The dinghy can allow recreational fishermen to fish in shallow waters with corals, sandy flats and beaches, jungle creeks and rivers, occluded areas and inland freshwater lakes and rivers. Dinghy fishing requires the installation of transom rod holders and the addition of a plastic cooler.
Part III – In our ongoing series on fishing for cruisers, we’ve set an offshore trolling line and landed dinner in a quiet anchorage. Now, setting out in a well-equipped tender, it’s time to explore the shallows, flats, and rivers where endless opportunity abounds
Jeff Kenney pulled at the oars, bringing our fiberglass dinghy into the shadow of a large, semisubmerged wreck near Bimini, Bahamas, called the “concrete ship,” while I hooked a live grunt on 6 feet of heavy leader and sent it overboard, suspended from a cork. “Think they’re still around?” he asked. Suddenly, the butt of the makeshift outfit – a stumpy broken rod with a tiny revolving spool reel hose-clamped to it – slammed into my gut as the rod jerked downward onto the gunwale, threatening to cap-size us. The miniature reel drag screeched loudly in un-even bursts, begrudgingly giving up short lengths of the mere 60 yards of 100-pound-test monofilament line packed onto the spool. The piercing sound was nearly drowned by Jeff’s hysterical laughter as the dinghy rocked wildly and began to pick up speed and head for the wreck’s stern. We groaned and bailed and zigzagged around it. Finally, we tired the 45-pound amberjack enough to slip a hand in its gill and slide it aboard along with 10 gallons of seawater. Thanks to our trusty dinghy, we would dine very well that night.
You can use your dinghy to gain access to coral-strewn shallows, sandy fiats and beaches, jungle creeks and rivers, occluded areas, and inland freshwater lakes and rivers. If the weather is fine, you can even go offshore to fish some deep reef. Properly outfitted, any dinghy expedition has the potential for miraculous catches.
The Tools of Dinghy Fishing
Start by installing transom rod holders. Through-bolted stainless-steel or aluminum holders allow you to troll your heavier stand-up rods. Two holders mounted outward at a 45-degree angle create distance between trolled offerings and prevent the tangling of the lines. Two vertical inboard holders complete the picture. Add a plastic cooler to protect your dinghy from sharp teeth and fins and to keep your catch fresh. Before loading your gaff, cover its point with plastic tubing. Purchase two 10-pound-test light spinning rods and two high-quality spinning reels with 200-yard line capacities and smooth drags. Assemble a tackle box appropriate for the species you intend to catch. You can take along hand lines. Bring a landing net for smaller quarry. Add all your dinghy gear – oars, tool kit, spare parts, portable VHF, anchor and chain and plenty of line, bailer, an emergency kit for inflatables, drinking water, and the required safety equipment – and you’re all set. Be sophisticated and get a transom-mounted fish-finder that operates on “C” batteries.
Flats and Beaches
Some of the thrills that aficionados pay thousands of dollars to experience are available to sailors in less than 3 feet of water. Bonefish, various jacks (up to 100 pounds), snappers, barracuda, sharks, and other species patrol the shallows for food when the tide is right. Flats often allow stalking and sight casting directly over schools or individuals. Fish hooked in these depths fight hard and often provide firm, white-meat table fare. Anglers love this type of fishing to the point of obsession: it’s peaceful, beautiful, and challenging. On light tackle such as spinning and fly, this approach is exciting.
Check your tide tables. The incoming tide is usually most productive, though you’ll find some areas more active on the falling tide. You don’t need bait for fishing on flats, but if you’re a beginner, use land or hermit crabs, shrimp, conch, mollusks, and cut or strip bait. The choice of lures is dictated by the targeted species: 1/8- to 1/4-ounce bucktail jigs with flattened heads will catch any species inhabiting flats. Heavier round-head bucktails, small spoons, and swimming and surface plugs are better for such larger targets as jack and trevally.
When you fish on flats, good vision is essential. Wear quality polarized glasses and a billed cap. Anchor the dinghy upwind with the sun behind your search area, or get out and wade with the sun at your back. You can sit and wait for fish, or you can actively hunt. Note the direction of the current because most fish will swim into the flow. Read the signs. If visibility is bad, toss out pieces of bait for chum, cast a baited line and let it sit bail closed, or cast and work your lure blind.
For sight fishing, train yourself to see through water. Develop your ability to see silver, gray, or olive torpedo-shaped shadows. Fish will be more obvious against light-colored sand flats. Darker sea-grass bottoms and overcast or windy conditions reduce visibility. When you spot the fish, follow its direction and movement, and cast your bait or lure ahead of its path, far enough away not to spook it with the splash. Work jigs in short, jerky hops with pauses. Raise the rod sharply to set the hook, and hold it high as the line screams off the reel to avoid chafing it against the shallow bottom. Bonefish can run over 100 yards before you can slow them down.
Two-foot sharks, sometimes much larger, are common sights on the fiats. They normally pose little threat and they’re good light-tackle quarry and eating. Notice their presence; beware that when you’re wading, sharks think you’re only as big as your toes. If you attract a crowd of sharks during a fish battle, back to the shore or to your dinghy before you bring the hooked fish around your feet. If the sharks insist, it’s better to leave ’em your catch, not your foot.
The term “flats” also applies to tropical, subtropical, and temperate areas with soft, mucky bottoms of mud, sand, or sea grass that are unsuitable for wading and sight fishing due to murky water. These features characterize many estuarine systems along continental shorelines. Thanks to the shallow draft of dinghies, however, you can effectively blind-fish these areas with a bucktail or other lure while drifting or anchored. Even in murky conditions, your targets may make ripples and swirls, or they may stick a fin or a tail out of the water. In this situation, you can plop your lure a foot from their heads without spooking them.
Flats are sometimes bordered by channels or drop-offs leading to deeper lagoon or bay waters where there may be coral, grass beds, oyster bars, or kelp. These edges are productive for many species, as are some of the nearby habitats beyond. Work these areas with lures or bait while wading, anchored, drifting, or trolling, and expect epic catches. Here are some techniques that apply to these edges, starting in shallow waters and moving on to greater depths.
Intermediate Depths Near Shore
Coral-reef shallows: Gain experience on fishing around coral by exploring these areas while trolling small spoons, lead heads with strip baits, soft plastic swirltails, or tiny swimming plugs on a couple of light spinning rods. These have good action at lower speeds, and they allow you to putt around and weave through the mixed coral and sandy areas. It’s easy to practice “drag and snag” fishing: the fish hit and either hook themselves or speed off, and you’re ready for the next strike. It’s possible to catch a dozen species in an afternoon. A word of caution about reef fish: barracuda, some jacks, grunts, and other species, especially big ones, are toxic and can induce ciguatera poisoning if eaten. Check local knowledge before you indulge.
Channels: Deep, winding grooves in tidal seawater flows are typical of tropical-island bays and lagoons and continental estuarine systems. These conduits that drain and fill vast shallow areas carry a tremendous volume of sea life. Predictably, they’re used as highways by predators. You can troll or drift, but anchoring in selected areas and working your lures or baits is most effective because the fish are already in motion. If you get in the right spot at the right time, you won’t need to cover ground to find fish. They’ll find you.
Concentrate your efforts at the end of the outgoing tide, at slack low, and at the beginning of the incoming tide. This is when fish are off the fiats and in the channels. Anchor downstream of channel entrances and bends, near a rock pile or a deep hole. Cast upstream, at a 45-degree angle to the current, a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce Millie’s bucktail tipped with natural bait or a plastic swirl-tail. Let it sink as it swings down past you, and begin retrieving when it’s 45 degrees downstream. Vary your retrieve from slow and steady to fast and erratic. Do the same thing with a Captain Brown’s Hookup Jig baited with a shrimp or a strip; reel in slowly and steadily along the bottom. Work plugs and spoons in the same manner. Cast surface and swimming plugs to work the top and middle depths, particularly if you spot surface activity.
Mangrove creeks, rivers, and estuarine waterways: You can fish in these vast systems with the same anchoring technique described above. However, trolling various swimming plugs and plastic-baited lead heads is more productive; it also allows you to relax and explore. If you spot an intriguing shoreline feature, ease over, cut the engine, and anchor or drift while casting lures and baits right up against the shore and under overhangs. Keep one rod with a surface plug ready for throwing in case of any surface activity.
We spent many wonderful afternoons taking jungle cruises through the mangrove creeks of the Rio Coto Colorado, near Golfito in Costa Rica. While we leisurely caught snook, dog snappers, sierra mackerel, and jacks, we had plenty of time to kick back under the towering tropical forest and enjoy the parrots, the iguanas, the monkeys, and the crocodiles.
Bays, lagoons, and lakes: In relatively shallow water, say 3 to 10 feet, trolling or drifting helps to cover ground and to locate such productive areas as rich grass beds or rocky ledges, reefs, and isolated coral heads. Cast your bucktail into any potholes, drop-offs, or edge habitats, let it sink, then retrieve it. Sometimes you can get more strikes by returning to an area that earlier produced a fish.
Farther from the shallows, drift and deep-jig for bottom fish, troll deep with a downrigger, or troll surface presentations near signs of activity such as diving birds. A light line with delicate offerings on a small spinning tackle and the great mobility of a dinghy are a highly effective combination in these situations.
Offshore Dinghy Specialties
The dinghy allows you to head offshore and use the same techniques that apply to your big boat: deep and surface trolling, drifting, kite fishing, downrigging, and so on. Moreover, thanks to its speed – if you have a motor – your dinghy opens the door to a whole new set of techniques.
High-speed trolling: To do this, your dinghy needs to reach speeds of at least 8 to 12 knots. At such speeds, use the highly effective chrome heads for big wahoo and other species. A quick daybreak or dusk trolling expedition along the outer reef slope or any vertical wall can produce beautiful steaks for the grill.
Surf fishing: Predators like to hunt in such turbulent conditions as surf breaking over obstructions or against shorelines. Safely maneuver your dinghy into position. Then cast heavy lures with your medium spinning tackle along the breakers, not across them, and aim at land, an islet, a reef, or rocks. Sometimes you can safely anchor in surf, but it’s safer to stay mobile so that you can escape if large swells threaten. This is heady stuff, an experience you won’t forget. Trolling outside breaking waves can be productive – and wet. Just don’t take chances and get too close to the breakers.
Passing surface schools: This is ad hoc fishing, fishing when the opportunity arises. This means that you should always be ready to hop into your dinghy. Say you’re anchored near a steep ocean drop-off and you’re reading. Suddenly, you sense something. You look up from your novel and you see a bird frenzy over a school of fish just a few hundred yards away. Your dinghy is ready and the rods are in their holders. You jump in, blast over, and nail a beauty for afternoon sushi.
To catch large yellowfins in a mixed school of tuna, employ the same surface plug used for surf fishing, maneuver near the school, cast right under the birds, and retrieve rapidly with lots of violent pops.
Bait showers: We’ve kept this for last because bait showers are the most spectacular fishing events ever. In such a shower, you’ll see hundreds of silvery bait fish greyhounding and skittering out of the sea as they are hotly pursued by such voracious predators as sailfish, monster tuna, large mackerel, jacks, and others. The bait species are usually ballyhoo or houndfish, but sometimes even schools of dorado will fall prey to blue marlin and large wahoo. Bait showers that occur outside the reef are ephemeral, but those that occur in 20 feet or less are more sustained and fishable. Many anchorages feature this activity in the early morning and late afternoon, and showers are often marked by swooping frigate birds trying to snag airborne ballyhoo on the fly.
To fish during a bait shower, set up two 20-pound spinning rods. Bait one rod with a ballyhoo, a flying fish, or strip bait and the other with a large surface plug. Fish near the activity, not on top of it. Carefully scan patches of ripples caused by frightened schools. These ripples are a sign that a shower is about to start. When it does start, head onto an interception course at full throttle, stop on arrival, wing your plug into the middle of the melee, and start retrieving. If you spot a predator, cast 10 feet in front of it and start working it. If a sailfish grabs your bait, open the bail and drop back. With the surface plug, regardless of species, dip the tip of the rod on the strike, then wind in and set the hook. These surface strikes are violently spectacular, and you’ll be in for a wild battle on your light gear. Yes, fishing from your dinghy is great fun!
Scott and Wendy Bannerot left Florida in 1995 after careers in biological consulting and commercial fishing. They are cruising in the South Pacific aboard Elan, their 41 foot aluminum sloop. International Marine will publish their book, The Cruiser’s Handbook to Fishing, early next year.