Fishing Offshore in a Small-to-Mid-Sized Center Console
Can you fish nearshore or even offshore in a small center console? It depends on a few things. Read more...
We live in a place where distance is the difference between catching fish in 50 feet of water or 200 feet of water. That “place” is in the middle of the west coast of Florida, referred to as the Tampa Bay / St. Petersburg area. Other places in Florida offer anglers 200’ depths for starters, with drop-offs to many hundreds of feet within a few dozen miles. So what kind of boat do you need? Do you need a boat with multiple engines and enough room to sleep eight in order to catch sizeable red snapper at 80 miles outside of John’s Pass? No, you do not. This is an article about what makes a good nearshore or even offshore boat for people needing to travel 30 or more miles to reach the fish of their choice. Whether bottom-fishing or trolling, the boats we talk about and show you in this article are perfect choices for getting out there and back.
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You no longer need a 44-foot Sportfisherman with four engines and a 550-gallon fuel tank to make the trip to the Middle Grounds (80 miles off the coast of St. Petersburg), or twice that distance to reach the Elbow. A small-to-mid-size boat (22’-35’) with a center console can now make long-distance offshore trips that would have been next to impossible a few decades ago. A well-equipped, fuel-efficient center console with modern electronics can be just as effective at getting you to the deep blue waters, and often is better at handling big ocean swells than an unwieldy 45-foot behemoth.
Does an Offshore Boat Require a Tower?
Today’s optimal small boat designs allow smaller center consoles to compete with the larger and far more expensive boats that traditionally travel further offshore. The big boats are equipped with tuna towers, oversized outrigger equipment, and seats that strap you in to fight a fish that weighs five times what you do. These boats are classically regarded as the only way you can catch trophy fish.
I can see it now -- Hemingway in his custom boat with outriggers, downriggers, the barbaric (!) electronics of the day hanging on for dear life to a thousand pounder (Un Grande), and later using the drunken experience as fodder for The Old Man and the Sea.
Today, websites like Billfish.org show the higher end of our fishing demographics with images, footage, and dreams of those $3 million “Blue Marlin machines.” But sailfish, wahoo, tuna, and other denizens of the deep can all be reached with much cheaper and more manageable boats like we use to catch grouper in 50 feet of water just 20 miles offshore.
Engineering advances in engine and fuel efficiency -- and in electronic devices such as GPS units and fish finders with sounder and radar – have changed the offshore fishing game dramatically in the past 10 years.
Here on the West coast of Florida for example, anglers looking for a deep-water run to catch bigger fish and a wider variety of species often head for the Middle Grounds, about 85 miles off the coast of St. Petersburg Beach. Well-known for its spectacular bottom-fishing where species such as grouper, snapper, hogfish and triggerfish abound, the Grounds are also surrounded by amberjack, cobia, barracuda and other pelagic fish that cruise the wrecks scattered throughout the Middle Grounds. Trolling a sweep back-and-forth across the Grounds will usually produce some big hitters, as long as you have enough poles out with the right baits.
Many big (38 feet and up) center console boats make the trip to the Middle Grounds without a hitch – but so can anyone who has a small-to-medium center console of the modern era.
Getting There and Back – The Rule of Thirds
Today’s offshore saltwater engines are built to efficiently run boats out to the deep blue faster than ever before, a nice advantage over larger boats that have to do the “slow-knot cruise” to reach the same spots. While their big crew is bored to death and eating their second breakfast, you’re already trolling the waters and getting first dibs at that Bull dolphin who wants his own breakfast. But before you take that zippy trip, be sure to do the math on fuel usage – and check it twice.
The standard Rule of Thirds is used to figure the maximum distance you can travel while burning a third of the fuel supply getting there and trolling. You should have a third of the fuel for the ride home and keep a third in reserve. Following this guideline will ensure there is enough fuel to accommodate potential changes in the weather that could slow you down enough to drastically increase fuel burn, or if you must alter course for other emergencies.
Weather is “God” on the Water
Weather is undoubtedly the most important factor when you are deciding where and when to go deep offshore on any boat, but it is even more important if you are on a smaller center console. Small-boat fishermen need to pay close attention to weather patterns, wind direction and potential changes for the next 48 hours. What looks like calm seas inshore can turn into five-foot swells when you’re 60 miles out.
Try to find a prediction of three straight days of nice weather, and fish the middle day if possible. Weather forecasts can be downloaded directly to your on-board electronics, so you shouldn’t get caught in bad weather conditions.Starting out the morning in a three-foot sea shouldn’t be an issue for a center console that is 23 feet or better. For a boat that is any smaller it should mean rescheduling the trip. The best rule of thumb is: When in doubt, don't go out.
Electronics, Tactics, and Offshore Action
Be sure to equip your boat with quality safety equipment and electronics. Boats that go more than five miles offshore should be equipped with the following safety devices: A life raft, life preservers, a first-aid kit, a tool kit, an EPIRB, flares, survival suits, a satellite phone, and a sea anchor.
AsAs far as electronics, you should have the following onboard: A GPS unit with water temperature data, a VHF radio, and a quality fish-finder. An advanced fish-finder sonar can even show you overlaid weather radar. Some pros recommend carrying two VHF radios, in case one goes down. If your boat lacks a tower, and since VHF is limited to line-of-sight distance, you should use a tall (8-foot) whip antenna to pick up and send signals.
Use Enough Rods to Increase Your Odds
Depending on how fast you want to get out there, you could troll on the way out, troll while you’re out there, and troll on the way back in. This allows extra shots at tagging ocean roamers such as billfish, tuna, wahoo, dolphin and king mackerel.
Spreader bars are a great tool when trolling a pattern, particularly when fishing from a smaller boat. One rod transforms into 10 or 12 baits when it is pulling a spreader bar, and this is the best way to make your small boat troll big.
Not only do you need a large trolling pattern to maximize each bite, but you should also position your baits or lures in a tight pattern, within 8-to-10 feet of each other, with only one lure trolled long down the middle. These large and tight patterns provide plenty of options in the immediate area for other fish in the school, and often leading to multiple hook-ups.
When fishing from a small-to-medium center console, it’s crucial to fish big, even if you’re fishing with a small crew. Break out your nine-rod pattern, and don’t pull back on the throttles until you have more than one fish on. There is no reason why your smaller center console can’t out-fish the bigger boats and then get back to the dock faster too.
Trolling Tips: When chasing King mackerel, be sure to chum an oily trail, using a mix of oil such as menhaden mixed in a bucket of sardine chunks or cut ladyfish. At the same time, slow-troll baits such as mullet, blue runners and sardines.
When targeting swords, wahoo, tuna or bull dolphin, step up the trolling speed and send out a mixed bag of diving plugs and dead ballyhoo, always dressed with nylon skirts or Sea Witches.
Tackle and Storage
When it comes to loading and rigging your center console, organization is key. Avoid clutter by using suction cups to the bottom of satellite phones, rigging boxes, etc. Safety equipment and gear should be stowed in waterproof bags. Live wells can double as drink coolers and for other creative storage solutions.
Utilize all the space under the gunwale to store your gaff, harpoon and boat hook. Limit your tackle to what you’ll need but think it through carefully to ensure you have all you need. And don’t forget -- bring more ice than you think you’ll need – because you will likely need it, at least to keep the beer cold!
Have a Plan When the Bite Comes
When a fish hits, make sure you know what the conditions were when it happened. Maintain the direction and speed of the troll because is what made the fish bite in the first place. Continue trolling with the same speed and direction until more than half of the spool has been let out. If you have enough crew, continue jigging and working other rods in the pattern until you decide to pull back and reel in the fish you have hooked up.
Some fish, most famously mahi-mahi dolphin – will hang around if one of them gets hooked. Experienced dolphin anglers leave the first small “chicken” (a nickname for mahi in the three-to-six-pound range) in the water because it keeps the school around. After a few minutes, unhook him and put him on ice – but not before you hooked another one to leave alive in the water while you limit out.
What Boat is the Best for Long Offshore Trips?
There is no doubt that a 50-foot Viking or similar long-trip boat serves its designed purpose: To provide offshore anglers lots of comfort, plenty of storage, and the ability to watch Game of Thrones on their big screen televisions while their mates cut their fingers to the bone wrapping wire leaders for the sharks when they show up.
But you do not need a $500K boat to fish 80 miles out in the ocean. You simply need a center console in the 23’ to 35’ range that has the proper motor, ample storage, enough gas, and the brains and courage it takes to do the run.
The Online Fisherman Inc.
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