Passing a fishing boat can be nerve-racking. The last thing you want is to cause an accident, making it crucial you fully understand the special guidelines designed to keep both boats safe.

The best way to pass a fishing boat is to approach with caution, keeping a safe distance. If the boat is using lines, nets, or other fishing gear, you should look to pass on the side of the boat with no gear extended. Communicate over VHF radio or by horn signals which side you intend to pass on before making your move. After you get confirmation from the fishing boat, pass slowly and at a wide distance.

Why are there different rules for passing a fishing boat?

Fishing vessels fall into a special category of powerboats. This requires other boats to make special considerations and take extra precautions.

These guidelines exist because fishing boats present unique dangers. Knowing what these dangers are will help you understand the risks of passing these boats and hopefully encourage you to follow the guidelines.

Lines and gear

Fishing boats rely heavily on lines, nets, and other fishing gear to accomplish their task. This gear can extend from any side of the boat and can be hundreds of feet long. It’s often tough to see what they have in the water, making it critical to never act on assumptions.

Nets and lines are dangerous to run over. If they get caught in your prop, it’ll damage your boat, the fishing gear, and potentially cause a collision. At the very least, you’ll have to deal with some furious fishermen.

Actions are difficult to judge

Fishing boat crews pay close attention to the work at hand and may not see you approaching. Also, their boat moves in response to fishing demands, increasing the potential for unexpected actions.

They may be navigating based on bottom topography or fish-finding technology, working lines on deck, or steering the vessel based on a fish’s action on the line. 

As a passing vessel, you have no idea how that fishing boat may move. So, if your presence has gone unnoticed by a busy crew and you’ve ignored the guidelines for passing a fishing boat, even what seems like a safe attempt to pass is still a gamble.

The two golden rules for safely passing any boat

Many variables affect the correct action you should take when passing a fishing boat or any other type of boat.

However, two golden rules supersede all others in EVERY passing scenario.

  1. Never pass a boat if doing so could put either boat in danger
  2. If you’re unsure of the right way to pass without endangering either boat, stop and begin communication from a safe distance

“I had the right of way” is an unacceptable excuse for causing an avoidable accident. If following guidelines or the directions given by another boat creates a potentially dangerous passing situation, don’t do it. Communicate with the other boat and delay passing until both boats can confirm a safe side to pass on.

Communicating your intention to pass

You’ll need to understand a few communication signals to pass a fishing boat safely.

  1. One short horn blast indicating your intention to pass with their boat on your port side
  2. One short horn blast in response, confirming they understand your intention
  3. Two short horn blasts indicating your intention to pass with their boat on your starboard side
  4. Two short horn blasts in response, confirming they understand your intention
  5. Five short horn blasts made by either vessel to indicate that they believe the situation is dangerous or are unclear about the other boat’s intentions

If possible, and especially if there’s doubt on either side, attempt VHF radio communication to address the issue.

Understanding the rules of the road 

Knowing the rules of the road for your local waters will help you understand how to pass a fishing boat. It’ll also help you prevent accidents with all types of vessels.

The coast guard or other authorities for your area should have rules on how to handle specific passing situations such as:

  • Passing head-on
  • Passing from the side
  • Passing at anchor
  • Overtaking from the stern

Understanding the dynamic rules for each scenario is critical for passing boats – fishing boats included. The difference with fishing boats is you’ll need to take extra steps and considerations that hold priority over standard passing procedures. 

Guidelines for passing a fishing boat 

The first thing you’ll need to do is slow your approach and observe the fishing boat’s actions from a safe distance. If they aren’t fishing, the standard rules of the road for passing a powerboat apply. 

However, even if you don’t think they’re fishing, there may be a line out you can’t see. The conservative move is to continue cautiously and use the horn, signaling the side you intend to pass them on anyway. Better safe than sorry when it comes to preventing a boating accident. 

If you’ve observed that the boat has gear out and is fishing, you should determine the direction the gear is extending from the boat. If you see the lines extend off their port side and you believe it’s safe to pass on their starboard side, you should indicate your intention to pass on the starboard side with a one horn blast. 

If your assumption is correct, the fishing boat will confirm that you can proceed on their starboard side by returning one horn blast. If you’re wrong, the boat will indicate that you should pass on their port side with a two-horn blast.

As you pass, it’s proper etiquette not to rock their boat or disturb their fishing. You can do this by passing wide and slow, minimizing the wake you send their way.


When they’re not fishing

The special rules for navigating around fishing boats only apply to them when they’re fishing. 

If they aren’t fishing, you should consider them a standard powerboat. This means they are subject to the standard guidelines outlined for all other types of boats under power.

Local regulations

Keep in mind that these guidelines are not universal rules that apply to every location. Guidelines vary state to state, country to country, as well as by the type of waterway you’re navigating.

You should always check with local authorities when boating in a new area to confirm their rules of the road.

Safety first

The guidelines for passing a fishing boat, or any boat for that matter, never supersedes the priority of mutually confirmed safety. If the fishing boat wants you to pass to a side you believe could be dangerous, you should delay passing. 

This does not give you the right to pass wherever you’d like. It requires you to hold off until you can work out a safe situation for both boats.