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October 25, 2001

Run and Gun to Beat Big Game

How Professionals Handle the Helm to Help Their Anglers Score

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.

HOOK UP
Numerous schools of thought exist on what do first upon hooking up. Some captains gun the engines, using the boat's forward surge to help set the hook. Others drop the rpm back to idle, while some skippers do nothing at all until the angler has the rod in hand, sets the hook and gets ready to reel. Then too, much depends on whether you fish baits or plastic, J-hooks or circle hooks. Most (but not all) skippers who gun the engines in reaction to strikes use plastic. Those using natural bait are more likely to slow down or maintain trolling speed.
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."

THE FIGHT
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."

BACKING DOWN
Sailfishing out of Palm'Beach one winter's day, the captain of a brand-new 58-footer backed up-sea to tag and release a sail quickly. In 8-foot seas, it didn't take long for green water to spill over the transom and enter the cockpit. Before anyone could move, another wave followed, filling the cockpit. Tens of thousands of pounds of water dumped into the back of the boat in a matter of seconds. The quick-thinking captain gunned the engines forward while the mate opened the transom door, allowing the water to pour out and preventing a disaster.
 
Similar stories tell of short circuits in the shore-power system electrifying water in the cockpit when it reached a level above the shore-power cord. Backing down fast, especially in heavy seas, always represents a dangerous maneuver.
 
Smith and other tournament skippers don't disagree, but feel that sometimes backing down becomes necessary. "When time is truly critical and you have a capable angler and crew in the cockpit," says Smith, "you need to press the issue. Get the fish to the boat, deal with it and get fishing again."
 
How does a captain know when to back down and how fast? "Watch the rod," says Smith. "If you feel it's bending too much, then you need to come back more or faster. If there's very little bend, take your time" he says.
 
The captain's job is to keep tension on the line at all times. Don't ever back down hard if the angler can't reel fast enough to keep the line from going slack.
 
"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.
 
"Both angler and boat get terribly stressed when you back down really hard," says Sharpe. "If you start soon enough and react well, extreme backing down isn't necessary. After all, how many hours do we spend trolling for fish like marlin? When I hook up, I really don't want the fight to be over in a matter of five minutes, though we've done that in tournaments and to set records. But generally, I don't want to take the enjoyment away from the angler."
FISH TO THE SIDE
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.
FISH AHEAD
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."
 
If you decide to chase the fish in forward, turn the boat toward the fish and instruct the angler to face the fish (facing forward in the cockpit). The angler then reels up slack as the skipper runs to the fish; once close, the captain can stop, turn the boat so the stern once again faces the fish and resume the fight.
FISH DOWN
Since childhood I've heard crews talk about "planing fish to the surface," a maneuver applied to fish that had either gone straight down and died or were just plain stubborn, wanting to stay in colder, deeper water to rejuvenate. "Planing" involves moving the boat slowly forward while the angler locks down the drag to lift the fish upward and seemingly plane it toward the surface. Then, the captain backs the boat down as the angler quickly reels in line.
 
But according to Smith, planing isn't an accurate description of the process. "Fish, like humans, consist mostly of water. Their makeup and shape don't create an efficient planing surface. What you really do by moving backward and forward is stretch the monofilament to its maximum, then use the boat to slowly pull the fish upward. Hopeful'y the angler isn't already too tired to quickly reel in the line gained each time the"boat backs down."
 
Sharpe disagrees with using the boat to winch in fish. He prefers to let the angler rest for a bit while the fish sounds. Then, as soon as the fish stops sounding, the angler should use a short-pump-and-wind technique. "I don't believe you can plane a fish," says Sharpe. "It puts too much strain on line and when working at a line's tensile limit, you never know when it's going to break. Keep the fish's head up. If you start a live fish moving, it will keep moving."

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."
THE END GAME
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.
 
Many experts today agree that the angler should crank the wind-on leader through guides, then step away from the rail, with a hand on the drag lever, preparing to let off drag if the fish suddenly runs. (Flip the clicker on and don't back off the drag completely or you'll curse the bird's nest.)

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.