A Guide to Deep Sea Fishing

Deep-sea fishing, also known as offshore fishing, is some of the most adventurous and dangerous fishing you can do. Storms, big waves, strong winds, and massive fish are all hallmarks of the sport. It might not necessarily be as intense as the Alaskan king crab fishing seen in Discovery channel’s “Deadliest Catch”, but it sure can be a wild ride. To start you must travel at least 10 miles offshore to waters of at least 100 feet (30 m) in depth. That is a technical minimum though and it isn’t uncommon to go out much further and fish much deeper. Just getting to the fishing spot is an adventure! 

Once you’re there the real fun starts and the hunt is on. Bigger bait, strong rods, and rough seas can all come together in a finale pitting you against a 1000 pound marlin, or maybe even a shark. Out in open waters, the variety and size of the creatures you might encounter are astounding. It is truly an experience everyone should have at least once.   

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat 

Deep-sea fishing is arguably more accessible now than it ever was. We can thank improvements in technology and manufacturing. For one, there are bigger and better boats available with bigger and better engines. These are available to charter companies and private individuals as well. If you’re considering going for your first deep sea fishing trip you’ll probably want to go along with a local fishing charter that can provide all the right equipment. If you’re taking your own boat then you will definitely want to make sure it is up to the task. 

Whatever boat you take you should be on the lookout for a few key things. The boat should be fairly big and fairly spacious to accommodate you, your friends, all the fishing gear, the bait and the massive fish you will be hauling in. You’ll also want several sizable coolers, live wells, or fish boxes to keep your catch in. Deep-sea fishing is an all-day affair so your early catches will need to stay fresh throughout the day. 

Make sure you have fighting chairs, outriggers, rod holders and transom doors too. The fighting chairs should be bolted to the deck so you have a safe and comfortable place to sit while battling an ocean behemoth. Rod holders help with this too since they provide a built-in cup to hold your rod so you don’t have to bear all it’s weight the whole time. Outriggers are nice also these are poles that will keep your fishing line out away from the boat. This really helps expand the size of your fishing radius and helps keep lines organized for starters. Transom doors are handy as they open to the boat’s stern and make it much easier to reel in a fish. 

A flybridge is another important aspect of a deep-sea fishing vessel. This is the part of the boat where you can sit high above the water and really get a good look at your surroundings. This is important when looking for all the telltale signs of where large fish might be and the view is usually hard to beat too.  

A boat with all these elements will be fairly well suited for offshore fishing but what really takes the cake are the engines. You can go deep-sea fishing without great high powered engines but it is much better if you have them. This pretty much goes for everything mentioned here. You could technically go deep sea fishing in a canoe even, people have almost certainly done so, it is just not a good idea. A high powered engine saves you time and gives an extra degree of needed safety on the water. The travel time from shore will be drastically reduced and in the case of especially inclement weather or some other emergency, you can high tail it back if needed.    

What to Bring with You 

If you aren’t an experienced deep-sea fisherman then your best bet will always be to charter a boat with a well-seasoned captain to show you the ropes. When you do this they will usually either provide most of the necessary fishing gear or make it available to rent. This gear will vary depending on where you are, what type of fish you’re going for, and what the preferred methods are. 

Before diving into the specifics of deep-sea fishing technique and the heavy-duty gear that goes with that here are some of the other essentials you will want to bring. 

The big one is your fishing license. You must have one and you must have it with you. This does get checked and when your fishing in the offshore big leagues the fines and repercussions can sometimes be even more brutal than back on land. The other essential is medication. In general, you should remember to bring any medications you need to take during the day. More specifically if you suffer from motion sickness, or if you’re not sure whether you do or not, then you need to bring medication for that. Better to be safe than sorry. Seasickness can occur under fairly mild conditions so even if the sea looks calm you might still need something. 

The other essentials are mostly concerned with safety. You will need sunblock, a hat, sunglasses and/or safety goggles. Even if you think you don’t burn easily you will want sunblock out on the water. The UV rays are amplified out there and you will burn. If you opt for sunglasses over safety goggles make sure they are impact-resistant and shatterproof. Equipment can go flying, hooks can land where they shouldn’t, and any number of other things can occur which can damage your eyes. 

This next one is extremely important! Bring water. Bring more water than you think you need. In the same manner that you can burn more easily on the water, you will also become dehydrated quicker. Fishing is exhausting work and the sun can be unforgiving. In this same vain you should not bring alcohol or drugs. Maybe it goes without saying but beer and fishing do seem to go hand in hand. Alcohol also goes hand in hand with dehydration and injury though so it is best just not have it on board when you are 30 miles out from shore. 

Some final things that you will want to bring with you are a cooler to leave in your vehicle, a camera, a good waterproof bag, food and snacks, a hand towel and some cash. The cooler in the vehicle is for storing any fish you bring back at the end of the day. It would not be fun to land a great catch and then have to leave it behind because you don’t have a way to store it. The camera, snacks, hand towel, and cash make sense I’m sure and they should all go in the waterproof bag along with your phone and wallet, things can definitely get wet very easily.  

Some fishermen wrap their head, neck, and face to protect themselves from the sun. 

What to Wear           

You need to dress appropriately for cold, hot, wet and sunny. Basically, this means you will want to dress in layers. Despite the heat and the sun, you should wear good breathable long-sleeve shirts and pants. This along with a proper hat will help protect most of your skin from burning and also minimize dehydration. In addition to that, you will also want a sweater for the cooler evenings as the sun starts to sink and maybe even a waterproof jacket to go over that. If you’re not sure you can call a local fishing charter and they can make some suggestions. 

Other than that you will need sturdy boots and strong gloves. Nonskid, closed-toed, rubber boots are your best bet and gloves that allow you comfort and dexterity are ideal too. The right gear and clothing will make the whole deep sea fishing experience much more enjoyable and successful. 

Where to Go Deep-sea Fishing and What to Expect 

With deep-sea fishing, some spots are definitely better than others but once your 10+ miles away from shore everything can look like a great expanse of undifferentiated water to the untrained eye. At the largest scale, if you are fishing offshore around the United States, your primary spots will be either the Atlantic ocean, the Pacific ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, or one of the Great Lakes. 

Each of these destinations has its own unique traits and within them there are areas and things to be on the lookout for. Some of the best fishing in the Atlantic, for example, happens off the coasts of Florida, North Carolina, and Maine. Florida also offers deep-sea fishing access to the Gulf of Mexico and fishing off these coasts you can expect the likes of tarpon and mahi-mahi. The famous author and outdoorsmen Ernest Hemingway actually had a home down in the Florida Keys where he regularly took advantage of the excellent deep-sea fishing there. 

North Carolina can be a prime spot for yellowfin tuna while Maine offers up striper, mackerel, and bluefin tuna. Once you head up towards Maine you are in the North Atlantic and these waters are notoriously rough and cold. Fishing there provides a uniquely adventurous outing in the Atlantic. 

You can access the Gulf of Mexico from Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and of course Mexico. These salty beautiful waters make for some excellent offshore fishing and you can find snapper, red grouper, bluefin tuna, and even Atlantic blue marlin here among many other species. 

On the other side of the country, the Pacific offers up a rougher and colder fishing environment. Here you have Pacific mackerel, bluefin tuna, swordfish and more, all off of the long coastlines of California, Oregon, and Washington.

Then you have the great lakes of Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. Obviously, deep-sea fishing implies that you are at sea but these lakes are more than large enough in terms of distance from shore and depth of water. The lake waters aren’t necessarily calm either, due to their size winds can make the waters very choppy. Offshore here you might catch the likes of chinook salmon, northern pike, and walleye.             

Where to Find Fish 

If you got the impression that you can go deep-sea fishing from most places in the United States you wouldn’t be wrong. A large portion of the country is within driving distance of deep-sea fishing access. Still, as mentioned before, what happens when you actually get out on those waters? Without experience, the water to your left, right and center might all look the same. Well, in lieu of experience, you can learn a few telltale signs that fish might be in a region. 

One very general tip is that birds circling and flying overhead indicate the possibility of baitfish down below them. The baitfish down below them serve as food for the bigger fish you are trying to catch. So, you can follow the birds to the baitfish all the way down to your desired catch. It isn’t really this simple though, for one there might be no birds at all and even if there are, there are plenty of other ways to find where the fish might be biting.  

One of the biggest spots to look for in the water is anywhere with reefs, shipwrecks, or rocks. Basically, anything that provides a home and safe haven for fish guarding them against strong currents and sheltering them from predators. You can fish in and around these structures and your chances of snagging a decent fish are fairly high. 

In a similar vein, you can look for kelp forests if you are in the right environment for them. Typically this is off the coast of California. These kelp forests are teeming with life as they create complex underwater structures for all forms of life to make a home in and feed around.    

Understanding the landscape under the water is what’s most important. If you can see below you then great, but if not there are tools like depth finders and fish finders which you should use to help you. The ocean has great deep canyons that fall off from the continental shelves leading back to land. Frankly, these canyons can be mind bendingly deep. Warmer nutrient-rich waters can come flying up these shelves towards the surface and where the nutrients go the baitfish follow. As mentioned previously, the baitfish are followed by the prize fish, the predators of the deep. 

The underwater landscape can be a lot like a bigger and wilder version of the land above. There are hills and mountains under the sea and these structures can change and be changed by surrounding water conditions which again leads to baitfish being present. These structures can actually shape the water surface in visible ways so you might notice ripples or tide lines. 

Out and away from all these useful landmarks, you have the large and foreboding open ocean. When deep-sea fishing in the open ocean you need an experienced and well educated professional with you. This isn’t only for knowing where and how to catch fish but also for safety. The farther out you go the riskier things become. Fish in the open ocean can be found along the somewhat barren rocky bottom of the sea, this comes with its own challenges.  

It isn’t uncommon to bring multiple rods to fish with at one time. 

Essential Gear and Techniques 

Armed with the right boat, the right location and the right clothing you are primed to head offshore, this is only half of the equation though. The other half of the equation involves certain sets of gear, techniques. Once all of this is combined you will be prepared with the basics of deep-sea fishing.

The most common deep-sea fishing techniques include trolling, bottom fishing, jigging and chumming. Trolling involves pulling a line with a lure or bait on it through the water. This can be done by either moving the boat or by reeling in the line. The key gear for this method starts with a strong 30-50 lbs rod, ideally made of high-quality saltwater resistant materials. 

You’ll want to pair this with a multiplier reel around between N.6000-N.10,000 in size. Trolling is for bigger fish so you should prepare appropriately. This also means you cannot use monofilament line. Instead, you must have a braided line with a test strength of 50-80 lbs. Any leaders can be done with fluorocarbon. A quick tip with these, braided lines can be hard to cut so you’ll either need a super sharp and hardened blade or braid snips to get through them. In a pinch, you can try fingernail clippers or even burning the line but it isn’t recommended on principle.  

The next common technique is bottom fishing. At its simplest, this involves a heavy lead sinker and some bait being sent straight down towards the bottom of the sea. The sinker is set in such a way that when the fish bites the bait it feels the weight, tries to swim away and hooks itself. The weight isn’t always needed but becomes necessary at depths of around 150 feet or so. 

To set this all up you need a 6-9 ft. rod of over 30 lbs with a reel size around N.5000-N.7000. Braided line is needed here as well. Monofilament is essentially not used when fishing offshore. The sinker comes in to play at greater depths. An experienced deep-sea fisherman is the best source for learning how to rig everything together. 

In addition to all this, you can also try jigging. Jigging can be very effective and simply uses a jig for the lure instead of bait. You can set up with a 20-40 lbs rod, an N.5000-N.7000 reel and some braided line. The jigs themselves display a unique jerky motion in the water that fish seem to go crazy for.    

A final common technique is called chumming. This is less a method to catch a fish and more a way to attract them. Chumming just involves throwing large pieces of bait into the water to attract fish to the area. Chumming can be done alongside other techniques to help land a fish. 

Final Verdict:

Deep-sea fishing is certainly more of a high-risk high reward form of fishing but anyone with the right gear and guidance can enjoy the sport. Knowing how to combine the right techniques, equipment, and locations to successfully make a catch takes time and experience. This is why fishing charters are often recommended for those starting out, even if you have your own boat. There is a lot to be learned in deep-sea fishing but this guide should get you started. 

Bonus tip: Watch the battles unfold during a real deep-sea fishing adventure!

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