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Drag Race

Learn to use your tackle properly and you can catch big fish to your heart’s content.

A wise man once told me there’s a right way and a wrong way to do pretty much anything. OK, that’s obvious, but sage advice nonetheless. It most certainly applies to fishing, especially fighting strong fish. Growing up fishing in fresh water did not prepare me for doing battle with larger saltwater species. I was surprised by the power and endurance of near-shore gamefish and those remarkably speedy creatures of the flats.

But even that was nothing compared to what happened when I hooked my first tuna. In a matter of minutes I was shaking with fatigue and scared I was going to lose the death grip I had on the fishing rod. I’m sure the same scenario has played out for thousands of anglers, right down to the sore arms and aching back that accompanies the brawl. But for a simple misconception, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Capt. Jake Jordan shows off a fly-rod caught Pacific sailfish with the help of two mates. While that rod bends with the best of them, it’s the reel that holds the secret to bringing in the big ones.

Capt. Jake Jordan shows off a fly-rod caught Pacific sailfish with the help of two mates. While that rod bends with the best of them, it’s the reel that holds the secret to bringing in the big ones.

I’ve learned a lot about fighting technique over the years from some truly great big-game anglers and it all revolves around using the tackle to tire the fish while putting as little pressure on your body as possible. But it was one of the top fly-rod guides in the world, Capt. Jake Jordan, who really opened my eyes about a simple truth that works with any hard-fighting fish.

Jordan has been a tarpon guide in Marathon in the Florida Keys for more than 40 years and I doubt that there are more than a handful of anglers in the world who have caught more billfish on fly than him. We were in Costa Rica years ago fishing out of the old Fins & Feathers Lodge and I was hooked up to my second or third fish of the morning doing what I thought was an admirable job of putting pressure on a red-hot Pacific sail. The fish was running like a cruise missile and repeatedly launching itself into the air while I was straining against the deep bend I put in the fly rod. It was hot, the sweat was rolling down my face, and I was getting tired when Jordan leaned over my shoulder and said “Why are you killing yourself? Point the rod at the fish.”

I remember thinking, What did he say? Why would I do that? The answer turned out to be simple physics—by putting a bend in the rod you’re not putting any more pressure on the fish, just more strain on yourself. I wasn’t an instant believer, but I did back off considerably on the bend in the rod and experienced immediate relief from the burning in my arms and shoulders. 

Back at the lodge Jordan grabbed a drag scale and we took one of the heavy fly rods outside for a demonstration. He set the drag for 6 pounds at straight pull off the reel, then walked away from me about 20 feet and had me assume my former fighting stance with the rod horizontal to the ground and loaded with a deep bend to the side pulling away from him. It felt like I was putting a lot more pressure on him—damn, I should have been pulling him off his feet! He pulled back until the drag slipped and kept moving, taking a few feet of line off the reel. Then he walked back to show me the telltale on the scale … 6 pounds! It was an epiphany!

That experience changed the way I fight fish with spinning, plugging, and even standup tackle forever. By keeping the rod low and barely loaded while a fish is running you almost completely negate the strain on your back, arms, and legs. It gives you, the angler, a chance to rest while the fish is expending gobs of energy as it dashes away. You’re simply letting the drag do its job. All the extra energy it takes to bend the rod only bends the rod. When it comes time to pump and reel the fish back the rod is your friend and you’re fresh. When the fish takes off on another run, drop the rod, hold on, and enjoy the down time.

Put on the Brakes

Take care of your drag and it will take care of you.

  1. Set it right. Get your drags dialed in by using a scale (best to do this on dry land, in advance) and experiment. Measure what kind of braking is added with simple thumb pressure.
  2. Care for your reels the way the manufacturer says. If they advise you to screw down the drag before hosing off, they should know. Same goes for type and amount of oil and grease to use to use when you tear them down.
  3. Help Line. Feel that light drag is prolonging the fight as the fish runs? All that line in the water has its own drag effect. Let ’em run and enjoy the fight.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.