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Handline Fishing Tips for Offshore Sailors

Vegetarian boaters should read no further, this isn't for you. But handline fishing is a skill that all other cruising sailors should acquaint themselves with. Don't be put off by the word 'handline' - you don't have to hold it all the time. Just wait until a hooked fish announces its predicament, then haul it in.

We're not talking about sport fishing here - sailboat fishing is all about catching fish to eat.

More good news...

You won't need any expensive rods and reels.

Handline fishing gear is simple, robust and inexpensive.

Once you've tasted your first handline-caught fish, I'm pretty sure you'll agree that the investment was cheap indeed.

A Handline Fishing Rig for Sailing Offshore

Here's the basic gear, a simple handline fishing rig for trolling offshore...

an offshore trolling handline

Just 100 feet (30m) of 300lb main line, a snap swivel and a further 20 feet (7m) of 300lb leader attached to a skirted trolling lure.

You won't be able to tie secure knots in this heavy line; only crimped connections will hold under load.

Note that the trolling weight on the main line is optional - only use it if the lure skips along the surface and refuses to submerge. For best results the lure should 'swim' a few feet below the surface, but should break the surface every few seconds before submerging again.

Look for the bubble trail streaming out from the lure. This is the sign of a good, fish-catching lure as it's this that creates 'noise' in the water and attracts the fish to your lure.

Recommended Lures

Boone Turbo Hammer Rigged Trolling Lures

Boone Turbo Hammer Rigged Trolling Lures

Produces a visible, fish-attracting smoke trail that causes striking fish to nail the bait. Pre-rigged with 5 feet (1.5m) of 130-lb. mono and a 6/0 Mustad hook. Best trolled at 2-10 knots, these skirted lures are ideal for trolling behind a sailboat.

Got-Cha Cedar Plugs - Saltwater

Got-Cha Cedar Plugs - Saltwater

The Got-Cha Cedar Plugs feature a 100-year-old design that still produces big-time fish fights with tuna, dorado, wahoo, marlin, sails, yellowtail, blues and stripers. The tight-wiggling, swimming action of the Got-Cha Cedar Plugs drives fish to strike. Rigged on Mustad 3412 hook with 150 lb mono line.

Whatever type of trolling lure you use for handline fishing, remember to check it now and again to remove any flotsam it may have picked up, redeploy it and await the arrival of Neptune's bounty.

Use a Snubber Line for Handline Fishing

a snubber for an offshore trolling handline

Artwork by Andrew Simpson

This is an essential addition to any trolling handline. The 'snubber' is the bungee cord; it acts as a shock absorber and will prevent the fish from tearing itself free of the hook when it first realises it's in a spot of bother. It also lets you know when you've got a fish. If it's fully extended, get pulling!


Just published, the eBook that contains everything you need to know about catching fish from a sailboat.

If you're serious about catching fish while underway, then you really should take a look at it.

Considering its true value, you'll be absolutely amazed at its price! In a nice way, of course...

Take a look at 'Secrets of Sailboat Fishing' Here!

Stay Safe!

Ocean fish are fast, powerful creatures and in their struggle to get free they will use every ounce of their considerable energy. So, a few safety rules when handline fishing:~

  • Always use tough gloves when hauling in the fish and never, ever take a loop of line around your hand
  • When hauling in a fish, be careful not to step into the loops of line that will accumulate in the cockpit. OK, the fish on the end of the line may not be enormous but the one that grabs it just might be!
  • Always have a sharp knife to hand, just in case.
  • A large, hugely agitated freshly caught fish leaping around in the cockpit is at its most dangerous. Place a wet towel over it to calm it down, and pour some strong alcohol in its gills to accelerate its passing.
  • Wait until the fish is dead before attempting to unhook it.

Double Your Chances!

Why not use two trolling handlines, one from each quarter? Make one around 100 feet long (30m) and the second one a little longer, say 120 feet (35m) and use a different type of lure. As soon as you get a strike on one, bring the other one in, as two fish on at once will almost certainly lead to a major tangle - and no fish at all.

The longer line should be on the leeward side, which will help to space them apart.

What will My Handline Fishing Rig Catch?

king mackerel caught on an offshore trolling handline of Nevis in the Caribbean

In warm ocean zones these handline fishing rigs will catch the fish that hunt their prey close to the surface - tuna, wahoo, dorado, kingfish, barracuda, mackerel, jacks etc.

And having caught your fish, you'll need to know how to kill it humanely, clean it and prepare it for cooking.

Ideally, your catch will be around the size of the kingfish shown here, but now and again you may hook one of the oceans' great billfish, a sailfish or a marlin for example.

The odds are that you won't get it to the boat - nor would you want to, I'm guessing. But if you do, please unhook it and release it if you can, or cut the line close to the mouth of the fish and let it swim free if you can't.

They're just too magnificent a creature to kill, and they're not the best tasting fish in the sea.

Although these huge fish will take a small lure, they're more likely to ignore it than they would a large one.

So unless you want to do battle with an ocean gamefish, it's a good idea when sailboat fishing to use lures that don't exceed 8 inches (200mm) or so in overall length.

Top Tip #1 - Try a Teaser!

Fish get very excited when they detect a shoal of baitfish splashing around on the surface. You can replicate this activity by towing a splashy object a few feet in front of your lure. A half-filled plastic bottle works well, as does a net bag full of wine bottle corks.

If you're using two trolling handlines, one from each quarter, tie the teaser line to the backstay and make sure that all the splashing takes place a few feet ahead of the lure that's closest to the boat. This deception is probably the most effective way of getting fish to take an interest in your lures.

Top Tip #2 - Rig Up a Daisy Chain!

a daisy chain rig for an offshore trolling handline

And you can also create more noise with a daisy chain.

A low cost version can be made up by positioning a few plastic squid skirts along the leader at around 3 foot intervals, each one separated from the other by an overhand knot (or better, a crimp) and a bead.

Only the lure at the end of the line sports a hook; the others are merely decoys.

But if I was allowed only one lure for my trolling line it would be a cedar plug daisy chain. A simple, rugged and proven fish-catcher, you must have one of these...

Got-Cha Cedar Plug Daisy Chain

Got-Cha Cedar Plug Daisy Chain

Features three cedar plugs followed by a trailer.

Next ~ My Very Fishy Story...

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