By Matt Winter
Published in Tideline magazine, May/June 2013 edition
Hungry for an adventure like no other?
Pick a night in the middle of a long stretch of calm weather, grab your gutsiest friends, take all the necessary precautions and head out for an offshore overnighter.
Sound crazy? Not so. Seasoned offshore crews do it all the time. They know that many types of fish bite better at night and that many others feed most aggressively at first light, when other offshore crews are just leaving the docks to start a two-hour run to the fishing grounds.
They know they’ll see things few other people will ever get to see. Above them, a starry sky clearer and brighter than any seen from land. Below them, otherworldly creatures drawn up from the deep gather under their boat’s lights. Squid and tiny mackerel by the thousands dart through the eerie orb of light at the stern. Flying fish and baby sailfish linger boatside. Huge, dark shapes cruise through the edges of the light, on the hunt. Big sharks, swordfish, mackerel and tuna.
There’s no telling what you might encounter on an offshore overnighter. The open ocean is a true wilderness, and it’s wilder still at night.
“I’ve had whales come up to the boat at night,” said Paul Godbout, a longtime ocean angler who runs Sellsfish Premium Seafood in Summerville. “A 60-foot sperm whale ran his head straight up out of the water one night about 25 feet from the boat.
“Another time we had a 12-foot leatherback turtle come up next to the boat. … It’s quite the trip because you’ll see things you don’t normally see.”
And the fishing? It can be unbelievable.
“You beat the fleet,” Godbout said. “You’re done at 10 o’clock in the morning when everyone else is just getting out there.”
Overnight game plan
A common plan for offshore overnighters would be to head out to sea midday, troll for dolphin and billfish in the late afternoon, then either anchor up inshore of the ledge to bottom fish for snapper and grouper or spend the night further offshore, drifting deep baits for swordfish.
Most nighttime aficionados equip their boats with underwater-mounted LED lights to attract bait fish and the predators that feed on them. Most crews also bring along submersible light rigs such as the HydroGlow, which features a 48-inch long LED fluorescent tube.
Anglers using these lights can augment their bait stash throughout the night by scooping up flying fish with a dip net or by jigging for squid right next to the boat.
“Drop a cigar minnow over on a small hook, and a foot-long squid will grab it,” Godbout said. “Pull it up into the boat and drop it right into a bucket of water” so the live squid doesn’t squirt ink over everything.
Bottom dropping in 120 feet or so of water with cigar minnows and squid should produce red-hot snapper bites in the dark hours, with good catches of vermilion, mutton and mangrove snappers. Anglers will most likely tussle with giant red snapper, too, though federal regulations require those to be set free.
Grouper will bite at night, Godbout said, though fishing is better at last and first light.
The next morning, with fish boxes and bags filled with either swordfish or bottom fish, most crews will start trolling again at first light for tuna and wahoo.
“You want that predawn wahoo bite?” Godbout asks. “You’re putting lines in the water before the sun ever breaks the horizon. Mr. Wahoo is going to be all over your spread. He’s going to be there.
“Most of our really big wahoo were taken right in those predawn hours.
“Plus, right at daybreak, it’s blackfin city zig-zagging the ledge up around Georgetown Hole or the Southwest Banks.”
Blackfin, Godbout said, can even be enticed to bite in the darkness.
“You can chunk for blackfin tuna, with pieces of menhaden, out at Georgetown Hole. You’ll get them feeding right behind the boat at night.”
This mix of bottom fishing and trolling should be particularly productive in May and June. Grouper fishing reopened May 1 following a three-month spawning season closure, and the dolphin and billfish bite should be at its yearly peak.
Godbout recommends that anglers heading out for their first offshore overnighter spend the wee hours inshore of the ledge, about 35 or 40 miles from the jetties.
“I don’t like to anchor at the ledge, because it can get rather nasty out there at night,” he said. “You’re near the (Gulf) Stream, you get rips rolling through. It’s better to come inshore a few miles, say to 120 foot. It makes a huge difference in how the seas are. Besides, there’s so much you can catch in there, too.”
Night-fishing at this depth offers a spectacular and little-known bonus: red-hot king mackerel action.
“Before you attempt a swordfish trip, do an overnight mackerel trip in 120 foot,” Godbout said. “You will be amazed at how many king mackerel you catch, just under the lights using a live squid. We used to do 600 pounds a night on a commercial boat.
“King mackerel? I never fish for them during the day. If I want kings, I go out at night. One-hundred-and-twenty foot, live bottom, lots of good bait — drop baits over the side, just outside of the light, and you’ll pop kings all night long.”
Though tackle needs range greatly depending on the species being targeted, Godbout recommends a few tweaks for nighttime fishing.
First, beef up terminal tackle. There’s no need for light leaders. “At night, it doesn’t matter. They’re not wire-shy, they’re not looking for this stuff.”
Also, remember to bring plenty of Sabiki rigs to catch live bait attracted to the lights. “Tinker mackerel, also known as scads or bullet mackerel, show up in force. Sometimes the schools will have thousands.”
Gear and safety
Fishing at night 50 miles or so from shore can seem ill advised. But it can be done safely.
In fact, there’s one major safety upside to such an adventure: If anglers head out midday and come back the next morning, they’ll avoid many hours of night-time running. Buoys, floating debris and other vessels all pose serious hazards for offshore crews running at 25 knots or more in the dark.
Many of the basic safety precautions are the same as those needed for day-time trips offshore. But overnighters demand extra caution and some specialized gear:
- The weather ranks as the most important safety factor to consider when planning an offshore trip, Godbout said. Anglers should wait to try it until a long period of stable, calm weather before taking an overnight trip.
- Leave multiple float plans, and stick to them. “We let people know where we are going and when we’re due back,” Godbout said. “If we’re going to stay late, we relay it by satellite phone, or if we’re close enough, through TowBoat US.”
- Carry all necessary safety equipment, including offshore-rated PFDs, first-aid kits, extra VHF radios and distress radio beacons (EPIRB, PLB).
- Bring extra warm clothes. “It gets cold out there at night, especially if you’re in a big open center console, “ Godbout said. “Sleeping bags work well, too. And bring full rain gear — not just the top — in case a squall comes up, and they do in the stream in the summertime.”
- Stock up on glow sticks (also called chem lights or Cyalume). They’re cheap, handy at night and serve a vital safety role. Godbout requires everybody in his crew to wear a glow stick on a string around their neck. If they fall overboard, the crew can keep on eye on the light while the boat circles back around. “Head lamps are nice, but if you fall in the water, that’s what the chem lights are for: The water doesn’t put it out.”
- Develop, communicate and practice an emergency action plan. Know what to do if the boat strikes something while underway or if someone falls overboard at night.
- With extra lighting systems in play, night-time fishing can quickly draw down batteries. Pick the right lighting systems. Modern LED-based systems draw surprisingly little juice. With multiple-battery systems, isolate individual batteries so they can’t all be drained accidentally. If the motor or engines are off through the night, make sure to run them occasionally to recharge the batteries. Some crews also bring an extra battery, a marine-rated jump-box or even a small generator on an overnight trip.
- Stay awake, stay alert and stay sober. Situations can change quickly on the ocean at night, and other vessels can sometimes appear out of nowhere. Maintaining proper lookouts at night is critical. On overnighters, that means catching naps in shifts.“If we have a four-person crew, we do two and two,” Godbout said. “The two guys who are up keep each other awake.“And save the alcohol for the ride home. Mother Ocean will kill you very quickly.”
Above all, Godbout said, anglers should simply relax and enjoy the adventure.
“You know, it’s just really nice to take your time, maybe drink a cup of coffee while you’re setting out gear. On a dark night, you lay up on the bow and literally see space junk going by — you can see satellites, the space station going by. It’s really cool.”