Using Flying Gaffs


Using flying gaffs has become a part of game fishing that professional and recreational fishermen rarely get the opportunity to put into practice. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for releasing fish and I’m far from suggesting we should kill more just for the sake of using a flying gaff, but the simple fact is a flying gaff is an essential tool when landing large or record game fish and a lot of times crew can feel as if they’ve been ‘thrown in the deep end’, when after tagging fish for a couple of seasons they all of a sudden have to put a flying gaff into an aggressive game fish.

Setting up and using flying gaffs is something that I feel quite passionately about due to a number of reasons, but none more so than it remains as the single most dangerous practice we can do in game fishing. With the presence of slack ropes, detachable poles, steel gaff heads and thrashing fish it can add up to a rather nasty cocktail at times, especially when things are happening at 100mph.

Personally, I’ve been on some boats and seen things involving flying gaffs that have made me cringe, purely from a safety point of view. Although as fisherman we would all love to catch the biggest fish, there isn’t a fish in the ocean that I’m prepared to lose a limb, get hit by a hunk of steel or go over the side for. It is for this reason that you should always have your safety as the priority, rather than the fish when setting up and using flying gaffs.

If a flying gaff is set up and used correctly, it can be a valuable asset and the difference between catching a trophy fish, or adding to the numerous hard luck stories at your local game fishing club, or quite simply getting badly hurt.

Setting up your Flying Gaff.

Like all hooks, your gaff heads should have a sharp point. It may sound silly but you’ll be surprised how difficult it is penetrate or how easily your gaff head will bounce off, especially if you hit a hard gill plate or the sinewy flesh by the anal fin and tail.

As far as barbs are concerned on gaffs, there are many differing points of view and opinions and to be quite honest there’s no real answer, it’s just a personal preference. Some people prefer no barbs for better penetration, and some prefer large barbs that are close to the point ensuring “once it’s in, it stays in”. I personally prefer ‘flopper barbs’ that are set up on a small but strong hinge. When the gaff head is penetrated the barb will lie flat, when it is reversed the barb ‘flops’ open, obviously making it difficult to remove. It may sound a little extreme for a gaff but it’s actually pretty common practice, especially overseas where larger game fish are commonly taken.

As I stated earlier, barbs simply come down to personal preference and it’s not worth getting too concerned about. All I can suggest is that if you do have barbs on your gaffs that they are not too far from the sharp point (3-4 inches), as it can be common to only get minimum penetration with your first shot on a hot fish.

Strength of gaff heads is a topic that comes up quite often. The bend on all flying gaffs needs to be reinforced. Flying gaffs obviously differ from handle gaffs in a few ways, but it is the ‘shock’ of the rope coming tight that puts an incredible amount of pressure on the gaff head, rather than the give when using handle gaffs. On more than one occasion I can recall fisherman proudly stating that their new gaff head will never straighten, well I can tell you from first hand experience that if they aren’t reinforced they will open up like a noodle. The easiest way to check this is by jamming your gaff in nearest cleat on the dock and seeing how easily it opens out. Trust me you might be surprised. 

Marine grade stainless steel 316 is ideal for gaff heads as it’s strong and stands up to the salt-water environment well. The width of the stainless rod you use will obviously increase with the size of the gaff head.

Reinforcing is usually done with a stainless rod approx. ½ to a 2/3 the size of that used on the gaff itself. Example being; if you use 16mm you would reinforce it with an 8-10mm rod welded to the outside of the bend. Obviously the more you weld the reinforcing on the stronger the gaff, but its also a lot heavier. By ‘stitch’ welding you can meet a happy medium of a strong gaff that is reasonably light to use.

As far as shapes go, I prefer the standard reinforced round gaff. There are popular square headed gaffs on the market that certainly look the part and promote themselves as being extra-strong but unfortunately the ‘square bends’ are weak points, from first hand experience and from others, I can tell you that they twist open surprisingly easy, enough said!

Size of the gaff head is also down to personal preference. I have been on some boats that have huge jumbo gaff heads and then they expect the poor old crew to accurately put a gaff in the shoulder of a jumping striped marlin! Personally I prefer smaller, lighter gaffs that can be easily and accurately used with minimal fuss. A gaff with a gape of between 6 – 8 inches is more than adequate for striped marlin and a 12-inch gape is usually pretty standard practice for the larger blue and black marlin or swordfish. But that’s totally up to you as I’m sure there are bigger/stronger crews around than me.

The shackle connection from the gaff head to the gaff rope is one factor that commonly is over looked. It may sound like a silly and unnecessary check, but even stainless shackles will rust and weaken, especially if left sitting in the salt conditions for a season or two. Galvanised shackles are cheaper but stronger, but will obviously rust faster than stainless shackles. Whatever shackles you choose, I suggest you check them now and then because they will break.

The type and length of rope you use is the most dangerous aspect involved with using a flying gaff. Commonly I see fishermen using nylon as there choice of gaff rope. The high stretch of nylon (up to 35%) makes it a potentially dangerous gaff rope. A stretched gaff rope can whip back at the crew/angler like elastic band if it breaks, or even worse, the gaff head releases under heavy strain. It’s a scary thought having a hunk of steel coming back at you in a hurry, I now dead set refuse to use flying gaffs with ‘stretchy’ ropes.

Polyester, or even better Kevlar ropes are recommended. Although being expensive, Kevlar has very low stretch but strong characteristics suitable for gaffing and has become more widely used.

Your gaff ropes should always be secured to the base of your game chair or center point of your cockpit. Commonly I see crews securing flying gaffs to corner cleats or even bridle set ups, this is dangerous practice as crew and anglers can be trapped or caught between gaff ropes and covering boards if a fish decides to pull…. once again not a nice thought. If your gaff ropes are secured to a central link such as the base of your game chair it’s impossible to get caught between boat and rope and a much safer option.

IGFA rules say that gaff ropes must not exceed 30 feet (9.14 mtrs). In my experience there are very few occasions when 30 feet of rope is required, more often than not too much rope can be a hindrance rather than a help.

The length of your rope should depend on the size of your cockpit and the reach of your gaff-man. Your gaff-man should stand at furthest point (usually cockpit corner) from the game chair/center link and reach out as far as possible with the gaff. The length of rope between their reach and base of the chair plus a touch more slack is all that’s required. This minimizes loops getting caught around crew’s legs, gaff ropes going around props and it’s much easier to control fish on a short tether.

Considering the detachable gaff pole is simply there as a tool to steer the gaff head and sinking the gaff is actually done by pulling on the rope, the gaff pole has a number of basic requirements. Firstly, the pole obviously needs to be strong, secondly the pole needs to be light, so it is easy to swing and is less likely to injure any one should they get hit by it during the excitement. The pole also needs to float, sounds stupid?? Well I can tell you its pretty common to lose poles over the side when things start happening. Finally your gaff poles are not allowed to exceed 8 feet under IGFA rulings.

Most common poles are either wooden, aluminum or fibreglass. Stainless steel poles are not only too heavy and sink, but are they just dead set dangerous if anyone gets hit when large fish start thrashing.

Once you’ve sunk the gaff, its important that the pole is detached as soon as possible, not only for safety reasons but also so the fish can be cleated off as short and as quickly as possible. For these reasons it is important make sure the pole to gaff head junction is regularly greased.

Once the fish is cleanly gaffed and the pole has been detached this is when you should use the corner cleats. This not only secures the fish on as short a tether as possible, but it also tidies up any lose gaff rope without risk of pinning people to covering boards.

I have heard and read of people taking wraps on gaff ropes, personally I’m not sure why on earth you would want to do such a thing. Firstly, it’s dangerous, especially on bigger fish, and secondly if you have time to take wrap and pull, surely you have time to take the safer and more secure option of the corner cleat, or simply letting go, as its tied to the game chair base. I know guy in the Azores who took a wrap on a gaff rope and lost all the skin off the back of his hand (through a glove), but each to their own.

Connecting the rope to the gaff pole is also down to personal preference. Things such as zip-ties, rubber bands and insulation tape are used. It really doesn’t matter what you use, as long as there’s only one connection at end of the pole, the rope is rigid, and you’re confident you can detach the pole from the gaff head and rope with minimal fuss…sometimes, not as easy as it sounds.

As stated earlier, anyone using a flying gaff should be aware to things going wrong. With this in mind, footwear, gloves and a knife are a good idea. I usually wear sandals on the deck and always have a knife, but that’s over to you. Snot-gloves, as I call them, or cotton gloves with rubber webbing make great gaffing gloves due to both grip and protection.

Due to the presence of out-boards, low clearances and factors mentioned earlier, using flying gaffs out of trailer boats can be even more dangerous. All I can suggest is to be aware off all the things that can go wrong and don’t be in a major hurry to put flying gaff into a hot fish.

As a professional fisherman, using a flying gaff correctly is an important skill that we don’t often get the opportunity to put into practice. It’s something that can only be taught through experience. With conservation in the forefront of all game fisherman’s minds nowadays, using a flying gaff may only come as a once in a lifetime opportunity for some if the big one ever does turn up! Therefore, minimizing the possibility of things going wrong and safety should be a priority on any boat..... Good luck!