By Jarad “Dingo” Boshammer
Even for the most experienced crew, taking a big fish is a challenge. For those lacking experience this is a daunting situation. More fish are lost boat side due to lack of experience than anywhere else. Losing fish can result from tackle failure, lack of preparation, buck fever, poor communication or bad driving. As it can be difficult to gain the experience needed to secure a giant fish boat side without practice, the following is an account of the approach, techniques and materials needed to harvest a large marlin.
There are so many stories of an inexperienced gaff man freezing at the sight of a huge fish. Even for the experienced fisherman, there are situations never seen or heard of before. Consider this: recently a very large fish was lost even after being stuck with four 10” flying gaffs. Two were straightened, the other two tore out. It’s hard to imagine losing a fish with four 10” re-enforced gaffs, but this illustrates two things: the expertise needed to subdue large marlin and the power of the animals involved.
Gaff Layout and Design
I prefer to use half-inch rope spliced to the gaff with the bitter end tied in a bowline to the chair stanchion. It is best to avoid shackles. If you must use them, use the largest shackles possible and change them every year. I’ve heard too many stories of giant fish lost because of shackles exploding. Worse than fish lost are the tales of crewmen nearly being decapitated as the remains fly past. The fewer connections and less hardware used eliminate much potential risk.
As for the gaff itself, conical-shaped points are ideal. Avoid gaffs with a cutting edge on the inside of the point. Barbs are very important. A flapper barb that will lay flat when penetrating, but has enough flare to open when the gaff is in is ideal. The shape of a gaff head is critical. There should be recurve and the tip can open out a little, creating the appropriate angle for initial contact.
So long as the gaff is composed of tempered, re-enforced stainless steel, there is no need for any gaff head with a gap greater than 10-inches (a 12” gaff head is too heavy). Gaff size should match the fish. Below 500-pounds, 8-inch heads are fine (a six-inch head may even be sufficient).
Otherwise you run the risk of the gaff being too large passing all the way through the fish. A fish thrashing next to the boat with an exposed gaff head can wreak havoc, destroying the side of your boat. Small-gapped gaffs also come in handy for tail shots where a larger gap would only cradle the fish and slide off.
Flying Gaff Set Up:
The eye of the gaff head should be on the same side of the pole as the point. Aligning the direction of pull with the gaff point avoids tearing and increases penetration. Lubrication (grease or Vaseline) is important for where the gaff head mounts to the pole. Corrosion or a sticky connection prevent smooth deployment.
Skateboard grip tape—similar to 80-grit sandpaper— provides grip for the pole. Electrical tape or zip-ties are ideal for rope-to-pole connection by the handle. Test this connection to know how much pressure is required to break the rope free. Pull the rope as tightly as possible, removing stretch—before attaching it. The gaff head should only disengage from the pole when the connections are broken. After gaffing the fish, the wire man should manually break the connections to release the pole. The connection needs to be strong enough to keep the head in place during the gaffing, not so strong that it cannot be manually broken once the fish is gaffed.
The poles on flying gaffs are designed to break free, allowing you to cleat the gaff line to cleat effectively and prevent crew from being beaten by a thrashing fish. The gaff head sits in a slot at the top of the pole. It is the strength of the gaff rope’s attachment to the pole that determines the force necessary for the head to depart from the pole.
To ensure that the head does not fall out prematurely, you should stretch the rope as tightly as possible down the length of the pole. At the base of the pole, there is an indentation. Run the rope through this groove and up the other side. This should be done as tightly as possible, as taut as a bow string. Then use a zip tie or electrical tape to set the connection.
You can test the breaking strength by pulling the rope. Applying additional zip ties or more tape increases the strength of the connection. You need to know how much force is necessary to break the connection. The gaff needs to be attached firmly enough not to disengage prematurely, but you should be able to break the connection to release the pole once the fish is gaffed.
Tying the rope to the gaff pole or adding too many ties/tape connections can prevent you from being able to break the gaff rope from the pole. The poles should float and be painted in a bright visible color (white or yellow work well) so they can be found in the ocean after boating the fish.
Measuring and Securing the Line:
IGFA rules state that the gaff should not exceed the length of eight-feet. The maximum allowance for rope is a length of 30-feet. Does this mean that more rope is better? Absolutely not! Rather than keeping 30-feet of tether, it is much better to use as little rope as necessary to get the job done. Keeping a short leash also decreases the chance of standing in a loop of rope!
The rope should be just long enough to permit the gaff man full reach in all four corners of the cockpit. To measure the distance, lay the rope in a straight line along the deck to the hull sides and then up. Leave a bit of a belly in the rope when measuring to the furthest possible gaff scenarios, but not enough to leave a loop on the deck. Once the gaff is deployed, this measurement leaves enough rope to be taken to the cleat, but not enough for the fish to get its head down in the blue water.
The less rope you deploy, the sooner the fish’s head can be cleared from the water. It is truly amazing how much power a big marlin has when it gets its head. With an eye full of bluewater fish seem to have much more confidence and drive to get away. A fish cleated short can still thrash but has far less traction. Short ropes also ease the deployment more gaffs.
The chair or rocket launcher stanchion in the middle of the cockpit is the safest place to secure the gaff rope to. It is very dangerous to secure the gaff line to a cleat on the hull sides because body parts are far too easily trapped between the rope and gunwales. This is a dangerous proposition.
Cockpit Layout and the Tools of the Trade
The gaff man needs to be ready for the battle to go down anywhere. Gaff, meat hook or bat should ideally be within reach from either side of the cockpit. I generally have at least four gaffs to suit any scenario, two meat hooks with enough rope to reach the cleat and two solid bats.
Hollow alloy bats don’t have enough weight to finish the job quickly, but solid wood is a good option. Meat hooks should have rope just enough to reach the cleats or block and tackle. They should be hung on the arm rest either side of the chair or someplace similar.
Within arm’s reach away is always the best scenario – you should never have to go searching after the fact. Gaffs should be laid on the deck unless you are in rough conditions with lots of water. During the fight, it may be best to hang them from the tower legs or bridge rail if they are at risk of washing around. Know what works before getting in a situation with poor organization.
Boat Handling: Setting Up the Shot
Blue marlin have a tendency to swim with the boat, making switch back moves across the transom. Avoid letting the fish swim up the side of the boat, past square of the transom – anticipate moves like these. Once a fish has been beaten, slide it up the side on a short leash and break the head from the water.
Black marlin have a tendency to swim away from the boat and generally be taken in reverse. Driving past the fish, putting it off the corner, can set up an ideal shot. The captain should then keep the boat in gear until the gaff goes in, utilizing tactical driving to relieve some gaff pressure without letting the fish get its head down. Use the outside engine and some wheel to avoid propping the fish.
Some aggressive captains will nearly runover a hot fish to get close enough for the shot. Often, as the gap closes, the fish will make a move into the sea. The chase then becomes an aggressive charge into the ocean taking waves. Never remove sunglasses and make sure there is nothing loose on the deck in these situations. Be mindful, however, that large seas and wind can wash the boat over the fish.
Tactical driving – putting the boat up sea of a fish that wants to go away from the boat trying to get it to swim down sea – is a good move. A fish leading with the boat going down sea is ideal. The boat will tend to coast down sea on a large swell. This may cause the wireman to get stretched out until the swell has passed.
Gaffing: Techniques and General Rules
Ideally the gaff man should stand behind and to the side of a wire man. When reaching for a gaff shot, avoid going over the leader. Be positioned on the tail side of the leader.
The ideal target for gaff placement is the shoulder. A shoulder gaff shot should be close enough to the head to gain control and lead a fish. The years I’ve spent flyfishing for world records with stick gaffs have illustrated that the tail is also a great spot if this is your only shot. A shot aft of the anal fin can restrict locomotion, allowing you to lift the tail out of the water. This removes propulsion so long as you can survive the beating and the gaff has enough penetration to hold and not tear off.
As the fish comes into range, the gaff man should slide into the corner for greatest reach. Even once the fish has been gaffed, the wireman should never let go of the leader. The leader is a useful tool for gaining control and lifting the fish – especially if the gaff tears out.
Once the first gaff finds its mark, the gaff man should manually break the connections that hold the rope to the gaff pole. Once the pole is detached, he should cleat the rope immediately and reach for the next gaff. When cleating the fish, if it is too dangerous to figure eight, take the rope in a circle around the cleat three times or more.
If the fish comes super tight on the end of a gaff rope before it is cleated, sitting on the rope can help add some spring and also help lifting the fish. Otherwise there is great risk of tearing the gaff out with little stretch and forgiveness.
If you’ve got the fish stuck with one gaff and the leader breaks or the hook pulls, the wire man should pick up another gaff and join in. Where necessary the captain can drive the boat and relieve pressure from the gaff lines.
Taking the Shot and Dispatching the Beast
The approaches to tagging and gaffing fish are monumentally different. Getting close enough to a large fish for a gaff shot requires tactical driving and communication with the wireman as to what is happening. When the shot presents itself, the gaff man has to be ready and able to anticipate the fish’s next move.
Sometimes the best approach involves waiting just a moment longer for the right shot to materialize. Be careful, however, if you wait too long and the hook pulls the blame for lost fish is usually awarded to the gaff man – especially if the fish could have been gaffed. There are several indicators that aid in anticipating your quarry’s next move. Use the angle of the leader to indicate where the fish is for a deep shot or where the fish will pop up. Captains need to avoid the center of the transom, putting the fish off the corner for a good shot.
When preparing for the shot, be mindful of which side the side of the gaff line you stand on. Once the gaff goes in, the rope can come tight awfully fast. Getting caught in a loose loop of rope is extremely dangerous.
When taking the shot, the wire man must avoid getting straight-armed. Timing the swells with the boat and leader is crucial for the shot. Swinging the gaff like an axe is not the best approach, nor is awkwardly turning the gaff upside down and trying to snag the fish from underneath.
When the time comes, look for your blue patch. Maintain eye contact on the exact location you wish to engage with the gaff in the same way you’d keep your eye on the ball in baseball or football. Taking into account the drag and water resistance, envision the angle the gaff needs to be for the moment of contact. Allow for water pressure, reach over the fish and pull the gaff until it comes tight. Make sure the point penetrates past the barb. If the head is not tight enough to the pole this is where it can detach prematurely.
Once the head deploys, go for the cleat. When the beast is cleated as short as possible, take a meat hook and drive it in the soft tissue of the lower jaw from outside in. Take a half hitch on the bill, cleat the rope off short.
Next crack the fish directly between the eyes. One blow is all that is necessary if done correctly. Cracking the fish on the side of the head is not efficient and can cause it to get pissed off. Gaffs can cause the fish to roll over and not allow correct angle for a good blow. Re-cleat if necessary and try for a better angle. Long bats are dangerous and can take out fellow crew with careless swings.
Once the fish is finished remove one rope at a time and pass through the door. Often gaff heads get caught when coming through the door. Pay attention and slide the fish in. Tape the jaw closed so that it won’t dump its stomach contents when being weighed.
When it’s time to seal the deal, keep it real and swing the steel! That said, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Safety is paramount – never underestimate the strength of a large fish, especially when it is boat side and angry. Approaching the end game undermanned, under gunned or ill-prepared can cost you a million-dollar fish or much worse.