Photos and Story by Scott Kerrigan
For those passionate about fishing, ensuring that your kids enjoy time on the water is a very important—some might say life-altering—consideration. For those who make a living as charter or private boat captains, creating a kid-friendly fishing environment is that much more important. The difference between creating a lifelong angler and a kid that will never fish again can be something as simple as making sure that the tackle and the target species are age-appropriate.
Perhaps no one understands the importance of kid-friendly fishing modifications than Captain Fin Gaddy. Gaddy is not only a full-time charter captain (he runs the Qualifier, a 57-foot Paul Mann based in Manteo, North Carolina), but he is also the father of twin boys, Charles and Brown. Described independently as “the best nine-year-old marlin fishermen in the world,” the twins have benefited from Gaddy’s scientific approach to tackle modification and the never-ceasing quest to create the perfect kid fishing experience.
Beyond the many fish that Charles and Brown have caught in North Carolina and Mexico, the trio traveled to Casa Vieja Lodge to fish on the Rum Line with Captain Chris Sheeder. What follows is an in-depth description of the Gaddy family’s approach along with Sheeder’s steps to helping young anglers learn how to hook and fight their own sailfish. The lessons are applicable to anyone and may be applied to your unique fishing scenario.
Where did you get the idea for the tackle modifications for the boys? Can you describe the process of how it has evolved?
Fin Gaddy: “The first time we took the kids offshore, we used our general standup gear that we traditionally use for white marlin fishing, and we did well. We were using a full-sized chair and a Melton Hawaiian sling “youth” bucket harness. We put a cooler and milk crate on the footrest so that their feet would touch.
We quickly found that if a fish went down, the standup rods didn’t offer the length that we needed to clear the corners and stern of the boat. I talked with Drew at Rods By Drew and he made us a batch of 7’ rods with a faster tip so that we had the length to clear the wash boards. Then we had extra notches cut in the hockey sticks of the legs of the chair to be able to bring that footrest closer in.
My wife Nancy was scared about the kids getting pulled out of the boat at their young age, and so was I. If the leader got wrapped around the tip of the rod like what happened with Stewart Campbell, it would be terrible. You know a 45lb kid doesn’t have much resistance to getting yanked out of the boat. The Melton sling also offers a safety loop that we initially tied down tight to the chair. We eventually loosened up the loop as the kids got more comfortable with the weight and the drag being transferred from the reel and the harness. They also needed to be comfortable using their legs.
In Mexico with the rough water, we go for the release by touching the leader and then we put the reel in full and try and go for the tag. It was at that point the Charles learned how to straight leg a fish in the chair with his butt up and off the chair. This let him work a fish just like the heavy tackle anglers do.
We came down to Guatemala and fished with David Salazar on the Finest Kind. His boat had short 4’6” kids’ standup rods built by Crowder for us to use. This worked out great since the kids tried stand-up our previous winter in Mexico and were now over the chair. These rods were built for kids and were a big improvement over any typical standup rod we had yet tried.
When I got back home I purchased a spread of those rods. These rods turned them into great anglers because the reel is right where it needs to be (approximately 13” from the tip of the reel seat to the butt), the grips are perfect, and this was a huge advantage to my son Brown when he caught two blue marlin standing up un-assisted during the Pirates Cove Billfish Tournament. I feel he could not have done that had we had those fish on any other type of tackle.”
Can you describe how the tackle modifications help the boys’ fishing, especially as it relates to fighting large fish?
Fin Gaddy: “The reel positioning is key to my kids’ comfort. Butt length is critical, even though they are not clipping into a shoulder harness. It’s all about leverage – if you consider the rod belt as the fulcrum, the longer the rod the more leverage the fish has on you. By decreasing that length, it gets your hand closer to the tip of the rod, giving the angler a mechanical advantage. We also went with a smaller reel because the kids’ hands are a lot smaller. By using braid, we’re able to use a reel that holds almost 500 yards of 25-pound test in a small package. This makes kids feel comfortable being able to fight larger class fish.”
What are the most important considerations for scaling tackle for youth anglers?
Fin Gaddy: “The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of times you think that kids can use the tackle that you already have. When not matched properly, tackle really is almost detrimental to their enjoyment. A big rod that is not measured properly for a kid can turn things into an epic struggle. It’s not a matter of simply grabbing the shortest rod in the rod rack either.
There are several dimensions to consider. I tried a couple of rods from another manufacturer that were “youth style” and within one minute my son Brown said the grip is not long enough. He couldn’t get his hand to where he needed to have it to get comfortable. We work these things out at home in my man cave and get comfortable applying pressure to simulate the fighting of a fish.
The results of this research were proven recently while fishing at home. Brown caught a yellowfin and pushed the reel to full drag, catching a 45-pound tuna in no time. It was quite impressive on a fish that had 175-yards of line out on the first run. He made short work of that fish—that would make some adults crumble– using properly fitting tackle.
One thing to consider about these kids’ stand up rods is how they fit in the standard rod holder in the covering board of a boat. These are too deep for these rods so the reel ends up landing on the washboard. Using a gimbal lifter/spacer, whether it is from Melton or Solo Marine, enables the reel to ride up off the washboard. Not only is this set up more convenient for the mate, but we can to use the equipment without tearing things up.”
Are there any modifications that are not on the market, that you would like to be able to do?
Fin Gaddy: “Right now, I’m looking at the youth spinning rods I have. While watching my sons fight a fish, I feel like the reel is a little further away from the gimbal than I would like. Even though I think it is a great set up, I feel like cutting it down to shorten the butt and lower the reel. Then again, at this age they are growing so rapidly that I might cut it down, and turn around and find that they just outgrew what I modified. I’m very happy with the Crowder rods as an over the counter choice since they seem to be a quality rod and are relatively inexpensive at around $140 per rod.”
When describing their experience in Guatemala, Gaddy raved about the laidback, thorough approach of Captain Chris Sheeder. Beyond the fact that Sheeder is genuinely a hell of a nice guy and that his laid-back nature belies the fact that he grew up in Hawaii, Sheeder is really, really good at his craft. Beyond the importance of catching fish, there is no substitute for a patient captain and crew. When fishing with youngsters, teaching is important and there is no place for yelling about missed fish.
What do you do on the Rum Line to help junior anglers catch fish and enjoy the experience?
Captain Chris Sheeder: “Some of the obvious stuff, like Fin is using, is the shorter rod. This creates less leverage along with 16-pound test line lets us fish lighter drag. Both of these make it easier for the kids. Almost every youngster that comes on board wants to learn how to bait and switch. To help teach them, we will take all the bait out of the water. By just pulling teasers, we end up with less fish behind the boat. However, the fish that we do tease in will be a much more aggressive fish.