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06: Small Boat Handling

by Peter Pakula

In the following a small boat is anything that floats that is powered by non-shaft single plant and further defined by a boat that won't back up in the direction you want, when you want. This can be anything from a 8' punt with a 6hp to a 30'er powered with a single outboard.

With the limitations of these vessels we'll assume in this instance that they are restricted to relatively shallow waters of 50 fathoms as this is the hardest area to get to know and fish successfully. Indeed many tiny boats venture out far beyond the continental shelf. However by reading the following it is easy to juxtapose the same methods and thinking to any other form of fishing in any depth in any place.

Once again the most important mind set you should have is primarily to find the fish. The same principals apply to searching for game fish as any other fish. The most important thing to find is anything that will disturb water flow and mix water temperatures such as reefs, drop offs. Look for signs of this such as rippled water, current lines, and temperature breaks. The bottom line is that anything out there from a massive frenzied bait school to a floating piece of barnacled debris is worth investigating. The same things that apply to reading the wash off the rocks, reading a beach for1troll gutters and reading the lay of a lake or river to find fish all apply to this form of fishing. In fact it is worth considering that everything you have ever applied to any other form of fishing can and should be applied to blue water scenarios. There is great misconception that game or sports fishing are totally different to any other form of fishing.

I'll go into a full-scale article on finding fish at a later date. At the moment we'll concentrate on catching them as we're right in the middle of a season and by now if the fish are around it will be general knowledge where they are.


A basic small boat layout is shown in Fig 1. There are no outriggers however it is preferable that rods are spaced not only spread horizontally but also in vertically. The greater the rod tips are spread apart the less the chance of lines crossing over and tangling. In the illustration an alternative to outriggers is shown, by setting the rods in the rocket launcher, further enhanced by angling the end holders. The added height not only lessens tangles but also enhances lure action.

You can of course run all you line out of rod holders set in the gunwales if you so desire


Once again it's important to realise that we are not trying to imitate a bait school with the lures we choose. Rather we try and select a range of lures that will best imitate the bait species that are likely to be in the area we are fishing. As mentioned earlier we're concentrating on relatively shallow water under 50 fathoms. The generally perceived right choice is a selection of small lures. However there are lots of large bait species such as Mack and Striped Tuna, Bonito, Tailor and even salmon in these areas, with say an average size of are 1.5 to 2kg.

Before continuing we'll just step back in history a little. Most of what we do today regarding lure selection dates back to the early to mid 80's when in competition fishing in NSW where most of the developments occurred the lighter the line class the more points you got. Most were using 6 to 10 kg as the greater percentages of fish were 60 to 100kg though there are lots of much bigger fish around the same spots. Getting one of these got you into the 10 to 1 club, there was also the 15 and 20 to one club and lots of points in the competitions. These light line classes dictated the maximum size lure to be around 10' long as you simply couldn't successfully tow anything much larger in the generally moderate to rough conditions fished. It was because of the period and these tactics that the common belief that if you are fishing 50 fathoms and under use small lures. The fishing scene today has changed somewhat in that most fish targeted are tagged and there is no longer any line class points in many areas for tagging. The result is anglers are generally using heavier line classes from 15 to 37kg in these shallower zones. These heavier line classes allow the use of larger lures to more resemble the size and colour of the larger bait species found inside 50 fathoms.

The best approach to setting up a successful lure pattern is offering the greatest range of lure sizes in shapes and colours that most reflect the bait species. Though I could go into a major list of lures and bait species the thinking is really quite logical i.e. the average slimy is about 8' long with blue bars so use a lure of similar size, colour and even try to match the markings.

The bigger the boat, the bigger horsepower in the motors the more fish you raise, simple as that. It's not that small boats and outboards scare fish, they just need assistance in attracting them. The smaller the boat the harder you have to work to attract fish the more exciters and teasers you use the more chance you've got. Indeed using large lures, which will act also as teasers in the pattern, is a start.

Don't worry about how many items we're running out the back at this stage. First problem is finding the fish, second is raising them, then hooking and then catching them. There's no point worrying about catching them till you've raised them.


Teasers and exciters take many forms. The main distinction is that Teasers raise fish and are physically attacked by them, exciters raise them and do just that excite them rarely being physically molested. The difference in use is that when a fish is raised on a teaser it may have to be removed from the water to get the fish to switch to something with a hook in it. Exciters stay in the water until after the fish is hooked.

Examples of Exciters are: Witchdoctor, Boone Sundance, Gattlers that are all mainly subsurface creating throbbing vibrations and flash off mirrored sides.
Teasers include hook-less lures, daisy chains, spreader bars, birds, wave walkers which are essentially surface runners creating lots of splash, blooping and flutter vibrations.

In setting up teasers for use in small boats consideration of Teasers and Exciters tangling in lines should be taken into account. This is due to lower gunwale heights and relatively narrow boat beam. Untangling lines from teasers in the back of a small boat in rough conditions can certainly try your patience. A possible set up is shown in Fig 3. Fig3

In the real world of small boats you would be better off trolling 4 teasers/exciters and one lure, but it's unlikely you'll ever do that. After which lure would that one lure be! Teasers and exciters can take on unlimited constructions from a string of beer cans (by far the most fun to prepare!) to complicated, hard to balance spreader bars.


An interesting concept to consider is trolling speed according to depth. The shallower the waters the stubbier the profile of bait fish, the slower they go. The deeper the water, the more streamlined the species, the faster they go. It's interesting that trolling speed for Black Marlin is around 6 to 6.5 knots, Striped Marlin 8 knots and Blue Marlin 9 knots. Though essentially every boat has a best trolling speed where the wash is clean and the boat is not vibrating trying to get onto the plane.


At last we're out there and the reel is scream'n. There's a big fish peeling line and just two men in an outboard powered boat.

Don't worry too much about jumping up and down, going berserk and panicking, after all without that adrenaline rush you're just not human. There's not too much you can do to control things at this stage. If the fish runs or jumps towards the boat, try and get away from it, or move the boat away to the side and let it go past. Apart from getting out of the fish's way there is no need to change speed or course. It is important to note that the fish is probably not hooked on it's initial run, and will not be hooked until the fish opens it's mouth and lets the lure and hooks slide into the jaw. Marlin jaws are rough and designed to hold onto prey. Strike drag is not enough to pull a lure or leader through a closed marlin mouth.
Just keep the boat is moving forward after the strike, keeping the pressure on the rod. The only important point to keep in mind is that there should be no slack line from the time the fish takes line in the initial stages of the fight.

It would certainly help matters if all reels have harness lugs and the angler dons a gimbal and harness before grabbing the rod out of the holder. It's also a good idea to have all straps, buckles and snaps on the gimbal and harness adjusted before all this excitement happens. It's really difficult to adjust this stuff after the strike when your hands are shaking. Using a gimbal and harness set up will free up the anglers hands to assist in clearing away the rest of the gear in the water and help in handling the fish at the boat.

It's now time to get the rod out of the holder. To stop it jamming in the rod holder remove the rod by pulling back against the direction of pull with one hand on the fore grip, and pull up with the other hand placed under the reel on the butt. This way the rod comes out at the vertical giving the fish no slack at all. Don't let the rod bow to the fish. Keep the rod up. Just as important is the skipper should not slow down, nor should he accelerate the boat unless he wants to wake someone up, as it achieves little as far as hooking the fish is concerned.

Note that through this period getting the rest of gear out of the water is of no great concern. In fact I propose you leave it all out there as long as possible. There's only one thing better than catching one fish and that's catching two, or three or four or...............


The skipper's freedom of movement from this point on might be dictated by the way the boat has been set up. If it has poor mechanical steering it will want to wander all over the place if he leaves the wheel. With hydraulic steering the boat will usually continue to go where it is pointed. At this stage the boat should be kept in gear, still at trolling speed. If the fish moves towards the boat, drive Fig4away from it until the line is slowly peeling off the reel again.

Most important at this stage is that the fish is clear of other lines. In fig 4 the fish has taken the lure run on the flat rod and has run under the line run from the rocket launcher. The skipper passed the rod over the angler and can now either leave that lure out there or bring it in.

The big trick is to keep the boat moving until the other lines are cleared. Clear the lines on the side the fish is on first, then clear the other side. Undo the snap swivels and remove lures, leaders and hooks and get them right out of the way. Hooks, lures and leaders should never be on the deck. It is an important part of preparation to have somewhere to get lures, rods and teasers stored out of the way.

Fig5The skipper's main objective should be to maneuver the boat down drift the fish Fig 5 this will either be down current or down wind depending on which is more powerful. No matter whether the fish is down deep or on the surface if you are drifting towards and not away from it you are no longer in control of the relationship between the boat and the fish, and stand a good chance of being blown down over it, which is not where you want to be. Remember, outboard boats with canopies make very good sailing craft.

The ideal situation is to be moving parallel to the fish with him located upwind slightly forward of the helm position. If you have to lose line to get the boat located down drift of the fish, don't worry, as it is not hard to wind back once you have him and the boat in this kind of relationship.

Fig 6Fig6 shows the reaction to a fish turning up drift. The boat reacts by turning harder inside him, then powering away until line is tight again. Fish will almost always react by moving away from the pull and you can then turn back on line to be down drift again.
Don't, under any circumstances, reverse the boat to sort out a situation like this. When you reverse you give away the advantage of full speed and the ability to turn fast. Take the few seconds to bring the wheel over to full lock then nudge the power on, which is the fastest way to bring the boat around and be going the other way at whatever speed you need to travel. Remember, an outboard steers by pushing the back of the boat around, and from a dead start it will come around very quickly indeed. Don't be concerned about how far the fish gets away front the boat at any stage. You have time on your side and the critical factor is to always retain control of a tight line between you and the fish. After chasing the fish on its initial run, if that was necessary, most of the boat maneuvering is quite slow, only as fast as an angler can wind.

It's far more a case of waltzing with the fish rather than trying to bully it.

Fig7All big fish will go one of two ways once you go past the initial crazy stage of the fight. They will either dive or plug off in a straight line. We will take the straight line first.
As in Fig 7 retain that boat to fish relationship, moving with him as the angler slowly works him across Fig8to the boat.

Sometimes when dealing with a large fighting fish and strong drift, you may have to offset the effect of the wind by bringing the helm slightly over towards the line the fish is taking, as in Fig 8 This is primarily designed to simply counter line loss due to the effecFig9t of wind and, or current but can also be used with care to close the gap between angler and fish.
Keep in mind that if you are not experienced it is not all that desirable to bring yourself in to a close encounter with a strong swimming fish. It may work when you have extra hands on board and want to do a Rambo for a quick tag or gaff shot, but fishing short handed you really want that fish to be under control when you confront him hand to hand.

If the fish dives and you end up fighting it straight up Fig10and down as in Fig 9, you'll hurt the angler a lot more than the fish, and it can easily get under and onto the other side of the boat, or up under the engine legs without. No matter whether he is high or low, keep him off to the side. You stand a much better chance of planing a big fish up, or swimming him up, than you do of dragging him up. The best tactic is to get the boat away from him as in Fig 10.


Fig11Depending on the nature and disposition of the fish, the closing stages can be handled in one of two ways. The first is for cool, experienced operators. In Fig 11 the gap between fish and boat is slowly closed with the boat remaining down wind of the fish. The skipper eases the boat over to the fish until he is swimming parallel to the boat, then powers gently for ward with the angler taking up the line until the skipper can take the trace as the angler simply backs across the cockpit. Fig 12 Note that as the leader is taken the angler should wind the snap to the rod tip and the back off the drag toFig12 around 20%.

Being down drift of the fish is very important now as the last thing you want is for it to drift over the fish, keep the boat just in gear. The angler using a harness and gimbal belt can handle the gaff or tag pole without removing the rod.

If the fish proves to be too strong and the skipper has to dump trace, the fish should still be up wind, and the skipper should still be right next to the wheel, so he can quickly get the boat positioned again.

For inexperienced people who are going to be unnerved by a big fish, it is often a good idea to start by rigging traces less than three meters long. This makes it much easier for the skipper to tag or gaff the fish without grabbing the leader.


Once the fish is boat side the fish should be handled with great care. If you wish to get the hooks out and release the fish great care should be taken. I strongly suggest using tools such as snooters and de-hookers available from many good tackle shops. I also recommend looking through past issues for Ian Millers article on using these tools"


You can actually get some practice when smaller surface fish are around. Any of the small tunas are ideal, and if you take them on very light tackle the fight will be pretty good approximation of what will happen with a much larger fish on heavier tackle.
If you stop to think about it, the fish you want most, the biggest ones, are the fish you get the least amount of practice and experience with, simply because they don't come in the same numbers as smaller fish. If your ambitions run in that direction it will pay to get all practice you can.

The role of the skipper is vital in the taking of a big fish, especially when fishing two up. Most problems will occur when the fish is allowed to take the initiative, and it is both the angler's and the skipper's job to avoid that

Catching big fish in small boats with a small crew is as good as it gets. It's also as dangerous as it gets.

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