Handling Big Fish, Part 2

Tips to help you land big game fish.
Capt. Jack Sprengel

There is a thin line between being the hero and the zero. The moment of truth occurs as soon as the angler comes tight to a big fish.

When you come tight to a "green" marlin or big tuna and it's making its initial run, there is no need to do anything more than keep tension on the line, a load on the rod and let the fish exert itself by pulling against the resistance of the drag.
However, there are plenty of things you don't want to do. Don't attempt to re-set the hook. Trying to turn the fish's head too early, reeling the line against the drag while the fish is taking line, letting the line get slack or chasing the fish down too early and positioning it under the vessel will all get you in trouble.

The best thing to do is focus and let the fish make its initial run without any interruption. In many cases this run, though it may sound intimidating will be less than 150 yards. Most reels will carry more than three times that much line.

Eventually the fish will lose steam, begin to shake its head and change the angle of its body to create more resistance. This is when the angler can start to make up ground on the big game fish. Begin closing the distance between the vessel and the fish.

If hooked up on the troll, position the angler in a stern corner, facing up-sea and within a clear line of sight of the captain. Keep the boat just in gear, steer free of any obstructions and slowly head down sea with the wind or tide, whichever is stronger. If the hookup came from a drifted dead bait or livie, position the angler mid-ship just behind the wheel on the same side of the boat as the fish and position the vessel so that the fish is up-sea.

The angler can make long steady pumps of the rod followed by rapid turns of the handle to take in the gains created by each lift. Avoid sharp drops of the rod tip which can create slack that will let the hook pop free. The captain can make minor adjustments to avoid any entanglements and continue to run down-sea from the fish to keep a constant push away from the fish, reducing the likelihood that the fish might swim abruptly under the hull and chafe the line. It also helps to keep the line and fish directly in plain view of the captain and cockpit crew.

During this stage of the fight, certain species, like billfish and some sharks will plane upward in the water column and begin to breach. This is the one exception to the constant bend in the rod rule. When big fish break the surface and begin thrashing, it creates a series of shock loads in the line and puts uneven pressure on the hook. If this scenario should occur, bow to the fish. Point the rod at the jumping fish to create constant steady resistance and reduce the likelihood of line failure or a thrown hook. As soon as the fish returns to the water, resume the bend in the rod and take line whenever the fish isn't pulling drag.

Large billfish will plane upwards with the boat's forward momentum if you kept the boat in gear. Ideally the fish will glide up alongside the stern so the crew in the cockpit can grab the leader and proceed to gaff or release the fish. Tuna and swordfish sometimes roll onto their sides and use their large tails to angle off from the surface. Combined with their shear mass, this move can essentially anchor the fish about 80 to 120 feet below the surface.

The constant pressure from the angler and the resistance from the fish creates a sort of spinning stalemate scenario coined "The Death Spin." Now comes the not-so-fun part of the battle and a true test of your rigging, equipment and will power.

Both the angler and the fish are experiencing a crash in the levels of adrenaline that they experienced earlier in the fight. Both are ready for a break, but who flinches first? It comes down to sheer determination and minimizing mistakes.

If the angler is positioned mid-ship the fish should be able to make these large circles without rubbing against the hull. Just remember to avoid letting the butt of the rod ever point at the fish. If it gets hairy, the captain can always make the necessary adjustments on the wheel and throttles to create a little space from the fish.

Keep the fish's head pointed upward, essentially using its large tail to work against it. The angler needs to make short repetitive lifts of the rod tip, 24 or so inches at a time, followed by rapid turns of the reel handle to take in the short gains of line. Performed correctly, this process will slowly plane the fish upward in the water column and you should see color through the water.

Prepare the deck and landing equipment. Clear any possible obstructions and have the other crewmembers prepare a harpoon or a few gaffs depending on what surprise comes to the surface. If you're going to release the fish, set up the tag sticks and de-hookers.

When the fish gets within reach of the leader man, the angler must back off on the drag slightly and to remain ready for the fish to bolt at the site of the vessel or crew. Many teams have lost a trophy catch at precisely this moment, by rushing the process out of anxiety. It's far better to have a fish take line and fight it for another 30 minutes than it is to take a long ride home with nothing more than a sad story.

Before you take a fish, make sure it's of legal size or length before you bust out the gaff. One easy way to determine this is to attach a premeasured piece of brightly colored line to a snap swivel. When the fish has come up alongside the vessel, simply attach the swivel to the leader and let it slide down towards the fish. This same swivel technique has also been used with glow sticks to slide down the line at night to determine the location of the line and fish for landing.  
If the fish is shy of the minimum length requirements, you can use a long-handled fiberglass dehooker like those made by Jay Jigs or ARC Dehooker. This tool will allow the leader man to easily remove the hook from the fish's jaw at a safe distance from anything "pokey" on the fish's face or in its mouth.

I like to use in-line style swivels such as those made by Spro, when I know I'll be keeping the fish. These eliminate the need for a leader man and the angler can reel the fish directly to the rod tip.

When throwing the harpoon, aim for the middle of the fish, just behind and below the dorsal fin. It's always best to aim a little low as most fish will appear higher in the water column then they actually are. Throw with enough force to go through the fish, as just enough to hit will often end up in a pulled dart. Once the fish is stuck, it will begin to dump line out of the harpoon basket. I keep 200 feet of line in my basket. If the fish does manage to take all of the line from the basket, the other end should be attached to a buoy or mooring ball that can be easily tossed over and followed until the fish is subdued.

If the fish is on the smaller side, it may be more practical to secure it with gaffs. When gaffing big-game it's always prudent to keep meat preservation in mind. Try to secure the first gaff or two in the fish's head or gills then the final gaff under its tail a little more towards the body to avoid being tossed around. Secure a tail and you're in the clear.
This is a good time to keep the fish in the water and bleed it for a while to improve the quality of the meat. Then you can begin to determine your boating options. Before targeting large game, its best to know the landing capabilities of your operation, block-and-tackle, come-alongs, ramps and tuna doors are all useful. Sometimes it simply comes down to a good old-fashioned heave over the rail. If the rail lift is the best option, be sure to pay close attention to the water line as this is a pretty good way to capsize the boat.

Okay you got the fish on the deck, nice work, but you're not done yet. You still have to prep and pack. Using a large fillet knife make 2-inch deep circular cut around the fish's anal cavity. Then on each side of the fish's head remove both sets of gill rakers and following the inner lining of the gill plate cut as far forward into the head as possible on both the top and bottom of each side.

You can remove the fish's head and the abdominal contents leaving a nice large cavity. Give it a quick rinse down with raw sea water and pack the inside of the cavity with ice. Now you can transfer the fish to a large fish box or insulated fish bag. Completely surround the fish with as much loose ice as possible. If any part of the fish is exposed to the elements, it's a good idea to lay a towel over it and soak it with seawater to reduce its exposure. Secure the fish so it won't bounce around during transport and steam for port.

When you get your fish to the boat, the first decision you have to make is whether or not you're going to boat the fish or release it. The next step you make really depends on what you choose to do. Photos courtesy of Capt. Jack Sprengel.
If not handled properly, sharks and billfish can mess you up. It's best to use a wind-on leader or in-line swivel so the angler can reel the leader onto the rod. Just make sure to back off the drag a bit in case that big fish decides to make one last bolt for freedom.
Boating a giant tuna takes the entire crew. The captain must use the boat to keep the fish in the correct position and it can take two or three guys to secure the fish and get it up and over the rail.
Once you secure the fish with a tail rope, you've won. That fish isn't going anywhere, except home with you.
Don't get too comfortable, there is still plenty of hard work to be done. Get out the knife, you're going to need it.
To keep the fish's meat in the best shape possible, start by bleeding the fish out. With giant bluefin tuna, you're going to remove the gill plates and innards and fill that cavity with ice.
To keep the meat fresh, stuff the fish's cavity with ice and use a fish box or insulated fish bag to keep the bluefin tuna cold. Secure the fish bag on deck so it won't slide around and bruise the meat on the ride back to port. The only thing left to do is bust out the soy sauce.

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