Preparing to Venture Offshore…On Your Own!

Preparing to Venture Offshore…On Your Own!
Single-stand platforms within short runs of the beach hold an array of gamefish for small-boat fishermen.
I speak to many people daily at the dock as the boats return from a day of fishing. Many of the conversations revolve around a common theme I want to take my boat offshore. What do I need equipment-wise and what can I catch in close?

Most of the people are wanting to venture out and begin to learn, with a boat that is usually from 21 to 24 feet in length. Many are larger bay boats. Sound familiar?

My first boat that I ever used offshore was an early-80s 21 Mako. It was affordable to operate and I could write volumes about the miles I covered and the things I learned running that boat. For some people the interest in learning offshore fishing starts aboard a charter boat like mine. For others it is aboard the typical and affordable single-engine center console.

My answers vary and touch on multiple subjects depending the person I'm speaking with, but it usually follows a few questions of my own. First and foremost I'll ask about the boat. I'm not one of the guys who look down on someone venturing offshore with one motor but I do like to stress that once you get past that jetty there is a fine line between being a predator or becoming part of the food chain. The boat is that fine line. Regardless of what you catch, the ability to do it and return safely has to be the top priority. Take precautions with your equipment.
One of my pet peeves is hearing somebody say, "I'm not going out very far and I have a cell phone; I don't need anything else."

I know what happens out there. You visit the first platform and then another, you're having fun and catching fish, pretty soon you end up further offshore than you planned. Cell phone service is sketchy at best beyond a few miles from the beach, and in general, cellular and Nextel communication is a poor substitute for a quality VHF marine radio.

Your VHF can be an instant link to the Coast Guard and also every fisherman and boat in your vicinity. Nothing can rival its usefulness when time becomes a factor in getting out a call for help. Even handheld VHF radios work fairly well plus, they can be taken with you in the event you have to get in the water. Now I'm not suggesting that your phone can't be useful if and when service is available, but reliable communication in time of real need deserves more than that one option. Always have a backup plan.

Your PFDs are another topic, and here again it pays to spend a few dollars more. Typical ski-style jackets may be comfortable but offer little in their ability to perform in offshore survival situations - especially to someone who may be injured or unconscious.

While discussing PFDs let's talk throw-able lifesaving devices. Do you really want to trust your life or the life of a loved one to a $5 boat seat cushion? A quality twenty-four inch life ring is relatively inexpensive and not that difficult to store onboard, not to mention a lot easier to throw in an emergency.

Next up are signaling devices flares, horns, etc. This is another area where you should not make your selections simply to satisfy the minimum requirements of the regulations. Think and double-think your safety equipment; it may well be your last line of defense against the unthinkable.

One last item that I notice many of these boats are missing is a quality dash-mounted compass. Again, it's about having an option. I can personally attest to having to navigate home on compass alone due to a complete electrical failure in my console that took out my GPS system. It's not always about the equipment you have on board; it may be an outside issue that causes you to lose it, and that's where the backup plans come into play.

The best advice I can give when it comes to safety equipment, marine electronics, fishing gear, or any item that you deem necessary for a day on the water (my personal rule) is - Carry two of everything. This has saved the day for me on more occasions than I care to count.

Once you're comfortable with the readiness of your boat; you're ready to fish. Make your first trips short, working the beachfront or the few oil rigs within sight of the beach. These rigs can hold lots of king mackerel, redfish and sharks when the weather and water conditions are favorable. Check out various publications available for locations of natural bottom structure such as East Bank out of Freeport or the string of live bottom between Packery Channel and Port Mansfield. These areas are great for learning how to work a piece of bottom and teaching you how fish can hang to the up-current or down-current side on a given day. Look for bait working the surface and make varying approaches until you figure out how to fish it without pushing the fish down.

As you are fishing, refer back continuously to that compass on the dash and learn to use it, not just occasionally, but make yourself use it and learn it with confidence. Do this, and when for whatever reason the day comes that you lose your GPS capability, I hope my advise here helps you make it back to port safe and sound.

There is an array of opportunity and valuable lessons to be learned within sight of the beach as you build the experience and confidence to take that first run over the horizon. Always remember that thin line I told you about, the one that stands between you and being at the mercy of the Gulf of Mexico.