I often tell my buddies that I won't go fishing with them unless I get to do the gaffing.
Sure, hooking and reeling in your own fish is a lot of fun but it pales in comparison to grabbing the leader and sticking a big fish with a gaff. I'll rig the baits, set the lines and drive the boat all day long, but I want to be the one with the gaff in his hand when you finally get the fish within range.
Here are 10 tips that might help you get the fish into the boat without incident.
If you are wiring the fish as well as gaffing it, you should always wear a suitable pair of gloves. I never grab any type of leader, mono or wire, without a pair of gloves on. You never know if you'll be required to grab the leader at some point and a nasty cut can end the crew's day... your's too.
The gaff's gap and strength should match the fish you are targeting. A gaff made with a large fish hook attached to a pole will work for bottom fish and smaller game fish up to 30 pounds or so. Anything bigger and you will need a serious gaff that can hold some weight. Big tuna and marlin can stretch out a pretty stout gaff, so make sure the fish isn't green before you stick it, unless you have no choice such as tournament fishing or dealing with a foul-hooked fish.
When targeting slimmer-bodied fish like wahoo and king mackerel, make sure you don't use a gaff with a big gap. A wide-gap can completely encircle the fish's body, without ever sticking it. You can even lift the fish into the boat if you are moving fast enough and create a dangerous situation. A king or wahoo barely hanging on the gaff will cut you to pieces if dropped on deck. Use a flying gaff when taking big marlin, unless the fish comes up dead.
Try to hit all fish in the head, it kills them fast so there's less struggling. A head shot will also avoid ruining the meat. If the fish has teeth a head shot makes sure the teeth face toward the sky instead of down to the deck. Again, if you drop a wahoo with the teeth facing down it can inflict a serious wound if the fish's open mouth contacts your foot or lower leg. A fish gaffed in the tail can use its body to twist off the gaff, which is very unlikely to happen if you hit in the head.
Don't be a lumberjack or Babe Ruth! Swinging for the fences with a gaff causes more strikeouts than home runs. A sharp gaff goes in easily and a smooth stroke offers more control. Correct placement avoids a lot of hassle. Reach out beyond the fish and pull the gaff in to get a solid hold.
Keep a dolphin's head in the water when gaffing. If you lift its head the fish will try to jump and shake, making for a more difficult target. Aim for the eyeballs to avoid messing up your meat and always have a target in mind before you sink the gaff. A green dolphin loose in the cockpit with hooks flailing all over the place is one of the most dangerous situations in all of sportfishing. If the fish box is in the floor you need to have a guy standing by to open and close the box, and he should tell everyone onboard in a loud voice that the "FISH BOX IS OPEN!" to keep people from stepping into it!
As opposed to the dolphin, when you lift a tuna's head out of the water the fish is done! Don't let the tuna go back under and get its head down or you might be in trouble. Never touch a tuna's tail when close to the gaff. Tuna do not like anything near their tail! A good rule of thumb for all fish. Most fish will bolt when you touch their tails. In the open ocean, danger usually sneaks up on you from behind.
When targeting marlin, always use a flying gaff and secure the gaff rope to the stanchion on the fighting chair if available. Only allow enough rope for the tallest gaff man to reach as far forward (up the side) and as far back as he can. Too much gaff rope allows a big fish to build up speed and momentum which can rip the gaff out or straighten the hook!
The gaff man should always step in from behind the leader man to avoid throwing the gaff over the top of leader. When gaffing a billfish, try to gaff the fish just over the dorsal in the widest part of the fish.
Keep any fish you are trying to gaff on one side of the boat. Trying to gaff a fish that's coming straight at you or going straight away doesn't leave the gaff man with much of a target. Even if he gets the gaff in, the hook of the gaff will not get a good bite and probably tear out.
Wind-on leaders allow you to "wire" the fish with one hand and gaff the fish with your other hand. If the fish comes up on the port side, hold the leader in your right hand and hold the gaff in your left. (It just the opposite on the starboard side.) This allows you to lay the gaff on the leader and slide it down to the fish's face with the point facing back towards the fish. As soon as the gaff pole is about to touch the fish's nose, give it gentle jerk. As the gaff goes in, drop the leader and grab the gaff with your right hand and pull the fish toward the boat and into the box in one smooth motion. This trick places the gaff hook directly into the fish's eye, head or gill plate. A perfect shot.