By Ric Burnley
When I was young, my father gave me some great advice: “Let the tool do the work.” I was probably yanking on a hook with my pliers or trying to hack up bait with scissors when Dad gripped my wrist, looked in my eyes, and told me to stop fighting my tools. Since then, I’ve been a tool geek.
Regardless of target species and tactic, choosing the correct instruments for rigging and fishing is the foundation of any successful trip and makes it easier to complete basic tasks efficiently. Every angler knows the value of using the right tools and must evaluate which will do the job best. And most people have had the experience of using the wrong tool. Curious about what gear anglers around the world won’t leave home without, I posed a simple question. If you had 15 minutes to pack a bag of tools that you’d want to have on-hand in the cockpit, which would you grab?
For a Hawaiian perspective, I dropped a line to Shawn Rotella in Kona. Shawn is the captain of the charter boat Night Runner and also builds Ali’i Kai lures. Recently, his team won the Hawaii Lure Makers Challenge using his favorite throwback tribute lure with a Legacy Series Bullet. My 15-minute challenge had resonance with Rotella—he’s been doing a log of guest-mate work recently. “I’ve already put together a travel bag with essentials,” he says.
When I asked about his most valued fishing tools, he started with his gloves. “For any fish, short of an 800-pound giant marlin, I use AFTCO Release gloves.” The purpose-designed fishing gloves are light, stretchy, grippy and tough. “They are the best gloves for overall utility,” he says, “I don’t have to soak them in water to get my hand inside.”
For larger fish, he relies on custom-made leather wiring gloves. “There’s no room for error messing around with a grander,” he says. Bo Jenyns Obadu heavy weight gloves are trusted around the world when hands are particularly at risk.
The buttery soft and supple deerskin gloves have a proper fit that molds to the contours of the hand, featuring an 8 oz. cowhide exterior to cushion wraps of heavy leader. Instead of stressing over a hand-picked tackle box, Rotella prefers the 550-piece Deluxe Rigging Kit from Hi-Seas. “This kit has crimps and connections of all sizes and a pair of crimping pliers,” Rotella explains. He makes a few additions to personalize the tackle box for Hawaii fishing, where purchasing the tackle and pliers together is less expensive than buying the items separately.
In addition to a pair of 6 1/2-inch Manley pliers he uses for general purposes, Rotella also recommends a set of split ring pliers. He says, “I often change or remove hooks on lures.” Split ring pliers make the job quick and easy. Rotella also carries a set of dedicated line cutters. He prefers stainless construction blades that stay sharp for a clean cut. “When threading a line through a crimp, a clean cut is essential.”
While the late Jose Wejebe preferred to hoist hooked quarry over the rail with nothing more than his bare hands, Rotella will grab his six-foot fiberglass gaff with a three-inch gap when he’s working on an unfamiliar boat. “The fiberglass gaff is flexible in case the fish has a little wiggle in him,” he laughs. Rotella also likes the narrow handle on his fiberglass gaff as opposed to a wider handle on
an aluminum gaff.
Rotella relies on a variety of fillet knives throughout daily tasks depending on the job at hand. I’m really impressed by AFTCO’s line of fillet knives,” he says. The over-molded rubber-coated handle feels natural and complements the full tang design comprising 4116 German stainless steel.
“The edge is easy to sharpen so I put the knife on the stone before I clean each fish.” The Böker blades feature an up up-sweeping design and recognizable gold TiN finish ensuring supreme corrosion resistance. He is also never far from his Victorinox utility knife. Rotella marvels, “I can cut the head off a tuna with a 3 1/4-inch blade.” The little knife has a hundred uses, and it’s always in reach. The key to being ready to fill in at a moment’s notice is keeping essential gear together. Rotella adds he’s created specific kits for jigging. “I keep split ring pliers, leader and jigs together in a bag so I know I have everything if I need it.”
With the pandemic putting a damper on Hawaiian tourism, Rotella has had more time to freelance on other boats. Since he doesn’t know when he’ll be called and who he’ll work with, Rotella keeps his bags packed. “I’m always ready to grab a bag and go,” he laughs.
Traveling to the East Coast, we caught up with Mike Calabrese, creator of Fire Tailz dredge baits and mate on the 72-foot American Custom Yachts, Don Teo. Calabrese had a particularly busy summer, fishing on the Singularis, Point Runner and Catch 23. Like Rotella, Calabrese stresses the importance of a good set of leadering gloves. “Wear them!” he insists. Calabrese says the most dangerous aspect of billfishing is catching a swivel that snaps back when the leader breaks. He chuckles, “I’ve seen plenty of swivels buried in the knuckles of guys that didn’t need gloves.”
He also keeps a pair of 6 1/2-inch Manley pliers and Victorinox paring knife in a Salty Dog holster clipped to the waistband of his shorts. “I mostly use the pliers to remove hooks, but the other day blue runners were opening my Sabiki hooks.” Using his pliers, he was able to close the hook gap and keep fishing. “That probably saved me $100 in rigs,” he says. The side cutters are convenient for snipping monofilament and light wire. By combining two tools in one, he can work more quickly. “And, Manley pliers can be used as a bottle opener,” Calabrese chuckles. The utility knife has a thousand uses.
From rigging baits to cutting line and slicing a lemon, a Victorinox knife is good to have close at hand. With a small utility knife and pliers with side cutters in a sheath, he has three or more tools at his disposal. To quickly cut loose a marlin, Calabrese still likes the traditional release knife. “Look for the extra blades in the handle,” he says. Keeping the safety knife close makes for quick release
and could save the day if an angler gets caught in the fishing line. Whether mounted to a stick or hand-held, a release knife is necessary to have in any cockpit.
Hours of rigging dredges requires a lot of cutting and crimping. One of Calabrese’s most valuable tools is his line cutters. He has recently started using Cuda Titanium Bonded scissors to make quick and accurate cuts. “The scissors leave a better edge, which is especially important when threading heavier mono through a crimp,” he says. He also notes their affordability and solid construction that will withstand harsh conditions we often encounter. When it comes to crimpers, Calabrese stresses quality.
“Today’s fluorocarbon leaders present challenges with smaller sleeves,” he says. The harder line is more difficult to crimp than soft monofilament. He points out that crimpers can be fine-tuned for smaller diameters. “And I size-up my sleeves to thick-wall 1.0. More material on the sleeve mashes down to create better contact with the line.” To cut heavy cable, Calabrese uses parrot-beak cutters. He warns, “Never cut multi-strand cable in the cockpit, the shards will stick in your bare feet.”
In the cockpit, Calabrese keeps a variety of gaffs, relying on an eight-foot, three-inch gap AFTCO gaff. “IGFA rules allow an eight-foot gaff, so that’s what I use.” He also keeps a six-foot, two-inch-gap
pick gaff for smaller fish. Recently, he’s gone to a titanium hook on his flying gaff. “It’s stiffer and lighter than steel,” he points out. After years of fishing and hours of rigging, Calabrese has narrowed down his tool choices to those that get the job done. On the West Coast, Colin Beaver of Melton International Tackle has fished and traveled extensively from Southern California to Cabo San Lucas. Working with a host of different clients and boat owners, Beaver knows what works best and what tools are most popular with local and traveling anglers. “I have used these tools extensively for some of my favorite types of fishing,” he says.
From prepping bait to cutting lines or cleaning the catch, nothing saves time and effort like a reliable set of knives. Beaver says Victorinox’s Fibrox line with non-slip handles cover a variety of onboard jobs with solid build and sleek looks. “They are razor sharp and have the perfect flexibility for filleting fish.”
To slice ultra-thin braided fibers and also light monofilament, he likes the Owner Supercut scissors. They swiftly and precisely cut with smooth action and are delivered with a soft-padded sheath. Ready at a moment’s notice, many fishermen rely on the tiny Boomerang Snip. In a tool bag or pocket, these clippers are so small you won’t ever feel their added weight. To cut cable, he also goes with a beak-style cutter.
“The G-1 Cable Cruncher is ten times better than side cutters,” Beaver says. The cutters will slice through 49-strand stainless steel cable up to 920 lb. Beaver also keeps a set of bolt cutters nearby in case he needs to cut heavy gauge hooks. “For when you get a hook in your hand or foot,” he says. After years of relying on AFTCO fiberglass, tapered gaffs, Beaver is excited about Morita custom gaffs. “You can’t go wrong with a bamboo gaff wrapped in California,” he brags.
Known as the Iron Cane, Calcutta bamboo is extremely strong, lightweight, flexible and buoyant, making it the ideal material for fabricating custom gaffs. Each piece of bamboo is hand-selected for flex and coated in rod-grade epoxy. Morita gaffs can include your choice of cord wrap color, split X wrap grips, decorative thread, boat name decals and much more. Gaff hooks are custom fabricated from 116 knife grade stainless steel for the ultimate strength and sharpness. “They are a great fit for private boaters,” he says. Best of all, if they accidentally fall overboard, they float.
Everyone I spoke with decidedly agreed on the importance of a hook file. Regardless of tact, many fishermen have conditioned themselves to routinely check the sharpness of a hook’s point before deploying a bait or lure into the spread. The more efficient a hook is at piercing, the easier it will be for the point to set. And, razor-sharp hooks also penetrate deeper while leaving a smaller hole, making it more difficult for the hook to become dislodged.
Through direct contact with seawater or exposure to salt in the air, nearly everything that exists in the saltwater environment will eventually rust. A prime selection of tools makes any deckhand’s job easier, but it’s imperative they are cared for at the end of the day