Fighting big game from a "dead" boat presents one of fishing's greatest challenges. The angler must keep from being spooled, respond to a fish's antics with agility to prevent cutoffs and, of course, needs 360-degree fighting room on board. That's all well and good when fishing from a center-console and using heavy tackle. But what about lighter gear on a boat with a forward cabin? The boat, with an adept helmsman in command, must become an active, integral part of the equation if a big fish is to be beaten.
Though this article mainly addresses twin-screw inboards, much of the information about where to keep a fighting fish relative to the boat applies to all boats. But since most outboard boats fight fish bow-first and very few recreational boats sport single-inboard power, we shall assume twin inboards for the sake of this article. Keeping track of a hooked fish's location ranks as the most critical task for any captain, who'll base virtually every action he takes on this knowledge.
Capt. Skip Smith of the Madam and Hooker fame says good captains have excellent peripheral vision. "The best skippers can see where the fish is located, which direction it's heading and if any others are in the baits." Unless the fish obviously ranks as a monster, Smith also suggests turning toward it. "More often than not, fish travel together. Turning toward the hooked fish brings it closer to the boat while at the same time gets it out of the bait spread. That way, you can often get multiple hookups on the undisturbed baits."
Capt. Jim Sharpe of Sea Boots Charters in Big Pine Key, Florida, says your reaction should depend on what kind of lures you happen to be using at the time. "Using artificial lures, we speed up when we get a hookup. Adding that extra strain really sets the hook nicely. But that's not necessarily the case when you use baits, unless you're trolling really slowly at the time you get the knockdown."
Once you've determined that you're only dealing with a single-fish hookup," says Smith, "milk it. I often troll slowly back toward the fish. I figure that I shouldn't do anything special unless the angler isn't winning."
Of course, ultralight tackle requires far more aggressive boat handling than does 30-, 50- or 80-pound test. Sharpe figures the best way to stack the odds in the angler's favor is to stay as close to the fish as'possible.
"I don't want alot of line out," he says. But when he can't keep up with a running fish that's big and strong, Sharpe's most important rule is follow the line, not the fish. "The last thing you want when fighting a fish of any size is belly in line. The water pressure alone can break bellied line in a heartbeat."
Bertram/Hatteras Shootout-winning Capt. Tom Zsak, who fishes out of Fort Lauderdale aboard Happy Day Today, prefers to just keep the boat moving slowly forward and let the fish do its own thing. "In fact, I like to do everything slowly and savor the moment," he says. "But if you're in a hurry, short strokes make for a much quicker fight. I usually tell anglers to keep the rod-tip travel to about half of what they'd normally do. From level to about 45 degrees up is the maximum throw for a rod when short-stroking. I've seen Marsha Bierman land huge fish in under five minutes using this method."
"The point of fighting a fish is to have the boat and angler meet with the fish," says Sharpe. "The easiest way to do that is for both to move toward each other." To accomplish this, he preaches moderation when backing down.
No captain likes fish to the side. A fish close to the boat (that isn't in the process of being wired or released) can easily dart under the hull and cut the line on running gear before the helmsman can react and pull the boat away or turn. A fish to the side of the boat and out 100 yards or more can put undue strain on the line, causing it to snap from water pressure. When fighting a fish, try to keep it off a stern corner or off the transom.
Sharpe describes two situations when skippers should run forward toward a fish. "Certainly, when the fish is moving away in front of the boat, it's best to go after it pointy-end first - especially on a single-screw boat like mine." The second scenario: "On a big fish of 800 or 900 pounds, I honestly can't back down fast enough to keep up. I prefer to chase the fish bow-first then. After all, I can run the fish down at 20 knots in forward, but I can back down only at a maximum of 8 knots."
Zsak employs a variant of Sharpe's method for fish that have wounded or died. "Take the fish down-sea. Keep short-pumping and winding to gain what you can, and slowly but surely, it will come up."
Some captains believe the technique of keeping fish off the corner stems from older boats with varnished teak transoms, when skippers sought to prevent scr'tches. But there's much more to it than that. More fish get lost at the boat than anywhere else. Current wisdom questions the need for a wireman at all if the angler uses wind-on leaders. The sudden change in pressure from the drag setting to a wireman pulling on the leader has been known to cause the fish to spook and run.
In the meantime, says Smith, the skipper should keep the fish off one corner or the other. "If forward motion is needed to keep the fish from going under the boat, use the outboard engine (the engine farther from the fish) exclusively so you don't pummel the fish with prop wash. And use thrust sparingly. Spooking the fish by blowing prop wash at it may cause you to go through the who"e process again."
Smith also suggests the"unconventional; "Don't let mates touch the leader with wind-ons. Just gaff the fish, cut the line or remove the hook. Something as common as a frayed leader or badly placed hook can cause the angler to lose his fish if a mate grabs the leader. Since the angler wound the fish up that close, there's no reason he can't keep it there for gaffing or release."
Sharpe, who runs a single-screw boat, needs to position fish differently for the end game. "I can react faster with fish off the transom than alongside. If I have a fish alongside and it decides to dart under the boat, I can't spin the boat anywhere near as quickly as I can move forward or astern. I also feel there's really only one direction that you can handle a fish when it's alongside - that's with the head forward. Off the stern, the head comes up toward the mate who can handle the fish no matter which direction it twists with no problem."
When the fish approaches the boat, in addition to watching the rod's bend, the captain must note the angle of the line; 45 degrees is optimum. "Remember that if the fish didn't jump much, it might still be very green and you may have to react more quickly than if it jumped a lot and tired itself out," says Zsak. Zsak also feels that he can frequently predict what a fish will do next by noticing patterns. If a fish acted in a certain pattern and it changes, Zsak usually lets the angler fight from a dead boat until the new pattern becomes discernable. Finally, Zsak feels it's too difficult to tag or gaff a fish over the transom, so it should always be brought alongside.
Many schools of thought exist on how best to handle a boat while fighting fish. No single method works in every situation or for every type of boat; skippers must adapt to changing conditions and react to individual fish. Following the advice of these experts represents a good starting point, but be prepared to rely on your own experience to determine what works best for you.