Fishing, Saltwater/Deep Sea

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Throughout history, people have fished for many reasons. Certainly, many anglers consume the fish they catch, but sport fishers engage in this activity primarily for the challenge rather than for the practical benefit of consuming or selling that which they catch.

History of Saltwater Fishing

Of course, humans have been taking fish from the sea for nearly as long as they've been on Earth. But taking fish for sport is a more recent phenomenon. From the scattered references to fishing in the sea, it appears that freshwater fishing for sport predated saltwater fishing as sport. Charles Waterman argues that early ocean fishing was such a dangerous and difficult economic pursuit "that it is no wonder that it was a long time before anyone seriously considered fishing in the sea for fun" (Waterman, p. 122). It was the mid- and late nineteenth century that saltwater fishing became widely recognized as sport. Interestingly enough, the English infatuation with freshwater fishing for trout and salmon may have been somewhat of an impediment to the elevation of saltwater fishing. As a result, at the end of the nineteenth century, the hotbeds for saltwater fishing were near the United States, New Zealand, and Australia.

No history of saltwater fishing would be complete without mention of the Tuna Club of Avalon, Santa Catalina, which was formed in 1899 and whose members fished primarily off the coast of Northern California. As a handful of pioneers demonstrated that large ocean fish (notably tuna and a variety of billed fish) could be hooked and brought to boat with artificial baits similar to those used by Englishmen for trout and salmon, the sport gained popularity. During these early years a few prominent anglers/authors—Frederic Aflalo from Great Britain and Zane Grey from the United States—caught the imagination of sportsmen from around the world with stories of heroic battles with various denizens of the deep. Later, Ernest Hemingway mesmerized readers with exploits of fishing the high seas. By then, saltwater fishing for sport was well established.

Types of Saltwater Game Fish

Several hundred species are considered game fish. The most popular can be placed into three broad classes.

Billfish To the uninformed or to the novice fisher, deep-sea fishing is the pursuit of billfish. Billfish are to saltwater fishing as salmon are to freshwater fishing. Most people see or envision scenes of great silver billfish leaping several feet out of the deep blue water with the equally blue sky behind them. The category of billfish includes swordfish, spearfish, sailfish, and the various marlins—white, blue, black, and striped. In particular, marlins hold a very privileged position in sea angling. Peter Goadby writes of the marlins, "No fish creates more excitement than marlin; no other fish has gained more respect, is instinctively thought of for tag and release and is more important to the economy of the recreational fishing port and fishing destinations and sport fishing generally" (Goadby, p. 71). Marlins are such incredible fighters that it was not until 1903 that the first was caught on a rod and reel. The largest marlin ever caught on rod and reel weighed in at 1560 pounds.

Tuna All of Earth's oceans have tuna. This group of game fish ranges from the twenty-pound skipjacks to the giant bluefin tuna that can reach weights of 1,800 pounds. Frank Moss states that the tuna "are the most powerful fish that swims" (Moss, p. 3). He goes on to compare these fish to torpedoes with their ability to fold their fins into shallow depressions on their bodies. The small but incredibly powerful tail can propel these game fish up to sixty miles per hour. A 183-pound bluefin tuna that was caught off the coast of Northern California in 1898 "triggered the formation of a club and from it, the rules and ethics and the sport of offshore fishing worldwide" (Goadby, p. 115).

Sharks Sharks hold an interesting position for saltwater anglers. For the first fifty years of the sport, they were considered at best a nuisance and at other times a major problem. It was not unusual for a fisherman to hook and fight a game fish only to have it attacked and shredded by sharks shortly before it was brought to boat or shore. That began to change in the second half of the twentieth century when the shark showed that it could be a wonderful fighter—some making spectacular leaps and other doggedly diving to the depths of the ocean. Six species of shark—the mako, porbeagle, white, thresher, blue, and tiger—are considered game fish. The largest saltwater game fish ever caught on rod and reel is a 2,664-pound great white shark.

Saltwater Fishing Techniques

Anglers have been incredibly innovative in their efforts to capture saltwater game fish. Most fish are caught from large, seafaring boats. Typically, the boat moves at a moderate pace, and baits, both natural and artificial, are trolled or dragged behind it. The moving bait attracts a variety of species of fish. Trolling works best for species that primarily feed near the surface of the ocean. Some species of saltwater game fish, however, rarely come to the surface of the ocean. For them, anglers usually drift baits deep in the ocean or anchor and drop baits down to where they are.

Not all saltwater fishing is undertaken from large boats. Some species such as tarpon and bonefish are found near shore or in shallow water. For these, anglers use small boats that can maneuver in just a few feet of water. Finally, a significant amount of saltwater fishing, though not deep-sea fishing, takes place not from boats of any sort but from piers, rocky outcrops, and beaches.

Some species of fish may be easily enticed to take a bait on a hook, but others require a great deal more effort and skill. Ingenious anglers who pursue species such as bluefin tuna or billfish may use kites that carry the bait and line far away from the boat and impart a particularly lively movement to the bait, attracting the fish. For sharks especially, a large amount of bait (chum) is put into the water in an effort to attract fish and cause a feeding frenzy. Chum usually consists of ground-up baitfish, and the chum areas can spread out over several hundred yards. Some anglers do not consider chumming an ethical fishing practice.

Organizations and Tournaments

Although the majority of saltwater fishers are not members of any club or association, these small and large organizations have been a profound influence on the sport. There exist literally thousands of local clubs, hundreds of state and regional clubs, and a few national and international organizations. The first club was the Tuna Club at Avalon, Santa Catalina, founded in 1899. The largest, and arguably most important, organization today is the International Game Fishing Association (IGFA). The IGFA, as do many other clubs on a much smaller scale, encourages ethical fishing behavior, including adherence to rules and regulations, the generation and exchange of information, the projection of a positive image for the sport, and conservation for fishes and fishing-related resources.

Without fishing clubs it is unlikely that competitive tournaments could be held. The operation and supervision of a tournament is best accomplished not by a handful of unrelated anglers but by a coordinated team of volunteer club members. Although some tournaments are highly visible and offer considerable prize money, most are small local events that offer little more than fellowship and fun.


Worldwide, most species of game fish are in decline, primarily due to pollution, commercial fishing, and sport fishing. Not just billfish, tuna, and sharks, but red drum, bluefish, and even rockfish have fallen victim to this trend. Landings in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans peaked many years ago, and today they are considerably lower. Several organizations—including the Costal Conservation Association, IGFA, National Coalition for Marine Conservation, Recreational Fishing Alliance, and the Billfish Alliance—are aware of the status of many species and have initiated efforts to reverse the disturbing trends.

Freshwater fishing practices "catch and release"; saltwater fishing practices "tag and release." Not only does this practice return the fish to its natural environment—to perhaps be caught again—it is a mainstay for much current research on many saltwater species. By understanding the movement of fishes, conservationists are better prepared either to maintain current populations or to increase the numbers of game fish in the world's oceans.

See also: Camping; Fishing, Freshwater; Hunting


Dunn, Bob, and Peter Goadby. Saltwater Game Fishes of the World: An Illustrated History. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Amato Publishers, 2000.

Goadby, Peter. Saltwater Gamefishing: Offshore and Onshore. Camden, Maine: International Marine Publishing Company, 1992.

Heilner, Van Camen. Salt Water Fishing. 2d ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953.

International Game Fish Association. "World Saltwater Records." Available from

Moss, Frank T. Successful Ocean Game Fishing. Camden, Maine: International Marine Publishing Company, 1971.

Waterman, Charles F. A History of Angling. Tulsa, Okla.: Winchester Press, 1981.

Daniel G. Yoder