How-To: Fishing Party Boats Effectively

CaptHeavyCaptHeavy Posts: 717 Officer
I've gotten a request in my report thread to post a in-depth guide to effectively fishing on party boats. The do's, the don'ts and everything in between. I can't speak for other party boats but I can try and speak for Kelley Fishing Fleet out of Haulover.

First of all, you need to decide what time of day you're trying to fish. Here at Kelley Fishing Fleet we run 3 trips a day Sunday through Friday and 4 trips on Saturday. We've also got three boats to choose from depending on the schedule. (Hurricane, Mucho K and the Atlantis)
Here's the schedule:
- 9:00AM (7 Days)
- 1:45PM (7 Days)
- 8:00PM (7 Days)
- 1:00AM (Saturday night)
- There's also an all-day trip on Sundays aboard the Atlantis.

People will ask me what time is the best time to go out fishing. Here's my response, "Trophy fish during the day and dinner at night." You're a lot less likely to catch fish during the day but if you do it's probably going to be a big fish whereas at night you're more likely to catch fish they'll just be meat fish such as snapper, grouper and other reef fish. (My English professor would give me an F for using the word 'fish' so many times in one sentence). Also, you have to consider what time of year it is. The fishing is much better during the day during the winter time but once the sun warming up Miami you'll have much better luck at night.

We'll start off with day-time fishing. I'm a night-time mate but I've been the first mate on several day-time trips so I'm not completely ignorant to how it works. Assuming you're coming aboard with absolutely no tackle the mate is going to hand you a conventional reel and rod and teach you how it works without getting a birds nest. This rod is rigged with a 3 hook rig (Called a kingfish rig) and a lead weight above the rig that will vary in size depending on the offshore current/wind/drift. He'll get you seated on the starboard side of the boat and put your rods in the rodholder to mark your spot. From here you can pal around with whom ever you've brought till it's time to leave.

If you've brought your own rod/reel and have no idea what you're doing. Talk to the mate. He'll help you out with how you should rig your set up. This all depends on how you want to fish and what kind of rod you've got. If you've come with a spinning reel, chances are you're going to need to go with a kingfish rig as the line capacity on a spinning reel really won't allow you to bottom fish effectively.

On the other hand however, if you know what you're doing hopefully you've brought some quality gear. If you're drifting like the rest of the crowd you don't really need anything specialized. However if you want to fish the bottom for muttons, here's where it gets fun. I'd suggest nothing smaller than a Penn 4/0 or similar sized conventional reel. You're going to need all the line capacity you can get. Talk to the mate and ask if he has any weight suggestions. If you're on the 9AM trip, chances are he's not going to know as the current/drift can change quickly. However 4-6oz is a good size lead to start with. You're going to want to 'long leader'. Put the 6oz weight above a swivel and add about 10-15' of flouro or mono leader attached to a sharp, large circle or J hook. As for bait you're going to want a ballyhoo plug.. a big one. If you don't know what I'm talking about ask the mate to cut you up some, he'll even help you bait it the first time to show you how it's done. From here you're going to want to drop the bait all the way to the bottom. You'll feel it hit bottom and depending on the drift it will slowly start t peel more line off the reel. Let it go. In fact, dump almost the entire spool. Some people do it by hand and other people leave the bail open, rod in the rod holder and clicker on. When the fish starts chewing, let him run with it for about 2-3 seconds before you try getting tight on him. You should know what to do from here on out.

If you've come to vertical jig I hope you've come with the necessary gear. I don't know MUCH about vertical jigging but what I do know is you're going to want a heavy braid (60-80lb), a VERY stout jigging rod and a good reel to match. Technically you can jig anywhere on the windward side of the boat but it's always suggested to either jig at the bow or the stern. I prefer jigging the stern. Pitch/cast your jig in the direction of the drift and wait till it hits bottom. You can either yo-yo it up quickly and back down for the muttons and groupers or you can jig like a mad man all the way up for the AJ's, Bonita, almacos and Blackfin tunas and an assortment of other fish.

If you've come to chicken rig you can do so as well. I honestly don't know much about day-time chicken rigging but I assume it's pretty similar to the idea above with the bottom fishing just without letting out so much line. Chicken rigs use a whole lot more weight and I guess instead of letting the bait sit they drag it on/near the bottom. Can't help you too much with this as I've never been much of a chicken rigger.

Live baiting is kind of frowned upon as personal livewells are bulky for the most part and if your bait is a strong swimmer.. he can really make a mess of everyones line. Go out one time with a gameplan and talk to the captain and see if you may bring a well with you on your next trip.

It also might be worth mentioning that if you bring a spare 4/0 or 6/0 you can try your luck at trolling on the way to the wrecks/reefs from the marina. Talk to the mate about how much room is on the back available for your rod. Some days NO one will be trolling, other days there's a whole squad of people trying to troll.

Also, if you've got a big fish on don't wait till the last second to tell the mate to get the gaff ready. He might be preoccupied and didn't notice you've got the monster on. Call for it BEFORE you need it. Worst thing in the world is to watch a king on the top of the water splashing around and cut the line/spit the hook before the mate/captain can get the gaff in him.

Night time fishing is a whole different ballpark, obviously. Here cash is key. Tipping the captain ($10-20 depending on the load) will get you a stern spot in which you can free-line for the tails or bottom fish in the chum slick for grovers/muttons. Get to the boat 30-45 minutes before departing and talk to the captain. If there is room for you and you've tipped him he will procure you a spot on the stern. Also, be sure to bring only mono. Braid is disastrous on a night-time party boat, especially if you're not really up on the way it works. Better to leave it at home, but if ALL of your reels are spooled with braid I understand. Kelley Fleet doesn't condemn braid but, the mates don't like it. Makes our job a hassle!

Freelining is a yellowtail snapper killer and takes some getting used to but after you get your second bite you'll really get the hang of it. You're going to want a spinner in the 10-15lb class and jigheads ranging from 1/32 to 1/2oz depending on the current. You can also substitute jigheads with small (similar sized egg/bullet weights) leads and 1/0 or 2/0 hooks. I'm not sure color REALLY matters but most use chartreuse and white with some people using pink. If the current is really strong you're going to want to use a heavier jig and conversely if the current is slow, a lighter jig. Bait of choice is normally 1 or 2 silversides hooked through the eyes. Pitch your bait 5-10' away from the boat and keep the bail open. Frequently cupping the spool to see if a fish took the jig and you didn't notice. I've had more fish attack while cupping then while completely freespooling, but... That's just me. Once the yellowtail hits close the bail, set the hook and bring him in!

Bottom fishing is pretty self explanatory. You're going to want something in the 12-20lb class spinning or conventional. You want to use the least amount of weight that will hold the bottom as possible. I usually start with 1oz go up or down from there depending on the current/swing. Bait of choice here is ballyhoo plugs. 1 1/2" to 3".

I usually start by bottom fishing and when the first signs of yellowtail show I start freelining. If the yellowtail bite is still slow I go back to bottom fishing.

On a completely different note... Please don't forget to tip the crew. That's how we make our living. We make a small percentage of what the boat makes but that MAY cover gas to get to work. The money really comes from the tips. We work hard for you guys, that's how you can show us you appreciate it. We can't take handshakes and thank you's to the landlord, even if they are appreciated. The captain and mate split the tips in half. So even if you think a $5 tip is good, each crew member is only really getting $2.50.

If you guys have any questions let me know. I may not have covered everything as I typed all this up in one go and may have forgot to put something in. Thanks for reading!

Lady Mitchell, Haulover
Instagram: @captheavy


  • The DaveThe Dave Posts: 486 Deckhand
    What is a good /standard tip for the mates or crew on a headboat?
    I'll think of something witty to put here.....
  • CaptHeavyCaptHeavy Posts: 717 Officer
    5 is ok, 10 is good and 20 is great. With that said I've had people give me the loose change in their pocket and I've had someone else give me $180. And ofcourse there are the people who don't tip at all.
    Lady Mitchell, Haulover
    Instagram: @captheavy
  • The DaveThe Dave Posts: 486 Deckhand
    I worked for tips for a long time (bar/waiter) so I usually make it a point to overtip, but I think some folks genuinely may not know. Thanks for all of the info :thumbsup
    I'll think of something witty to put here.....
  • MiamipescadorMiamipescador Posts: 696 Officer
    Great helpful post Brett

    When i used to fish the partyboats in the daytime i used a large 1-2 oz bucktail with 3 hooks with a whole ballyhoo for kingfish, always works better than the 3 hook rigs. This would have to be bought before you go of course and is not included.

    I usually tip $10, but i have seen most people not tip at all.
  • CaptHeavyCaptHeavy Posts: 717 Officer
    That's another thing. Those big bucktail type jigs work great and can be had relatively cheap. They also sell them at the office. Not sure the price, however.
    Lady Mitchell, Haulover
    Instagram: @captheavy
  • ReelhootReelhoot Posts: 251 Officer
    Great article!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Yeah, tips work very well to help insure a great experience. I'm sure this will benefit many .

    FOR RENT: Beautiful 2 bed 2 bath condo in Hunter Springs, Crystal River
  • bigyellowtunabigyellowtuna Posts: 245 Officer
    Thanks for the post!
  • Ludwigia73Ludwigia73 Posts: 237 Officer
    I usually tip 5, and save the 10 for the mates that work hard. Rarely do I not tip. Maybe twice in the last 20 trips. Had some terrible mates in the past, but some great ones as well. I remember both types well. I don't remember the lukewarm types. Fish City pride had a mate, a lower 20 something guy that must've been on something he moved so fast, and worked so hard. He got $20, and I never tip 20. The Girl (Sonny?) on Catch my drift earns a better tip as well, and there's another mate on there that I absolutely hate. Never there when you need him, pretty unappealing personality, not to mention gave me a heck of a hard time over parking before the trip even started! Sonny worked her butt off, great personality, and she's the only crewmate that tied my dad's line and it didn't UNTIE!!! It became a joke, 4 times another mate tied the line, and it untied on a fish!!! Hers never did. Mine never did, either.

    I've never been on your boats, but will make it a point to hit you up at least once soon. Wish I could comment on your boat, but never been. Great article!!! (BTW, best mate in the business as far as I've met, Tim on Marathon Lady. Been on that boat at least 30 times.)
  • CaptHeavyCaptHeavy Posts: 717 Officer
    Sorry about your experiences with bad mates. And knots untying? That's terrible. I think since I've been working here I've had one guy come back to me with a pig tail at the end of his line. Felt terrible about it, too. But I figure one out of thousands of knots I've tied isn't bad!

    But just like with any other profession.. If you have absolutely no passion in what you do you're not going to be good at it. I live and breath fishing, it's all I care about and take every day I work as a blessing to be out on the water. With that said, however, I'm sure I've had my days where I'm not as pleasant as I normally am. I can think of one time in particular where my wisdom tooth was coming in and the gum over it was infected. Dr's had me on a lot of prescriptions and I was grumpy as hell, we are human afterall. But, if the mate is always terrible... Well, they need to get gone and make way for people who want to work the boat.

    Come on out with us sometime.

    Edit: And as long as we're on the subject of tips. You should ESPECIALLY tip if you've got the mate hovering over a cleaning table for a while cleaning your catch. If you're not going to tip (plenty don't) don't have the mate clean your fish. It's almost like a slap in the face.
    Edit 2: It's also always a nice gesture to bring the mate a handful of plastic grocery bags. I love when people do that for me. I don't go to Publix all that often and the rest of the time is me begging the poor woman at 7-11 to give me a bunch of bags. lol.
    Lady Mitchell, Haulover
    Instagram: @captheavy
  • RondoRondo Posts: 762 Officer
    Great post, and I agree with the passion for fishing, if you don't have it you should not be there. I just wish there was a head boat in the Stuart area like yours. We have two "tourist" boat but no serious party boats.
  • VeroDDVeroDD Posts: 294 Deckhand
    Good article. As it happens, I am going on a party boat this coming Monday out of Ft Pierce. I have been on many party boats in the past and never knew the captain got half the tip.
  • jakedgejakedge Posts: 1,302 Officer
    VeroDD wrote: »
    I have been on many party boats in the past and never knew the captain got half the tip.
    I worked on a few when I was younger and they didn't (and shouldn't IMO).
  • CaptHeavyCaptHeavy Posts: 717 Officer
    I'm glad some people are finding this post helpful!

    As for the captain and the tips, the boat percentages are too low for the captain to go home without half the tips.
    Lady Mitchell, Haulover
    Instagram: @captheavy
  • XafXaf Posts: 930 Officer
    In your specific situation the Capts may take half the tips but that is not the case on all party boats. In fact I have seen Capts who were handed tips give them to the mates.
  • Lucky7Team2Lucky7Team2 Posts: 6,794 Officer
    Good stuff. I suggest if it's your first time on the boat, tip before the trip the first time. Like a bartender, the drinks will be stronger and service faster. Once you become a regular you can tip at the end. Just my .02.
  • jakedgejakedge Posts: 1,302 Officer
    I suggest if it's your first time on the boat, tip before the trip the first time.
    Excellent advice!!
  • Ludwigia73Ludwigia73 Posts: 237 Officer
    You should ESPECIALLY tip if you've got the mate hovering over a cleaning table for a while cleaning your catch. If you're not going to tip (plenty don't) don't have the mate clean your fish. It's almost like a slap in the face.

    Now there's a good subject! Most of the boats I go on, they CHARGE .50 per fillet, or per fish. I gladly pay it, and I quickly learn which mates are going to feed meat to the tarpon at dockside. Most are good fillet'ers, though, and it's a great service, and a great way for them to earn a little extra money. I usually kick in an extra buck for every 5 fish, as an additional tip if they're doing a good job. I am a perfectionist when it comes to filleting, "not a bone in the boatload" is how my dad says it. Some mates are that way, but you still need to check.

    By the way, how do you feel about the guys that keep EVERY 6" grunt and strawberry they catch? It's a shame, and if the mate pushes you to keep it, I just unhook my own fish and toss them over the side. Most mates go by what the fisherman wants, which is great, but some of these guys end up with 20 6" grunts. I won't keep a grunt under 12", or a mangrove under 12", there just isn't enough meat to justify killing the fish.
  • Ludwigia73Ludwigia73 Posts: 237 Officer
    Oh, and lastly, I've already decided you're going to be my next boat... the owners should thank you for this thread... it's good advertising.
  • CaptHeavyCaptHeavy Posts: 717 Officer
    I hate when clients keep tiny grunts, but it happens. When they ask me if they can keep it I say, "It's a grunt and legal to keep but there's no food on it". Usually the person will throw it back but we do have those that keep them. We have a lot of people who come with their own coolers and chicken rig tiny grunts all night. It's ridiculous, but... It's legal so what can I do? It's up to them and their morals as I can't throw someones legal fish back in the water if they want it.

    As for cleaning the fish, we don't charge. But I let the customers know we work for tips before I start cleaning. I'm not the BEST with a fillet knife but I hold my own. Still fairly new at it. When I was a kid my dad always cleaned the fish and me and my brother cleaned the boat so cleaning fish is only a skillset I've had for about a year. Gettin' better everyday though. Not to scare you away, though. There's rarely meat still on the carcass and no bones left in the fillet, I could just be quicker with it.

    Hope to see ya soon, bud.
    Lady Mitchell, Haulover
    Instagram: @captheavy
  • jumboshrimpjumboshrimp Posts: 820 Officer
    Ludwigia73 wrote: »
    (BTW, best mate in the business as far as I've met, Tim on Marathon Lady. Been on that boat at least 30 times.)

    That boat is so awesome. we always used to do that at least once or twice when we would go down for a week of flats fishing, nice change of pace.

    Great article too, lots of good info.
  • etommy28etommy28 Posts: 304 Officer
    Corps its funny you say that about the grunts, i fish on the Capt. Tonys in Ft myers beach commonly and most of the mates know me and know I can handle my self, infact i caught the 2 biggest fish they landed last year. but one day i had a good bucket full of handsize or bigger gunts, snapper, mackeral, ect. well on of the mate walks up while im unhooking a small and i mean very small grunt, takes it from me, unhooks it and goes to put it in my bucket, I didnt want it and told him to just toss it back but instead he put it in the guy next to me's bucket I was like wth but didnt take it any further. I typically tip 10 bucks but the mates that know me know that if i win big fish which I do about half the times i go out(I have figured out there the good spots on the boat are and bring my own bait) I tip 20 dollars because im still gonna make money.
  • CaptHeavyCaptHeavy Posts: 717 Officer
    Some people actually REALLY love small grunts. I don't get it but, hey... What do I know? Seems like a lot of work for a small morsel of meat.
    Lady Mitchell, Haulover
    Instagram: @captheavy
  • evolve520evolve520 Posts: 1 Greenhorn
    I know this is an old thread, but coming down in a couple of weeks and want to take my 9 year old son fishing. I used to fish party boats quite a bit as a kid in So. Florida, but have been out of the state for a long time. Any tips on landing a stern spot. I've read reviews that say they are handed out to the "regulars" only. I want my son to catch fish and maximize his chances. Thanks,
  • TipboneTipbone Posts: 190 Officer
    It was mentioned ealrier in this article, but I would suggest tipping the Captain or mate assigning spots a $20. Well worth the money to have a happy kid fishing.
  • ontheedge5658ontheedge5658 Posts: 2,658 Officer
    evolve520 I know the boats in Port Canaveral charge an extra $5 for stern spot. My suggestion is to call the boat up and ask. Good luck to you and your son.
  • StevoStevo Posts: 25 Greenhorn
    **** good thread Corps! This is helpful for not only people going to use your services, but also people like myself who got a boat recently and are just now getting into saltwater fishing.
  • saltybumsaltybum Posts: 1,550 Captain
    What's the rules these days for mates fishing next to paying customers?

    I haven't fished a head boat in many years ( usually I fish a small CC with friends ) but the last time visiting up in Pensacola I got on a boat that had an excellent capt that put us on the meat. First spot got limit of RS then he took us to a mangrove snapper wreck where I got my limit of five ( three were freelined to just under the boat) and after they shut down the capt went to what he called grouper spot where the mate proceeded to pull out his broomstick with braid to fish for AJs. Why? Obviously to sell for money.

    What happened next really pissed me as I was fighting a decent grouper maybe 12-15lb and the mate hooks his AJ which proceeds to wrap my line and cuts my fish off.
    This same mate also used an electric fillet knife to fillet the tourist fish, mostly red snappers and most had four fish limits. The catch here was this guy was charging about .50 pound and hittin each one for $10-20 bucks after they had also tipped him.
    Of course he got zero tip from me and I cleaned my own fish.
    Outside of that one jerk all other headboat trips were fine.
  • mandaferretmandaferret Posts: 932 Officer
    Small grunts are actually pretty good. Cut the head off, gut it, scale it, then cook it whole and its real easy to eat around the bones.
    Rondo wrote: »
    I just wish there was a head boat in the Stuart area like yours. We have two "tourist" boat but no serious party boats.

    I hear that.
  • the flats guythe flats guy Posts: 310 Deckhand
    It pisses me off when mates fish next to me. Queen fleet in clearwater is famous for that but they do help you out and give you tips when doing so. No tip for them and they dont catch fish. Hubbards is my favorite I have been on or dry tortuga in key west.
  • NorthernNorthern Posts: 677 Officer
    Thanks for the thread CoRPS. Very well done. This should help a lot of new fishermen catch more fish, and give them a better understanding on how and why to tip the crew.

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