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Sail a Swan South in the 2017 NARC Rally

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Fishing the NARC Rally by Captain Bryan D. Treadwell

Just before departure on last Fall's NARC Rally from Newport to St. Martin, Roger Johnson, one of my crewmembers aboard the Swan 44, Jaluca, said to me "The one thing I would really like to do on this trip is catch a fish."

" Fine" I smiled, "you're on the right boat; because if there are any fish out there, I'm going to guarantee you, we'll catch them!"

Bragging may be part of the fishing routine, but consider this; by the end of our voyage, our tally was well over 385 lbs of fish, including not one, but two "baby" blue Marlin of about 150-170 pounds each, four dolphin up to 25 pounds, and a Wahoo! That does not include the four fish that got away. In addition to lots of truly fresh fish to eat, we were rewarded with some stunning action that seriously livened up our offshore days! That kind of success was not entirely due to dumb luck. They say that most fish are caught the night before. That means preparation. Sure, you can soak a line for 12 hours and probably get lucky, but why not stack the odds in your favor?

A dolphin on the deck with green and yellow lure - " A hand-lined dolphin caught in the mid-Atlantic drowned to death before anyone noticed it was hooked! That's easy fishing."
- Photo by Bryan D. Treadwell

Here's how any OPO member can turn a beautiful Swan into a bloody fishing machine!

The Right Stuff
What do I fish with? Well, the hand-line we used on Jaluca was out-fished 12-to-zip by my short (5'5") stand-up rod and reel with 450 yards of 60# test monofilament. Does that mean you should ignore your instruction manual and bring aboard a rod & reel combo? No, that's not necessary. It wasn't just the rod & reel itself that made the key difference in our luck. In fact, the hand-line is frequently a better choice than a rod & reel aboard a sailboat. With a rod & reel, if the fish is big enough - and you'd be surprised how often that is - and you're running wing-&- wing, or worse yet, under the evil influences of the spinnaker, then you are probably going to loose every inch of fishing line off your reel before you can stop the boat and fight a decent fish - as almost happened to us with our two marlin. The hand-line relies instead upon the strength of 400# test line and a big bungee cord to stop a fish cold, not a releasing drag. The main problem with some hand-lines s that they come rigged with too little line. In running conditions - the norm in the fall, you are throwing out a serious wake - at least on the Swans! That white, foamy water prevents the fish from seeing the lure, no matter how big it is.
Gaffed yellowfin tuna
"Big Pink takes another! Hank Schmidt perfectly gaffs a hard fighting @5# tuna taken in the Straights of Gibraltar just off the coast of Morocco. Keeping the fish outboard on the gaff until it settles down prevents lots of bloodshed on the decks.
Photo by Bryan D. Treadwell

The solution, add more line -enough to reach the point where the wake is no longer interfering with the fish's ability to see your lure. Most of the Big Three you're going to catch: tunas, dolphin, & wahoo, are surface feeders. So add enough line to place your lure just beyond the white water of your wake. I would say 125' - 150' of line is about right. The faster you go, the longer that distance needs to be. Actually, your wake attracts a fish in the open ocean, its highly visible to them. And they are curious and hungry creatures.

Finding Mr. Right - Lure Selection
Here's where it gets really subjective. A live chicken with a hook inserted in it will catch fish. My advice is to go out and buy any lure you fancy. Usually, as long as a fish manages to see it, they'll take it. However, I have been fishing from sailboats for over 30 years and 100,000 miles, and no lure has ever out-produced what I was using last fall - I call it Big Pink. Trust me on this one; this lure is death to anything with a tail. It's a hollow, soft plastic squid in a lurid pink and purple, about ten inches long, with big white eyes. Find this lure, and you will find yourself on your knees, fillet knife in hand, cleaning so many fish, your knees will bleed!! Explain that to your significant other!
Gaffed dolphin
"Get ready to duck! Another great eating dolphin accepts an invitation to dinner from the author."
Photo by Frank McConnel

Fishing with Mr. Right
You cannot catch a fish unless your line is in the water. Sounds simple, but most people ignore this rule too often to be very successful. Whoever gets the dawn watch should be ordered to put out the line well before sunup. Then keep the lure out there until well after sunset. Do this alone, and you will catch fish. If you're too lazy to keep a line out all day, then deploy it at the magic feeding hours of dawn and dusk and you'll still beat the odds.

At some time or another, you are going to snag some weeds. Sargassum weed starts at the Gulf Stream's edge, and is a major form of structure for all fish. It is a vital part of that food chain you are trying to enter as an apex predator, so stop cursing & whining about the stuff, and learn to love it - just keep your line clear of it!!. Remember, fish are not as dumb as some of the people trying to catch them. Your odds of catching anything are zero if there is even a speck of yellow weed visible, so keep checking your lure and clean it whenever it needs it in order to up your odds.

Some lures are more weedless than others. Big Pink is less so than most because the hook is protected among the tentacles. Unlike bullet-shaped lures, the snub-headed lures, those with the colorful vinyl skirts, are great at shedding weed, and they also churn out a long "smoke trail" of bubbles, which makes the lure look bigger than it really is and makes it visible from a much greater distance off. Give the fish something to see, they'll try and eat it.

Incidentally, dolphins have incredible eyesight. I was just telling my crew on Jaluca how dolphin will often spot a lure from over 150 feet away, and can be seen bounding clear of the water in an incredible series of leaps as they race to the attack. No sooner had I said this, than a sharp-eyed crewman spotted a large dolphin gray-hounding like a skipped rock after our lure. I grabbed the rod and watched it coming from 50 yards off as it homed in to savagely strike Big Pink. The entire crew went nuts in appreciation of the sight. I handed the rod to Roger and he finally got his first big fish.

You should probably not start fishing when going south until after you enter the Gulf Stream in the fall because you don't really want to tangle with a pesky bluefish. Be patient. From St. Martin north, fish until you exit the Stream, then put the gear away - for the same reason. Blues shred lures.
Roger's Wish
Roger holding his dolphin - " Roger Johnson lands his wish, a nice sized dolphin taken aboard the Swan 44 Jaluca last fall. Note the "Stand-up rod and reel combo.
Photo by Bryan D. Treadwell

Boat handling - "Drop that #&*@+"^% Chute!!"
When that reel suddenly starts screaming and the call goes out, "Fish on," the guaranteed adrenaline rush will help everyone deal with the Chinese Fire Drill that's coming. All of the OPO captains are expert boat handlers, which is an essential component to fishing under sail. The crew has to be ready to spring into instant action to do one of two things, stop the boat or slow it down - especially when running downwind with the spinnaker pole up. The choice will come down to the size of the fish; you will either be able to horse it in, or not. Crank the drag down and skip the little ones over the surface; don't let them dig in their heads underwater. Remember, this is not about sport - its about meat!

If it's a big fish (see illustrations), the yachts forward momentum added to a streaking game fish can easily combine to strip a reel of line in as little as a minute. The captain will instruct you in the precise maneuver needed. The options are usually:
1) rounding up into the wind (light air only), 2) rounding up while furling the jib - still sheeted to the pole, 3) beam reaching while luffing the jib (light air only please) or 4) just rounding up into the wind and sailing slowly backwards - looks stupid but it works very well - do I have to say light air only again? By all means, get your engine started to control the yacht's direction because the fish will give you fits trying to cut you off by circling the boat, diving under the keel, propeller, shaft or rudder - they are not stupid. I'm going to categorically state that spinnakers and fishing are mutually incompatible pursuits. Ignore this at your own peril. Having said that, I ignore it almost all the time, as long as I'm doing under 8 or 9 knots - not easy with a running Swan! Over that speed and you are really begging to lose an entire reel full of line. Use the hand line when going faster.

With a hand line, you can theoretically keep on sailing, and simply drag the fish to death or wind it aboard kicking. This is the key advantage of the hand line, but if you want to see where theory meets reality, just check out the last photo. If you do hook something obscene, like a marlin or a 50 plus pound tuna, I don't think drowning will be an option. These bigger fish are a real workout. Gaffed dolphin
Blue Marlin being released - " This was no fluke! After David Near's exhausting ½ hour battle, this estimated #150 Blue Marlin is hand revived and released unharmed. Hooked a day south of Bermuda, another of the same size was caught within sight of St. Martin. They do get big out there. The sugar scoop stern on the Swan made this type of release possible, otherwise, if something this big hooks up, you'd better cut your line fast."
Photo by Frank McConnel.

Landing Sushi
Lets say you now have the boat under control so that it's not working against you; the fish is next to the vessel, and its time to get it aboard. This is when most fish are lost. Remember, a 30# fish in the water weighs ten pounds. The second its in the air, its true weight comes to bear. This is often enough to tear a poorly hooked fish free. A lot of work for nothing, and believe me, this will break your cook's heart. Solution? First check the hook - if it is solidly lodged in the fishes mouth, smoothly haul it up and into the cockpit. But only after someone else has closed all hatches, stowed your stylish $400 Oakley sunglasses, those $600 image-stabilized binos, and that $200 GPS. Plus any dry books, the cushions or anything else you don't want to see destroyed or slimmed with stinky fish gurry.

Now, get out of the way quickly because all hell is about to break loose. Dolphins in particular, go really berserk when dropped aboard. Tuna only slightly less so, because they usually kill themselves (or you) during the fight, but wahoo are kind of calm. Usually. Even a small dolphin or tuna is going to turn your cockpit pink with, hopefully, just its blood. Sometimes a winch handle to the head is needed at this to point to act as a persuader, but watch out for those lovely teak decks!! Caution - clubbing sometimes provokes a big boy into a renewed state of fury, so chose your technique wisely.

When we finally gaffed Roger's dolphin, he said "I heard that pouring hard liquor down the fish's gills will kill it quickly." With a derisive snort, Frank McConnel replied, "Give me the damned booze, I'll kill the fish for you!" A knife blade to the brain is another way of raising a short-lived hell, but it does work. If the fish is any bigger than, say, 15 pounds or so then cut your line and let it go (joking). Unless that is, you have a gaff on board, because you are going to have a hard time getting it into the boat without busting the line, tearing the hook, or slicing your hands on the monofilament. I use the smallest gaff (at 36") that can fit into my largest gear bag. Lean over the side, swipe the fish from underneath and lift it. Head shots are preferred, but this takes practice. Hank Schmidt, after three years as a commercial fisherman, is a past master at this, never ruining the tasty fillets, but you just sink the gaff in anywhere you hit flesh, and then swing it aboard. Again, now's the time to run for cover!
I usually hold the fish in the air on the gaff until it settles down and does the decent thing by dying. This saves gurry in the cockpit area. Try and get rid of the hook when it is safe to do so, as you don't EVER want to become attached to a berserk fish by a 7/0 hook!

When things finally calm down, you'd be wise to secure your prize with a small safety line through the mouth before laying it onto any flat, wetted surface (makes cleaning the teak decks easier). Do this away from the cockpit if possible (avoids fishy smell). Then break out the fillet knife. If you don't know how to fillet a fish, you shouldn't be fishing. Bag and refrigerate the meat immediately. Next, swish the deck down with lots of water from a bucket. Be very careful swinging that bucket - you can easily get pulled overboard during this maneuver.

After that, hand the fillets or steaks to your most trusted and grateful onboard chef with instructions to perfectly sauté, broil, fry, bake, roll into sushi, or add it to a bisque if you've already had too much fish (no such thing). Bring along some teriyaki, blackening spices, pickled ginger, wasabe, nori (seaweed sheets), sherry and some quality rice. You will forever be spoiled by the incredible difference between truly "fresh" seafood and the 30 day old, sogged-out jerky that passes for the same on land.

Traveling with Rods
This is also where the hand-line really beats the rod & reel. However, if you must bring one aboard, coordinate with the captain first. Secondly, bring the shortest, stoutest rod you can find, get a good reel (Penn, Daiwa, Shimano) that can hold at least 400 yards of 50# test line and use a real rod case unless you want to either donate or snap your rod courtesy of the local baggage handlers. This outfit might cost you $160. The 36"gaff goes into your sea bag. Now, add a few select lures and hooks, a fillet knife (checked luggage if you want to avoid a full body search), and maybe a pair of Platex gloves for odor free hands after filleting. Learn how to tie a suitable knot - a 3½-turn cinch - and that's about all you need to fish the NARC with the odds in your favor.

Tight Lines, and Bon Appetite!