Handling Big Fish, part 1

Everything you need to know to hook and land the biggest fish in the ocean.
Capt. Jack Sprengel

There's a wealth of information available about how to rig for and catch big-game fish. However, the moments leading up to the strike are only half of the overall experience.

The steps you take after the moment of impact make the difference between absolute glory and utter defeat. Let's face it, we aren't spending countless hours and dollars on boats, fuel, and equipment to amass a collection of stories about the ones that got away. In this two-part article I will go through all of the critical steps needed to make the most out of every fishing trip -- from the moment the fish strikes, to landing to proper handling.
To keep things simple for this article, we'll define "big game" as any fish north of 80 pounds and any tackle class 50 pounds or higher. Now before I get to the strike, there's one key factor that I'd like to touch on, that's proper drag setting for your reel. When dealing with large game fish, I strongly recommend the use of conventional reels with a lever drag operation. These reels offer you the ability to fine-tune your drag settings for more efficient control throughout the angling process.

To operate the drag you just push the lever forward to the preset stop labeled "Strike." From this position the angler must press a small button to engage the drag any further.  Ideally you should seldom if ever have to advance this lever beyond the strike position. Think of strike as the fighting drag. I always set the strike to exactly 20 pounds of resistance. This setting performs ideally when dealing with large game fish. It creates enough resistance to tire the fish without putting too much pressure on the anglers back or tearing the hook free from the fish's jaw.

To set your strike, disengage the lever drag to the free spool position. Then dial the reel's drag tension knob forward (clockwise) several turns. Next run the line off the reel up through each guide on the rod and tie the running end of the line to a scale that's attached to a fixed point about 20 feet away. Slide the drag forward to strike then lean back or load the rod until the reel begins to pay out line.

Have another member of the crew check the reading on the scale. Depending on whether it needs more or less drag to reach 20 pounds at strike, disengage the lever and rotate the tension knob accordingly forward or backwards before retesting. Another useful technique during this process is to take piece of white electrical tape and place a strip on the reel parallel to the lever and use it to label the pounds of resistance at various settings on the drag. Label 20 pounds at strike then at 25, 30 and if your reel is capable of higher settings, 40-plus. This trick will come in handy when fighting a big fish.

If a lever drag reel is out of the question, fixed dragged high performance spinning or star drag reels will are the next best option. Using this drag scale and anchor point method, adjust the single drag setting to 18 to 20 pounds depending on the limitations of your line or leader. Then leave it alone, if you fight the fish correctly, you'll have more than enough drag to subdue the fish without line failure.  
With a correct drag setting, we're ready for the strike. The intensity of a fish's strike varies drastically depending on whether a fish takes a trolled offering, a jigged or casted lure or natural bait. For trolled or casted presentations the drag should be set just shy of strike on lever drag reels or in the preset of 18 to 22 pounds on fixed drag models. This immediate resistance creates enough shock in the line to remove the need for any manual hook setting. Another way to reduce the need for risky hook sets is to purchase a quality, sharp hook of sturdy construction.  This type of strike is instant and met with a screaming line dump.

At this point the fish is hooked and there is little to no need for any additional hook set, simply keep the rod tip up and the line tight. If the strike occurred on the troll leave the rod in the holder at first. Keep the boat just in gear, and let the fish make its initial run. The worst thing to do in this situation is to mosh pit your way to the rod, take it out of the holder and give it a sweeping, obnoxious hook set. This exaggerated shock to the line this early in the run will all but guarantee that you'll lose the fish. Another benefit to hooking up on the troll, leaving everything in place, staying in gear and letting the fish dump is that it drastically increases your chances of a multiple hook up. In the event you do achieve a multiple hook up determine which fish is closest to the boat, leave the others out at a distance and systematically work them back to the boat one at a time.
When you hook up jigging or on a lure you just need to come tight on the fish. Keep the line taught, maintaining a bend in the rod. Stay tight and let your gear do its job.
When fish take static bait the strike will differ drastically depending on the species. For fast strikers such as yellowfin tuna, it's best to set your preset with a tighter drag, either at or just below strike. The instant force of the fish's feeding style will take care of setting the hook much like that of a moving trolled offering or a retrieved lure. When this happens, direct a member of the crew to man the rod and let the fish to run while keeping the line tight. This also means that if the fish decides to swim upward towards the angler, he or she must be ready to reel in the slack created immediately to avoid letting the fish throw the hook.
Other big-game species such sharks or shallow-swimming swordfish will often take baits more surreptitiously during the feeding process and will spit the bait if any resistance is detected too early.   These fish are best hooked by leaving the reel at or very near the free-spool position with the reels clicker engaged. This will prevent back-lashing and provide and audible indication that a bait is being taken. A few short clicks followed by a steady "zzzz" of the reel. As the pitch of the clicker increases in intensity, the likelihood that the fish has positioned the bait past its jaws and is now moving water over its gills is more evident. At this point the angler should carefully remove the rod from the holder, leaving the reel in free spool and point the rod directly at the fish. When the audible pitch of the clicker changes, quickly push the lever forward to strike, take a few rapid turns of the handle and lift the rod strait back 90 degrees. Game on!

Now that you've hooked your fish, it's time to talk about best practices for fighting the fish and boating it. We'll cover those topics in part two of this series. Stay tuned.

To successfully land big fish you must always be prepared. The steps to success begin back at the dock. Start by making sure you test and set all of the drags on your reels. Photos courtesy of Capt. Jack Sprengel.
When you hook a fish on a static natural bait, the bite will vary depending on the species. For fast-striking fish such as tuna, set your drag a bit higher and let the force of the fish's strike take care of setting the hook. You don't need to haul back on the rod to set the hook, just keep the line tight.
If you set your drag properly, you should never need to go past the strike button. Twenty pounds of drag should be enough to subdue big game fish. However, labeling the reel's drag will help out if you need to inch up the pressure to 25 or 30 pounds of drag.
Today's spinning rods can whip any fish in the ocean. This setup is rigged with an extra forward grip for more leverage when battling big fish. Again, set the drag to 20 pounds and leave it alone during the fight. If anything, the captain can help you out by chasing down a big fish with the boat.
Communication between captain and angler is key, especially when you hook up more than one fish at the same time. Always go for the closest fish first, then go after the second or third fish.

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