Mackenthun: Adventures on party fishing boat are reel experience (2024)

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry — isn’t that the proverb to use when your idea and plan gets blown to smithereens?

I was looking forward to the trip to Florida’s Gulf Coast for more than a year, anticipating the chance to fish for something different. When our family landed in St. Petersburg last week, we got a healthy dose of sunshine and Vitamin D but with it came strong prevailing winds.

A pair of storm systems blew through during our week of stay, culminating in two day’s worth of thunderstorms and rain showers.

But the worst was the wind. The strong winds put a serious chop on the sea and blew me off the chance to wet a line more than once.

Despite booking a pair of fishing trips many months in advance, there was no or little chance of rearranging during the busy spring fishing season. College students and families enjoying spring break fill up the schedule.

The only opportunity to fish ended up being on a party fishing boat, which funny enough was how I was first exposed to Florida marine fishing during my own college break two decades earlier.

Party boat fishing is one of the best ways to break into saltwater angling. Compared to chartered boats, party boat fishing is much less expensive and the fishing is typically more like catching.

Dozens of anglers sign up or purchase a ticket to board a boat that is anywhere from 40 feet to as large as 150 feet in length. A captain and large crew navigate to the fishing grounds and help guests, often driving an hour or two.

Some anglers bring their own gear but most party fishing boats provide rods or offer rental of a rod and reel for a small surcharge. Bait is included, typically pieces of cut up frozen squid.

A head, or bathroom, is on board and there is usually a large galley where guests can sit on chairs or tables and relax out of the elements while heading to or from dock.

Many party fishing boats also have sleeping quarters for overnight long trips and a kitchen where a cook will serve short order meals from a grill top for a fee.

Once at the fishing grounds, the captain will get on the intercom and announce when everyone can drop lines. Most fishing locations are reefs, wrecks or other forms of underwater structure that congregate fish.

Bottom fishing is a technique commonly used across the world; if you’ve pulled a nightcrawler or leech behind a slip sinker in a Minnesota Lake, you have all the bottom fishing skills you need to catch marine reef fish on a party fishing boat.

Typical bottom fishing setups are a heavy action rod with a level wind reel and heavy monofilament tied to a couple-ounce weight and a large circle hook.

The rig is largely overkill for the small, 1- to 3-pound fish you’ll catch. But if you do hook into something larger, and you always have the chance to do so tossing a line into the ocean, you have at least some chance of landing the fish on larger gear.

When conditions are fair to good, the action is frequent and bite detection is much easier. On windy days or after inclement weather has passed recently, the bite is a little tougher.

I’ve fished party boats on launch trips on Mille Lacs Lake, Alabama’s Gulf Shores, Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, and from Mendocino, California. They’re a great way to catch lots of fish inexpensively and to get a small taste of the fishing opportunities different locations have to offer.

On our Florida party boat trip, I was joined by my oldest daughter Quinn. This would be her chance to try her hand at bottom fishing in the ocean and start adding to her own life list of fish species caught.

It didn’t take long after dropping lines to get some action.

White grunts made up most of the catch. We also found some grass porgies, blue runners, squirrelfish or sand perch, red grouper and a puffer fish.

The action was consistent, our stringer of fish provided a couple of meals for our family, and we got to enjoy lighter winds and a fantastic sunny spring day on the Gulf of Mexico.

While Quinn had experience using a baitcast reel, it took a little practice to learn the finer points of controlling a large level-wind baitcaster. Before long, she had it down and was reeling in fish left and right.

We’ll be back to Florida again in some future springtime. Among the anglers of our family, we will hope for a week of light winds and big fish.

And if all else fails, we’ll board a party fishing boat and get to catching.

Scott Mackenthun has been writing about hunting and fishing since 2005. Email him at

Mackenthun: Adventures on party fishing boat are reel experience (2024)
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