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October 25, 2001

Strap It On

Rod belts and harness unseat the chair while giving anglers an new kind of fight.

Made entirely of leather, the first rod belts strapped around the waist with an ordinary belt buckle. Ideal for tangling with fish on line up to 30-pound test, these small belts functioned merely as rod holders worn on the waist but provided the much-needed protection from gut-wrenching "gimbal-itis." John Imbesi, a 30-year veteran on the tournament circuit from Hatteras to New Jersey, remembers that surf fishermen used belts first, but it didn't take long for offshore fishermen to make the jump. Using them "... was better than letting the rod butt hang in your pants," Imbesi says.
You can still buy leather belts today - they're lightweight and comfortable - but if they're not rinsed after exposure to salt water, the straps deteriorate and can break under pressure. Leather models usually feature internal metal backing plates and molded-plastic cups - with or without gimbal pins. Izorline gets around the leather-belt breaking problem by offering quality leather butt rests with nylon belts. The company also offers a unique "apron style" rod belt that doubles as a utility belt with pockets for a knife, pair of pliers, etc.
A new breed of light-tackle gimbal belts similar in size to the first leather models but made entirely of nylon, plastic and other rot-resistant materials has emerged in recent years. And since a lot of novice anglers end up using these smaller belts, most manufacturers design light-tackle belts to be extremely user friendly. Braid Products' Sailfish Belt features a patented V-shape design with ridges on its plastic face that angle toward the gimbal pin to help anglers guide the rod butt into place without looking. Play Action's Model 350 uses a design similar to Braid's, but its Model 20 features a gimbal cup that holds the rod more securely. It's a little harder for first-timers to get the butt into a cup rather than on a gimbal pin, but once it's in, it stays there, and this helps novices who may lack the dexterity necessary to keep rod pressure centered on a gimbal pin.

Medium-Duty Gimbal Belts
Bill White, president of Play Action, conducted an informal test of pressure exerted on an angler's groin while pulling line against 16 pounds of drag on a 50-pound-class stand-up rod. A flat scale placed against the body between the rod butt and abdomen indicated pressure readings of 40 to 50 pounds in a 1-inch-square area.
Belts designed to tackle fish on 30-pound tackle and up are no longer used merely for protection from the gimbal - they've become tools to help anglers subdue fish quickly and comfortably. They're larger than light-tackle belts and worn lower on the abdomen, so rod-butt pressure is transferred to a wider area, giving anglers better leverage on tough fighters such as tuna and small billfish.

Heavy-Tackle Gimbal Belts
The largest gimbal belts on the market can handle 50- to 130-pound-class tackle and are designed to be worn across the thighs. According to Dennis Braid of Braid Products, this position allows the angler to lean back, bend his knees and reach higher up on the rod's foregrip for better leverage. "Once you start fishing with 15 pounds of drag and up, positioning the gimbal halfway between your knees and stomach will allow you to apply the most pressure on the fish with the least amount of effort," Braid says.

Light-Tackle Stand-Up Harnesses
For long battles on light tackle, a small-diameter kidney harness may be all that's needed to relieve arm fatigue. Constructed of a padded, plastic-coated material, Braid's 6-inch-wide Marlin Harness provides plenty of support for light-tackle game fish, but its Pro Manta Kidney Harness distributes pulling pressure over a larger area with wider plastic stays. Canyon Product's model H60 kidney belt features a similar design.

Big-Game Stand-Up Harnesses
Big-game harnesses, made for fighting larger fish on heavier tackle, cover a greater area of the midsection, extending down to and including the buttocks. With these harnesses, the angler can lean back, putting more of his weight into the fight. These big-game harnesses can also be used from a chair. Most have hard plastic stays sewn in to distribute pressure and are used with drop straps, which integrate the gimbal belt to the harness.
The drawback to these bulky harness-and-belt combinations is the many time-consuming adjustments necessary to custom-fit the outfit to each individual angler. A small fish will most likely be in the boat by the time someone helps the angler adjust the gear. Ideally, each angler should have his own harness and belt. Failing this, keep at least one on board that can be called to action when a brawny beast settles in for a long battle.

Safety Concerns
Some veteran captains who grew up fighting fish in the chair were initially reluctant to give stand-up fishing a try, and many still have reservations about their limits. "It's suicide!" That's what New England tuna captain Bob Pisano says about battling giant tuna with stand-up gear. Pisano has landed more than 1,000 giants in his career and has great respect for their raw power and the accidents that can result.
"If something goes wrong with one of these fish, you're going in the water. I once watched a guy next to us get yanked out of his boat," Pisano explains. "The reel locked up and he cleared the boat without ever touching the outboards." A safety line and pocket knife saved that angler, but Pisano warns that others may not be so lucky.
With this in mind, several harness manufacturers are now incorporating quick-release safety straps into their equipment. Adjustable straps on Play Action's new K-5 Kidney Belt come loose by pulling up and back on the forward edge of the buckles. Braid Products has developed a new quick-release system for their harnesses which, they say, can also be purchased separately to retrofit any make of harness on the market.