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October 26, 2001

Gaffs: A Sticky Subject

The success or failure of a hard-fought battle rests upon the tip of your gaff.

It may just be the caveman in me coming to the surface, but I have to admit that one of my favorite aspects of sport fishing is sinking the gaff. Now, don't get me wrong - I'm not an indiscriminate killer. I've never killed a billfish, and I don't take more fish than I can eat. I do, however, get quite a thrill out of sticking a big wahoo or bull dolphin - I'd be lying if I said otherwise.
Whether you're fishing for wahoo, blue marlin or dolphin, gaffing a fish and putting it in the boat represent the most dangerous part of our sport. Gnashing teeth, swinging hooks and flying steel all come together in one split second to fill your senses with both anticipation and apprehension. Mistakes made during the end game can carry a heavy price, from a lost tournament fish to a nasty wound - or both.
With all this drama and emotion unfolding at this most critical time, the last thing you want to worry about is whether your gaff can handle the job. And once you see color, it's too late to worry, so take the time now to look over the expert opinions and gaff specs listed below.

Points and Barbs
While all gaff manufacturers have different names for the business ends of their particular gaffs - from "Ice Pick" to "Shark Tooth" - there are really only two types of gaff points: cutting points and cone points. Cutting points feature two or more flat surfaces that come together in a point, creating sharp, knife-like edges. Cone points, on the other hand, look just like the name suggests, tapering down uniformly into a single, needle-sharp tip.
Capt. Sadu Frehm of Royal Palm Beach, Florida, prefers conical points on his gaffs for a very specific reason. "To me, there's nothing worse than a cutting point on a gaff. If you hit a big fish like a tuna or marlin with a cutting point, the point continues to cut your gaff hole larger, and even with a barb your gaff may pull out before you can get the fish aboard."
Point style isn't as important as hook shape to skippers like Capt. Chip Shafer on the Temptress from Fort Pierce, Florida. "Whatever type of point the gaff has, I like to make sure that the point is parallel to the handle. I steer clear of gaffs with an open hook," says Shafer.
I've found that when gaffing a "meat fish" in the head, cutting points tend to penetrate bones and gill plates more easily than do cone points. Although if you miss the head and hit the fish somewhere else, cutting points can damage more meat than a cone.
Frehm avoids barbed gaffs for food fish for the same reason. "A barbed gaff ruins more meat in two ways: It makes a bigger hole, and fish don't slide off a barbed gaff easily." A good food-fish gaff should let you get the fish in the box and come out quickly. The last thing you want to do is spend a lot of up-close-and-personal time with a snapping wahoo because you can't remove the gaff.
However, when gaffing marlin (in a tournament), sharks or very large tuna, both Capt. Marlin Parker of Kona, Hawaii, and Frehm reach for flying gaffs armed with a barb. "I use a Top-Shot flyer because the barb is a good 3 or 4 inches back from the tip," Parker says. "Once you get deep enough to get that barb into a fish, it's not coming out."

Flying Gaffs
When gaffing game fish over 150 to 200 pounds, mates usually use a flying gaff. A flyer is nothing more than a large detachable gaff head mounted on a pole and tied off with a rope to a cleat or fighting chair. When the mate hits the fish, the gaff head comes off the pole and the fish comes tight on the rope. This keeps the mate from being beaten to death by a gaff handle stuck in a large, very angry fish.
Head sizes for all gaffs are measured in inches and represent the distance (or gap) between the point of the gaff and the shaft. Frehm says you should have at least three gaff heads ready to go when targeting big game and determine the size of the gaff according to the size of the fish. "If you're fishing in an area where you might come across that once-in-a-lifetime fish, try to have multiple heads on board, from an 8-inch head for tuna to a 15-inch for a real monster," he says.
Parker uses two types of flyers in multiple sizes as well. "I'm using a 6- or 8-inch Top Shot gaff - sort of designed for gaffing sharks - on the smaller tuna and marlin. But I use an AFTCO reinforced 10-inch gaff on fish in the 500-pound range, and a 12-incher on fish that are 800-plus," says Parker.
Stick Gaffs
A simple 2- to 4-inch hook mounted on a pole, the stick gaff represents the traditional style found on most boats. The handle can be aluminum, fiberglass, wood or even stainless steel, and may range from 12 inches to 8 feet in length.
Again, try to match up the size hook to the fish you've got coming to the boat. "For most dolphin and wahoo, I like to use about a 3-inch hook mounted on a 5 1/2- to 6- foot wooden handle," says Frehm. "You don't want to have to gaff a 200-pound tuna with a 2-inch gaff."
Whatever size gaff you choose, keep in mind that the IGFA has very specific rules governing their use. Any gaff used to land a fish must not exceed 8 feet overall length.