So, there you are, replete with good food and a pink wife (or was it a good wife and pink food ? I can’t remember…………….). The sand has finally worked its way into your beer, the kids have disappeared along the beach with the last of your foreign currency, and you haven’t taken a single picture with that new camera. As you doze in the setting sun you spy a sleek white boat blasting along the horizon on its way back to the new marina after a day out at sea. You’re not sure, but that could be a big-game boat and that might have been a flag they’re flying. A quick word with the wife and with the promise of a Margarita you’re off to the marina bar and a quick check on what’s going on. You feel something stirring in your shorts, but - alas, it’s only your Visa card trying to escape - it knows what’s going to happen.
The next morning, plastered from head to toe in sun-lotion and nervous as hell, you walk along the pontoon to that incredible-looking boat which caught a wahoo and a tuna yesterday, and nearly hooked a marlin. It is your very first big-game trip, and no matter what happens when you get home to the pile of bills, you’re going to enjoy it ! Well, if you read this, you will………hopefully, anyway.
The trip of your lifetime should have started the night before at the boat or its kiosk, with some questions. First and foremost should have been the one that asks what happens to fish. If the guy says they kill them all, and then they sell them all and tough titty to you, then so be it, if you’re happy with someone sticking a bloody great flying-gaff in a fish. If you have the slightest conscience about this, then deal with it then and ask if it is okay to release any fish and if so, what would be needed to make the crew happy. This is routine in many countries, where the fish is part of the boat’s income and you can release fish as long as you recompense the crew. Some skippers may even welcome someone who wants to release a fish. Some won’t however, and they can be very difficult. These guys normally run boats with tails drying on the rail and a bill on the bow, have kiosks plastered with thirty-year old pictures of dead fish and probably have a fish tied to the side of the boat to tow out the next day. My advice is to try and find another boat if you run across one of these outfits.
The second question should have been about the money. How many people, how much each, what do you get for your money ? Importantly, do you have to pay for the cool drinks ? Is there bait to buy ? Is there a licence or other fee ? And, if you don’t want to be in an embarrassing situation, take along 10% of your share of the charter fee in cash to give to the crew as a tip. You don’t have to give it, but have it just in case. Jeez, if you catch a world record, you’re going to want to buy the guys a few beers, right ?
While you’re down there at this time, you also might want to do one more thing - check the chair on the boat. If it is a reputable make, then it is probably okay. If it looks like a homemade job, examine it and the fittings carefully. If it looks as though it is simply screwed into the deck, go find another boat. It is not worth the risk. Oh, and while you’re at it, ask to see the tag-pole and the tags you’ll be using. If they have neither, chances are you should use another boat.
So, it’s the next morning and there you are about to step aboard - you’ve paid your due and have the nod from the skipper that any marlin will be released. And you have a pocket full of change. You’ve got clean rubber-soled shoes on (sand and mud are not popular), a hat and sun-glasses (preferably polarised), shorts and a t-shirt in situ and a soft bag on your shoulder with a camera, towel, spare t-shirt, loose trousers, sweater and maybe a rain-jacket inside it. I assume you’ve asked about food and have some sandwiches and fruit in the bag too. Oh, and a spare film and the rest of the sun-lotion. In a secret compartment in the bag you’ve hidden a handful of toilet-tissue.
Hop on board, hopefully the crew give you a big smile (don’t even take any notice of the scowling skipper on the fly-bridge - he’s probably worried about a leaking engine or a monthly bill) and ask where you can put your bag. If you’ve had to take drinks on board, ask the crew if they have a cool-box you can put them in.
RULE NO 1 : no alcohol, under any circumstances. Save the drinking for when you get back in.
RULE 2: if you see the crew have wet-weather gear on at this stage, get yours on too. Use the head before you leave the marina if you haven’t already done so at your hotel or apartment - it’s gonna be rough…
As the boat gets under way, either stay inside out of the way, or lean against a gunwale. The crew will have a routine on stowing everything and getting gear ready, and unless they specifically ask you to do something, do nothing except watch carefully.
RULE 3 : do not go up to the fly-bridge without asking the skipper or crew.
As you head out to sea, talk to the other charters, if there are any, and organise a strike rota based on how many rods there are. Most big-game fish bites come one at a time and so it is normal for everyone to take their turn in trying to catch a fish, which translates into taking it in turns to deal with a bite. What constitutes a bite ? My rule for this scene is simple, if you get to park your bum in the chair with the rod in the gimbal - that’s a bite (some nationalities cannot get to grips with this system and assume that if they stay in the chair all day then every fish is their’s - alternatively if the lure catches some seaweed, then that’s a bite - watch out). If there are two of you and only four rods, divide the rods between you, and so on if this can be worked out - this keeps the interest up. While you’re on your way out to the fishing grounds, ask if you can sit in the chair with the rod in the bucket harness and get the feel of it.
There are many ways of fighting fish, but I advocate one of the most recently-evolved and simplest methods which any sane person can do. This is called the Wright method, and involves balancing yourself on the edge of the seat with your feet down low on the footrest. Without a rod and without the bucket, work out this position so you can pivot on the edge of the chair with straight legs. Slide the bucket underneath you, get the rod in the gimbal and lugged on to the snaps, and then push down on the reel with your left hand. If you’ve balanced yourself correctly, you should push yourself upwards and forwards as you do this. Adjust the length of the harness-straps. Simply sink back into the bucket to lift a fish with the rod. Reel as you push forwards and downwards again. Sink backwards. It is very similar to riding a horse from the stirrups. Your legs are straight (or very nearly) and by simply angling your body backwards and forwards you’ll find the rod and reel working correctly.
When fighting a fish, always keep the left hand on the reel to both guide line on to the spool and to stop the reel hitting you in the chest should the line break. You should not need to lift the rod with your hand/arms if you have fitted yourself correctly into the harness. All the weight of the rod/reel combo, and the weight of the fish, should be taken up by the straps leading to the reel from the bucket-harness. Your bum should be taking the strain, and as there is considerably more of it than your forearm, you’ll find it works for a lot longer - hours in fact, and nothing gets tired. Women and budding youngsters can both whip big fish in very short times using this method. Forget sliding back and forth using your legs. Brute force turns to jelly quicker than melting sun-cream.
Identify the length of the straps from the harness to the rod, and what length the footrest is. When it’s your turn for a strike, alter both these two options to your fit.
Rule 4 : if there is no harness on the boat, go find another boat.
Some of the better skippers will stop before they reach the fishing and get a bucket or tyre thrown overboard while attached to the line and will run you through the whole drill. This is not a waste of time and can even be fun. Use this interlude and watch what everyone else does. Even if you can’t work it out, someone else probably will and they can help you later.
As the mates tinker with the gear and get everything ready, you should hopefully find yourself looking at some decent gear. The rods should have rollers that turn, the reels should have lever-drags and although they can be battle-scarred, should be clean.
RULE 5 : if the boat has no lever-drag reels, go find another boat……… if possible. Ditto if the rods have no bent-butts. Neither are 100% essential to catching a marlin, but by golly, they don’t half make life easier and improve your chances by leaps and bounds.
The reels should have decent line on them and be reasonably full. If you think the line resembles something you’ve seen recently supporting some washing, make a subtle joke about it to the crew. It should not be more than 130lb, except in some parts of the north-east US when you’ll find almost anything loaded on reels for bluefin tuna fishing. If the line is new AND hi-vis, you’re onto a winner. There should be a bimini and a length of double line on the reel ending in either a Sampo snap-swivel or a wind-on leader.
Each rod and reel should be attached to the chair with a safety-line (no, 130lb mono will not do - a safety-line is not only designed to stop an outfit flying over the side but by the time you’re buckled in and attached to the rod, it will also have to stop YOU flying into the drink !). You should be looking at 130lb, 80lb and maybe 50lb outfits. In some parts of the world you may be catching small marlin, wahoos and tunas in which case you may well have a sprinkling of smaller, stand-up outfits in front of you. If think these outfits are not used regularly, cast a cursory eye over them to check for details such as line capacity and the state of the reel.
Depending on where you are in the world, you’ll find either lures, baits or a mix of both going out on these outfits. Chances are that you will not have a clue what anything is here, so all I can advise you to do is playfully test the hooks for sharpness in front of the crew, and laugh when it hurts and goes in. When it doesn’t, and the damn thing is obviously blunt, make a show of it, simply because a sharp hook is one of the most vital ingredients for catching a marlin. If you see a lure go over the side without being checked at any stage, make sure the crew see you disapprove, and suffer the consequences. If they do not check the lures, tell the skipper you think the hooks are blunt. He will definitely want to catch fish, even if the crew want an easy life and he will keep on their case if he thinks you’re on his side. But, if he says it’s okay and they know their job, then keep quiet.
If the hook is rusty, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but the wire-leader, if there is one, most definitely should not be. If there is a double-hook rig, it too should be clean. The baits should be clean and firm and kept in a cool-box. If they’re a couple of mouldy mackerel that appear out of a bag under the gunwale, make sure the crew check them regularly. Do this by simply indicating that the bait is spinning, for example and they should bring it in to check it.
The boat slows down and the crew starting putting out the spread.
RULE 6: do not ask the crew what they are doing until they have finished. Do not try and help unless specifically asked to. On no account put a lure out, get a birds-nest, and then have a marlin eat the bait as you’re red-faced and untangling the birdie - it happens so don’t do it !
As they do so, the skipper will lower the outriggers. Each outrigger will carry at least one of the lines out on it by means of a release-clip. Good boats will have two halyards on each rigger and be able to carry out two baits. The purpose of a rigger is varied, but two main requirements are to carry the bait out into the clean water outside of the wake, and to make some sort of drop-back automatically available to a fish if it takes a bait. It goes without saying that they also seperate the lures and make space for more than two baits to be trolled. Taglines are a modern development which consist of a length on mono running from the halyard with the release clip on the end of it, thus effectively putting your baits further astern. Personally, whilst I agree on tag-lines for tunas, wahoos and small marlin, I do not use them for big marlin - I still want the fish to turn its head before the line comes tight, even when using lures. Pay close attention to the lines in the riggers. If it’s your turn and a line pops out of the clip, stand by the rod that it came down from - the skipper or the crew may want you to reel like mad or raise the rod. Some boats may well run a fifth rod from a centre-rigger or a clip on the bridge. Some skippers have the rod up there with them on the bridge rail, but it goes without saying that as he will have to hand down the rod then any chance of a record goes out of the window.
Talk to the crew, and if you feel confident enough, explain that you want to transfer the rod to the chair in the event of a bite. If you really do want to do this and they refuse, ask the skipper. Hopefully you will not have been brain-washed by all those big-game books where the authors heroically ‘strike the fish time and time again, driving the metal deep into his jaw’ - all utter bull-shit when it comes to modern trolling. The boat tows the lure, the fish eats, the boat carries on, line comes off the reel and the fish is hooked. You, the angler, do not do anything. Yes, there are some experts who tease and hook fish with the drag, but that is way outside of the scope of this article.
So, the boat drones on, the sun comes out and the breeze dies away. You drew the shortest straw and so you’re up first. Now that you’ve paid all that money, enjoy the experience. Watch the wake for movement, shadow, splash. Look around the horizon. Enjoy everything you see, be it birds, dolphins or whales. Remember
RULE 7 : you’re paying for the boat-ride and the use of it, the tackle and the crew. The fishing is free.
RULE 8 : take any opportunity to ask the crew questions. You’re not only making them think you’re not so stupid, but they will be keen to impress and you’re also keeping them awake !
Suddenly there’s a rod bucking in the gunwale, a ratchet is screaming and the crew make a lot of noise too. DO NOT RUSH to get the rod out of the holder and into the chair. Stand by it, put two hands on it, and look at the crew or the skipper. When they give you the nod, then move the rod to the gimbal. Now, it may look to you as though everything is happening so fast that the fish is going to disappear with all the line before you can say knickers, but in reality it is not, and should not. Do what the crew say. At the very least put the rod in the gimbal, sit yourself down, and hang-on, asking for someone to snap you into the bucket-harness.
RULE 9 : if the line goes slack at any stage, even when you’re not buckled in, wind like the proverbial windmill.
RULE 10 : on no account touch the drag setting. If something goes wrong you know it was entirely their fault and you can hit them later and not feel guilty. A good crew will let you know if they want you to alter it.
If this is your very first time on a game-boat and you’ve opted for the crew to pass you the rod in the chair, then you’ve been eminently sensible as long as you understand that you CANNOT claim a world record under these circumstances.
The next few minutes will pass in a blur. There will probably be lots of shouting in a foreign language. The reel should become a blur under your left hand lots of times, and the rod should bend a little. With luck you will have at least one panic-attack and you should choke on a little black smoke at some stage or another. As a bonus you may also get extremely wet and you’ll be glad of the towel and spare t-shirt in your bag. Normally the marlin will spend the first few minutes on the surface leaping around, the boat going after it as fast as possible, and you won’t have to do anything except maybe wind a little slack line in now and again. Do not struggle to wind line in - instead straighten your legs a little, sit back on the weight and watch the rod tip. Now, it comes as a surprise to many people who look at big-game rods and think they are broomsticks. There are some of those around, to be sure, but as a rule, that $1000 buck’s worth of fibreglass/graphite between your legs is simply more than a way of getting the line to clear the corners of the cockpit. If you lean back on it, you will see it bend, and just the same as any match-rod, carp-rod, fly-rod or bamboo-pole, it is designed to lift the fish, but in this case rather a lot of it. You can go into a small world where you watch the tip of the rod, and, as it straightens, wind down on the reel, leaning forward as you do so. Then lean back, put a bend in the tip again, and watch it. As soon as you see it lifting and straightening, repeat the process. It is just like any other form of fishing where you would watch or feel the rod lift the fish, and you wind down the slack. It is simple, and there is no need to do anything else than this and alter the drag according to the crew’s commands. Once the skipper sees that you can wind and do what you are told, he will become far more active and will chase the fish more forcefully.
RULE 10: keep the line tight at all times.
Unfortunately, you may well find yourself aboard a boat somewhere in the world where you do all this and then you realise that you have a crew and skipper who are rather keen to fight the fish to the death and don't want to see the fish for a couple of hours. They actually want the fish to die down deep, then they’ll hand-line it up while you pull in the slack. These sort of boats normally have no gaffs to speak of and they have a lucrative market in marlin-meat. If at any stage you suspect that this is happening, yell very loudly and indicate that the boat could actually move towards the fish a little faster. If you feel the fish is diving slowly and deeply and the boat is not moving and you feel a satisfied silence behind you, then this is what is happening. Yell until you are blue in the face. As a last resort stick both hands into the reel and break off - at the very least you are giving the fish a chance to live and the rest of the day can be passed trolling instead of hand-lining. Of course, hopefully you’ll have asked sufficient questions the night before and it will not have come to this.
So, you’ve wound like mad for 30 minutes or so, sweated buckets, drunk a little water at some stage and had the chair turned rather badly by the crew. No matter, you’ve almost filled the reel and the shouting is getting louder. There may be a bit more black smoke here and there at this stage, and you might have to wind a little and watch some line disappear again, but inside you can feel the fish is on the surface and somewhere close. There’s a bit more encouragement from the crew and one of them is leaning over the back of the boat where you suddenly see the snap-swivel. He grabs the leader below it and starts to pull and here you have two rules to follow.
RULE 11 : make sure you and the chair face the fish, even if you have been left alone and have to put one foot on deck to turn the chair.
RULE 12 : back off the drag a little if you think you’re capable of doing so - just bring that lever back a centimetre or so.
Do not think it is all over at this stage, because the mate may well not be able to hold the fish and he might have to let go. You may have to fight the fish all over again. If all goes well though, you’ll see the mate wrap the fish up by the side of the boat, and hopefully he’ll look at you with a grin and invite you to come and see what you’ve caught. In a perfect world, the other mate or one of the other charters is tagging the fish as we speak. Put the rod down in the side-holder in the chair, making sure the drag is backed off a little. Make sure you do not get you feet tangled in the leader (if it is inside the boat) as you go to the gunwale and lean over. Take pictures quickly. Touch your fish. Wave good bye to it and then shake everyone’s hand and thank the crew and skipper. Sit down and savour the moment. Don’t bother to do anything for at least 10 minutes until you can walk straight again !
If at any stage you see someone waving a gaff around, shout loudly, especially if you have arranged to release your fish. Remember, organise everything in advance - make sure they know what you want to do.
When you get ashore, hopefully after turning the chair for a fellow charter, make sure the crew have your name and address if they’ve tagged the fish.
RULE 12 : if you promise to send the skipper and crew some photos, please do it. They are always really appreciated - they do not normally have time to take photos themselves.
Make sure you say thank you to the skipper and the crew and make sure you take everything off the boat - except that change of course. Hopefully as you walk up the pontoon you’ll turn back and look up at that little red flag fluttering in the rigger, too.
RULE 13 : the most important rule - YOU DO NOT NEED A PHOTO OF A DEAD FISH TO PROVE THAT YOU CAUGHT IT !