How Should You Pass a Fishing Boat? (Navigation Rules)

It’s a maritime conundrum. One that inspires anxiety and confusion in most people . . .

How should you pass a fishing boat?

The presence of fishing vessels requires boaters to be aware, knowledgeable, and proactive in their approach.

And the stakes are high: one mistake and you risk your life and the lives of everyone on board. 

In this article, we will explore how to pass a fishing boat safely in order to avoid a collision. 

We will delve into the specific techniques and practices for overtaking a fishing vessel. By using these techniques, boaters can minimize the risk of accidents and disruptions.

Understanding the Navigation Rules

Whether you are passing a fishing boat on the water or encountering any other type of watercraft, familiarizing yourself with these important rules will help to avoid an accident.

Expert tip: File a float plan before you go!

Give-way and Stand-on Vessels 

Determine who has the right of way. The give-way vessel is the one responsible for taking action to avoid a potential collision, while the stand-on vessel has the right to maintain its course and speed.

As a general guideline, if you are passing a fishing vessel, you will typically be the give-way vessel, meaning it is your responsibility to yield and navigate accordingly. By understanding and respecting these boating rules, you can pass safely and minimize the risk of accidents.

Right of Way and Maneuvering Responsibilities

Right of way dictates which boat has priority in specific situations and is determined by vessel type, size, and the presence of navigational aids.

For example, if you are operating a sailboat and approaching a fishing vessel, you are required to yield to the fishing boat due to its limited maneuverability. Fishing boats have a higher right of way than pontoon boats or racing boats. 

For more information on the nuances of boating right of way, visit this site

Port Side and Starboard Side

Port side refers to the left side of the vessel when facing forward, while starboard side refers to the right-hand side.

By identifying the port and starboard sides of both your boat and the fishing vessel, you can plan your maneuvers and steer effectively.

This is extra important because you want to avoid interacting with any fishing lines or nets coming from the other vessel. 

The Importance of Keeping a Lookout

A word of advice: always be vigilant about observing other boats and swimmers, especially if there are motorboats around and especially in low-light situations. And if you’re on a kayak, try to stay as far away from larger vessels as possible. 

How should you pass a fishing boat?

Maintaining Situational Awareness

ABS: Always Be Scanning. 

By maintaining situational awareness, you can anticipate and react to changing conditions and minimize the risk of collisions. Be on the lookout for obstructions in the water.

Importance of Communication and Signaling

Use appropriate signaling methods like navigational lights and sound signals to indicate your intentions and alert other boaters to your presence.

For example, when passing a fishing boat, consider using a sound signal, such as a short honk, to inform the boat captain of your presence and intention to pass.

Pay attention for any signals or communication from the other boat and react accordingly. 

Approaching a Fishing Boat (Navigational Rules)

If you’re new to boating, study and memorize this is the section. Don’t skip any of the steps! 

Maintaining a Safe Speed and Distance

Reduce your speed and react promptly to any unexpected situations. Go slow and don’t create any large wakes that can disrupt the fishing lines or cause hazards for the crew.

Maintaining a safe distance is equally important. Keep a reasonable distance from the fishing boat, respecting its working area and providing ample space for the crew to operate. 

Identifying a Fishing Vessel 

Look for distinct features (specialized equipment, nets, fishing gear). Fishing boats often have a different profile and structure compared to recreational watercraft.

Recognizing the Limitations and Hazards Associated With Fishing Boats

These vessels have limited maneuverability due to their size and equipment. They may also have restricted visibility, particularly when their fishing gear is deployed.

Their lines can pose risks to both you and the fishing crew. Stay alert and avoid crossing or getting entangled in the fishing lines by maintaining a safe distance and following the rules on how to pass on the appropriate side (see below).

How Should You Pass a Fishing Boat (Hint: On the Port Side)

Try to pass a fishing boat on the port side. 

Passing on the port side prevents entanglement with fishing lines, which are often deployed on the starboard side. If you see the lines on the port side, head for the starboard side–you want to go wherever you won’t encounter their gear. 

Steps to Safely Pass on the Port Side

Put Your Boat in Neutral

As you approach the fishing boat, reduce your speed and shift your boat into neutral (if you have a motorboat; if you’re in a kayak just stop paddling). This allows you to maintain control and prepare for a safe passage.

Honk or Signal

Letting them know you want to overtake. 

Wait for the Other Vessel’s Signal

Look for a nod, wave, or other signal from the boat captain indicating it is safe to proceed.

Pass at a Safe Distance

Once you have received confirmation, the right way to pass is to maintain a healthy distance and proceed forward. 

The #1 Rule When You Want to Pass Other Boats: Avoid Collisions 

This one is pretty simple: do everything you can to avoid a collision. If you’ve followed the steps above, you should accomplish this easily! 


Proactive scanning, effective communication, and respecting the right-of-way are essential for a smooth and safe passing maneuver.

By following these guidelines and adopting a responsible approach to passing boats, you can navigate the waterways confidently and avoid getting tangled up in fishing lines, which, believe me, is best avoided. 

Have fun out there!


What are the navigation rules for passing a fishing boat?

When passing a fishing boat, it is important to know and follow certain navigational rules. These rules include giving the fishing boat the right of way, maintaining a healthy distance, and passing on the port side (or whatever side from which they are casting). 

Why is it important to pass a fishing boat on the side opposite its fishing lines?

Because you want to stay clear of another vessel’s fishing lines. By passing on the opposite side, you minimize the risk of getting tangled in the fishing boat’s lines. We recommend passing on the port side, but if they are casting on the port side, go ahead and pass on the starboard side. 

What if I’m passing a fishing boat and there is not enough space? 

A: If there is not enough space, you should wait for the other boat’s signal or maneuver, but do not rush into it. Give the boat enough space that you don’t get in its way.

What is the maximum speed I should maintain when passing a fishing boat?

You should maintain a minimum wake speed. This means traveling at a speed that creates the least amount of disruption to the water and other boaters and swimmers.

What if the fishing boat is traveling at a high speed?

Still follow the appropriate navigational rules and make sure to maintain a safe distance and maneuver out of the way if necessary.

Are there any specific rules to avoid when passing a fishing boat?

Not necessarily rules to avoid, but definitely rules to abide by–these include not passing too close to the fishing boat, not crossing its path, and not creating excessive wake.

What if the boat is heading toward the shore?

According to the US Coast guard, find the proper side to avoid a collision and follow the guidelines mentioned above. 

What does the word overtake mean in this context?

Overtake refers to the act of passing another boat that is moving in the same direction as yours. It involves maneuvering your boat safely and responsibly to go ahead of the other boat.

What are the overtaking rules?

Overtaking rules are guidelines that dictate how to safely pass another boat on the water. According to these rules, the overtaking vessel should keep a safe distance and communicate its intentions clearly to the vessel being overtaken before the actual overtaking takes place. 

Is it important to know fishing boat design so I can identify a fishing boat?

No, just look for fishing gear and lines. It should be fairly obvious. 

What are some other important things to remember when passing a fishing boat?

Adhere to speed limits and use your eyes and ears. Be aware of your surroundings. There may not always be an ideal way to approach, so be sure to keep a safe distance.

Image Credits
Photo 1 by Guilherme Stecanella
Photo 2 by Petr Kratochvil
Photo 3 by Knut Troim
Photo 4 by Nick Karvounis

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