Fishermen have relied on harpoons for thousands of years. From early man to Native Americans to the famed whalers of Nantucket to the multi-million-dollar sportfishing machines of today, variations of a spear or harpoon have been used to take fish from the sea.
Unless you are chasing an IGFA world record, which prohibits the use of a harpoon, you really don't need to use a flying gaff to take big fish. And if you know what you're doing, you will find that using a harpoon is much easier than a flyer. Harpoons help streamline the end-game process through increased range, accuracy and effectiveness. Harpoons are also easily stored and less likely to impale someone climbing up a tuna tower.
Flyers, while effective in the hands of an experienced mate, can be dangerous and cumbersome when subduing a large game fish boat side. To get a good gaff shot the mate needs to bring the fish closer to the boat. In many cases the gaff man has to place the gaff above and beyond the fish and then pull toward himself to sink the gaff. This motion does not provide as much power as tossing a harpoon like a javelin, where you can really put your body weight behind the throw.
For these reasons, the harpoon lets the mate reach a fish that would normally be out of gaff range with a more fluid striking motion. And, the dart causes less damage to the fish's meat than a large flying gaff.
Like anything, however, using a harpoon requires skill and know-how. Here are a few points to remember when it comes to harpoon rigging and execution.
There are several ways to rig a harpoon and like many things in the world of sportfishing, personal preference places a large role. The first step is attaching the dart or "lily" line to the main line.
For our harpoon mainline we use 200 feet of 3/8-inch, three strand line with spiced loops on each end -- one loop to attach the dart line and the other for attaching an an A-1 Taylor Made poly ball. We use a four-foot section of 5/16-inch, three-strand line for the dart line, which connects the dart to the main line. Use a bowline knot to attach the dart line to the mainline loop and when attaching the dart itself.
Once the dart is placed on the shank of the harpoon, we use electrical tape to secure the dart line to the shaft of the harpoon. This insures that the dart stays on the end of the harpoon shank and won't fall off when being thrown. Some harpoons also feature a clip to the mainline further down the handle. This clip can help you retrieve the harpoon quickly if you miss a fish.
You will need to make some adjustments to the dart before go time. Darts usually come unsharpened so you will need to put an edge on the sides of the dart. When sharpening the dart, only sharpen the top one-third of the tip to insure penetration, but keep the dart from cutting itself loose once it's embedded in the fish. Darts can be rigged on cable (great for fighting the abrasion caused from the fish's skin) or three-strand braided line. Use a basket or box to store the coiled harpoon line and the poly ball.
USING A HARPOON
There are a variety of sizes of harpoons on the market. They range from 6-foot cockpit harpoons for sticking fish boatside to 10-footers that are weighted and used for throwing at fish further away from the boat. If you choose the latter option and wish to throw the harpoon at a fish, you must remember the laws of refraction. Think back to elementary school and the "pencil in water" example. When throwing at a fish do not aim at what you see; aim slightly below the target and you will have far greater accuracy and success.
Many folks, especially those here in New England, will fashion their own harpoons. These units are often cumbersome and not easily stowed. Several manufacturers offer harpoons that easily break down for safekeeping.
Aboard the Mulberry Canyon we use the patented POON Harpoon. Since it first hit the market in 2003 this system has been our go-to unit. It's simple yet dangerously effective design and industrial construction make it not only the first collapsible harpoon on the market but in my opinion, the best. On a sport boat, space is a highly valued commodity and the POON breaks down from 10 feet overall to 4 feet and stores in a bag.
If you fish for large mako sharks, swordfish or giant bluefin tuna, you'll want to keep a harpoon rigged and ready for that moment when a true trophy comes to the boat. As the folks at POON Harpoons say, "Life's too short to lose big fish... Just stick it!"