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October 26, 2001

Bring Out the Big Guns

Heavyweight sticks are built to tame giants.

Fishing with heavy tackle - 80-pound to unlimited - puts tremendous pressures on you and your gear. It's a contest of leverage, with the big-game rod serving as the backbone. This backbone must be strong enough to bully a 1,000-pound marlin and forgiving enough to override any mistakes made in the heat of the fight. It's a delicate balance, to be sure, but one that can result in an exhilaration known only to those few who have conquered a giant fish on rod and reel.

We asked three of big-game fishing's top captains and anglers what they look for in a heavy rod and received strikingly different answers to some of the same questions. We'll let you decide which of their responses make sense for you and your style of fishing.

The Stick
"Traditionally, back in 1940s, '50s and '60s, you just needed a long, heavy broomstick with a parabolic bend from butt to tip," says Tracy Melton, president of Melton International and the first man to best a grander on stand-up tackle. "A rod with parabolic bend simply bends in the same arc across the length of the rod from butt to tip. But since marlin can either run on the surface or tough it out down deep, it's hard to keep pressure on a fish with a stiff, parabolic rod. The trick is to design a rod that will load easily at about 15 to 20 percent of the breaking strength of your line, but still has a nice, firm butt section that can hold 50 percent of the breaking strength and really put the screws to a fish when it goes deep."

Capt. Peter Wright, a 30-year veteran of Australia's Great Barrier Reef who currently resides in Stuart, Florida, likes his rods to pack a bit more wallop. "I want my rods to start to take a set at about 40 percent of the breaking strength of the line. If it doesn't start setting at 40 percent, it's not going to be able to lift when the fish is close to the boat. I want my rods to be fully flexed and able to lift and recover line at 75 percent of the breaking strength. Those are my magic numbers: 40 percent and 75 percent." Wright cites the plethora of sharks in Australia and his concern for beating fish before they wear out as reasons for using such stiff rods.

As a charter-boat captain in Madeira, Capt. Roddy Hays has chased some of the world's biggest marlin with anglers possessing varying degrees of experience. He feels that the rod should match the angler, not the fish. "It depends on what the man in the chair can do with the rod," says Hays. "If the angler can keep pressure on the fish, you can use a broomstick. But a slightly more responsive rod is better for people who don't have experience. Instead of the rod controlling you, you should be controlling it."

Most heavy trolling and stand-up rods feature roller guides to help limit the friction that comes with using 30- or 40-plus pounds of drag. The two most important guides are the stripper guide (the one closest to the reel) and the tip.
Generally speaking, if you're using anything over 50-pound, the rod tip and stripper guide should be of the roller variety. However, when using stand-up gear with a not-so-experienced angler on board, Hays prefers to use ring guides.

"With stand-up rods I like to use regular ring guides because where the rod goes, the ring tip goes. Sometimes anglers can't follow the fish with the rod tip and start fighting off the roller tip at odd angles. With a ring tip I don't have to worry about the angler doing something silly.

Because he's into large fish almost every day, Wright has very strong opinions about his guides: "They have to be roller guides, and the only guides I'll allow on any of my rods are AFTCO roller-bearing guides. When somebody makes a better one, I'll use it. Stuart makes good guides, but I think its stripper guide is backward."

Solid fiberglass wins hands down as the material of choice for most heavy rods. Graphite's stiffness keeps it out of most big-game rods because it can sometimes snap under pressure. Fiberglass and graphite mixtures offer a lighter rod with the durability of fiberglass and the extra backbone of graphite.

"The last thing you want is a rod that will break, so I like rods with some glass in them instead of pure graphite," Hays says. "I think glass and carbon make a really nice mixture, but I'll always go with ones that I've had experience with. If I know a rod has caught 10 or 11 big fish, and I don't want to mess around, that's the one I'll use."

Here, all three pros were unanimous. They all prefer a bent-butt rod when using heavy gear, with leverage and rod angle being the factors that most influence the decision. Since curved butts keep the rod tip lower, they make it easier to pump and retrieve line.

"You've got to go with curved for anything over 50-pound," says Wright, "but I use a curved butt all the way down to 20. You've got to keep the rod lower, and when the fish is straight up and down, you don't want the rod up in the air. The rod should never get above 45 degrees from the horizontal."

All of the rods on Hays' boat have curved butts, including his stand-up gear. "An 80-pound stick with a straight butt is next to useless," says Hays. "You can't put pressure on the fish if it goes down."

- Dave Ferrell