Setting Up & Using Game Chairs


Any time I have a new angler or guest on board I always have them measured up and made familiar with correct chair fishing techniques. Setting up and using game or fighting chairs correctly can make a huge difference to the angler’s comfort, efficiency and overall enjoyment when tackling larger game fish.

I find many anglers seem to become a little intimidated by game chairs, especially when the heavier 130lb tackle is introduced for the more serious New Zealand game fish such as Swordfish and the west coast Bluefin. In my view, a game chair is an essential tool if you’re serious about catching these bigger fish. Sure, stand-up fishing has its place amongst good anglers and it can also be a lot of fun, but if you’re serious about taking on these bigger fish, a decent game chair is a must… especially at night or in rough sea conditions.

I’ve seen a few chairs around the New Zealand game fishing scene that certainly don’t look too functional and I can only begin to imagine what an uncomfortable and unenjoyable experience it would be for any angler fighting a decent fish. A game chairs positioning, variation in settings and over all strength will obviously have a major influence on fish fighting effectiveness. Faults in the game chair set-up can cause anything from prolonged fighting times, unnecessarily wearing out anglers or worse still losing a fish of a lifetime.

The major advantages of well set-up game chairs over stand-up techniques is that it allows better use of all major muscle groups in fighting a fish, especially the strongest muscle group… the leg muscles. Also, with a well balanced technique and good bucket harness, more weight or pull can be enforced through the rod tip. Both these advantages result in less fatigue on the angler during prolonged fights… but, it is important to understand that your chair needs to be set up and used correctly from the start!

Firstly, all game chairs need to be situated in the center of the cockpit. Some game chairs around the New Zealand game fishing scene (including mine!) are situated off center, situated to one side of the cockpit. This is basically some bright spark’s great idea to get the game chair and angler closer to the covering board or cockpit corner on more ‘beamier’ boats. This all sounds great in theory until a fish needs to be fought in the opposite corner or ‘run down’ on the side where the chair is furthest from.

From a driving perspective, you can usually get away with this on striped marlin or medium to small fish. But with the larger game fish such as Blue and Black Marlin, Bluefin Tuna and Swordfish, who can all have deep fighting characteristics, your chair needs to be situated in the center of the cockpit to enable the rod tip and line to clear all corners, covering boards and rigger halyards at any time during a fight.

On more ‘beamier’ boats, where it can be difficult for the line to clear the cockpit corners and covering boards during deep fights, an apparatus known as a ‘goose-neck’ or offset stanchion can be utilised rather than the conventional straight stanchion. This ‘goose-neck’ allows the chair to be swiveled closer to the side or corner where the fish is situated and keep the line clear at all times during the fight.

In 2005 a mechanical stanchion was devised and approved by the IGFA that also allowed the chair to be maneuvered or swiveled to the corners. This is a pretty expensive option that may not be practical for too many New Zealanders, but it’s just another example or ensuring the line is clear of the corners at all times.

Having the rod tip and line clear of the corners at all times can certainly make driving on fish substantially easier and reduce fighting times by up to 25% on deep fighting fish, not only that but also substantially reduce the likelihood of breaking off a fish of a life time in the side of the boat… enough said!

A game chairs strength is something that needs to be attended to or considered especially when heavier 130lb tackle is used. We’ve all heard, and some unlucky ones have experienced, hard luck stories involving chairs that haven’t stood up to the riggers of a prolonged fight. In some cases these little episodes have caused anything from an inconvenience to disqualification of tournament or record fish through to worst case scenario… losing the fish altogether.

The ideal situation and strongest link is to have the chairs stanchion go right through the deck and connected the vessels hull rather than just through-bolted in the cockpits deck. Sounds excessive??? Well it’s certainly a must if your using heavy tackle consistently and it’s one of the first things professional captains look at (in the cockpit) in heavy tackle fisheries over seas.

There’s a huge amount of weight and leverage applied from big chair rods. If the chairs foundations aren’t secure, wear and tear will certainly occur over time… and breakages usually occur when you need the chair most!

This may not be practical for some New Zealand vessels, especially trailer boats. But having a strong base for your chairs stanchion is something that needs special attention if you’re serious about taking on big fish on heavy tackle.

Other pressure points on the chair include the top of the stanchion and base of the chair, the footrest and the gimbal. Without getting into too much detail, it’s just important to ensure that all the pins, welds, nuts ’n’ bolts and base plates are more than adequate for the job intended… preferably before you hook that fish of lifetime! Any weak points on your chair system will certainly be found out over time.

Having the ability to alter the gimbal height and the footrest height and length is vitally important to the overall effectiveness of your chair. Anglers have different proportions, rods have differing butt lengths and of course settings will alter depending on the size of the tackle you prefer. It’s important to be able to alter the settings to suit tackle ranging 50lb – 130lb and to suit anglers from a child through to a front row forward… if your chair is set up correctly, all anglers should feel balanced and comfortable with any sized tackle they choose.

In my opinion many of the New Zealand constructed chairs don’t have enough variance in the height of the footrest. The footrest is the most important part of the whole chair system, as this is where the angler gains their strength. The height or angle of the footrest will depend on size of the tackle used, angling technique preferred (we’ll discuss later) and the overall fitness of the angler.

I generally like to teach people to ‘stand up’ with straight legs in the chair while fighting fish. It’s important to be able drop the footrest right down, making it easier for the angler to stand-up. Obviously this may alter with the heavier tackle you use, as there’s more leverage from 130lb tackle than 50lb. It’s important to find a height where the angler feels most comfortable and balanced… and no this doesn’t mean sitting flat on their backside.

If the footrest height is too high the angler will never ‘stand up’ in the chair in a hundred years, basically wearing them selves out twice as quick. If it’s too low the angler may feel like they’re over balancing and getting pulled out of the boat… so it’s important to find the happy medium.

Generally I like to keep the footrest as low as comfortably possible and have the anglers ‘stand-up’ and remain balanced. This way they can use their body weight to exert ‘pull’ through the rod tip rather than sitting on their backsides, pulling with their arms wasting valuable energy.

As far as the footrest length is concerned, it’s pretty straightforward and the same rule is generally used for all anglers and all tackle sizes. Generally I like to have the top of the angler’s calf resting on the chairs leading edge. It doesn’t matter how big or small the angler is, this length generally provides a good pivoting length.

Some chairs seem to have sharp leading edges that can at times dig into the angler’s calf muscles, especially during prolonged fights. Ideally chairs with rounded edges are preferred for this reason, if discomfort occurs during a long fight, sometimes a towel or some sort of padding can help the situation, but generally the better chairs on the market will have their leading edges smoothed or rounded off.

As far as the gimbal height is concerned, this is basically dependant on size of tackle and length of the rod butt. Obviously, the reel and handle needs to clear the anglers thighs, but not so high that it compromises any leverage and the ability for the angler to ‘stand-up’ on the footrest.

When the angler is in the standing position and the reel handle is at the bottom of the turn, the angler should never feel like they are reaching or dipping every time they rotate the handle. Obviously this will once again waste precious energy during long fights. The correct gimbal height is where the angler can rotate the handle comfortably, without reaching or dipping while ‘standing-up’ on the footrest.

There are plenty of differing harnesses around the New Zealand game fishing scene… some good and some not so good for chair fishing. Harnesses from the old classic over the shoulder trick through to kidney belts and even stand-up harnesses seem to get used on occasions. Generally none of these are that suitable for using a chair effectively, and anglers certainly struggle with standing up on the footrest.

The most suitable harness for chair fishing is the bucket harness. The bucket harness sits under the angler’s backside and gives them the opportunity to stand in the chair and use their own body weight and leg muscles to pull back on the rod tip. This is obviously more energy efficient rather than pulling on the rod and reel with your arms and upper body. Purchasing a decent bucket harness is maybe something fishermen should consider if they’re serious about fighting fish from a chair.

A big no-no many anglers seem to consistently do is have their left hand on the rods fore-grip. Correct chair fishing technique is having your left hand resting on top off the reel. Having the angler rest their hand on top of the reel keeps their shoulders square and body weight more balanced rather than reaching too far forward, especially while in the ‘standing’ position. Placing your left hand on top of the reel also lets the angler guide the line back onto the reel and on the rare occasions when the main line breaks under stress, the reel won’t come back and hit the angler in the chest. This is especially important on heavy tackle such as 130lb when drag settings are much higher.

Another chair fishing technique is the ‘sliding’ technique that differs slightly from the ‘standing’ technique. Basically, rather than standing and gathering line and using your body wait to pull back on the rod tip, the angler bends their knees and slides forward in the chair to gather line and then pushes back with their legs to pull back on the rod tip. Sometimes liquid soap can help the angler slide easier and make the whole process smoother.

As I’ve already mentioned, I generally prefer anglers to use the standing technique, but good anglers will integrate the two as both techniques have advantages at different stages of a long fight, i.e. gathering line quickly or putting plenty of weight over the rod tip. Whatever technique you prefer, it’s important to remain balanced, comfortable and use your legs rather than your upper body to fight the fish.

Angler’s feet positioning on the footrest is something that is very subtle but probably the most important aspect for increasing pull or weight through the rod tip. The angler should also have their feet spread on the footrest to provide a good base, but it’s if the angler can raise or lower their feet on the footrest it can make a huge difference in the amount of leverage through the rod tip. Subtle changes of a couple of inches can make all the difference at times. Good anglers will be constantly raising or lowering their feet positioning to compensate the angle of pull.

Basically, if the angler feels as if they’re over-balancing they should lift their feet up a touch and if they feel as if they can’t stand in the chair they should drop their feet positioning slightly. Remembering subtle movements are all that is required but the angler should always be trying to find the right pivot or balance point.

There are certainly a wide variety of game chairs available on the market today, as with a lot of products you certainly get what you pay for. Some of the cheaper options available seem to become more of a hindrance rather than aide for catching bigger fish. More expensive overseas designed options such as Murray Bros and Reelax chairs certainly spring to mind as popular options used in many of the worlds fishing hotspots.

As long as a good quality chair is set up correctly and good technique is used, your game chair can be become an essential, enjoyable and useful tool. Especially for the larger New Zealand species of Blues, Blacks, Swordfish and the west coast Bluefin Tuna. Anyone and everyone should be able to fish 80lb to 130lb effectively from a chair if it’s set up right from the start, hopefully we’ll all get the opportunity to put it into practice this summer… Good Luck!