How to Gaff a Fish

Top pro tips on how to gaff mahi, wahoo, tuna and other offshore species.
Ric Burnley

Success with the gaff starts before the metal meets flesh. Good technique starts at the bridge with proper boat handling, but it also pays to consider the species and size of the fish and choose the right gear accordingly. And all of the preparation in the world means nothing if the final gaff shot misses the mark.

North Carolina captain Jimmy Hillsman ( learned that lesson the hard way on a marlin trip earlier this year. "We hadn't caught anything all day," he says, "until we hooked a big dolphin." As the angler brought the fish close to the boat, Hillsman squared up for the end move. "Everything was perfect, but I hit the fish too far back." As Hillsman heaved the 50-pounder over the gunnel, the fish struck the side of the boat. "It freaked out," he says, "popped off the gaff and the hook came out." The dolphin flopped into the ocean and disappeared. "It was the worst ever," Hillsman says.


A successful end game starts with a controlled set-up. Both Hillsman and fellow Outer Banks captain Tim Hagerich ( insist that the boat is moving forward as they bring the fish within gaff range.

"I see a lot of guys stop the boat to gaff a fish," Hillsman says, "but with the boat in gear the fish planes up to the surface and continues to swim forward." This offers a perfect side-shot for applying the gaff.  

"Dolphin are one of the toughest to gaff," Hagerich says, "because they can go crazy next to the boat." The fish are famous for spastic acrobatics and unpredictable direction changes at boatside. To control the fish, Hagerich holds the leader low to keep the fish's head under water. With wind-on leaders, the angler can crank the fish almost to the rod tip.

Tuna come with their own bag of tricks. "Wait until the tuna is just under the surface of the water before gaffing it," Hillsman says, "if you gaff a tuna when it is deep, it can dig down and pull the gaff out of your hand."

Facing a wahoo is like watching a horror film. One look at the scissor jaws and razor teeth and you know something bad is about to happen. "Just last summer a mate had his toe severed off," Hillsman says. To control the fish's lethal weapons, hit it just behind the head. Hillsman recommends using two gaffs on any fish larger than 50 pounds. "The second gaff goes in just behind the dorsal fin."


When it comes to gaffing bigger game, Hillsman and Hagerich recommend a team approach. "Using a flying gaff is a two-man job," Hillsman says. He suggests one mate work the leader and the other employ the gaff. "We keep the line on the flier tied to the fighting chair stanchion so the fish can go on either side of the boat." He also recommends keeping the rope as short as possible. "If the fish gets slack in the line, the gaff head can come out," he says. With the rope tight, the angler and mate can work together to get fish close enough to stick it with a regular gaff and work it into the boat.

The mates use a harpoon to subdue tuna that weigh over 300 pounds. "Don't throw the harpoon," says Hagerich, "instead spear the fish with both hands on the handle." He keeps 100 feet of line tied to a poly ball and coiled in a basket. "Between the drag on the reel and the resistance from the poly-ball, the fish doesn't last long." Once the tuna is in range, control the fish with a couple of conventional gaffs and a tail rope until it can be landed and processed.

Once the fish is on the gaff, the next challenge is getting it in the boat. Hillsman and Hagerich suggest aiming for the fish box and hope for the best. "I make three out of four shots," jokes Hagerich. If the fish doesn't hit the box, then he uses the gaff to pin it to the deck or in a corner.

"One of the biggest mistakes anglers make is swinging the gaff at the fish," Hagerich says. Instead, he recommends reaching across the fish's shoulders with the point facing down and pulling the hook towards you. Hagerich tries to hit the fish in the shoulder or head.


Another problem anglers encounter is choosing the right gaff. Pros use a quiver of gaffs, each with a specific purpose. Hillsman uses a six-foot gaff with a two-inch bite to secure dolphin. A six-footer with a four-inch bite works for yellowfin tuna and wahoo. He also carries a flying gaff for blue marlin and a harpoon for big bluefin tuna. A hand gaff is great for handling fish on the deck and works as a convenient dehooker. "I carry a couple of each just incase I lose one or I need to double up on a fish." These mates prefer an aluminum gaff over fiberglass. "The aluminum floats and it doesn't flex," says Hillsman.

Hagerich uses the same quiver, but adds a 12-foot gaff with a two-inch bite for king mackerel. "Since we use small treble hooks, I try to stick the fish as soon as I can," he says. Hagerich adds that a gaff with a small bite will be easier to stick into the fish, but it also has more chance of coming loose under extreme pressure. A longer handle will reach out to snare a fish but it is more difficult to control.

And a gaff is only as effective if it is sharp. "People use a harpoon right out of the box," Hillsman marvels, "It should be razor sharp." He also sharpens his gaffs each morning on the ride out. Hillsman also wraps the shaft with nylon twine for extra grip. "Take a wrap with the twine and make a half hitch to secure it," Hillsman instructs, "work all the way down the shaft."

After all the preparation and excitement invested in a trip offshore, the pay out comes in a split second when the angler boats the fish. As the pressure mounts and the fish gets close, Hagerich offers the best advice: "When everything is on the line, don't screw up!"

When gaffing a dolphin, keep the fish's head underwater to maintain control. Reach across the fish with the gaff pointed down and pull the gaff towards the fish's shoulder.
To bring the fish aboard, use the gaff to swing the fish over the side using a fluid motion. Aim for the fish box and hope for the best. "I make three out of four shots," jokes pro captain Tim Hagerich.
Wait until a tuna is just below the surface before sticking it with the gaff. "If the fish is deep it can dig down and pull the gaff out of your hand," Capt. Jimmy Hillsman says (left). Smaller fish can be lifted out of the water and sent directly to the fish box (right).
Hit the fish as close to the pectoral fin as possible. Not only does this control the fish's body, but this area is often the toughest spot of skin and muscle.
Don't be afraid to ask for help. It often takes two gaffs to control a big fish.
Capt. Tim Hagerich swings another gaffer over the gunnel. Try to keep the fish from contacting the boat on the way in.

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