Battles with billfish vary greatly, the fish sometimes tiring early enough in the fight to be taken quickly, while at other times settling in for a long battle.
What makes the difference? “If you rest, the fish rests,” says Rob Ruwitch, who has released more than 2,500 billfish in 20-plus years of targeting them. “That fish will find a comfort zone of some kind, maybe nice, cool water under a thermocline. It gets its head down, and you’ll lose line.”
Ruwitch says constant pressure with short, quick strokes of the rod shortens fights. “It’s just a little lift of the rod, and then a crank down. If you’re gaining, even if it’s a few inches at a time, the fish is losing,” he says.
Ruwitch’s goal is a rapid succession of short rod strokes and quick single cranks on the reel. This technique — commonly called “short stroking” — was popularized by yellowfin tuna fishermen on long-range boats out of Southern California, where 200-plus-pound fish are taken from stationary boats without aid of fighting chairs. But short stroking is effective on any fish with tackle of any size.
Short stroking works well with 50- or 80-pound stand-up tackle. Big gimbal plates span across both thighs, and harnesses distribute pressure from a reel equally between the lower back and buttocks. Short, stiff rods give fishermen power to lift.
“You want your rod adjusted, so when you’re standing upright it’s pointing no higher than 20 degrees above the water,” says Dennis Braid, founder of Braid Products (braidproducts.com). “When you lift, you want that rod tip up around 45 degrees,” he says, so each stroke lifts about two feet of line. Relating it to the hour hand on a clock face, the rod angle doesn’t fall below 2:30 (15 degrees) nor above 1:30 (45 degrees). Lifting higher, between 45 and 75 degrees, Braid says: “You move your body just as far, but the rod tip bends over. You’re gaining only eight or 10 inches of line.”
Lighter tackle and fights that can change rapidly (e.g., billfish) often don’t call for a harness. Ruwitch frequently uses just a Rod Huki — a Tshaped extension that fits over the rod gimbal (rodhukidirect.com) — primarily to keep the rod from rotating. (Braid prefers a waist belt with a gimbal pin.) When fight times extend, Ruwitch switches to a harness he’s preadjusted for fit and rod position.
Billfish typically fight out, away from the boat, which calls for keeping the rod tip a bit higher, Ruwitch says. At that point, he’s working the 30- to 50-degree range — between 1 and 2 on the clock.
Short, quick rod strokes are particularly applicable to light tackle. “You can usually lead smaller fish a bit more than big, offshore pelagics,” Ruwitch says of everything from schoolie-size dolphin to snook and bonefish. “Keep the rod parallel to the water, or even with the tip down a bit, and pull to the side.” The rod’s foregrip remains about perpendicular to the fishing line. “When you get that head angled toward you, even just a little, the fish is closing that gap.”
Making Your Move
“When a fish is running, you’re not going to stop it. Once it settles down, that fish is going to give you something,” Ruwitch says of the moment the fish makes a mistake and tables turn. “You have to know when to take advantage of that.” Experienced anglers do this by feel, but Ruwitch says: “People don’t watch their rods enough. You’ll see that rod tip give a little bit. That’s your opportunity to reel down and get that half a crank.” Such short, quick line gains never give fish a chance to turn away.
Hand Pressure and Drag
“The whole key is that little extra that gives you that half a crank,” Ruwitch says. “You need to know how much hand pressure you can add to the drag without breaking the fish off. Practice on a barracuda or a jack, but know how to feel what it takes to break the fish off, whether it’s 130-, 20- or 2-pound line.”
Braid starts with lever drag reels set to one-third line test and bumps the drag up a bit after each run. He ultimately reaches as much as 28 pounds of drag on 50-pound line by the end of the fight.
Keep reels in high gear, using leverage of the rod to lift, and the speed of the reel to take up slack on the short rod drop that follows, advises Ruwitch, who almost never switches out of high. On the other hand, when fighting 600-pound-plus bluefin tuna on stand-up gear, Braid often switches between high and low, comparing it to driving in the mountains.
Some fish tend to stay straight down. Ruwitch says a pinwheeling tuna might take a bit of line as it swims out, away from the boat, but: “You’ve got to put extra heat on when it’s on the inbound turn of that spiral. As long as his head is up, even a little, you’ll corkscrew that fish up.
“With billfish, you never want to get into that straight up-and-down scenario. You’ll lose that game,” Ruwitch says. “If it’s been 30 minutes and nothing is happening, I’ll back the drag off almost to free-spool.” Without line pressure, “a billfish will naturally want to come back to the surface, and then it’s a whole different game,” Ruwitch says. “But as long as you’re getting a half a crank every time, don’t change what you’re doing.”
Half a crank at a time is exactly how Ruwitch has beaten every billfish species on the planet, including an 800-pound blue marlin on 20-pound tackle. “I fought that fish for six and a half hours,” Ruwitch says. “When you’re miserable, your legs are burning or your back is hurting, but that fish is about to turn it’s head and come toward you, you need to suck it up right then and beat it. For every half-crank you’re winning, the fish is losing.”
About the expert: Rob Ruwitch lives in Miami and fishes his 46-foot Kincheloe-Nickerson throughout the Caribbean and his Contender 32T in South Florida. While he’s still an avid tournament fisherman, Ruwitch’s perfect day offshore is watching his family catch billfish._