By Captain Tony Gatto
When that next tournament-winning fish comes boatside, it will pay off bigtime to have the right tool for the job and know how to properly use it.
As offshore fishing grounds have become more accessible to smaller boats, many new techniques must be learned. I’d be willing to guess that when a trophy fish is lost, 95 percent of the time it happens boatside. Yet very few recreational captains have a game plan or practice how to be successful in landing large fish. There are two parts that must be mastered in order to be successful: running the boat and taking the fish. This will not only increase your odds of landing a trophy, but it will enable you to safely release fish too.
The first consideration is how to run the boat. To simplify the process the captain’s main objective is to keep the fish clear of the boat. If the line contacts the running gear or hull you may very likely lose the fish. Find a rhythm and move the boat in a way to ensure there is no contact. If fighting a tuna, keep the boat ahead of it running forward in the same direction, but in slightly larger circles. If fighting a marlin or shark, run with the fish and try to stay parallel to it. Walk the fish to whichever side is easiest to manage.
As the fish gets close bring it within range and get ready to strike or release it. Be patient, don’t force things here. The wireman takes over as the angler eases the drag back and backs up away from the gunnel. The angler is responsible for ensuring the line doesn’t tangle on the mate or rod as the fish is wired. The gaff man then steps in and takes his shot.
Now that you understand how it’s done, it’s time to explore what tools are best suited for the task at hand. There are three main ways to harvest a large fish; a straight gaff, harpoon and fly gaff. If it’s small enough and you can control the fish, a straight gaff is fine. If the fish is larger but subdued, a straight gaff accompanied by a tail rope will do the trick. When larger, green fish are concerned. The best options are the harpoon and fly gaff, but knowing how and when to use them is very important in the inevitable success.
The use of a harpoon is so simple and effective that the IGFA disallows it from their rules. Stop and think about this: we are not talking about throwing a harpoon at Moby Dick. The process involves sticking a fish with a removable dart. Most of the time there is no need to throw or let go of the handle, you simply need to poke it hard and pull the handle back. If the shaft is connected to the rope, make sure to undo it in case the fish runs. Having the main line connected to a basket of thin rope will allow you to let the fish run. Be sure to be mindful of the rope and any slack. Bring the rope back in hand over hand and coil it neatly as it comes back. This will prevent accidents and keeping the slack on deck will prevent fouling it in the props.
The next option is a flying gaff. Again, watch and get in sync with the fish before you attempt to gaff it. If fighting a tuna, it should set into a pin wheel or circular pattern as it approaches the boat. The circles will decrease in size as the fish gets closer to the boat. Watch the circles and learn the cadence. When the fish comes out from under the boat reach in front of it and over its back, pull the hook into the tuna and towards the boat. The fish should react by pulling the gaff head free. If it doesn’t separate use it as a straight gaff for the time being. Keep in mind any extra pressure applied should free the head. Control the fish with a tail rope or other strategically-placed straight gaffs.
For a pelagic that does not circle, run the boat parallel to the fish. Slowly pump in and out of gear and keep pace as the angler draws the fish closer. Once boat-side and in range reach over the fish and pull the gaff head towards you. Control and further secure your prize.
Harpooning a fish is generally easier and safer than using the fly gaff. Instead of reaching over or under your target and pulling towards you and the crew, your action is pushing it away from the boat. Just be ready for a small run and resist the urge to fight the fish with the harpoon line; always use the rod and reel. Keep in mind as well that if you are fishing for IGFA records or in a tournament you are not allowed to use a harpoon.