Last August, Virginia native Brian Lockwood arose well before dawn, downed a cup of coffee and met up with a friend’s charter to buddy-boat 75 miles offshore. They headed to a spot in the Atlantic Ocean where the bottom contour is known as Norfolk Canyon. In 350 feet of water, he deep-dropped for blueline tilefish and sea bass. In 650 feet, Lockwood hooked into some barrelfish but, as he laments, no golden tilefish. Later, floating around some lobster buoys, he picked up some big mahimahi.
Over the course of 16 hours, Lockwood and his buddy — Capt. Pete Esgro of RockHound Charters — covered a distance of 228 miles in 3- to 5-foot seas. Esgro did it in a craft you’d expect for such a trip: a 34-foot Luhrs sport-fisher.
Lockwood chose something from the opposite end of the spectrum — an 11-foot-8-inch Yamaha WaveRunner.
Welcome to the intriguing sport of PWC fishing.
From Virginia to New York, Florida to California, Australia to South Africa, a movement is afoot to forgo the Bertram, Boston Whaler or Grady-White in favor of a WaveRunner, Jet Ski or Sea-Doo. The reasons are many. For some, it’s an issue of cost. The modern four-stroke personal watercraft is a bargain compared to the majority of its mainstream boating alternatives; it’s inexpensive to buy, simple to trailer and easy to store. PWCs also tend to be more fuel-efficient than the alternative, enabling anglers to stretch their gas budgets. And then there’s the simple fun and thrill factor of balancing atop a small boat while battling a fish that could actually take you for a ride.
The Mini Battlewagon
For Lockwood, the switch from a Grady-White to a small fleet of WaveRunners was a natural evolution. First, he used the PWC for fun. Next, it became a quick and easy choice to catch bait before the next day’s trip. Soon he began to enjoy the sheer fun factor of taking actual fishing trips aboard the PWC, as well as the simplicity of cleanup afterward. During times of high gas prices, he noted the PWC consumed far less fuel than his boat’s 200 hp outboard. Before long, Lockwood, now 52, started to research and buy PWCs solely for their fishing potential. Once he got them home, he looked for ways to transform them into baby battlewagons.
Lockwood found what he calls an enthusiastic fabricator in Martin’s Custom Structures in Gloucester, Virginia. Together, they transformed a four-passenger Yamaha SUV into a craft ready for offshore adventure, adding a crossbar and cooler rack with additional rod holders and a VHF radio and GPS/fish finder powered by an additional deep-cycle battery. Glass windshields and custom canvas followed on another model, this one upgraded with a more fuel-efficient four-stroke engine. A pair of three-passenger 2012 Yamaha FX HOs followed, rigged with additional fuel tanks to further extend his range. He now even has a business, Jet Ski Fishing and Adventures Inc.
“I take individuals and small groups on extreme fishing trips in the Chesapeake Bay and up to 20 miles offshore of Virginia and North Carolina,” he explains. “I now have six PWCs rigged up for fishing. Just show up ready for a fun and exhilarating experience.”
Despite his prowess, Lockwood and his fellow American anglers may actually be behind the curve. In countries like South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, personal-watercraft fishing has surged in popularity with PWC-only tournaments that regularly attract close to 150 competitors. New Zealand even has its own personal-watercraft fishing TV show. “New Zealand has seen strong growth toward using the PWC as a fishing platform,” says Andrew Hill, president of the New Zealand Jetskifishing Club. “Ninety percent of new PWC sales are to people considering them for fishing.”
Now living in Arizona, Dustin Motzouris saw the same momentum happening in his native country of South Africa and is now bringing that experience to the United States. A champion PWC racer, Motzouris also owns a fishing-boat manufacturing company in his native land. He makes a strong case for PWCs as fish-friendly vehicles, noting their ability to launch directly from coastal beaches and run without a crew. Motzouris also notes a PWC’s speed as a distinct advantage when running to and from the fishing grounds. Perhaps the biggest draw in his home country, however, is placing yourself in the middle of it all on such a small craft.
“In South Africa, we always have great fish stories, from getting bumped by whales to hooking and landing marlin. But the most extreme issue we have is losing big fish to huge sharks right at the ski. That gets your heart racing.”
It’s an experience that Hill has actually documented in a popular YouTube video. “The shark experience was another level,” says Hill of the day a shark took his catch just as he was about to pull it from the water. “Pretty scary to be honest when you are 20 miles offshore in the shark’s territory. I’ve encountered many sharks over the years, yet that one was easily larger than the Yamaha FX HO Cruiser I was riding at the time.”
Though big-water stories of marlin and sharks are thrilling, those interested in giving the sport a try needn’t venture into the ocean swells or rig for battle. PWC owners have long tried to fish from their craft, heading out with little more than a rod into lakes, rivers and waterways far from the coast. As most PWC anglers we talked to will attest, however, anyone with more than a passing interest in the sport will quickly realize that rigging is of the utmost importance on such a small craft. Tossing your catch into the footwells or trying to hang on to your rod while you work the throttle is a challenge that gets old fast. To take the next step, they suggest a simple upgrade — some type of rod holder and a cooler or insulated storage bag to hold your catches.
Google “PWC fishing” or “Jet Ski fishing” and you’ll note that a surprising number of manufacturers already produce such a combination of products. For the easiest introduction, look for a combination rod-and-cooler rack like those from Kool PWC Stuff (watercraftstuff.com) or Motzouris’ own vertical Clip-on Fish Cage ($369, kommanderind.com). These racks require no permanent installation, securing in place on a PWC’s aft deck with just tie downs, and typically include multiple rod holders and a cooler. Some even have space for additional gas cans, although Motzouris cautions not to go too big because boarding becomes an issue, a potential problem at sea. The option of a removable rack means you can easily derig it when you’re more interested in using your craft for simple pleasure riding.
Those interested in a more permanent setup may wish to look into fish-boat-style aluminum arches. Fishmaster (fishmaster.com) offers both front and rear one-size-fits-all arches that can adjust to fit any PWC and be folded or removed for travel or storage. Arches connect to bases via versatile Heim joints through-bolted into the deck. Once installed, they add an unmistakable fish-boat style to a PWC and can accommodate accessories, including rod holders, outriggers, and even radar and antenna mounts. Almost any marine aluminum-welding fabricator can fashion your dream setup.
There are also Motzouris’ Fast Pods — large exterior pods that attach on each side at the aft end of the craft. Though far from cheap ($1,900 for a set of two), these pods greatly increase the stability of your PWC while adding fish storage, space to bait up, livewell tanks, and even innovative baitwell tubes, which divert water from the craft’s jet pump to keep live bait kicking as you travel to your favorite spot.
“Once you get a fully kitted PWC, the fishing experience is better and the catch rate goes way up,” Motzouris says.
The appeal of PWC fishing still comes down to the same basic draw of fishing: spending time on the water, wetting a line, and trying to land the catch of the day. The fact that sometimes it feels as though your catch actually has you at the end of its line is just part of it.
“I enjoy PWC fishing because I enjoy being able to take a small vessel either into skinny water to pursue specks [spotted seatrout] and reds [redfish], or into the ocean blue in search of mahimahi, tuna or amberjacks,” Lockwood says. “I like being able to single-handedly drive, reel and net my own catch, big or small. I like being able to deal with big swells and cresting waves because you drive a PWC differently than a boat.”
Like a lot of PWC fishermen, Lockwood also appreciates doing something different than the guy in the next boat over. The much, much bigger next boat over.