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NY, NJ, CT, RI Edition
June 03, 2009
Volume 20 � Number 6


Small Boat Offshore Fishing
by Mike Wright
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Carry one small spinning rod per angler for catching "bonus" mahi around lobster pots.

The struggling United States economy has meant that for the first time in decades, probably ever, boat owners are tending to trade down in the size of the boat they run, rather than up. We may not like it but it's an unavoidable necessity sometimes. Money is tight, gas is cheaper right now but that probably won't last, and smaller boats are more versatile and just plain more economical.

If you're a fluke or striped bass addict, switching to a smaller boat is not really a big deal. But for those of us who yearn for the flat horizons of the offshore canyons, fishing from a smaller boat can mean some major trade-offs and, likely, less days at sea. That doesn't mean it has to be the end of our offshore fishing adventures, however, just that a few adjustments have to be made.

Unlike Florida, the Gulf and the West Coast, where deep water is close by, in the Northeast the edge is typically more than 50 miles from the dock and small boats are rare on the big game grounds. Day trips, even in a fast boat, significantly shorten the fishing opportunity and miss out entirely on what can be the best fishing: the overnight and first-light periods. But if you're running a boat over 23 feet, preferably with a cabin, the Northeast canyons are well within reach.


The range of your boat will dictate how far you can go. Simply calculate your fuel consumption at cruising speed and multiply it by how many hours of running you'll need to get to the edge and get back. Trolling at seven or eight knots burns only small amounts of fuel, about four or five gallons an hour for a 25-footer with twin 175 hp outboards (make sure to check the consumption on your own boat). Figure on six hours of trolling the day you arrive at the edge and another six the next morning before the run home. Trolling on only one engine will conserve some fuel but be sure to alternate engines every hour to keep fuel consumption even if you have dedicated tanks.

In most small boats, running to the nearest canyons is within easy range on the built in fuel tanks. The general rule is that you should only burn two thirds of your fuel on a trip, leaving a third in reserve for contingencies. If you're confident of the weather, stretching that to a quarter tank in reserve is calculated risk that may be worth taking.

Bringing along extra fuel is also an option if you want to make a longer run to one of the more distant canyons. Extra gas or fuel is best carried in plastic cans lashed to the bow rails or hardtop, rather than the soft bladders used for longer transits. Empty the spare cans as soon as you have burned enough to have room in your tank but leave them in the bow or up top because their vapors are more dangerous than when they're full. It's a chore that can be done during the overnight chunking down time.


Running offshore in a small boat is a macho enough thing to do on its own, there's no need to go around pushing your limits. Weather forecasts and your boat's range are not things to stretch unnecessarily with dreams of bragging about it at the dock or in the pub when you return triumphantly. Hang around some of the top offshore marinas and you'll never hear those captains bragging about having gone in marginal weather. And their margins are much broader than they are for a small boat. When heading offshore in just about any boat under 35 feet, the weather is obviously the number one concern when planning a trip. Safety aside, even the most hardy souls will not be able to tolerate a full day, much less the better part of two, offshore on a small boat when the seas get a little snotty.

In any boat under about 30 feet, you simply don't have a lot of leeway for unkempt seas. Choppy seas make a small boat feel a lot smaller, they make getting home take longer, which opens you up to more potential for weather deterioration and they can be downright dangerous, concealing obstacles and exploiting any weaknesses in a skipper's boat handling. Here's a simple formula to consider: if your boat is under 30 feet you should consider seas over four feet an extremely uncomfortable and potentially dangerous condition if you're a long ways offshore. Honestly, you really don't want to be in the canyon on a small boat in anything more than three foot seas, even if they're just rolling swells. The need for an essentially ideal weather window clearly is going to limit your possibilities for a run to the canyon compared with a big sport-fisher but if you are flexible and ready to go on short notice there is plenty of opportunity during the summer months. If you know your limits and don't push them there is no reason you cannot run the canyons regularly in a boat under 30 feet and put some pelagic species on the deck.


There are two sources that are your best friends in keeping an eye on the weather offshore: the NOAA marine forecasts for waters "South of New England, from the Great South Channel to Hudson Canyon" and, as a second opinion, a good wind forecast. Looking at your local Weather Channel five-day forecast has absolutely nothing to do with the weather 50 miles offshore. Most weather websites have links to the marine forecasts on their local forecast pages. The Weather Underground, www.wunderground., com is a good source.'s wind forecasts are the easiest to read and the color coding for big areas of light wind are easy to follow instead of having to decipher isobars. In reading the offshore weather forecasts, which can be very technical and often understate conditions, there are three words that are your best friends: "light and variable."

In summer, high pressure systems typically slip in over the Northeast from the Great Lakes region and take two to three days to drift away toward the Canadian Maritimes. This is your opportunity to make a run offshore. When these large regions of light winds and clear skies settle in south of Long Island you could take a canoe to the canyons; the water at the 500 fathom curve will be as calm as it is in your marina, maybe more so.

The second thing to know about weather forecasts, particularly the NOAA marine forecasts, is not to trust them. Don't think because a weather forecast says winds will be light and variable on Saturday, southwest 5-10 mph in the morning Sunday and building to 15-20 mph in the afternoon, that these are conditions you can count on and head to the canyon hoping to get in a calm weekend overnighter and run for the barn on Sunday before the winds pick up. Almost invariably you will wake up in the dark early morning hours of Sunday to a brisk breeze that has kicked up a chop before the sun even rises and will build to a nasty quartering-following sea that has you bracing yourself the whole ride home.

You should build in your own safety cushion into every forecast. You're eager to go but don't let anxiousness let you convince yourself it will be nicer than the forecast is. Whatever the wind forecast is, it's a safe bet you can add 10 mph-partly because the forecasts are wrong a lot and partly because most of us tend to substantially underestimate what the effects of a certain wind speed will be out on the water. Also, if weather is forecast to deteriorate, subtract 12 hours from the estimates of when that change will come. Start watching for a good weather window well in advance. The ideal forecast to watch for is winds light and variable and seas to be "three feet or less" for two days in a row, possibly with a call for winds coming up to 5 to 10 mph toward the end of the second day. The need for the full two day buffer becomes increasingly important as you get into the later part of the summer, when autumn cold fronts can sweep in quickly and change things offshore in a hurry.

Double check the forecast on the windcast. This will give a view of what the surrounding weather patterns are like and whether something risky is close by enough that things could change within the period of time you're offshore. If the big blue area of doldrums that accompany high pressure systems is sliding west to east as you scroll through the forecast period and there isn't a tight green gradient near the offshore grounds, you're good to go. When you're reasonably sure that a trip is feasible, start planning immediately but don't commit yourself completely until the day of. As you get close to the day check the forecasts more frequently and watch for changes. If the calm is forecast to end on Tuesday morning one day and then Monday morning the next day and then overnight Sunday the next, you should be wary of a trip scheduled to return on Sunday afternoon. A weather front that is coming on faster than forecasters expect can catch you off guard. Your last forecast check, and most critically examined, should be as you're about to walk out the door for the dock. Don't think being careful will keep you from ever going. Even the most pessimistic forecaster will find room for at least six to eight over-night trips in a typical season.

Big tuna can be taken on small boats if you choose your days carefully and make the run to the canyons.


Even in the best weather things go wrong so you should be prepared too. No matter how small your boat, running to the canyons flat out requires that you have a good life raft, an emergency satellite beacon and ideally a satellite phone as well.

Space need not be a concern with your life raft regardless of how small your boat is. All of the good life raft companies make hard storage cases that can be mounted on top of a T-top or hardtop or on the bow of boat, for a cost. If you have a center console that doesn't have a T-top (aside from it being an ill-suited boat for running the canyons) you will have to account for stowing your raft either in a forward anchor locker or in the console's main cabinet, which will cost you space for other gear and tackle and is a major pain in the neck because the raft is heavy as hell.

Zodiac, Jim Buoy, Avon and Switlik all make good sized Coastal category life rafts that are generally adequate for the use of boats heading to the canyons. With an EPIRB and a satellite phone it is more than reasonable to assume that you will be rescued within 24 hours, so an elaborate life raft outfitted for days of survival is not necessary.

They're not cheap, however. If you have ample storage, a coastal sized life raft in a soft valise will run you in the neighborhood of $1,000. For a raft packed in a canister that you can mount on the hardtop or bow you're looking at a minimum of $1,500, but in the experience of most small boat fishermen, it's well worth the money for the convenience and added safety of a self-deployment.

Your EPIRB is a simple concern. You're going to want a Category I or Category II model, which will run you about $500 to $800. There's just no way around, it's a must-have. No matter how much of a budget you're on it just doesn't make any sense to gamble your life to save a few bucks. EPIRBs can be bought at any marine supply store. Check out's advertisers.


Pretty much every other type of gear you're going to take on your small boat you can live by the rule of thumb "less is more." On a small boat space is a premium and keeping tackle down to the bare essentials is important. At the same time, though, you don't want to get stuck in the canyon and not have the one thing that is catching fish.

On most small boats trolling six is all that is feasible without a mess of lines perilously close to each other, seven if you have double clips on your outriggers. In the canyons, where jumbo bigeyes and billfish are a possibility, it makes sense that at least four of those rods be 50-pound class rods or larger. Going with 30-pound class, straight butt outfits to round out the spread gives you the versatility to fish jigs during the overnight chunk without having to bring along separate rods for the job. If you have enough rod storage then bringing specialized jigging rods or deep drop outfits for tilefish is a luxury we can't all have. Definitely bring small spinning outfits for tossing plugs to dolphin around the pots or jigging squid at night. Don't get carried away though, one per man is good.

Speaking of men, you're obviously going to have to be selective with your crew invites. Even a 50-footer gets mighty tight and close quarters can wear on nerves after more than 24 hours at sea. If you're going offshore in anything under 30 feet, two's company, three is pushing it. There's nothing on a small boat that requires more than three guys and two skilled fishermen should be able to fight and land just about any fish out there sufficiently. Tackle is easy to accommodate in tight spaces. It's all about compartmentalization. Break down your various lures, terminal tackle, and miscellaneous tackle into individual storage containers. Square boxes are best because they can be stuffed into corners easily or stacked neatly in canvas totes. Trolling lures store well in any of the medium sized food storage boxes made by Tupperware or one of those companies. Before you pack the box, clump your lures by size or style and grasp all the leader coils of each kind together, then lay them into the box in alternating groups.

Use small squares of rubber rug mats to keep boxes from sliding around on the non-skid or dashboards. And keep rubber bands around your wrist at all times so leaders can be coiled immediately whenever a lure is being retired. Keep the number of boxes to a minimum, so there aren't so many lying about during fishing. You can pack lures in tightly and break them up when you're back to the dock. Keeping your small amount of deck space clutter free, while fishing, is essential. Take out what you're using and put the boxes back in their storage spot immediately, anything left lying on the deck to be put away "in a minute" is invariably in the way when the strike comes. For terminal tackle, a canvas construction worker's tool bag makes the perfect rigging station. Crimpers, pliers, rigging needles, knives, threads, glow sticks, and hook sharpeners are stuffed into individual pockets on the outside for easy access and stowage. Leader coils, balloons, rubber bands, sinkers and boxes of crimps and hooks go inside.


One of the most important pieces of tackle on any offshore trip is the ice you bring along to keep fish fresh. Ice takes up a lot of space and can't be kept just anywhere so it requires some creative management. Most small cuddy boats or larger center consoles will have at least one big below-decks storage hatch. Fill this hatch about half way with crushed ice. Then bring a separate cooler. A 128-quart Igloo is big enough and will lay nicely in the transom of any boat with a 9- foot beam, and leave space on either side to get into the stern corners. If you don't have any below-decks storage, two 128-quart coolers will work also. Fill the cooler right to the top with ice. When the first fish comes over the side, immediately head and gut it (if you want pictures, bring a camera and take them while the fish is still alive-the fish's colors will be bright still and the background will be nicer than back at the dock). Bury the fish as deeply in the below-deck storage as possible. When you can't bury fish in the below-decks storage without them being covered by ice start taking ice from the cooler to cover them (a 5-gallon bucket fits perfectly into a 128-quart cooler and makes a great ice-transfer tool so you don't have to bring a shovel just for the occasion). When the below-decks storage area is full, the cooler should be emptied of enough ice to start holding fish. A 128-quart cooler will hold five 50-pound tuna, headed and gutted and the storage bin on a 25-foot Grady White will hold nine or more. Much bigger tuna or a swordfish may require more extensive butchering to be kept iced properly. Weighing and showing off nice fish back at the dock is sometimes an ego boost that has to be sacrificed when small boat fishing.

Surrounding each fish carcass with ice is not essential since ice has its most efficient cooling effect when it is melting and the melt water runs across the fish bodies. Simply laying the fish in a cooler and covering them with a good layer of ice will keep them perfectly chilled.


On the overnight in the canyons a small boat definitely lacks in the creature comforts larger boats provide but do offer a few benefits. Fishermen and lobstermen have waged a war ever since boats started venturing to the canyons. In 600 feet of water, anchoring is an extraordinary task. On a small boat carrying enough rode to anchor in such deep water is simply not possible. Tying off to one of the ubiquitous lobster trawl high fliers is an easy alternative but the tug of wind and tide on a big sport-fishing boat can drag trawls over themselves and tangle them, potentially costing the lobstermen that own them, thousands of dollars. Small boats pose a far smaller risk since they do not put as much drag on the trawl. If you ask politely some lobster captains will steer you to the high flier on an end that they are not going to haul soon and won't cause them problems. If the lobstermen are unwilling to share their high fliers and your conscience keeps you from tying off anyway, drifting is a good option. On most calm nights simply drifting is no big deal. Wind has much less effect on small boats without big superstructures. If currents or a breeze are spinning your boat, a simple sea anchor will keep you floating straight.


So, don't let a smaller stock portfolio or rising gas prices keep you at the dock when the tuna are lurking in the canyons this summer. Just keep an eye on the weather and be ready to run full bore when the window opens. The canyons may not be the last frontier anymore but in a small boat they are an adventure worth taking with great rewards awaiting your arrival.

Removing heads from tuna will keep fish fresher and maximizes the number you can ice down on a small boat.

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