method is pouring alcohol down the fish’s gills or down its throat. This is quick and does not involve beating the fish to death and the resultant blood all over the swim deck or cockpit. We have used vodka and rum with equal success. One large sailfish in the pacific drank half a bottle of rum and was still thrashing around the deck. We have an aluminum baseball bat which is used for heavy blows to the back of the head just behind the eyes. We remove the head with a large knife immediately and often with the lure still in the fish’s mouth to avoid being bitten by an angry fish. You will need to carry a large saw like knife to cut through the spinal cord which can be impressive in size on larger fish.
     We then gut and fillet the fish before transferring it to the fridge. To gut the fish you take a sharp knife insert it next to the anus and cut forwards up the body to close to the head. You then remove all the stomach and guts and wash the fish in salt water. You can cut the fish into circular slices down the body or you can divide the fish into its four muscle blocks lengthwise.
     This description is for offshore trolling and is not designed for reef fishing. Anytime that we were close to coral reefs we would stop fishing as some of the large game fish are toxic. They suffer from Ciguatera poisoning which comes from a reef based dynoflagellate alga which is common in both the Caribbean and the south Pacific. The alga is ingested by herbivorous reef fish and is carried up the food chain to the game or predatory fish. The toxin is not destroyed by cooking the fish and is undetectable except through costly chemical kits. The result of eating infected fish can be fatal.