ONE of the great things about game fishing is that it really is a team pursuit. On the deck of a game boat, each member of the crew has a role to play in successfully landing or releasing a large game fish, which in practice means you don’t have to be on the rod to really enjoy the excitement of the battle and feel that strong sense of satisfaction and achievement that catching one of our extraordinary game species creates. In fact, a lot of the time it’s arguably more fun to be on the wheel, waiting for the leader or manning the tag pole while watching all the fireworks that a big, angry fish puts on rather than slaving away over a heavy rod and reel trying to tame it!
Yes, game fishing is the closest thing to a spectator sport the fishing world has. Yet as much fun as it is involving friends and family in the on-water action out wide, there’s nothing to say it can’t also be an individual activity. Solo game fishing is an inspiring challenge and sometimes even more satisfying when that special fish comes to the boat.
The time constraints of earning a living and raising a family can also make going solo a necessity at times. Not all of us have standard weekday working hours and fewer still have flexibility in their work days, so finding a mutually free day for one or more of your mates to join you offshore can be often difficult. Not being able to rustle up a crew on any given day has got to be the worst, most frustrating reason of all to forgo a day on the bluewater, particularly as it can often mean missing out on a hot bite or rare weather window. Going solo makes a whole lot of sense when this situation rears its ugly head!
Solo game fishing is something that really only suits trailer boats or at the very least open, “express” style game boats where a single person can work the deck or drive the boat while holding onto a bent rod. Trying to run up and down a tower, in and out of a cabin or just traverse a large deck single handed on a larger game boat is not so much a challenge as a logistical nightmare that takes all the fun out of a day offshore.
In a smaller vessel though where everything is close at hand, it’s a realistic and really enjoyable way to spice up your offshore fishing. So if you’ve been thinking about taking your smaller, offshore capable vessel out wide single handed, read on.
Safety, Safety, Safety
It would be easy to gloss over the safety aspect of heading offshore solo, but the unequivocal importance of staying safe in everything you do when solo game fishing (or any offshore fishing for that matter) is something I simply cannot stress enough, and I’ll give you a very close to home example as to why.
Early in 2017, a friend of mine ran out wide of Exmouth to chase blue marlin solo in his five metre trailerboat. The events that would transpire this fateful day have been well publicised throughout the mainstream Australian news media, and for that reason I won’t mention his name so as not to cause any further embarrassment. Enjoying Exmouth’s extraordinary billfishery is something our mate had done solo literally dozens and dozens of times previously in all sorts of weather, so to
say he was an experienced solo game fisherman is an understatement.
This particular day was flat calm, which as things turned out was nothing short of a godsend. Our friend’s day started well with a good blue in the 200-250kg size range which he fought, leadered and tagged single handed. With the fish at the side of the boat, he’d just unhooked and released it when he accidentally knocked a GoPro camera off its mount at the rear of the boat.
Seeing this happen, it was simple instinctual reaction for him to make a lunge to grab it before it went over the side. As he did this, his other hand slipped from the gunnel, his feet went out from under him and in the blink of an eye he was in the water…with the boat still in gear and slowly motoring away.
Thankfully, the story has the happiest of endings, largely due to the weather that day being so nice and a hot blue bite going on which meant there were quite a few other boats out and fishing the same general area. A few hours later, the skipper of one of these boats noticed the unmanned boat slowly putting around in a strange manner, and after discovering no crew on board, got straight on the radio to all other crews in the area who banded together to start a coordinated search.
After a total of six hours in the water, our mate was found, thankfully none the worse for wear other than being badly sunburnt, dehydrated and a bit tired and sore. While our little Exmouth game fishing community was obviously well relieved with this fortunate outcome, it was a major scare and a big reminder to all of how quickly small accidents can turn into life threatening situations offshore.
Managing the Risk
Falling overboard is probably the major risk when solo game fishing, particularly when trolling. Ian Thorpe would have trouble catching up with and getting back on a boat motoring across the open ocean, even if it’s just in gear and only doing a couple of knots. So if you think this is a non-issue, do your friends and family a favour and stay on dry land.
While it’s true that accidents will always happen, there’s quite a few things we can do when fishing solo to manage the risk of them occurring. First and foremost is using a safety line. On smaller vessels it’s usually easy enough to work out some sort of safety line arrangement that doesn’t hinder you too much when hooked-up or just moving around the boat. Ideally this should be at a length short enough to prevent you from falling overboard in the first place, and I find the back of your fighting harness makes a convenient attachment point.
When trolling, one of the best pieces of safety gear is a driver proximity kill switch for the engine. Most modern outboard motor control systems come with a basic kill switch as standard, but these are just a simple lanyard and pop-key arrangement which is not always practical on even the smallest game fishing vessel where there’s the need to move away from the helm and around the deck.
If simply extending the length of the kill switch lanyard isn’t a workable option, there is a higher tech solution. Remote proximity engine kill switch systems are available these days which are the wireless alternative. These man overboard emergency systems only require the user to carry a small sensor on their person, which triggers the kill switch when it is immersed in water or exceeds a specified distance from the on board sensor.
AutoTether and Virtual Life Line are just a couple of remote kill switch systems to have a look at, and could be a wise investment if you plan on doing a lot of solo fishing offshore. They’re also a good idea for large vessels carrying multiple crew when traveling long distances or at night, just in case someone should go overboard without the rest of the crew noticing.
Release knives are often part of the decky's tool kit, and when fishing solo, become a particularly important safety device. Hung off a belt, pocket pouch or similar, a release knife offers an at hand solution should you get tangled in a heavy leader line with a big, active fish on the other end, potentially saving life or limb right there.
The most obvious piece of safety equipment in case of going overboard is of course a life jacket. Now as anyone who has fished in tropical or sub-tropical waters will understand, wearing a full life jacket is another one of those things that is not always practical. The heat and even just the bulk of the jacket can make it all but impossible to stand throughout a full day game fishing. Instead, auto inflating slimline buoyancy vests (aka, yokes) are a better option, being far less restrictive and much more comfortable to wear.
Even better is to carry an EPIRB on your person. Compact, personal EPIRB units are available these days for a very reasonable price, which are small enough to attach to a belt and not get in the way too much.
This was not something I ever really considered in past years, but since that incident with my mate mentioned earlier, it’s a habit I’ve made a conscious effort to get into when heading out solo. Having an EPIRB at hand is also not a bad idea just in case something horrible should happen while you’re on deck, like a heart attack or debilitating injury. At least by popping your EPIRB you have a distress signal getting out there, even if you’re not in any physical state yourself to do much about your predicament.
Common sense also plays a big part in solo game fishing. Letting someone trustworthy back on land know where you’re going and when you’ll return is just basic safety, as is logging in to the local sea rescue radio service (where available).
Speaking of radios, being active on the local calling channel is good policy when fishing solo too. That’s one thing I love about the game fishing community; most everyone talks to one another and are generally willing to share information or fish close together when there’s a bite happening. So chatting on the radio throughout the day is not just a good safety move, but can also put you onto the fish!
It almost goes without saying, but if the weather is marginal, don’t go solo. Simple as that. If, despite all your preparations and precautions, disaster happens and you end up in serious trouble, poor weather will drastically exacerbate the problem. Should you end up in the drink in bad weather when there’s unlikely to be many other boats out, it’s all but game over.
Ready for Anything
If safety is the most important consideration when chasing large game fish single handed, then practicality is second. After all, there’s no use hooking game fish if you’re not well set up enough to land them all by yourself.
As we all know, when that bite comes along things happen very quickly, so there’s a need to have a game plan of how you’re going to deal with that series of events that follow a hook-up with just the one pair of hands. Spend some time thinking about how you want a solo fight with a good fish to go, how you’re going to try to make things go to plan, and what you’re going to do to react to any critical circumstances that might come up during the fight.
Those hectic moments immediately following the hook-up are when you need to act almost instinctually to keep some semblance of control over the situation. Rather than jumping straight for the bent rod, the first move once a reel screams may be to clear any other gear from the water so as to stop the line tangling or being cut off.
On that point, when fishing solo it’s usually best to fish less lines than you might ordinarily, just to limit that potential of losing fish on other gear. For example, when trolling skirts for billfish, tuna and such, a standard five line spread is a nightmare to deal solo with when you hook-up, and could actually be illegal in some states whose recreational fishing regulations impose a limit on the number of lines one angler may fish. So dropping back to two or three lines is a better idea, as is attaching any teasers in use to an electric reel that makes clearing this typically cumbersome gear a push button job.
Although it’s hard in the heat of the moment, once you do clear that other gear, try not to just dump it wherever you can so as to keep the deck as clear as possible. The last thing you need when you’re tight to a good fish all on your lonesome is to be tripping over and stepping on expensive gear, or getting stray hooks lodged in flesh. So consider where and how you can easily and quickly stash this extra gear so that it’s out of the way.
Likewise, you’ll thank yourself for a bit of prior planning as to where all those extra bits of gear that you will require during the fight should be located when the time comes that you need them in a hurry. Tag poles or gaffs, gloves, pliers, bill snooters, tail ropes, knives, marlin measures and so on all need to be at the ready and easy to reach from anywhere on deck, which is why simple things like seatback pouches, knife sheaths, pliers holders and rope buckets can be oh-so handy when there’s no one else there to help.
If you’re going to be chasing fish that are likely to pull a lot of line, consider how you are going to drive the boat while hooked-up? What side of the boat will you need to fight the fish from to be able to reach the wheel and sticks, and what line angle you will need to maintain to make simultaneously driving and fighting the fish as easy as possible.
In this solo situation when you are driving the boat while fighting the fish, a good harness system makes things much easier – even if you’re only using light tackle – as it frees up your hands to reach for the wheel and throttle. Wearing your full gimbal and harness system at all times in anticipation of hooking up is a good move too as it shaves many precious seconds off the time it takes to get yourself set up to fight once a fish piles on.
When the fight has calmed down and you’re approaching the end game, you’ll probably need to employ a little strategy to get the fish into a position that makes it as easy as possible for you to deal with it on the leader. The usual plan of attack here is to get the fish to the side of the boat closest to the helm from a down sea position so the wind and swell doesn’t push the boat over the fish as you’re trying to get hands on the leader. This might mean having to drive the boat differently to coax the fish into position, or perhaps dropping the drag and letting the fish go if the line angle isn’t right as it approaches the boat.
When that leader does come to hand, you’ll usually need to clip out of the harness and drop the rod in a holder to be able to use two hands to control the fish. But when you do this, remember to back off the drag and make sure the leader is either on the reel (for a wind-on leader) or kept well clear of the rod in case the fish wakes up and bolts. I’ve broken a rod this way myself and heard other stories of entire outfits going overboard.
As much as staying safe is the most important consideration, don’t let it put you off. So long as you’re sensible about it, solo game fishing is a real buzz and something any experienced fisho can get into. It’s a better option than missing out on those perfect days and hot bites!