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Is Backing Down on a Fish Always a Good Idea?

Boat backing up on a fish

Fine-tune Your Endgame

Backing down on fish isn’t always the best plan.

We’ve all witnessed the spectacle of a boat captain backing down hard in a large sportfisherman. In the old days before electronically controlled, common-rail diesel engines, a cloud of black smoke would send out a signal heralding the actions of such enthusiastic throttle jockeys.

With the new, cleaner diesels, you need to look a little closer to find them. Some guys seem to just love the rush of reverse, pushing up a pile of white water behind the boat and often filling the cockpit in the process; the telltale wall of water gives them away every time.

Billfish photographers routinely send around photos of these events, with buckets and other loose gear (and sometimes anglers) awash in the cockpit. 

Such aggressive boat driving, while undoubtedly dramatic, doesn’t necessarily help you catch the fish any more quickly, and it invites potential catastrophe in the form of injured crew, equipment drenched in salt water, and maybe even a sunk boat.

It happened a few years ago. The captain hit the throttles in reverse in pursuit of a marlin, but then allegedly fell out of the boat’s tower, throwing the boat into full-speed reverse in the process. Before he could recover from his fall the boat had buried its stern beneath the surface, rolled over and capsized.

Now, if a fish stays close to the boat, moderate backing down in pursuit makes sense, especially if it’s calm. But flat seas can’t always be counted upon, and fish usually choose not to cooperate by hanging around after you’ve hooked them. When you’ve got a hot fish on that takes off with several hundred yards of your line, there’s a better method for chasing them.

Savvy captains know it’s better to give chase in forward at a quartering angle to where the fish has gone. It’s easy when you’re fishing standup tackle, as the angler can simply walk over to the appropriate gunwale and keep the rod tip pointed at the fish. But even when fishing from a chair, it’s not that difficult. In that case someone must steer the chair for the angler to keep the line pointed in the right direction.

The captain must know where the fish is, as indicated by the direction the line enters the water. You have to pay close attention to sudden changes in line direction as they telegraph which way the fish is swimming. The danger with chasing fish this way comes into play when it suddenly decides to change course and swim under the boat, but by closely monitoring the line angle you can be prepared for that possibility. 

Capt. Karl Anderson, who skippers the 72-foot Merritt Brier Patch, says other considerations come into play as well. “Drive the boat, don’t let the fish drive it for you,” Anderson says. “Once we get a bite when trolling, I make an inside turn toward the fish and we keep our other baits fishing, looking for multiple hookups. This does two things: We keep fishing so we get more bites, and we get a jump on chasing the fish.” 

Chasing a fish in forward gives you much better control of the boat, as it’s always easier to change direction in forward and you can close the gap between angler and fish quite effectively this way. Plus, the water stays where it’s supposed to be, out of the boat.

Anderson adds that it’s advantageous to stay up-sea of the fish when possible. “We always try to maintain an up-sea position,” he says. “If we are down-sea of the fish, we are fighting the wind and the sea, adding time to the fight and increasing the potential for losing the fish. Getting up-sea will put both of those factors in your favor. If possible, also try to use the sun to your advantage so that you can see the fish and its movements as things get close.”

When it becomes obvious that you’re getting close, it’s time to spin the boat and finish the chase in reverse, where a wireman can grab the leader to tag the fish at one transom corner or another. You can always repeat the process, too, in the event that a fish you thought was finished suddenly finds its second wind and pulls off a lot of line again.

When you’re close and the wire is at hand, go back to forward. “A dead boat with a fish swimming about erratically trying to escape usually means a lost fish,” Anderson says. “To help lead the fish alongside, the captain must position the boat according to the fish and maintain momentum in the same direction. Then, as the wireman brings the fish closer to the surface and in range for a tag, begin a slight inside turn if possible to give the tag man a good, clean shot. By moving the boat with the fish, the wireman is usually able to control the fish a bit better.” 

With this method, you catch fish quicker, save wear and tear on the boat, and keep everyone’s shoes dry. Sounds like a good deal to me.

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.