Lifting Their Heads
Plenty of people in game fishing cycles seem to believe good boat driving skill involves backing around like mad man and covering the cockpit, anglers and crew with white water. Reversing or ‘backing up’ as we commonly hear it termed is only a small part of boat manoeuvring when fighting fish. At times, reversing after fish can be quite fruitless, and nothing more than an exercise in boosting the captain and crews ego.
Over the years I’ve been privileged to have fished with a number of really good boat driving captains. Brian Felton, Tim Dean and Ross Finlayson are all well regarded captains from the Great Barrier Reef that use subtle changes in line angle rather than reversing mindlessly to catch some of the biggest marlin on the planet in reasonably quick times. I was lucky enough to fish with Ross Finlayson on ‘Sea Baby IV’ for several seasons, Ross did his time under legendary Cairns captain Laurie Woodbridge during the late 80’s and 90’s and I don’t think I’ve learnt more from any one captain when it comes to boat manoeuvring or raising really stubborn fish. Ross is a master in changing line angle and drag pressure to raise deep fighting fish and many of his little tricks for big black marlin are what I regularly put to practice in our fishery here in NZ.
Stripes, Blues, Blacks, Swordfish and even Tuna each have their own unique fighting characteristics, yet from a driving perspective I generally try to be consistent across the board when attempting to turn or lift the heads of the more stubborn fish.
I generally try to avoid getting caught up in a ‘dog fight’ with any game fish. Firstly, the longer a fish ‘dogs’ away on you the less likelihood you have in releasing it in good nick or if you’re choosing to kill the fish, over extended periods there’s more opportunity for the battle to have an unhappy ending. Secondly, I don’t do that much angling myself these days but it really doesn’t look that enjoyable for any angler caught up in an endless ‘stalemate’... especially on heavier line classes! Thirdly, game fishing is all about watching these great fish jump, getting photos and taking footage so the more time the angler and boat driver can make the fish spend near the surface the better I say! In saying this, I’m certainly more than aware that deep fights can’t be avoided on many occasions... I just try to at least minimise any time a fish spends at depth.
When fish are near the surface, I try to keep them there as long as possible... yes, I know it’s certainly easier said than done, but this is generally always my mind set when fighting fish. I generally don’t reverse after fish if I get any more than 100mtrs of line out. If you do get a lot of line out, reversing to gather it is probably the least effective remedy in the situation... but running around on the line is an entirely different article that’s probably best left to another time.
I simply never reverse directly at a fish, I always try and put them off a corner and put a small belly in the line, whether they’re near the surface or down deep. For my money, backing straight down the line or straight at a fish does absolutely nothing to tire the fish or make it do any work. Think about it... if the boat and fish are travelling in the same direction at the same speed, how can the fish be using much energy? All you’re doing is making it easy for the fish by following it around the ocean and creating a lot of diesel smoke.
Striped Marlin are classic for this scenario. Often they’ll use the swell and surf down sea... often for miles. Simply backing directly after them can be fruitless and frustrating to say the least. They’re basically using very little energy when surfing down waves with you following in behind. When I am reversing and working a fish, I try to work out pretty quickly which side of the fish I can get a reaction from. This is solely down to working out where or what side you think you’ve hooked them.
By putting the fish off a corner you’re instantly making the fish pull against both drag and a belly in the water column. Don’t be confused with belly and slack line, belly is certainly not slack line and can be a handy fighting tool on a short tether. If used right, a belly in the line can make the fish work harder.
What I try to do is work out which corner works best, pretty quickly you’ll notice from one corner the fish is able to “get its head” and pull... often down, while the opposite corner the angler maybe able to get a reaction, work the fish, at least make it come up in the water column or even jump.
Getting a reaction from the fish can be caused a number of factors.
(i) Pulling the line/leader from opposite side of the fish’s head to where you position the boat can essentially roll the fish over or at least put it off balance.
(ii) Positioning the boat and rub the leader over the fish’s eye, head, body or tail can cause an irritation making them want to come to the surface and jump.
(iii) On occasions fish get body or tail wrapped and one side will work better than the other... sometimes neither side works in this situation and there’s little angler or driver can do, but at least working a fish from an angle gives you a shot at unwrapping it.
Sometimes these reactions maybe really subtle, but essentially if the fish begins to ‘get its head’ on the angler, as a driver I’ll change line angle or side immediately and try to at least put the fish off balance or get it out of its comfort zone. Whatever the case, you’ll simply never be able to get a reaction out of the fish in any of the above scenarios unless the angler can maintain constant drag pressure and keep the fish’s head up.
While it would be nice to think fighting fish is straight forward, we all know that fights aren’t the same and many fish ‘sound’ to a water column where they feel most comfortable... in a lot of these cases there’s little anglers, captain and crew can do about it. At depth, fighting techniques change somewhat, yet my mind set of trying to get the fish out its comfort zone doesn’t.
One thing fisherman commonly get wrong is when we hear them say “the fish just kept going straight down!” We’ve commonly heard it from crews chasing Waihau Bay Blue Marlin, Swordfish and also our Bluefin Tuna down south.
In my opinion, fish rarely if ever just go straight down, and certainly very rarely just keep going straight down. What’s actually happening is these fish ‘sound’ to a layer in the water column where they feel most comfortable, perhaps a thermo-cline for example. These fish are then generally making their run down deep... the same as what they do on the surface. Quite often they’re no further down than 40 or 50 metres, but with a large belly in the water it certainly appears from the surface that the fish is going straight down in search of mud crabs and blind eels! Add to the equation a strong current, the belly can be accentuated quite substantially and the illusion of the fish heading for terra-firma can be convincing to say the least.
Whatever the case, finding yourself in this situation you need to be able to read to situation pretty quickly as the belly can become counter-productive for the angler and crew very quickly, worst case scenario the line breaks... game over!
Determining which direction the fish is heading down deep, I try to always be aware to which way the current is running. I always try and position the boat up-current of the fish. By doing this the angler is purely fighting the fish... they’re not fighting the fish and the current. From an up-current position lifting the fish’s head is generally much easier for the angler due to having more direct line angle.
If you’re unsure of what way the fish is heading down deep, the single worst thing you can do is sit there and do nothing expecting drag on the reel to stop it. In a majority of situations involving bigger fish drag simply won’t pull them up regardless of tackle size, we continually hear hard luck stories each year of big fish breaking or dying on the end of the line after endless hours not making progress.
Try turning the boat in a sweeping turn at no more than 5-6 knots until the angler starts gathering line... once gathering line, this is essentially the belly and the way the fish is/was heading. Black Marlin are suckers for this and regularly come up jumping with a change in line angle or pressure. Other species maybe a bit more stubborn, but at least you’ve essentially stopped the line coming off the reel and the angler can start putting some weight on the fish.
Sitting directly over a fish will simply never be as successful as working it from and angle. Similar to when the fish is on the surface, rarely if ever do I fight the fish directly off the back of the boat. I like getting the fish on a 45° angle off a corner; once again you’ll more than likely notice one side is more productive than the other when raising the fish from depth.
In some occasions the harder you pull on stubborn fish the harder they pull back. They seem to thrive on getting down in that water column, using their pectoral fins and digging in. Many crews become abscessed with applying more and more drag expecting the fish to give in. Sometimes this works... on some of the bigger fish it generally doesn’t and you can subject the poor old angler to a very painful experience. A trick I picked up from Ross Finlayson is maintaining that 45° line angle and backing the drag off rather than increasing it, Blacks in particular are suckers for coming to the surface when they feel a change in drag pressure... give it a try it next time, see what happens.
Another technique that’s also successful on occasions is maintaining a 45° line angle and turning the boat in a continuous wide arc at no more than 2-3 knots... this is widely known as ‘circling them up’ and works really well on the more stubborn deep fighting fish that tend to want to follow the boat. Once again if one direction or corner isn’t working, try the other and look for any reaction that may benefit the angler.
From a chartering perspective, I want guests on board to have a great time catching their fish but I also want to make sure I catch that fish of a life time too... or at least release it in good health for another day. I generally follow the same routines regardless of species or size. On some of the lighter lines I may think a little differently about line belly, but generally things remain the same across the board.
Some fish are just mongrels and down-right stubborn, you can put all the best laid plans to practice and they can still teach you a lesson in angling and boat driving... I can certainly recall the odd one myself! Then you add in factors such a foul hooked or wrapped up fish, strong current, bad weather and bad light, manoeuvring the boat to benefit the angler can be quite tricky on occasions.
I always try to stay one step ahead of the fish, rather than the other way around and I’m always looking for any subtle reaction that may benefit the angler. This way the both the angler and driver can work as a team and it can be a really enjoyable experience for everyone involved... Good luck!