Small things can add up when you’re chasing big fish. It would be a real pity if you’d spent a lot of time and money on your gear, boat or charter only to find you don’t get the fish to the boat due to gear failure or poor technique. Nothing hurts like losing the fish of a lifetime to an error you could have accounted for, so let’s take a look at a few things that might avoid such disasters.

General approach


Buy the best there is for all your components. Chasing these big fish is expensive, whether you’re on a charter or running your own boat and it also likely means you’ve taken time off work to be there, so to go to all this trouble and lose a fish due to inferior components would be an enormous mistake. Is it really worth saving a pound on a hook or swivel only to see it fail during a fight with a fish that you might have spent years targeting? For this reason I have put in a lot of trial and research finding what works for me; the components I use have never let me down and I’ve had some cracking fishing using them. 

I’ve heard horror stories of amazing fish being lost due to crimp failure, hooks straightening, worn line being used and so on. The worst one I ever heard of was a species that’s never been caught round our coasts on the surface after a long fight coming off after a swivel unwound itself. I take all steps to prevent this kind of situation, even when using quality components it pays to make sure your crimps and swivels are still good and your hooks remain razor sharp. These are disposable items so if you can’t get an edge on them change them out.

Always check your mono every time you go out – I find the best way is to run it through your fingers and feel for roughness. It’s also worth changing a topshot after a day of catching large species. Many people don’t realise this but if you put a lot of pressure on mono it starts to splinter from the inside; you can’t see it but it’s been weakened. It’s obviously not practical to do this at sea after every big fish but if I’ve had a good day, the topshot gets changed out every time.

Setting up reels

It all starts with your reel. Make sure it can exert a decent amount of drag and ideally pick something with a metal frame like a Penn International. You can choose mono or braid as your mainline: if you go for braid (as I do) it means you can fit more onto your reel due to the thinner diameter. Braid also helps with bite detection as it has far less stretch than mono. The fine diameter of braid also brings about a problem: if you hook into a fast running fish and your braid isn’t on your spool tight enough the whole lot can slip and spin on the spool itself or dig down into the layers below. It will then bite in and snap you off. This is an especially common occurrence when tackling fast running fish and I heard of it happening a few times last year. 


The solution to this problem is to lay your braid on really tight and you can do this in two ways: either get a friend to hold the spool on a rod, applying tension so that it only comes off with extreme pressure, or you can build (or buy) a spooling station. Beware of the cheaper plastic spooling stations you’ll find online, the drag you’ll be applying to spool a big fish reel will break them very quickly. A simple one can be made up with a piece of threaded bar, a couple of nuts, two washers and a pair of small springs. Wind the nut onto the bar part way, then from the other end add a washer, spring, spool of line, spring, washer and nut, in that order. The tighter you do the nuts, the more pressure the springs put on the spool. You can then put the bar in a vice and spool from that.

You’ll need to tie the end of your line onto the reel first, I choose a San Diego jam knot but there are plenty of other knots that will do the job.  Take your time spooling the reel, you need a lot of pressure and a neat, even lay of the line going backwards and forwards. If using the vice method, you can wear a harness or even a rod holder in the boat to take the pressure off your arms as you will be there a while.


Once you’re all spooled up with braid you will need to add a topshot or a wind on leader. I choose to use a mono topshot, this gives some stretch that helps stop the hook pulling when a fish shakes its head. On my 30lb class reels I run 80lb braid with an 80lb Momoi topshot. I join these with an FG knot that I have modified – I add a Rizzuto finish to act as a ramp, helping the knot glide through the rings. I also tie a knot in the tag of the braid to stop the braid disintegrating into the knot and undoing it from within. I then wind 40lb rigging floss onto the braid in the area where the melted mono tag end is in contact with the mainline. For 50lb class reels I run 100lb braid with a 100lb topshot and for 80lb class reels, 100lb braid with a 130lb topshot. All my topshots terminate in a plait knot, this forms a double with the plait acting like a spring and absorbing yet more headshakes. The double is then connected to a ball bearing snap swivel that I connect my rig to with another jam knot.

Drag


Drag is more important than line capacity but many people get this priority the wrong way round with big fish. A fish hardly ever stops swimming naturally, so if you have no drag it will eventually spool you no matter how many miles of line you can fit on your reel. Only by application of drag can you start to tire a fish and get it to the boat so it’s worth considering this in a bit more depth. For most general fishing, you can get away with pulling line off by hand and judging the tension but with big fish it’s more critical than that. I use lever drags as it allows me to be confident in the amount of pressure I’m putting on a fish. Star drag reels are okay but they don’t allow you to preset with accuracy and for that reason I won’t use them for these bigger fish. 


To set my drags, I put the rod in a holder on the boat and pull off line a few times under tension to free everything up. I then engage the drag to strike and put a set of scales on the snap swivel, pulling down until line comes steadily off the reel and reading the weight off as it goes.

I like the weight at strike to be 25% of the breaking strain of my line and I’ll adjust the drag and repeat the process until I get to this point. When adjusting drag, it’s important that the reel is in freespool, so make sure you back the drag off before making any adjustments. 


Once I have my strike drag set, I’ll up it to sunset and take a maximum reading. I also take a reading at where the harness lugs come off the reel so that I know how progressive the drag is on the reel. If you go for 25% breaking at sunset you’ll probably notice that you have to push the lever a long way before you start to feel any resistance. If you go for 25% at strike, you do away with much of this ineffective travel on the lever. Another good system is to add a piece of tape alongside the drag lever and use a marker to note differing levels of drag. 


It’s also well worth mentioning that drag changes as the line leaves the spool. If you’re getting spooled by a big fast fish, your natural reaction is to up the drag. In actual fact you should be slowly reducing it during the run, as when the diameter of the spool is decreasing during a long run it takes more leverage to get the line off the spool. The drag effectively becomes heavier on its own as the line leaves the reel and if you’re set up on the limit of what your line can take, it can be enough to break it if you don’t ease it off during the fight.

General rig principles


Heavy tackle really means that you will have to learn how to crimp. There are knots that will hold in heavy mono but if you step on most big game boats around the world you’ll see everything crimped on – it’s simply a more reliable way of working. I use copper doubles on wire and aluminium crimps on mono. You will need to make sure your crimp matches the diameter of the material you are crimping and there are plenty of charts online that will help you out with this if you’re not sure.


When cutting wire ensure that your cutters are sharp, if they aren’t you will find the wire uncoils and you won’t fit it into your crimp. If you only have blunt cutters, you can tape round the wire with electricians tape and cut in the middle, this should help stop it uncoiling. When cutting mono it often pays to cut it at a slight angle, this makes it easier to thread it back through the crimp. With any type of crimp you need to ensure that you match the hole in the pliers to the crimp and the mono you’re using and that you keep the pliers away from the edges of the crimp. When a crimp is done right, the edges should splay up and out slightly, away from the mono or wire (as per the images). If they point in, there’s a risk that they will create a weak spot. Also don’t over tighten them as this will crush the material inside, again creating a weakness. For really big fish, I like to double crimp for a ‘belt and braces’ approach in case one slips.

Whenever you join two components you create a wear spot as they become fixed in relation to each other. This will eventually cause a weak point so with big fast fish we need to reduce this risk. To do this you can create a Flemish eye in the leader material, this doubles up the mono or wire and resists abrasion. You can also use a stainless thimble or chafe gear, either is fine and all are shown in the photos. I tend to use the Flemish eye in wire and the thimble in mono.


For sharks you will want to add a float into your system in order to suspend your bait in the slick, I like a sliding float for a few reasons. I make up my own from net floats and add a downrigger release clip in the Pullen style. Below the float I add a rubber bead and a larger floating bead, these stop the bigger float ending up at the business end of the shark. As they sit against the plait knot, they also help prevent a tip wrap when I place the rod in the holder (the big net float causes the line to hang vertically and not swing about wrapping around the rod). An extra plus with these clipped floats is that if you add lead and the float doesn’t have enough buoyancy, it’s easy to clip a latex balloon on to keep the bait up. I have tried balloon fisher clips but I find they gradually slide along the line with the bobbing of each wave and the bait gets gradually deeper if you have a weight on the line. This is fine if you are setting a shallow bait but not ideal if you are trying to set one low down. 


If you go down the float or bottle and elastic band route, I’d recommend the use of the black UV resistant bands. There’s nothing worse than being at sea and finding all the bands from last season have rotted and you can’t set your baits. They also come in handy for providing stop knots for balloon fisher clips if you get desperate.

Rod and reel servicing


Rods don’t take too much maintenance in the scheme of things, they just need washing down in fresh water after every use as any other sea fishing gear does. I also dry mine off to keep the varnish looking good and run a light spray of oil over them. It’s important to check that any rollers are functioning before you use them. At the end of the season, I remove the internals of the rollers and make sure they are running smoothly, before oiling and replacing them. Should a roller stop spinning, it can heat up during a long run and when the run stops transfer that heat to the line, creating a weak spot. This is to be avoided at all costs so make sure they are fully functional before every trip.

Reels are a bit more involved and you have to be in the right frame of mind. You can send your reels away to be serviced but I quite like to do my own. This involves a complete strip down, removal of all the grease, then regreasing moving parts with a water resistant grease such as Fuchs Renolit. If you’re not careful, you will end up with enough spare parts to build another reel so make sure as you take the reel apart you lay everything out in order. If you are really not technically minded you could take a photo of each stage of disassembly to help you put them back together.

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