• Published:June 21, 2017
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If you fish a lot, then this has happened to you, or it will in the future.

A big marlin fights too hard and dies on you. This most often occurs when a fish becomes tail wrapped on its first jumps, can't swim against the drag and slowly runs out of oxygen. Or, the fish just fights so hard that it dies and inevitably starts to sink.
Knowing what is happening before and while it is occurring comes with experience, and it takes vigilance and a keen understanding of the situation to correctly determine when to make your moves.

I had this happen to me with a nice big marlin when I was headed home from Cairns, Australia, this past season. We had a really nice one eat the lure and make a couple of big jumps at the beginning of the fight but during the rest of the battle she was just tough. The fish was constantly swimming out to sea, changing directions on us, and moving up and down in the water column.

I always make sure I know which way the current is going and how hard, so I can position the boat up-sea of the fish to try to get the marlin to come up to the surface and swim down-sea on top. We will also move around on the fish to change the direction of the pull of the leader. If we can get the leader to rub on the fish’s body differently, it may cause the fish to react, change direction and run for the surface.

After an hour or so, we had the double line out of the water and could see the leader coming off the tail of the fish. I knew she was wrapped and I wanted to catch her before she expired so we could release the fish. We pushed the angler and tackle hard when we had our chances. But the fish bolted for the depths and stopped swimming. Things didn’t look good.


If nothing you do with the boat makes the fish react or change the direction it is swimming and you seem to be at a stalemate, odds are the fish has died. The first thing to do in this situation is to position the boat up-current of the fish, pointing the bow into the current and using enough drag so the line only creeps off the reel.
"The goal is to fight the fish, not the tackle."
-- Capt. Tim Richardson
Bumping the boat in and out of gear forwards will keep the bow straight and the line out behind the boat, or off of one corner. Make sure the line can’t touch the covering board because with this much tension any impact on the line can be enough to break it.

Slowly pull away from the fish at a pace that does not allow line to pull off the reel. However, a little slow creep every now and again is ok. This slow release of line lets you know the drag is doing its job correctly.

If you have the drag maxed out and line continues to come off the reel, stop, and try to go really slow, even putting both hands on the spool to add more pressure if the tackle can handle it. You need to stop the line from rolling off the reel. If the preset was too low to begin with, back the drag off and tighten the preset, but use the rod tip and drag lever to find the point that stops the creep, don’t just slam the drag lever back to full.

Once you have the boat moving in the right direction and you're not loosing line, keep going. I like to go at least 100 yards if possible. You need to get the belly out of the line. The belly is the large amount of line in the water from the fish’s initial run. Once the line is tight on the fish, as you bump forward, the only direction the fish can move is up toward the surface. Stopping the boat to shoot backwards and gain line will allow the fish to begin to sink again. If she is coming up, keep going. This also lets the angler rest and build up strength again while you do the hard work with the boat. This is why we use Dacron backing. If you gain one foot of Dacron, you have one foot of line. Dacron has no stretch compared to mono.

When the angle is good, then make sure the reel is in a gear ratio that your angler can wind on. With this much pressure, it may be the low gear. Shoot back and gain as much line as you can until the angle on the fish gets close to up and down. Typically the weight will come back onto the rod as you get closer to up and down. 

Then start moving again, back into the current. Try to maintain a slow trickle of line off the reel at most and you will get into a rhythm with your angler. I always watch the rod tip. That lets you know how much drag is on the rod and reel. If it loads up too much, it’s time to back off a bit. The line can only handle so much. Sometimes things break, and that can be hard to deal with, but you gave it your best shot.

It takes time and patience to get a big fish to come up. The last fish took 90 minutes to plane up. It’s not an easy or quick job. One thing to know, the higher in the water column the fish gets, the more buoyant it becomes and the last 100 feet will be easier. As you go back to gain the last bit of line, you can switch to high gear on the reel. The fish will start to float and pop up on top.

Another thing to note, Once I have an angle on the line that is working, I don’t change it. If the line is off to one side of the boat but coming in, leave it there. All of this maneuvering makes the hole from the hook in the fish’s mouth bigger. An unnecessary change of angle can dislodge the hook.

With light tackle, the rules are the same. Move up-current, pull away and try to use as much drag as possible while not high-sticking your rod. This technique can work on tough fish that have sounded too, like tuna.


I use Dacron backing on everything from 50 pounds on up, with about 800 yards of high-vis Marlin Braid Orange Spot Dacron, topped with 60 to 100 arm lengths of Amilan-T II pre-tested IGFA line, both available from Melton Tackle.

This is what I use and trust, and I depend upon on these lines to never fail me. Having confidence in your tackle will give you the ability to use drag settings and techniques that many are afraid to try, let alone use regularly.

We go pretty hard on our tackle, and we're not afraid to use the drag lever while fighting a fish, often using pretty much the entire drag range if needed. We'll go all the way to full and back, which on my 130 reels is over 80 pounds of drag.

Having a correctly adjusted harness is crucial, and remember, with that much drag the reel will be further away from the angler as the harness bends, so make sure the reel is positioned nice and close to the stomach. This lets the angler get a full extension of the handle at the furthest point of the turn. The same rules apply to setting up stand-up tackle. The goal is to fight the fish, not the tackle.

Marking your reels with the drag settings is important, but the crew must also realize that most anglers can only handle so much drag for so long. The longer your angler is in the chair, the sooner he or she cannot handle maximum drag. Go hard sooner rather than later. You also need to be aware that with one third or a half the spool of line out, the drag will greatly increase. That 45 pounds at strike can increase to 70 or even 80 pounds. Use enough drag to slow/stop the trickle of line coming off the reel, but don't go for sunset at a half spool or things will end very quickly.

To learn from the author, book a trip with him on Tradition Charters