Surely, shadowing other boats won’t help you win a popularity contest. Some may even say it’s rude. Fish are our last open access resource – you don’t own one until it’s in your boat and you have no chance of catching what’s lies dead in someone else’s cooler. The best fishermen are as tight-lipped as fish off the bite.
Fish are often hard to find and even harder to catch. You may have good fish sense, top-shelf gear, and a wealth of knowledge on your pray and still come up short. What you lack, more than likely, is local knowledge. Which brings me to perhaps the least discussed of all fishing skills – picking a boat to shadow.
Two pitfalls of sleuthing another boat come immediately to mind. First, you may raise the ire of the skipper you stalk. I know of more than a few captains who have no problem running up to a boat that’s shadowing them and unloading a barrage of expletives. You may mutter back that it’s a free ocean, but such situations are too uncomfortable for me and I move on.
Second problem, you may pick the wrong boat. A number of years back I made it out to Possession Bar on Puget Sound on a late September afternoon. There was only one other boat out there and I saw him net a fish just as I arrived. He was fishing in what I believed to be the middle of nowhere.
Ten minutes later he netted another fish. I moved away from my drift in the “fishy” part of the bar and followed the guy from a respectful distance for the last hour of daylight. Neither of us caught another fish. After tying up at the marina I bumped into the guy in the parking lot and we began talking. He’d been coming up to Puget Sound from Oregon for five years each fall. He’d caught three fish over that time period and I’d seen two of them. He was ecstatic. I wasn’t.
I followed a boat to a rocky reef in Neah Bay one time only to find that the swell tended to break right where the guy fished. He did manage a few lingcod before a big surge nearly sunk him. The blind leading the blind.
Take Me to My Leader
Are there clear criteria for selection of an involuntary guide? If you don’t know the area, how can you tell if the guy you are about to shadow will lead you to pastures of plenty, the land of the skunk, or aground on a shoal? Maybe it takes one to know one, but close examination of captain, crew, and craft can narrow down the field.
First, pick a boat that looks fishy. Avoid following boats with Euro-styling, live-aboard space for more than one person per four feet of length, heart shaped beds with mirrors over them, more than two main engines, or tuck and roll upholstered sun decks – these aren’t fishing machines. Don’t follow trawlers of either kind – they’re too damned slow.
A boat worth following should be properly set up for the type of fishing being done, but doesn’t look exactly like a picture in a new boat brochure or something you saw at the sportsfishing boat show. We’re talking signs that the beast has seen some use and I like to see some very individual modifications.
Charter skippers spend a great deal of time on the water and often get followed doggedly. I know this from being both follower and followee. Bird-dogging a professional is tricky business – they can get nasty and for good reason. Their living depends on being able to out-fish you and everyone else. They guard their turf.
Recognizing the captain of the boat you intend to follow is of utmost value. If you’ve seen this guy unloading fish regularly at the dock, he’s a shoe-in. If you’ve heard the guy bragging loudly and nightly at the local pub, avoid him. The best fishermen are secretive.
Don’t follow boat with: A) Large numbers of men, women, and children hanging over every rail. B) Three or more beer swilling men who loudly proclaim “It doesn’t get any better than this”. C) A captain dressed like a model in the L.L. Bean catalog. D) Captain and crew dressed like Jack Nicklaus.
My first choice to follow is a man fishing alone; the second is a pair fishing when it is clear neither is instructing the other. You definitely don’t have to like someone in order to follow them and it is just about sure they won’t like you by the time you’re done.
The day of the week is an important consideration. Just about everybody and his brother is out there on a calm, sunny Saturday in July. Picking a pied piper is almost impossible because of the crowd.
On a hot summer weekend day, it’s possible that many serious fishermen are waiting out the heat, hiding at home or in dark movie theaters scared off by hour long waits at the boat launch. The heavy hitters will set forth on the water in the pre-dawn before most people smell the coffee or in the evening when most weekenders are sitting down to barbecued chicken.
If you spot a boat fishing on a drizzly Tuesday, the odds are decent that you are looking at someone who is very serious. Wednesdays are suspect because of doctors and dentists take the day off. Ideally the person you are following either makes a living out there or can’t make a living at all because of a tendency to fish instead of working.
The sounds emanating from a boat are important cues. If you hear a boom box blasting rap, fight for your right to fish a more peaceful location. If you hear the ceaseless chatter of the VHF, you might stick around, but beware, this guy could be listening to the radio because he’s as lost as you are. If you hear a cranky captain barking about all the boats around and how things aren’t the way they should be, follow him.
If, as you approach a boat, the captain spreads his arms in the “how big” gesture, turn around. If the captain waves amiably and goes back to fishing, he’s too nice a guy to have any real secrets. If the captain aboard the boat you are stalking gets edgier as you get closer, he’s your man. Don’t be a jerk and follow anybody so closely that you could genuinely impede their fishing, but, on the other hand, someone’s claustrophobia isn’t your problem.
Boat names are a tip-off. I am wary of boats named after something the captain’s wife had to forego, ie.”Martha’s Mink”, “Dotty’s Diamond”, “Kitty’s Condo” etc. Avoid all boats with the hooker in the name, ie. “The Happy Hooker”, and try to avoid boats with names that imply how much alcohol the captain consumes like “On the Rocks”.
If the boat is named after a fish, it is in neutral territory. If it is named after a bird it begins to be interesting. My favorite is a boat that is unnamed. In my imagination, the more spartan the craft, the more serious the captain.
Taking a close look at how the people aboard a boat handle their gear can be a tip off. Anytime you see someone holding a spinning reel upside down, it is a dead giveaway that you are in the company of the unenlightened. If I’m salmon mooching, I look for guys whose handles are rotating (direct drive) as they let the line out. Every top moocher I know favors direct drive.
Out of courtesy, I seldom follow anyone like a puppy dog. I watch them closely, note where they go, then check things out when they aren’t there. Rather than being a shadow, I take note and learn from afar.
It’s important to be respectful. The people who pay the dues should not be rudely encroached upon. Then again, most of the best fishermen got that way in part by watching and, as much as they may deny it, following the great fishermen that came before them.