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How Should You Pass a Fishing Boat

There are over 75,000 fishing boats in the United States. This means that, at any given time, you’re likely not the only person fishing on the open water. And, nothing will get your weekend fishing trip off to a worse start than having a bad encounter with another boat.

As any experienced boater knows, proper etiquette while passing another boat is essential for everyone’s safety — both vessel riders and any fish lurking below the surface. So let’s take a look at what you need to know before taking that next voyage into the unknown.

We’ll take you through all the details on how you should pass a fishing boat safely and successfully so that everybody can make sure to have a good time out on the water.

Starboard Side vs. Port Side: Which Is Which?

Before we get started, let’s review some boating basics. If you’re entirely new to boating then you’ll need to ensure you have a solid understanding of which side is which.

Simply put, the starboard side is the right side of your boat when looking forward, and the port side is the left side. This way of defining starboard and port is especially important when docking. Starboard-to-dockings mean that your starboard side (right) should be closest to the dock while port-to-dockings mean that your port side (left) needs to be closest to the dock.

However, it’s also essential to understand the starboard side and port side as you learn how to properly bass a fishing boat on the water (which we’ll discuss in just a bit!).

If you’re ever unsure, remember that the starboard side is usually associated with green navigational lights, and the port side is associated with red ones. If you’re not sure which direction your vessel should go in, simply remember starboard equals right, which equals green.

Boating Rules: Understanding the Hierarchy of Right of Way

Now, it’s also important to understand the hierarchy of right of way on the water. When driving, pedestrians typically have the right of way. However, on the water, who should get to pass first if two boats are trying to pass each other?

Unmanned vessels and those being overtaken have the highest priority, then come boats with limited maneuverability or restricted navigation. Last are sailboats and powered boats.

Why are fishing boats more important and why do they have the right of way versus powered boats? It’s mainly because you need to be extra careful when passing fishing boats since they can have reduced maneuverability due to things like fishing nets, for example.

This is why it’s important to remember that you must wait for their “all clear” signal before passing them. Speaking of the “all clear” signal, that brings us to our next question.

How Should You Pass a Fishing Boat?

Once you understand the hierarchy of right of way on the water, you’re halfway to answering this question. However, you still need to understand how you should pass a fishing boat. After all, it’s poor etiquette to go speeding past the boat as you create waves that rock the boat.


When passing a fishing boat, the first step is to assess the two vessels. One of the boats is designated as the “give way” while the other is known as the “stand on.” Typically, you can use the hierarchy of right of way above to easily and quickly determine which one you and your boat are in any given situation.

Responsibilities are shared between both parties, and each one must ensure their intentions are made clear through signaling (as mentioned above). What does that signal look like?

If you’re a give-way boater then you must yield to allow safe passing. Meanwhile, the stand-on should give an “all clear” signal once approaching to avoid any accidents or collisions. Typically, fishing boats (and other types of boats), give this signal by using their horns. It’s just a nice way to confirm that the other boat is clear enough to pass and that they have the space they need to do so.


What happens if you’re trying to pass a larger fishing vessel? You might have to wait for them to give you the “all clear” signal. The issue with fishing boats is that they need to haul in their lines for you to safely pass their boat. For a smaller fishing boat out on a day trip, this isn’t that big of a deal, but for a commercial fishing boat, this might take some time.

Understand what’s involved with hauling in commercial fishing lines and practice patience in this situation. As long as they’ve confirmed that they’ve seen your boat and know you’re trying to pass, don’t pressure them or honk your horn.

You can, however, honk your horn when you’re about to approach the boat. If you’re approaching from the other boat’s starboard side (not your own) then you can honk once. If you’re approaching from the other boat’s port side, honk twice. After that initial instance, though, it’s best not to honk your horn. Try to get the attention of the captain if you have questions or issues.

Pass On the Port Side

Once you have the go-ahead then you’ll want to pass on the port side. This is not only standard among boaters but it’s also the official recommendation from the US Coast Guard.

So, when encountering another vessel on the water, pass them on the port side. Doing so will create a safe situation and give the captain of the other boat a better view of your watercraft. However, there may be times when passing them on their starboard side is necessary.

If this is the case, communicating with the captain of that vessel is key to ensuring that everyone knows what to expect next. The bottom line, though, is that it’s always good practice to pass boats on their left side as it allows both captains to remain in control of their vessels while navigating waters safely.

At What Speed Should You Pass a Fishing Boat?

When passing a fishing boat, it is important to reduce your speed to pass safely. This is not only for the safety of the boat’s passengers and crew but also for the fishing lines and other gear that may still be in the water. Regardless of how you pass or who you pass, it’s essential to pass smoothly and at a reasonable speed.

Ideally, pass the fishing boat at two knots faster than their speed. However, the key when passing any vessel is to slow down appropriately to prevent creating wakes or stirring up too much water which could otherwise displace important equipment.

What About Passing Fishing Boats Under Special Circumstances?

We know that not every situation is as simple as signaling, waiting for the go-ahead, and then passing slowly. There are some special circumstances in which you might need to follow differing boating rules and boating safety tips. Here are three of those unique situations.


When attempting to pass a fishing boat head-on, the best course of action is to slow your boat speed and signal the other captain. Make sure you both can see each other and leave a reasonable distance between your watercraft, as the safe distance depends on the respective size of your boats.

How much distance are we talking about here? It’s going to depend on the type and size of the vessel, honestly. There’s no hard and fast rule here. Simply use your best judgment and pass safely with enough space to ensure you don’t damage your boat or the other boat.


For starters, knowing the colored lights that are typically seen on the bow of a boat formation is important when you need to pass a fishing boat at night.

As mentioned above, on the port side, you’ll see a red light, and on the starboard side, there will be a green one. The key is to pay attention to the color of the lights on the fishing boat’s bow. By considering which direction these lights are pointing in, you can safely pass behind or in front of any vessel while out at night.

Then, follow the same passing rules as listed above.

Narrow Channels

If you ever find yourself needing to pass a fishing boat in a narrow channel, keep it safe by maneuvering to the starboard side of the vessel. You should expect the captain of the fishing boat to do the same.

While this will create enough distance between yourselves to make passing possible, there might be some scenarios in which this isn’t quite enough room. If that’s the case, then you should slowly pass ahead of the fishing boat and allow them more time and space needed to safely pass through the channel.

Learn About Other Boating Safety Tips

So, how should you pass a fishing boat? Safely, slowly, and while signaling to the other captain or crew. Aside from the basic boating safety tips included in this guide, though, you’ll need to ensure you understand other boating rules as you head out on the open waters. Luckily for you, we can help you with that.
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