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June 21, 2010

15 Rough-Water Fishing Tips

High seas demand special tactics and teamwork - here are top tips from the pros' playbooks

Really rough days offshore just seem to stand out among fishing's strongest memories.

"One day off Cabo San Lucas, it was blowing probably 30 knots, but we'd been  catching 50 to 100 fish a day," says George Sawley, captain of Stalker, a 57-foot Spencer. The boat had racked up nearly 1,000 striped marlin releases after just a month of fishing.

"The seas were a solid 10 or 12 feet and really steep, but the chance to catch that thousandth fish was all we needed to go out," Sawley says.

Any doubt about that decision was quickly forgotten as soon as the boat had drawn alongside a flock of birds over feeding marlin. Stalker released "only" 45 striped marlin that day, not quite reaching the four-figure mark, but close enough to nearly guarantee the goal next trip out.

Sawley's take on the outing makes the big seas a memorable part of the day when he describes "seeing those vibrantly colored stripes sliding down the faces of large waves."

Whether competing against a tournament fleet or out to reach some personal milestone, top crews produce fish in all conditions, including big seas. But any fishing in rough water is a lot more fun when skippers and anglers use the waves to beat the fish, rather than to beat up the boat and crew.

To understand just how some top experts do this, I persuaded four veteran skippers to share their tactics, from bait rigs and lure choices to trolling schemes and fighting methods.

Tip 1: Rough-water seamanship starts at the dock.

Responsible captains don't just charge out into big waves. Sawley starts a rough day offshore in the harbor, checking door and cabinet latches, stowing clutter and looking for loose gear in the engine room. Also, "If I know I have 100 hours on the Racors, I'll [change] them at the dock," Sawley says, recognizing that rough seas stir particulates off tank bottoms. "The last thing you want is to have to shut down an engine [offshore] to change the filters." Prep continues in the cockpit, securing buckets and coolers.

Once offshore, Stalker's crew also watches for clutter while fishing. "Some mates like to throw the sancochos [half-eaten baits] in the corner," he says. "One good wave and they're floating around in the cockpit." That practice changed permanently on the boat after one angler had to fight a 250-pound blue marlin with two hooks in his foot.

Tip 2: Use temp as a guide to stay on the edge in rough water.
Tip 3: Troll rough-water weed lines with lures with single hooks.

Scott McCune, a charter-boat and tournament skipper in Port Aransas, Texas (, also plans for rough days long before heading offshore. Boat prep is important, but so is knowing where to fish, especially within a range like that which McCune fishes, spanning up to 200 miles off the coast from Louisiana nearly to Mexico. Roffer's Ocean Fishing Forecasting Service ( helps him choose a stable temperature change or current edge and troll with the waves. "But when it's rough, you're not going to be able to see that edge," McCune says, so he relies on seawater-temperature instruments. To troll weed lines when the sargassum is scattered by breaking waves, McCune rigs Mold Craft Wide Range lures with single hooks. "I'll occasionally have to shake the weed off, but not even reel it in."