1. Let Your Line Go Slack
"We were swordfishing off Miami when the live bait farthest away got hit. The swordfish streaked across the surface, charging the boat. The angler did a good job of staying tight on the fish, and we actually got a glimpse at it next to the boat - a solid 250-pounder [a trophy fish for south Florida waters]. The swordfish then peeled off 200 yards of line, straight down. A tug-of-war started and after a solid hour-plus the sword decided it would come straight up. In a matter of seconds, the fish went from 500 feet to the surface. At this point, the angler needs to crank as fast as possible to keep the line tight. But my angler stopped cranking completely! I asked him, 'What's going on? You've stopped reeling!' He said he was just plain too tired and was hoping the fish would go either back down or away from the boat, pulling the line tight again. Needless to say, before that could happen, the hook pulled free. That trophy was the only fish we hooked that night."
- Capt. Dean Panos, Double D Charters, Miami
Experiences like that lead Panos to advise, "Always keep the line tight and a bend in the rod. If you let the line go slack, the fish can shake its way off the hook. This is especially true of billfish. This is definitely No. 1 on my list."
Of course, most of us have heard that very advice: "Keep your line tight!" and maybe even advised or reminded others of the same. Yet it's surprisingly easy to take away your full attention from that task for a even a few seconds during a long fight. How often have you seen a hook holding on to a fish by some meager wisp of flesh just pop out once the prize is on a gaff or in a cockpit? I think that's a sign of a careful, experienced fight, since a few brief seconds of slack line during the fight would have almost certainly let the fish get away.
Some anglers lose the tension in their line early on not from exhaustion, but from sheer adrenaline overload. Not surprisingly, captains like Kona's Chip Van Mols, who often marries novices with big marlin aboard his 35 Cabo, Rod Bender, know all about this phenomenon. "When that big gold reel starts screaming, and the first marlin he's ever seen is flying all over the place, the angler's right hand - the one that turns the reel handle - is pointing at the fish," Van Mols says. "And he's yelling, 'Gladdyssss! It's a marlin! Get the camera!' But by then, the fish is off because it shook the hook with all that slack in the line."
But a fisherman need not simply stop reeling to create enough slack to spoil the moment. Capt. Bert Lee, one of New Zealand's great skippers, operates his
28-foot charter boat, Osprey, out of Tolaga Bay on the North Island's central eastern coast. Lee notes that poor form when "pumping" or stroking in a big fish can mean the angler dropping the rod too quickly - faster than he cranks in line on the downstroke. "This can allow a hook to drop out or a fish such as a tuna to get its head down and sound," he says.
"The drill of lifting up on the fish and then reeling before the drop to recover line and eliminate slack is a foreign concept that some folks just can't grasp," agrees Capt. John Raguso, who runs the 27 Phoenix MarCeeJay out of Bay Shore, Long Island. "Some lift the rod, drop it down and then reel. Others wave it from side to side - it's amazing!"