Fishing Floating Objects
“Hey, what’s that“? Those three little words hold so much potential when spoken on a boat offshore. Either trolling or running, the sighting of an object, natural or man-made, can be a day maker. How many hours have we wished to find the proverbial “pallet” floating offshore on a slow day? Often when you do find some object, like a swamped boat full of personal items, you can’t help but ponder what happened to the people involved. I’ve had eerie feelings hoping for no bodies, as we prepared to whack whatever fish live under it now.
Luckily most objects are more normal such as a tree trunk, pallet, bucket, bamboo culm, towrope, chunk of net, palm frond, milk crate and so on.
Not all flotsam is created equal and you never know which one will hold fish. The key ingredient to an object’s worth is time. A brand new pallet thrown off a ship is not usually the answer, but a barnacle encrusted, bait-infested chunk of 2×4 can hold the mecca. Bait is the reason that predators gather. A five-gallon bucket can become the nucleus of an entire drifting mini-ecosystem. Various jacks and triggers collect and compete for a place in the shade. Small baitfish and crustaceans cling to these shelters if only safe in their minds.
The reason we get excited is simple, dolphin(dorado), tripletail and wahoo also like to find these floating buffets and can sometimes congregate in large numbers. This can also attract larger predators such as yellowfin tuna, blue and white marlin and sharks.
Enough build up, what do we do? I always preach “being ready” and I try hard to practice it. No matter what our target species is for the day, we keep two or three spinning rods rigged and ready to pitch at spontaneous fish we encounter. I keep more rigged and stashed if possible.
These are 20# class outfits with 12 to 15-foot 40# to 50# leaders. I bimini-twist the hi-vis main line to make a short double and then blood knot that to the clear leader. The blood knot when fully cinched allows me to trim the tags very close with nail clippers. This streamline knot will pass through the guides smoothly and there is no tag to catch when casting. The long leader serves several purposes. First, when the fish is near the boat and the many potential cut-offs, you have 50# line potentially touching and not 20#. This is much more forgiving on lower units and bow pulpits. The second reason comes into play when you are in the heat of bailing fish. We box the fish in a cooler or fish box and cut the leader and retie a hook. This system is for both safety and efficiency. We can cut and trim like this for an entire session without the leader becoming dysfunctional. When the organized chaos is over, we can then replace the leader. After the big battle, detwist your main-line by dragging it behind a moving boat with nothing on it to prevent future fish loss from twisty lines. I also keep a lighter 10# outfit rigged with a 20# fluorocarbon leader and light jig head for tripletail.
Another aspect of readiness that can pay off is to keep your old baits, like de-rigged ballyhoo, and pre-cut them into small chunks for chum. A zip-lock bag in the corner of a cooler is the quick go to if a dolphin were to swim up. I throw a few chunks first to hold the fish’s attention while I bait the spinner to catch him with the next chunk. Otherwise, the fish is often gone by the time you get ready, even if you’re “ready”. This chum is also an important part of fishing a floating object.
My recipe for fishing an object is as follows:
Keep your distance until you are ready for your attack. If I’m trolling, I will bring in all of the lines and secure the hooks. Clear the gunnels of rods as they will only be in your way if the object has fish. Make the area safe, because during unorganized chaos is when people get hurt. Yes it is more work, and yes it may all be for nothing, but if you don’t, you won’t capitalize on the opportunity if the fish are there. If you troll past it first, you may scatter the school and risk more pulled hooks from larger trolling baits compared to feeding them a small chunk.
Approach the object from down wind so that when you take it out of gear the boat does not drift into the object. Ease in quietly and not on top of it. Stop at a comfortable casting distance to start. Then throw a handful of your chum and watch.
Don’t immediately cast your bait as there are often jacks and triggers, which will gladly leave you “empty hooked” when the big dolphin swims out.
We use chum to distract the jacks in order to present bait to the dolphin or tripletail. Don’t be too hasty to declare it empty, sometimes the fish will move away on your approach and then come back a few minutes later. Don’t waste your whole day either, but judge the situation. Does the object have life growing on it, are baitfish hiding below?
Try sinking a bait down deep by free lining it. Let it drift down just like the chum did. Often it will get picked up once it goes out of sight.
Another tactic is to chin hook a ballyhoo and cast it beyond the object. Hold your rod tip high and skip it quickly across the water. This has caught countless dolphin and the bite is awesome. You must keep the rod high so that you can drop the rod tip on the bite and open the bail to feed the fish the whole bait.
Let’s assume the object you find has six nice tripletail lying on their side around it and five dolphin swimming about. I focus on catching the dolphin first, because it’s very unlikely that the tripletail will leave the object but sometimes the dolphin do. Now we always assume there may be wahoo down deeper , but rarely do you see them. We catch the tripletail second and the wahoo last.
The tripletail is a unique fish that loves to be next to an object or structure. They are predators, but often a bait must brush their lips to get a response. Or they will slowly follow a bait, but not chase it aggressively. If I have a “tail” following me I open the bail and let the bait fall. So often the “tail” will follow it downward and at some point grab it. I watch for the slow sink to pause and then reel down tight. A small strip of bait either on a small, sharp hook or a lightweight jighead should work. A jig or shrimp-like soft bait can be used too. Like many fish a tripletail can be voracious and dumb or turn down even their most favorite morsel, live shrimp. “Tails” offshore are more aggressive due to the competition with the jacks and triggers. Remember you can throw chum one direction to distract the triggers long enough to present to the tripletail. Tripletail are one of the best eating fish I’ve had so they are worth the effort. We keep a dip net onboard to net “tails” as their armor-like scales make them tricky to gaff. A five-gallon bucket will work as a scoop in a pinch.
Now that we’ve cleaned off the dolphin and tripletail, we can check to see if there are any wahoo hanging below. There are various ways to present a bait sub-surface where wahoo seem to prefer. We break out a trolling rod with braid on it and use an in-line trolling sinker.
I choose to use a 24 to 32 oz. trolling sinker in line with a 40-foot 200-pound mono leader behind it. To the mono leader we then attach the five-foot, number eight-wire bait leader. I always rig a few naked, chin-weighted ballyhoo with the hook set back for these wahoo. Often the wahoo are smaller, but sometimes they can be stacked up. Here is a video demonstrating how to rig this bait.
A three-inch drone spoon will work in a pinch as will diving plugs, but the hooks pull often and therefore are not my first choice. You can put a bait out long on the surface to get wahoo if they are thick or to clean up a few stray dolphin that may linger. Make passes that drag your deep line near the object. Vary the speed or depth if the first passes don’t connect. Letting more line out will increase the depth of the bait.
So don’t ignore any signs of floating debris. If you see three seabirds sitting in a row, go check and see if they are resting on a branch. High floating objects like balloons and Styrofoam have never meant much. They move across the surface too quickly, but hang a coil of rope on a derelict crab buoy and you may be in business. I’ve marked birds on the radar to find they were part of the “frenzy” taking place around one of these open-ocean oasis. Yellowfin and dolphin busting bait, tripletail huddling close and wahoo lurking below is the scene that dreams are made of.
If I think back on some of my most memorable catches, I find that a good portion of them were directly a result of finding something floating that was in clean water, held lots of bait and was the “center of the world” for those glorious hours.