Hero or Zero
Sometimes it’s the smallest mistakes that end up costing you the most.
An old Florida captain friend who spent his life running boats, much like his father did before him, tells a story of how his dad never left the charter-boat dock without his long-haired Chihuahua. The small dog sat up on the bridge and kept his intense bug-eyes on the balao in the wash. He would yelp if he saw grass on the hook, or noticed the bait was washed out. Often the dog was the first to spot the appearance of a sailfish. The little dog also would bark when the mate sat down in the cockpit or walked into the cabin to hit the head because he felt the mate was not paying attention. My friend had no shortage of interesting stories, but there is some truth in this tale because having all eyes on the game is how fish are caught and tournaments are won.
One of the irrecusable truths of fishing is that the smallest details often lead to overall success, or the lack thereof. And there is no shortage of these minute factors that have a way of popping up at the most inconvenient times. Thinking back to my salad days working as a mate, I can still recall leadering a 40-pound bluefin tuna to the boat and just as I was ready to reach out with the gaff, the knot holding the hook that I had too quickly tied that morning let go. To say I went from a hero, when the party saw me put out what I bragged was my favorite lure, to a zero when everything came undone, is an understatement. The curled mono was the telltale truth and the party went home with a story about the big fish that got away. I spent the evening retying every swivel and rig on the boat until well after midnight. In the morning at the beginning of another trip my eyes pored over each knot and leader. The fish bit that day but every time a tuna warped a rod my heart went overboard in angst as the line spooled off the reel. We saw 13 tuna that day and we caught each one, but the hard-luck lesson I’d learned the day before has stayed with me for countless fishing trips ever since.
Fortunately some lessons can be learned with a lot less aggravation and watching tournament crews ready their boats for competitive fishing is a good place to start. From knots to leaders, to rod guides to reel drags, pros eyeball every aspect of their equipment with surgical precision. And then they do it again and again during the day because they know that tournaments are always won by just one fish. It is either the behemoth on the scale or the one that gives you the prize-winning tally of releases with the best time. When that fish comes into your life and takes the hook it is too late for anything not to be right. You are either ready or you’re not.
Getting the fish to bite is one thing, but like the late, great Yogi Berra would say, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” This is why good crews also have finely honed strategies that kick into high gear immediately when a fish strikes. If the skipper has experienced anglers aboard, he will probably keep the boat moving to lure another fish or two to bite, while the mate may have a pitch bait ready to toss in to rack up even more. If there’s a big tuna or marlin on, the cockpit gets cleared and everybody focuses on giving the angler the room and encouragement he or she needs to work. Depending on the fish and the condition of the angler the battle may last a few minutes or it can take hours, so it is important to be suited up for the physical and mental demands.
Releasing a fish goes more quickly but boating a large billfish, shark, or tuna requires a different skill set because there are ways to get hurt if the cockpit is full of inexperienced people with flying gaffs and a tired angler in the fighting chair. All you need is a distracted angler who lets his line go slack as the boat rolls and it loops around the rod tip at the same time that the man handling the leader loses control and lets the fish take off on another run. This is how anglers get pulled overboard and a big fish story has a completely different ending.
If you are new to big-game fishing or fishing a tournament for the first time it is a strong and sound argument to hire an experienced mate to fish with you. His daily rate will be a good investment and the knowledge you will absorb from his experience will last a lifetime.
This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.