A Beginner's Guide to Deep Sea Fishing
Sep 9, 2021 | 10 minute read
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Does your idea of the ultimate recreational fishing experience come straight from the pages of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, with plenty of big fish, screaming reels, and endless blue waters? If so, you’re thinking of deep sea fishing, one of the angling world’s most popular and beloved ways of targeting a variety of species.

An angler battles a Marlin than can be seen emerging from deep blue waters with fishing rods and reels in the foreground

Deep sea fishing is all about being out on open waters, usually so far away from shore that you can no longer see it. The fishing action generally takes place in waters at least 100 feet deep, with targets being big fish that live offshore. We’re talking Marlin, Sailfish, Tuna… Although these species make for a seriously exciting catch, you have to put the work in to hook them.

And as is the case with all types of fishing, there’s no guarantee you’ll even encounter your target species on your trip. In the words of many captains: it’s called fishing, not catching! Luckily, a deep sea fishing experience can be full of excitement, learning opportunities, and unforgettable moments regardless of what you do or don’t catch. Even better, there’s a wealth of charters across the world that will help newbies find their feet.

Two fishermen standing on the bow of a charter boat, one reeling in fish, the other taking a video of it

Below, we’ve delved into the definition of deep sea fishing, as well as covering common targets, the type of locations you can expect to explore, and how to prepare for your trip. Hopefully, you’ll come out of it feeling like you have Hemingway’s level of knowledge about the topic! Let’s dive in…

What is deep sea fishing?

Knowing what exactly counts as deep sea fishing can be pretty confusing, especially for novice anglers. For many sport fishers, it tends to be synonymous with sportfishing or big game fishing.

The term is also sometimes used interchangeably with the term “offshore fishing.” So are they the same thing? In a word: Not really. While it’s common to head offshore when deep sea fishing, the main difference between the two is the depths of the water you’ll be fishing in.

An infographic showing the difference between offshore and deep sea fishing

Offshore describes your distance from land, while deep sea refers to your distance from the seafloor. Offshore waters are at least 9 miles from shore, reaching depths from 50 feet to a couple of hundred feet. Deep sea fishing also takes place in open blue waters with no visible shoreline, usually at least 100 feet deep. These fishing grounds often hold structure such as reefs, wrecks, and oil rigs, which big fish like to swarm around.

So why does the distinction between offshore and deep sea fishing matter? Well, it can have an impact on the amount of time you’ll travel for, as well as the fish you’ll be targeting. But more on that later!

Where will I be deep sea fishing?

As we covered above, deep sea fishing is all about the depths of the water you’ll be fishing in. Sounds simple, right? Well, we’re going to throw a spanner into the works! Depending on where you’re fishing, the distance it takes to reach waters measuring 100+ feet deep can really differ.

Cabo San Lucas harbor with the town in the background and boats in the foreground

Along parts of Florida’s Gulf Coast, such as Destin, the sea floor slopes sharply and you can reach seriously deep waters within a few miles of shore. Head somewhere along Mexico’s western shoreline such as Cabo, and you can encounter deep sea species less than a mile out where the continental shelf drops off suddenly. You can generally start deep sea fishing with minutes of departing the dock in these places.

In some parts of California, however, deep sea fishing can involve journeying out to “the canyons.” These lie a whopping 100 miles from shore. Trips like this aren’t for the faint-hearted. They involve long journeys on choppy waters, and require you to spend at least a full day at sea.

As well as the distance you’ll have to travel, the topography of the water you’ll be fishing in can vary. In some locations, waters over 100 feet in depth house famous big game monsters that are synonymous with deep sea fishing. In other places, they’re packed full of reefs and oil rigs, and you’re more likely to encounter larger bottom fish.

A Quick Note on State vs. Federal Waters…

An aerial view of a fishing boat offshore, surrounded with seagulls, with multiple anglers fishing from the boat

When deciding on your deep sea fishing charter in the US, think about whether you want to fish in state or federal waters. This will impact the type of fish you’ll be able to target, the licensing you’ll need, and the regulations around keeping your fish.

Here’s a quick overview:

  • State waters. In the Gulf of Mexico, state waters extend 0–9 nautical miles from shore if you’re fishing in Texas, Puerto Rico, and along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Elsewhere, it’s 0–3 nautical miles. If you’re fishing in the Atlantic, state waters extend 0–9 nautical miles from shore across the board.
  • Federal waters. Federal waters start where state waters end, and usually extend around 200 nautical miles from shore or wherever other countries’ waters begin.

What fish species will I be targeting?

For many anglers, deep sea fishing is all about big game species. These are large saltwater fish that are aggressive and fight hard when hooked at the end of a line. The main aim of targeting them is purely recreational and to feel the adrenaline rush that comes with battling a deep sea creature. Deep sea fishing can also mean plumbing the depths of the ocean for bottom fish, as well as testing your skills against brutish reef fish.

Two smiling anglers standing on a boat, holding a Striped Marlin, with water and blue skies in the background

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the most popular targets:

  • Billfish. Arguably the most popular deep sea fish species around. This family of fish can be found scattered all across the world. They’re the ultimate target for ambitious sport anglers, thanks to their iconic appearance and tough-fighting spirit.
  • Tuna. When it comes to deep sea fishing for Tuna, it’s really all about Yellowfins and Bluefins. Bluefins can grow up to big sizes and are prone to aggressive deep dives. Yellowfin are, pound for pound, some of the strongest fighters in the ocean. They’re both also seriously tasty.
  • Other pelagics. Mahi Mahi and Wahoo often top the list of deep sea fishing targets, for good reason. They’re fun to chase, grow to impressive sizes, and put up an impressive battle on the end of a line.
  • Sharks. These toothy predators are notorious around the globe but tend to get overlooked when it comes to deep sea fishing. This is due to the strict rules and regulations around them. In some locations, like Massachusetts, deep sea fishing often involves targeting Porbeagle Sharks off the coast. The canyons near California hold Thresher Sharks.
  • Reef species. Amberjack, Cobia, Barracuda… They may not be the first names you think of when it comes to deep sea fishing, but these reef-dwellers provide excellent angling action. They can be found in waters up to 250 feet deep. They’re the perfect targets for new deep sea anglers, still giving you a workout but not the aching muscles a Marlin can cause!
  • Snapper. One word for you: Red Snapper. These fish cause a frenzy in anglers that is unmatched by almost any other species, especially when the federal fishing season hits. Why? Because this is when Reds in the 20-pound range can be hooked. It’s easy to see what the fuss is about. They taste great and make for excellent game action.
  • Grouper. Often targeted on the same deep sea trips as Snapper, Grouper can grow to huge sizes. There’s a reason one variety earned the name “Goliath” Grouper, after all. These fish are widespread, taste great, and also provide some surprisingly excellent angling action. Think deep runs to the ocean floor and around reefs and wrecks.

💡 Many deep sea fishing targets, especially big game species, are migratory fish that inhabit different waters during different times of the year. Because of this, deep sea fishing can be a pretty seasonal sport, so familiarizing yourself with the movements of your chosen fish, and when it’s available near you, is a must. This is where fishing aboard a charter comes in handy. Your captain will be able to fill you in on your target species’ movements.

What techniques will I use when deep sea fishing?

Trolling

Charter boat trolling in the water, with waves and mountainous landscape in the background

This is the go-to deep sea fishing technique for big game species such as Billfish and Tunas. Trolling essentially involves dragging hooked lures or bait through your chosen fishery using a moving boat. Depending on the vessel you’re fishing from, you’ll typically set up anywhere from two to six rods, which means you’ll be trolling at least two to six lines, usually weighted. This allows you to cover plenty of ground and, crucially, to target different water depths.

How will your captain do this? By making good use of both outriggers and downriggers. Outriggers extend out from the boat, allow you to have more lines in the water, and put more distance between your bait. No tangles! Downriggers lower your bait to deep sea levels using heavy weights attached by a clip. Once the fish bites, the clip detaches, and it’s game on.

Your captain will usually have a large selection of rods, reels, and tackle set up on board, and will be able to help you select the right equipment. The bait you’ll be using depends on your chosen target, too, but many trolling anglers prefer live bait or cut dead bait. This is thanks to the scent they produce – and the fresher, the better! Squid, ballyhoo, mullet, and mackerel are popular choices.

Bottom Fishing

A young angler reeling in a fish he caught while bottom fishing with water and mountains in the background

If you want to target big delicious fish that lurk around deepwater reefs and wrecks, bottom fishing is the way to go. This technique is common in nearshore waters. Obviously, the fishing grounds you’ll be exploring on your trip are a lot deeper, which requires a few adjustments.

Bottom fishing usually takes place when your boat is anchored or drifting over spots where fish are known to lurk. It’s a versatile technique that is basically all about getting your lure or bait close to the sea floor or even right on top of it, then waiting for the fish to bite. You can also implement movements such as bottom bouncing, which involves dragging your bait along the bottom of the waterway to mimic bait fish.

A bottom fishing setup is usually pretty simple, involving a hook, line, sinker, and bait. Again, your captain will have the necessary gear on board for you. This will usually involve a good mixture of different weighted lines and a variety of sinkers. Although bottom fishing is easy to learn, remember that you’ll be fishing along rugged terrain. This can mean broken lines and fish escaping. As is the case with most techniques, practice makes perfect.

Deep Dropping

Three men sit smiling on a boat holding a large Black Grouper

Deep dropping is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – dropping baits very, very deep! You’ll use this technique in waters at least 300 feet deep, where you’ll encounter deep sea species such as the mighty Swordfish. It’s also popular with anglers attempting to fill the freezer with tasty Snapper and Grouper varieties.

Although deep dropping shares similarities with bottom fishing, it differs due to the depths of water you’ll be fishing in, as well as the equipment you’ll need. Your captain will usually need to implement special electric deep dropping reels, capable of hitting the ocean floor and bringing any hefty fish that chooses to bite to the surface. This reel will usually be paired with a heavy 130–200 lb braided fishing line that’s less likely to break.

When it comes to bait, there are two important factors to consider: scent and staying power. You’ll want your chosen bait to withstand depths of at least a few hundred feet and still appeal to your target fish, after all. Squid, barracuda, and bonito chunks are popular choices.

How should I prepare for a deep sea fishing trip?

A group of anglers stand aboard a deep sea fishing charter holding a large Marlin

Fishing from a boat requires preparation. This is especially true of deep sea fishing trips, where you’ll be traveling far from shore and the weather can change in a matter of minutes. Here are some tips we have for you:

  • Choose your clothing carefully. What to wear when deep sea fishing depends a lot on the weather. A quality breathable baselayer shirt paired with a light, long-sleeved shirt with UPF protection will do the trick in summer. In the colder months, add something warm like a fleece jacket, or waterproof cold-weather coat. Opt for rubber sole shoes to avoid slipping, and make sure they’re non-skid. Finally, wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. Saltwater, fish slime, and blood will probably end up on your clothes. Waterproof, stain-resistant fishing clothes are the best way to go.  
  • Check the weather before you leave. Nothing can make a fishing trip go south quite as much as bad weather, but only if you’re not prepared. Check the forecast before your trip, and make sure you bring along weather protection such as sunglasses, a buff (a special type of fishing mask), a hat, and sunscreen.
  • Bring drinking water. Although the chances that your captain will already have water on board is high, you can never have enough drinking water on a deep sea fishing trip. This type of fishing is hard work, especially if you factor in a lengthy travel time, so you want to be well-hydrated. Check if your captain has snacks on board and, if not, ask if it’s okay to bring some along. Fishing is hungry work!
  • Don’t forget seasickness medication. Think you don’t get seasick? A deep sea fishing trip can make you reconsider this. A long (or even short) journey out on choppy waters can hit even the most resilient of fisherman hard. Bring along Dramamine or other similar anti-motion sickness medication to make sure the only thing that’s spinning is the reels!

Deep Sea Fishing: Screaming Reels, Huge Fish, and an Unforgettable Day on the Water

Four anglers holding a big Yellowfin Tuna on a boat

Deep sea fishing is a spectacular experience, whether you’ve never cast a line before or are looking to hook that personal best. Although not every deep sea fishing trip ends with tired arms and a trophy catch, you’ll still be able to learn some exciting new fishing techniques and share sea tales with your captain, with expanses of endless bluewaters in every direction. It’s a win-win situation! Check out what trips are available near you, and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime.

Have you ever been deep sea fishing? Where did you go? What did you catch? Let us know in the comments below!

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