Small Boats, Big Water

With proper preparation and taking all precautions into account, it is possible to have a successful day of offshore fishing in a smaller vessel. Boats ranging from 17 to 23-feet, if prepared correctly, have what it takes to get the job done.

Current market trends in the offshore fishing industry seem to dictate that 30-40-foot center console boats with multiple outboards might be the only way to get the job done fishing offshore. The idea that a smaller vessel could be used for offshore fishing almost seems insane, but when you take a closer look at some of the features, small boats possess the advantages are clear.

Unlike larger vessels, smaller boats can respond much quicker to the motion of the seas; the smaller hull is advantageous in large swells. The responsiveness of a small boat is an element of safety that much larger hulls lose with every additional foot. In rough seas, small boats seem to ride on top of heavy seas like a paper boat in a storm drain, while larger vessels seem to struggle with much resistance and drag due to their overwhelming size and weight.

Smaller vessels are wallet-friendly. Insurance, storage, maintenance, and fuel costs on a 30-foot center-console are going to be significantly higher than that of a 23-footer. While a boat with twin or trip 200s will get you out to the fishing grounds much faster, the price of fuel will easily set you back hundreds of dollars. A 150-horsepower motor on a 23-foot boat will run offshore and troll all day without costing you a car payment. Trailering your rig is another advantage for anglers with smaller vessels, less wear and tear on your vehicle means more trips to new fishing spots. A smaller vessel will also give you access to more water due to how many public boat ramps accommodate boats of a smaller size. Boat ramp options will be plentiful; all you have to do is find them.

The U.S. Coast Guard has little authority when telling boaters where they can and cannot go offshore, and with that knowledge, anglers must exercise strong common sense. You will be your first responder. The seriousness of that cannot go overstated. Understanding when to go and when not to go is one of the most significant elements of safety when fishing a smaller vessel offshore. Recognizing conditions and knowing what available weather services are saying about how conditions will change is paramount to the safety of small vessel offshore fishing. Coast Guard rescue divers have too many tales to tell about unfortunate anglers. If they had only known their boat, had the right equipment, and prepared accordingly, there would be fewer tales to tell. There is safety in numbers. Many weekend warriors who like to go offshore like to do it alone, but if possible, travel with another boat. There will be more help if something goes wrong, and now you essentially have two motors for your fishing party.

Not all boats are created equal. Most 17-23 foot boats are all pretty similar in design when choosing something to run around the flats or in a bay, but when selecting a vessel for offshore, “hull” is the word. Your hull selection will mostly determine your time and experience on the open water. Modified vee and deep vee hulls are the top choices for smaller boats, making them an optimum selection for getting on plane in big water. A deep-vee hull will cut through chop, offering a stable ride to the fishing grounds.

Fuel capacity and consumption, always on the minds of offshore anglers. While only having small built-in tanks or enough space for portable tanks, selecting a motor with the appropriate amount of horsepower is imperative for running offshore and returning with enough fuel safely.

A construction feature often overlooked in boat manufacturing is flotation. This building feature is critical to the safety of offshore boats. Flotation is not the number of life preservers and throwables stored onboard, but how much foam is in the construction of the vessel. When selecting a boat 23 feet or less intended for offshore, the boat should be filled with foam. It is an issue of safety; water can force air out of a hull or other parts of the boat, but water cannot force air out of foam, making these craft far less likely to sink and gives anglers a better chance at survival should the worst scenarios manifest themselves.

Scuppers on offshore vessels are critical to the fast removal of water. Ocean spray that accumulates onboard must be managed, or things could quickly get out of hand. Small boats can get into trouble fast once enough water gets in, choosing critical features like a full transom will help your vessel combat taking on too much water.

Having the right motor, hull, and boat construction can only get angler so far when it comes to being safe and successful fishing offshore, add the right equipment, and give yourself peace of mind. Prepared below is a list of recommended equipment, essential to the safety and success of a small boat offshore fishing trip.

  • VHF Radio – The Coast Guard monitors channel 16 nearly everywhere around the U.S., and its choppers can find direction from VHF signals. Cell phones are great for back up but are no substitute for VHF.
  • Radio Antenna – If making regular trips offshore, it is best to invest in an antenna that can increase the range of your VHF. Foldable 8-foot whip antennas are very popular for this type of application.
  • GPS Plotter/Sounder – Important for fishing but most important for offshore navigation. A single unit that can display a chart plotter and sounder at the same time is the preferred choice.
    Compass – A good compass paired with an up to date nautical chart will keep you headed in the right direction if your GPS fails.
  • Extra Battery – With space and weight being of critical importance, keeping a compact, high-quality spare battery, like a motorcycle battery, for example, has enough power to run your lights and electronics for hours should you end up in an emergency.
  • EPIRB – A small unit is all you need. In case of a real emergency, these homing devices can send out signals on frequencies monitored for distress calls.
  • Life Vests – Boating without them is illegal, but to go offshore without them would be insane. Are you worried about limited space? Inflatable life vests are available in different sizes at different price points. Inflatable life vests take just moments to deploy by simply pulling on a chord.
  • Emergency Kit – Flares, a flare gun, waterproof strobe lights, a good flashlight, and extra sunscreen are a few must-have items for any emergency kit on board an offshore vessel.
  • Emergency Food and Water – The recommendation for food and water is that at least a half-gallon of drinkable water be onboard for emergency purposes as well as a small food store, about enough for a day or two. Granola, beef jerky, and canned meat are a few of the recommend emergency onboard food items.
    Anchor and lots of Rope – Even if you don’t intend to anchor while fishing having a quality anchor onboard might become invaluable. Plenty of heavy rope in case you find yourself in need of a tow.
  • Sea Anchor – Available space might prove this item challenging to fit, but the odds for rescue are better in your favor if you are not adrift. A good anchor tied off to the bow will help keep the boat pointed into the waves in rough seas, increasing your survival chances by minimizing the amount of water the boat takes on.

Keeping all the things covered here in mind, the potential of small craft offshore fishing is undeniable and completely attainable. Being adequately prepared and using the upmost common sense, small boats are capable of producing successful days of offshore fishing.

Be safe.