Offshore Fishing

Ever wondered why some offshore boat anglers catch more quality fish than others? The main key to success lies with knowledge, experience, and of course - plenty of practice!! Like anything, developing good knowledge and habits earlier on - makes better practice. This article will give you a brief heads up on offshore fishing techniques - including rigs, technology and much more.

Offshore Fishing Methods

Before you embark on your much anticipated offshore fishing trip, it’s always a good idea to decide on your target species. Usually one or two species is ample, then organise your boat, fishing gear, rigs and bait for your chosen targets. Good anglers know that fishing requires patience. It doesn’t matter whether you’re dropping a line at anchor or trolling a lure behind a boat - patience is the key. If the conditions are right, fish will eventually come, and it may take an hour or more before a bite encourages your hope. If nothing is happening after one or two hours; move to another patch of fishing ground, try another style of fishing, or target another species of fish. It’s all up to you!

There are a number of methods or techniques of offshore fishing and they are: bottom fishing, drift fishing, spinning, trolling, and floating baits.

Bottom Fishing

Bottom fishing, also known as ‘bottom bashing’, is typically done at anchor. It involves using a rig made up of one or more hooks and a sinker in a paternoster setup. The paternoster rig is primarily used for rough and reefy bottom fishing and helps reduce snagging. The weight of the sinker is determined by the strength of the current, whereby a heavier sinker is used for strong currents. The main aim for this style of fishing is to deliver the bait near the bottom of the ocean floor targeting bottom dwellers such as snapper and trevally. Bouncing the sinker off the bottom sea bed causes some disturbance - releasing food into the water which encourages smaller fish first, and then larger predatory fish.

Drift Fishing

Drift fishing involves using the boat to drift across a potential fishing ground under the influence of the wind and ocean currents. The beneficial advantage over bottom fishing is that the boat is allowed to drift over a larger area. The winds and current cannot be too strong otherwise the line will be buoyed up by the water resistance and lift above the intended target zone. Therefore, mild weather and sea conditions are the most favourable, as it allows the boat to drift slowly. The same paternoster setup using a sinker and trace below a single or double hook can be effectively used for drift fishing.


This popular technique involves casting a bait or lure, then retrieving it back in a way that entices the fish to attack. This style is intended for surface roaming pelagics such as mackerel, cobia and tuna. A longer boat rod equipped with a suitable baitcaster (or overhead) reel is the preferred option for spinning. Even surf rods with sidecast reels can be effective, albeit harder to stow.

When surface fish are not interested in dead baits wavering in the current, it may be time to use a lure. Using lures on a fast spinning outfit can be very beneficial especially when targeting fish species like Spanish mackerel.


Use a lure that is the same size as the bait fish for improved results.


Trolling involves towing a bait or lure behind a moving boat. Outriggers are often used for big game fishing, although trolling with a rod and reel in a suitable harness is sufficient for most light to medium tackle species. Baits such as garfish, mullet and even pilchards are a popular choice in the northerly waters when targeting fish like mackerel, wahoo and sailfish. When trolling with bait, it shouldn’t be allowed to spin because it will cause line twist and the unnaturally spinning bait may not yield a strike. Therefore, proper bait rigging can be quite an art, and anglers may want to use a lead headed trolling rig to act as a keel - else just use a lure.

During a strike, the fish may be coming at speed and perpendicular to your direction. Once hooked, it is wise to let the fish have some line otherwise you may cause the fish to break off. This is where the drag mechanism can be utilized to prevent the line stretching too much and subsequently breaking. The trolling technique requires the boat to be at the right speed. Generally, baits can be trolled between 4 knots (around 8kms per hour) and 6 knots (around 12kms per hour). Lures can be trolled according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.


When targeting Spanish mackerel, trolling the lure or bait deeper down can rewarding. By varying the speed up and down, you may find a strike occurring when you slow down, which will allow the bait or lure to go deeper in the water column.

Floating Baits

This technique involves fishing at anchor and presenting baits in mid-water in around light to medium current. The moderate pressure from the current causes the line and subsequently the bait to sit just above the bottom. Anglers can control the depth of the bait by varying the sinker’s weight and position. Since fish frequently congregate at certain depths, it is important to be at the correct depth for optimal results.


Keep a large range of lead sinkers on hand for such occasions. They come in plenty of sizes, weights and types including: snapper lead, teardrop, barrel, bean, ball and star.

Reading the Water

When reading the inshore waters, it’s much easier to recognise the spots where fish may congregate because you can visually see features like surf gutters, shallow reefs and sandbars. However; reading the open and often deep offshore waters can be a lot harder!! You need a combination of intuition and guesswork, and an adequate knowledge of the sea, weather and atmospheric conditions. Without touching on boating safety reasons, these conditions can all have an influence on fish presence and behavior.

It’s usually a good sequence of events that creates superb offshore fishing. Similar to the butterfly effect which metaphors the ‘turbulence from a butterfly’, leading to a chain of events that alters the course of a cyclone; certain conditions can come together to create top fishing. There are many conditions to consider too; such as light conditions, wind and barometric pressure, and water conditions such as clarity, turbulence, temperature and oxygen content. A slight to moderate degree of wind and wave action can be beneficial for offshore fishing because the water turbulence will help dislodge food from any bottom dwelling reefs and rock ledges. This food, which is often made up of small bait fish and juvenile crustaceans, are influenced by the wind and currents into dense concentrations. Surface feeding schools such as striped tuna and frigate mackerel are encouraged by this fresh smorgasbord on offer, which then encourages bigger predatory fish such as yellowfin tuna, marlin and shark to show.
The associated whitewater and wind chop that comes hand in hand with these conditions allow fish to move freely with a reduced risk from predators. These conditions also encourage higher than normal levels of oxygen to be absorbed from the atmosphere. Many surface feeding fish (pelagic) such as mackerel, yellowtail kingfish and marlin are constantly on the move, therefore needing oxygen rich water to keep up with their high energy levels and metabolic rate. Some fish such as snapper and mulloway have a slower metabolic rate and often browse, rest or drift with the moving water - quite often close to cover, and where they feel most comfortable.

The water colour can determine the temperature of the water, where warm waters are indicated by a rich blue colour and colder waters revealing a greenish tinge. Most fish species tend to feed under the cover of darkness and even half light. Some species can be attracted by the half light of dawn and dusk where they will move from the dark deep into shallower waters. Pelagic fish on the other hand such as tuna and marlin do not seem affected by the light and can be targeted in the bright light of day.

Game Fishing

Game fishing is becoming increasingly popular, where around thirty years ago, the sport was mainly conducted from large professional charter boats. These days, more and more people are keen to try their hand at catching the ‘big one’, if it be from a charter boat or private craft. There are many popular locations around Australia where game fishing is known to be good. Some of these include the waters off: Rottnest and Exmouth in Western Australia, Cairns in Queensland, Bermagui and Port Stephens in New South Wales, Port Fairy in Victoria, St. Helens in Tasmania, and Port MacDonnell in South Australia.

Large Game Fish

The larger species are likely to be where there‘s warm, blue ocean currents flowing southwards from the tropics. Generally, the more warm current lines and the bluer the water - the better! For example, the waters off St. Helens (also known as the ‘game fishing capital of Tasmania’) provide world class game fishing opportunities as summer approaches. During this time, oxygen rich currents form the north clashes with the cold nutrient rich currents from the south. The surface temperature of the sea rises, and eddy and current lines are formed. This phenomenon creates ideal conditions for pelagic game fish like sailfish, yellowfin tuna and striped marlin to hunt and feed.

Reef Fishing

A lot of people may think offshore fishing involves heading way out in the deep blue targeting big game fish such as marlin or sailfish. Now this is not always the case. There are plenty of offshore fishing opportunities over inshore and offshore reefs, including headland and island areas. Generally speaking, targeting fish in these areas:
  • cost less to catch

  • need less sophisticated equipment

  • can be pursued with smaller offshore boats

  • provide great fishing enjoyment

  • provide quality food for the table
Some of the fish species that can be targeted include snapper, emperor, yellowtail kingfish, cobia, tailor, mackerel, and mulloway. When targeting bottom dwelling species around offshore reefs, there’s still opportunities to pursue the occasional tuna, queenfish, trevally, snook and barracouta that room these parts.

Baitcaster Fishing Reels

Using a baitcasting reel (also known as an overcast, game fishing or trolling reel) is definitely not a first-timers reel nor is it for the faint hearted. Baitcaster reels take some considerable time to get used to, especially since they are quite hard to cast with. These reels are designed for ocean fishing, where; strength, huge line capacity, heavy-duty braking, and an efficient heat dissipating drag system is pivotal. There are smaller models available for light-weight use; however these reels are often used with heavy tackle - targeting big game fish such as marlin.

Baitcaster reels offer pinpoint accuracy because you control the cast by placing your thumb on the line. The thumb is also needed to control the speed of the line during casting. It takes practise to master how much thumb pressure to place, because if you don’t use enough (or forget altogether), the reel spins faster than the line moves through the guides, and thus - creating a mess of the line.


Targeting powerful pelagic fish like mackerel, sailfish and marlin - you need to be familiar with your reel’s drag mechanism. The object of drag is to allow the spool to slip before the line snaps. As the spool slips, the fighting fish has been allowed more line. To prevent the line stretching and possibly breaking, the drag works in conjunction with the rod which does its job by absorbing the shock from the line.


It is sometimes recommended to set the drag mechanism on the reel to approximately one third of the breaking strain of the line.

Game Fishing Rods

Game fishing rods, also known as baitcaster or sportfishing rods, are designed to handle maximum stress and to apply maximum leverage for powerful game fish. They are typically fast tapered, with a fairly stiff tip, and powerful thick butts. They incorporate good quality guides or rollers with some having a combination of both. Game fishing rods often accommodate overhead reels as this is usually the reel of choice. These rods can be classified according to their suitable line class as outlined below:
  • Light game rods using a 6 to 15kg line class are generally suited for small to medium game and sport fishing species such as mackerel and yellowtail kingfish.

  • Medium game rods using 15 to 24kg line class are designed to handle many of the large offshore species such as marlin, tuna and sharks.

  • Heavy game rods using 36kgs plus line class are often used from a special game chair. Anglers using these chairs are able to utilise leg strength to handle and control huge powerful fish.

Fishing Line

It is ideal to choose a line that is extremely durable, quite fine in core diameter and has low stretch. Elasticity can be a problem for offshore anglers - especially when there is a lot of line out, and a big fish is on the end of it. Braided fishing lines are predominantly the line of choice for game anglers. The advantage of using braided line as opposed to monofilament is twofold. Braided line has very little elasticity so you are able to feel every bite and striking your rod has an instant effect. Braided line also has a smaller cross sectional area from roughly a third to half that of mono - allowing you to spool more line onto your reel. With reduced elasticity, fish such as marlin can be subdued much quicker - which is very important if the fish is to be released. Braided polyethylene gel-spun fishing lines are much stronger than comparable diameter lines. They offer low stretch and high sensitivity which makes them ideal when bottom fishing in deep water. Some even change line colour every 10 metres which assists the angler reach a designated depth.


There is often a fascination to use heavy lines with more than 20 kilo plus breaking strains - just in case that record breaking fish comes along! Anglers that use light lines quite often outperform those using heavier lines. As a general rule - use approximately 10kg line to start with and once you have mastered this, move down to 6-8kgs.


When deciding on bait - make sure you select the freshest quality bait possible. You hand select baits individually or purchase them in vaccum sealed bags. Since there are countless types of bait available, choosing the right types for your specified target is a must. During certain occasions, a particular fish species will favour one bait type above all others. During other times, the same fish species will favour another bait type. It is therefore important to be prepared to present different baits at different times of the day.

Fish are able to swallow foods that are quite large in relation to their own size. Studies have revealed that when a bait of a certain size is presented to a school of fish of the same species but with varying sizes, the fish that often takes the bait, is the one that can swallow it whole. This leads to the simple conclusion - if you want to hunt bigger fish - use bigger baits! For comparison, heavy tackle game charters may use tuna or queenfish baits weighing up to 8kg to target a large 500kg marlin. Smaller fish baits of up to 2kgs such as mullet, garfish, wolf herring and hairtail can be used to target fish such as mahi mahi, Spanish mackerel and sailfish.


Berley is used in all forms of offshore fishing, including targeting pelagics roaming near the surface to inciting sleepy bottom dwellers near rock and reef structures. Offshore berley can be made from pieces of fish flesh complimented with various fish oils, and mixed with a cereal product such as bread or stock-food pellets to make it last longer. You can use a berley bomb or simply toss some over the side a little at a time. One method and often used in game fishing is to cut small cubes of tuna and dropping them into the ocean from a drifting boat. Called ‘cubing’, this technique is used to target species such as yellowfin tuna, where they will follow the long trail of cubes back to the boat.

There are two major things to consider when using berley and that is to use the right type and only just enough without feeding the fish. A steady but small constant stream is so much better than dropping irregular handfuls. Using berley in a steady stream for one hour can weigh the same benefits as fishing without berley for three hours - fish just love it!!


There are two main types that are commonly trolled behind a boat and they include: skirted trolling lures and minnow lures. Skirted trolling lures often have a hard head made from plastic, resin or metal and typically two skirts which are attached to the head. Skirts come in a multitude of colours and look similar to an octopus or squid. However, when the skirted trolling lure is in action, the water pressure closes the skirts in - making it look like the sides of a fish. Skirted trolling lures can be used when targeting medium sport fish like mackerel to large game fish such as marlin. Minnow lures are very effective for a wide variety of fish species. Minnows come in many sizes and types including: sinking divers, floating divers, floating deep divers, neutral buoyancy, and bibless minnows. To be effective, it is very important that a minnow lure swims correctly and in a straight line. Minnow lures can be used when targeting fish such as bonito, tuna, yellowtail kingfish, wahoo, and mackerel.

Depth Sounders

Depth sounders (also known as fish finders and echo sounders) are electronic units that are used to determine the water depth and bottom conditions, and the location of fish schools and individual fish targets. They have come a long way from the days when they were primarily used to determine depth by printing on graphing paper. Today, the one unit can incorporate colour LCD screens, GPS with maps and chart plotting capability, dual frequencies (200/50 kHz), high wattage output, and even fish radar and electronic compass.

How they Work

When the transducer sends out a sound wave (frequency) through the water, it is reflected by objects in the water. The harder the object - the stronger the echo will return, and therefore, it will show up darker on the display. For example, if you are fishing over a hard rocky bottom, the screen will show the bottom contour in a dark colour. In some instances, it will even display vegetation that is directly above the sea bed. When the sound wave heads towards a fish, it’s the air bladder of the fish that returns the echo back to the fish finder. Larger fish will have larger air bladders and therefore, return stronger echo signals. Bait fish usually show up on the display as a ball because the echo is being returned on their collective air bladders. The air bladder on a single bait fish is not significant enough to return an echo, but as a school, their air bladders can be picked up.


Using low frequencies (50 kHz) provide a larger cone angle than the higher frequencies and are useful for deepwater fishing. Depth sounders won't be fully effective unless you have a well-designed transducer to match it. A good quality transducer should work in all water conditions, and boat speeds of up to 100kph.

Offshore Boating Safety

Offshore Boating safety is the most important aspect to consider and a number of articles could be dedicated to this subject alone. You will most likely learn about offshore boating safety when you go for your recreational boating licence. There are many boating safety courses available that provide theoretical and practical offshore safety skills. Information can also be sought from government websites, and the boating and safety equipment industry.

Boating Rules and Regulations

Recreational boating safety regulations differ for each state and territory. For safety information relevant to your home state or territory please refer to the information provided by your local marine authority.

Boats for Offshore

Not all boats are designed for offshore environments. If you plan to encounter moderate to rough boating conditions, then you will most definitely require a dedicated offshore boat and the role played by experience, local knowledge and boating weather warnings becomes more critical. Generally speaking, the larger, deeper model boats with cabin protection should handle the open ocean more competently and thus, these boats are more likely to be geared towards offshore fishing.

Be Weather Wise

It’s important to always check local weather conditions the day before and just before departure. You can obtain up to date weather information through television, radio, internet and telephone broadcasts. If you notice darkening clouds, rough changing winds, or sudden drops in temperature, play it safe by getting off the water.

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Created: August 2008
Revised: February 2015
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