6. Fail to Rely on your reel's Drag or use it improperly
"I hooked a bluefin in 1999 that had to be 900-plus after it devoured a bridled bluefish right before our eyes on Stellwagen Bank. Unfortunately, the drag on the 130 reel had not been set correctly, so the fish was able to take a huge run. My friend Scott tried to goose the drag up to a more appropriate setting, but that was the wrong time to do it - and we were rewarded with a loud snap! Always set your drags ahead of time, with a scale at the dock!"
- Capt. Damon Sacco
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Sacco, who takes anglers to fish Northeast canyons aboard his 45 Jim Smith (and to blue water off Palm Beach during the winter and spring), knows well the danger of trying to adjust a drag at the wrong time. And he points out that a sudden need to loosen a drag "when the heat is on" can cause a wicked backlash.
"We set our drags on strike once the fight begins," he says, "then advise anglers, 'Leave the drag alone!'"
Marcus Kennedy seconds that emotion. "Anglers unnecessarily tightening the drag when a fish runs drive me crazy!" says the Mobile, Alabama, skipper, who runs the Kwazar, a 36 Contender, and is one of the SKA circuit's brightest stars. "It must be a congenital defect in some fishermen to feel that the proper reaction to a big fish running fast is to tighten the drag." Worse, some of these anglers shrug off their mistake with, "Golly, he broke the line!" Kennedy says with a groan.
Renowned Miami skipper Bouncer Smith puts it just this simply: "The No. 1 cause of big fish lost is tightening the drag." Smith, who runs the 33-foot Dusky that bears his name, points out that he carefully checks drags before leaving the dock.
Panos worries about fishermen who get a bit too hands-on; even if not guilty of tightening the drag when a fish is running, they do the same thing by thumbing a spool or holding a finger against the line. Those who really know what they're doing can use such techniques effectively, but he has seen many good, fast-swimming fish pop off with the added tension.
Skippers who pursue big marlin may need to have anglers change the drag setting during the fight. Capt. Peter B. Wright, one of Australia's legendary billfish skippers, says one of the most frequent means his anglers find to drop big marlin is poor drag manipulation - "not backing off enough when a fast-moving fish gets a lot of line out."
Capt. Skip Nielson knows that all too well. The Islamorada, Florida, guide says he'll never forget having a 500-pound black near the boat suddenly sound, then really take off. "But we hadn't backed off the drag, so we watched the fish free-jump into the distance. On a big fish, the drag must be backed off during the first run or the line will break."
Impatience - that's what Andy Mezirow sees as the culprit that drives some of the "anglers who don't let the drag do its job, but instead add pressure by thumbing the spool when a fish runs. Setting the drag with a scale and then letting the reel do what it was designed to do usually works best," says the Seward, Alaska, skipper who operates Crackerjack Charters.
Finally, Australia's Billson warns against forgetting to back off the drag when a great deal of line is out, since water resistance adds tension. He still rues the day one of his anglers failed to get out of the cabin and to the reel quickly enough after a true monster of a marlin swallowed a huge bait and proceeded to empty the reel of most of its 130-pound line. The angler (who insisted no one else touch the rod) came running to the gunwale, where he "pushed the drag straight to strike, and the result was instantaneous. The fish was broken off," says Billson, "thanks to water friction [on so much line] combined with extra drag from reduced spool diameter."