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October 26, 2001

Give Me the Chair!

Give me a firm place to stand and I will move the earth," said the Greek scientist Archimedes over 2,000 years ago. The same philosophy applies to a firm place to sit - on a fighting chair, which may not move the earth but can move fish big enough to feel like it. The growing interest in stand-up game fishing over the last decade may be leaving fewer anglers aware of how to use the fighting chairs that still figure prominently in the cockpits of virtually all modern offshore sport-fishing machines.

Give me a firm place to stand and I will move the earth," said the Greek scientist Archimedes over 2,000 years ago. The same philosophy applies to a firm place to sit - on a fighting chair, which may not move the earth but can move fish big enough to feel like it.
The growing interest in stand-up game fishing over the last decade may be leaving fewer anglers aware of how to use the fighting chairs that still figure prominently in the cockpits of virtually all modern offshore sport-fishing machines. Certainly for any novice offshore big-game angler, a fighting chair is the preferred way to do battle. At the same time, many veteran anglers who feel they've been whipped by a big fish (even one they've beaten) on heavy stand-up gear may be ready to take their seats again.
"Not too many anglers fish 80-pound stand-up properly, and not too many can handle heavy drag with such gear," says Capt. Ron Schatman, whose accomplishments include a Bertram-Hatteras Shootout win in the Bahamas. "Even I've been pulled to my knees."
If using heavy tackle can make the chair the choice, so can rough seas. Fighting a fish while you're seated can be a whole lot safer as well as more effective than stand-up angling when fishing in very rough sea conditions.
A chair's design helps maximize the pressure an angler can bring to bear against major game fish like tuna, shark and marlin. Big-game fishing is all about leverage, and the fighting chair positions an angler to maximize the power that can be applied to the lever (in this case, the rod).
Fighting Chair Defined
A fighting chair is a beefy, substantially mounted, fully adjustable power center that pivots smoothly while under load to position an angler in a way that maximizes the use of his body weight, leverage and strongest muscles toward the task of besting nearly anything that swims.
Don't mistake fighting chairs (which Aussies call "game chairs") with fishing chairs. The latter are lightweight and designed to serve only as a place to sit while fighting smaller game on light tackle. They do not increase the power equation. Fishing chairs are often portable, have no attached footrest and are just about useless for medium- to heavy-tackle (50- to 130-pound) big-game fishing.
Most people don't need a true fighting chair to catch such game fish as sailfish and other small pelagics on light tackle. However, properly adjusted, a fighting chair could be a big help to that end if used by a child, a novice or someone with a physical disability.
Heavy Tackle, High Stakes
Modern fighting chairs are designed for the use of 50- to 130-pound tackle, with an emphasis on the higher-end numbers. "A lightweight angler who knows what he's doing can effectively use a fighting chair with 50," says Capt. Randy Parker of the Kona-based 53-foot Merritt Kila Kila, "but it takes a certain amount of pressure to be able to use a chair properly, and for most people that means at least 80-pound tackle."
All good fighting chairs quickly adapt to the use of either straight- or curved-rod butts and are built to resist the huge forces applied to them by an angler standing on the footrest and leaning into a harness against the pull of a 500-pound tuna, marlin or shark, with 75 (or more) pounds of drag set on the reel. "The forces being exerted are enormous," says Frank Murray, president of Murray Products. "An engineer once calculated for us that thousands of pounds of pressure can be exerted into the chair by a 200-pound angler with 50 pounds of drag set on the reel."
Properly built fighting chairs, like those manufactured for decades by Murray Products, are designed to keep functioning under such great forces hour after hour and fish after fish. Still, catastrophic failures have resulted from the tremendous forces involved when using heavy tackle. Parker recalls a stainless-steel chair stanchion bending under the force of extra-heavy drag put on a big shark in Australia.
While working aboard a visiting boat, Parker also witnessed a California-style game chair break away from the top of its high, bait-tank-mounted pedestal. That happened just as a tournament angler stepped onto the footrest to grab a 130 that was spewing line in the wake of a big blue marlin.
The chair crashed to the deck and, with it, two 130 outfits and the angler. A near-hysterical mate eventually landed the fish, although it had to be disqualified. Only too late was it discovered that the chair seat was attached to the pedestal flange with wood screws, not through-bolted as it should have been.
Schatman reports watching Capt. Bill Harrison maneuver a 46-foot Bertram for angler Raoul Guttierez on a giant tuna off Cat Cay in the Bahamas when the stanchion of a very old Rybovich chair was bent to the flange by the force of 90 pounds of drag. The fish gained its freedom when the line broke.
Critical Adjustments
"It is really a game of finesse, not brute strength," says El Zorro owner Jim Edmiston of St. Thomas (USVI) about fighting-chair use. "Catching a marlin is like holding a kid by the ear: He can go anywhere he wants; you just have to convince him to go your way."
When it comes to equipping and using a fighting chair, there are plenty of right and wrong ways to convince a fish to go your way and plenty of things the crew and anglers can do to tip the odds in their favor.
Presuming the chair to be properly mounted, the first step in the correct use of any fighting chair is to be sure right off to adjust both chair and harness to fit the angler. Don't wait for a strike to get adjusted.
"You can't adjust the chair under pressure," says Steve Schumacher, owner of the Kila Kila. Schumacher has probably spent more time in pursuit of giant Pacific marlin over the last 10 years than anyone. "Take the time to adjust the chair early on," he advises. "The height of the gimbal is critical. If the reel is too high, you risk bumping it with your chest; too low and you can't wind."
Schumacher likes to have the reel comfortably positioned so that an angler's elbows are slightly bent and his arms are relaxed. Then, when he is up off the seat and leaning into the bucket harness, his legs will be locked straight.
"The angler must be ready to get into the chair and fight a fish," agrees Murray. "He should also be responsible for being sure that the footrest, gimbal and harness are comfortably fitted before the strike." He suggests adjusting the footrest so that, with the angler's knees locked, the edge of the seat is just above the bend of the knee.
Another adjustment you should make is to the footrest. Murray chairs, for example, offer three vertical footrest adjustments. "Tuna fishermen seem to prefer the footrest in the lowest position, which improves the angle necessary to pull a fish up from the deep," Murray says. "And marlin fishermen generally prefer the middle position for fighting fish that spend more time near the surface."
To determine the optimum adjustments, the angler should be harnessed to the reel lugs, with legs straight, and leaning into the harness. The angler's weight should lift off the chair seat and balance against the weight applied by a crew member to the tip of the rod. Only while rocking back and forth in this position can angler and crew properly determine if the footrest angle and length, gimbal height and harness-connector lengths are correct for the angler's size.
Optimal adjustments include allowance for comfort. That's important when fighting big fish for extended periods of time. Schumacher learned firsthand that comfortable equipment adjustments contribute to endurance when he and Capt. Marlin Parker went over 23 hours off Kona on a Pacific blue marlin that appeared clearly bigger than the current world record (1,376 pounds). Although he lost the fish, the lessons were obvious: Comfortable, secure adjustments allow you to pace yourself for hours.
Fighting Methods
Several schools of thought exist regarding the proper way to use a fighting chair to its maximum advantage against a big fish. The traditional method, which some call the sliding-seat technique, was more than proven by angling experts like William Carpenter, Elwood Harry and Jo Jo Del Guercio on thousands of giant bluefin tuna. Lubricating the chair seat with liquid soap made sliding back and forth in a bucket harness easier, and some chairs have since been built with roller-mounted seats to facilitate this technique. In practice, it works like this: Bend the knees and slide forward on the seat, and the rod tip drops; straighten the knees and slide back, and the rod tip lifts.
The "Wright method," developed by Capt. Peter Wright - the most successful heavy-tackle marlin skipper of all time and one of the top giant tuna captains as well - offers another approach. This requires keeping the legs straight, leaning over the reel and cranking yourself up off the seat, pivoting upward and aft (which drops the rod tip) and then rolling the body weight back into the bucket harness. The latter allows gravity to drop the angler back down toward the seat, simultaneously lifting the rod tip and leveraging the fish closer to the boat.
An additional method, espoused by the Murrays, Schumacher, Edmiston and others, is a combination of the two approaches. This method involves knee bends to get forward while dropping the rod tip, and then pushing back and letting body weight and stiff knees lift the rod tip, thus lifting the fish and recovering line. This technique amounts to a more or less circular motion of the angler's lower torso: sliding forward, rising up off the seat (toward the top of the "circle") and then around, pulling away from the rod while pushing back away from the footrest, and finally dropping back onto the seat.
"The choice of techniques is really a matter of personal preference," Schumacher says. "Every angler should use the method that feels most comfortable to him. I prefer to bend my knees to lower the rod tip because I feel that I can retrieve line faster, which is important in marlin fishing. For tuna and shark, the stiff-legged approach is probably best."
Gaining line with heavy tackle from a fighting chair involves the same general procedure as stand-up fishing: lifting the rod tip, winding the line recovered by each lift onto the reel while dropping the rod tip, and repeating that cycle as often as required to land the fish. Surface-active game fish (such as most billfish) often allow the angler to recover large amounts of line without pumping, at which time the angler is instructed to "wind like a bastard," as skippers have been known to yell down from the bridge.
Posture is another concern. "Keep your back straight; you don't want to 'egg' forward, as in skiing," Edmiston advises. "Slide forward, rise up, lean back, and pull 15 to 18 inches of line each time. Every wind you get is progress."
When a fish is moving steadily away, an angler should maximize the pressure exerted by leaning stiff-legged against the harness and applying as much drag as possible. With the chair and harness properly adjusted, this will not only be relatively comfortable, but the pressure exerted will often be enough to turn the chair, keeping the rod tip pointed at the fish at all times.
"A stand-off with the fish is OK," Edmiston says. "Just shake it out, catch a breath, grab a drink and take any break you are given - but keep an eye on your rod tip, and always be ready to react when the fish does something."
Unlike stand-up fishing, the rod's foregrip should not be used when working a big fish from a chair. The angler's left hand should remain on top of the reel, where it serves to guide the line onto the reel and protect the angler from recoil should the line snap. "When the mate grabs the leader, the angler should slack the drag enough so the mate can move with the fish across the transom if necessary, while remaining ready to go back to the strike button if the mate has to dump the wire," Murray says. "And that happens, so be ready!"
Getting Into the Chair
Before you can effectively fight a fish from a fighting chair, you must be able to get into it. This isn't necessarily as easy as it may seem, especially if the rod is in a covering-board rod holder, and a big fish is beating a hasty retreat.
"Most big fish take a long, sustained first run," notes Murray, "and you can take advantage of that opportunity to back off the drag and move the rod and reel to the chair."
To do so, use only your right hand to adjust the drag. Parker recommends securing the right hand and fingers firmly against the reel's right side and using only the right thumb to carefully adjust the drag lever. Schumacher likes to decrease the drag very slowly and only enough to free up the rod.
After slacking the drag, the right hand is moved to the top of the rod butt, near the base of the reel. The left hand, on the rod's foregrip, lifts up enough to release the rod from the aft edge of the rod holder. The rod butt is then pulled out of the rod holder in one smooth motion.
"Once the rod's out of the rod holder, point the rod tip toward the fish and carry it toward the chair," advises Schumacher. "I place the butt in the gimbal first, then step over it and sit in the chair. Then I buckle into the harness and quickly get the drag back up to its strike setting."
Parker and Murray recommend that a heavy rubber band be utilized across the gimbal bracket to secure the gimbal in a vertical position. This helps the angler get the rod butt into the gimbal in a hurry, with a minimum of fumbling.
Like everything else in fishing, good equipment makes a big difference. Top-of-the-line fighting chairs, equipped with functional accessories, make the angler's job a lot easier. A proper fighting chair, correctly adjusted, gives the knowledgeable angler many advantages and, correctly used, gives an angler more leveraging power than a Wall Street tycoon.