This is just based on my experience in South Florida, but I hope it can help you where ever it is you are. I will start with some FAQs.
Q#1 – Is the transom (back of the boat) the best part of the boat?
A- NO!!! Well some times it is. You see it all depends on what kind of fishing you will be doing.
If the boat you are going on will be drift fishing then it doesn’t matter what part of the boat you are in. What matters is what you are doing differently than everyone else. Your bait or artificial lure needs to stand out to the predator fish you are seeking. If everyone is using the boat rig with a certain size weight then you need to go lighter or heavier than them. Try a different and bigger size bait or color of lure (in most cases bullet jig types). If no bigger bait is available try butterflying your bait or making a plug with it. Also even though the boat is drift fishing there usually are no rules for bottom fishing, yes, you can bottom fish from a drifting boat. You can use the most hated forms of fishing of all, a chicken rig, or you can use a more difficult type of fishing, Long Leader-ing. A chicken rig is a rig with usually three drop loop knots (one every 6 inches or so) and a weight at the bottom of it. You can use different types of bait to find out what fish has in their menus that day. When you drop it make sure you hit bottom and depending on which way the boat is drifting you try to keep the rig close to the bottom but not dragging it on the bottom so you let line loose or wind it in as needed. Long Leadering, I normally fish with a 5 to 10 foot leader when doing this. It does not really mean that you will use a very long leader it simply means that while using a fish finder rig you will let the rig stay on the bottom as still as possible while letting line loose as the boat is getting long away from the fish finder rig (the weight, plastic bead, swivel, leader, and hook), but in my opinion a long leader should be used. As you are letting the leader go away from you, doing so by having your gear on free spool, the line will slowly let out and all of a sudden you will see it go way faster. This means you have a bite. Engage the reel and start reeling in. You do not have to set the hook just keep pressure on the line and reel in. Remember not to drag bottom rigs because you do not want to get snagged on the bottom.
If the boat you are fishing on is anchoring I would recommend you find a spot on the transom (back of the boat) or the bow (front of the boat). This is because the current usually makes the transom more accessible to the chum line ( that’s if the boat is chumming). And is also a good way to avoid being sandwiched in between tangles. This is not always the case, depending on the wind the entire boat may have a good position. Most party boats have regulars and they usually get the transom so be courteous and politely ask the mate or captain if there is an available stern spot that day. Do not expect that because you got there early, you will get a good spot. You might bwe asked to move your gear so don’t wait till that time. Get there early and ask if the stern or bow have available spots.
Q#2 – Do the party boats have gear I can use or should I bring my own?
A- Bring your own gear and more than likely you will save the rod and reel rental fee. Also most party boats only have conventional gear, no spinning gear. A light rod and a medium-heavy rod is good. No need to carry 4 or 5 rods with you. use the medium-heavy rod for bottom fishing heavy weights and the light rod for fishing snappers with light weights or jigs.
If drifting, most boats will allow you to use their weights and hooks and if you ask the mate he will kindly set up a rig for you. Your light spinning gear should be no less than 20lb test. If you ask for a kingfish rig he would probably set up your rod with a sinker and 3 hooks attached to one another. If you ask the mate for a bottom rig he will take a look at your gear and will bring the appropriate weight and hook for you. PLEASE do not expect the mates to be your personal helper, they are there to prepare the boat, anchor, cut bait, hand out bait, and clean the boat. They will gladly help but let them know you will tip them well and they be happier to help you more. When the boats do drift fishing they will move from spot to spot a few times so bring a trilling rod just in case. If no one is trolling this is your chance for a try at catching a nice fish.
If anchoring- bring the same gear as above. More than likely the boats that fish for snappers do so at night and most of them do chum the water to bring in the snappers, groupers, and grunts closer to the boat. the light rod will be used most of the time and by light in this case you can use 12 to 20 pound test on it. This is so you can use jig heads such as “hook ups” many call them “Troll Rights”. You will want to use cut bait with this. If you are going to use shrimp you bought from a tackle shop be ready to use 3 dozen as the shrimp will be easily pulled from the hook by the smaller fish. Always watch what the others are doing and you will know how to rig your terminal tackle and what bait to use. You don’t like spending money on jig heads? That’s fine, just use a knocker rig (sinker right next to the hook), 1/8 of an ounce and upwards to keep the bait at the cum range. If you will be using big cut baits you can flat line it or send it down with a heavier weight but be ware there are sharks down there so try not using too much of a bloody bait like fresh blue runners and fresh bonito. If you want to use them I recommend that you catch them prior to the trip bleed them and put them inside a bag with kosher salt to extract the blood and make the bait a bit harder (this also makes shrimp harder and will stay on the hook longer). If I was in the dry tortugas I would use the freshly caught runners and bonito on a bottom rig but around South Florida it usually means sharks but it is not always the case. Also don’t just think snappers when night fishing. Lots of pelagic fish are attracted by the lights of a party boat. You can flat line a ballyhoo or a bonito strip to catch them.
Q#3- What bait should I bring to a South Florida Party Boat?
A- You do not have to bring bait to a party boat. They supply bait, their bait will work just fine, but if you want to have an edge then bring fresh caught bait. Fresh ballyhoo, pilchards, kingfish belly strips, bonito strips, blue runner strips, shrimp, etc… Always call the boat office and ask what kind of bait will be available, most of the time the person answering the phone will know.
I believe the above three questions answer and give you a bit of an edge to be successful on most party boats. The answer I always give that covers everything everywhere extremely global is ” watch what the others are doing and assimilate” don’t ask why just do it. If they are catching fish in the way they are fishing then so will you. Don’t fight your knowledge, assimilate and be successful.