Fish University 101: The fish strikes, now what?

Everyone has a job, so before it happens, find out what yours is.

Whether you're on a charter while visiting from a landlocked area where the biggest fish you’re likely to encounter is the size of our bait or you are an experienced saltwater fisherman, there is no sound like the zing of a reel spinning when a large pelagic fish strikes.  Feeling the power the fish through the reel and the excitement of the aerial display are sensory overloads everyone should experience at some point in their life, but we believe all anglers should have a good idea about what is involved in preparing for that great moment in time.  

Preparation is crucial

Doug Armfield, skipper of the Lahaina based charter boat Start Me Up, winner of the prestigious Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament, and one of the most intense tournament fishermen around, has become true student of the game and has developed a simple and direct approach to fishing in Hawaii.  He spends countless hours and dollars keeping his boat and gear in perfect condition because he says: “You need to be prepared for the times when you get lucky.   You never know when a big fish is going to hit, so if your tackle is no good all you will ever be able to talk about are the small ones you land and the big ones that get away.  Being prepared is the only way to maximize your chances of making it happen on the days you get picked.”

Professional fishermen know they have to pay attention all day long no matter how much activity (or lack thereof) has taken place, because they know the difference between a great fisherman an average fishermen is a person who recognizes little signs that everyone else missed on a given day.  It’s this attention to detail and a constant state of preparedness that many times makes the difference between a fisherman that returns home grumbling about the fishing being terrible and the fisherman who comes home with a 765 pound Marlin.  Of course, sometimes even the best skippers get skunked, but the vast majority of top quality professional anglers will tell you that fishing is work, and harder you work at it more you will be rewarded. 

Russell Tanaka, skipper of the Magic in Honolulu and one of the hardest workers of all says, “My background in fishing goes back to the days when I was a kid and my work ethic was bred into me by my parents.  It’s my job to see that every single person that steps off the Magic, no matter how we did that day, feels like we did everything we possibly could for them.”

And so with key issues such as preparation and dedication already addressed by Sportfish Hawaii’s fleet of professionals, you are left with developing an understanding of your role as the angler on a charter.   For the most part, fishing in Hawaii is facilitated by the trolling of artificial lures at speeds between 7 and 10 knots, depending on current, wind, and the engine RPM that produces the most harmonious engine noise transmitted through the water.

Ask questions and learn your role

Regardless of an angler’s experience level, charter crews will usually provide a briefing at the start of the day to go over safety, sanitary and precautionary issues specific to their boat, and they will also instruct on fighting chair procedure.  We suggest you pay particular attention to these instructions because while the day can sometimes be long and uneventful while waiting for something to happen, yours and the crews’ reactions the first few moments after a strike are an essential part of maximizing your chances of landing the fish. 

It is during this briefing that anglers should ask questions, attempting to familiarize themselves with as many functions of the fight as they can.  Questions we suggest anglers raise at the briefing include the following:

  • Rod rotation.  If there is more than one person on board as an angler, a division of the rod assignments must be made up prior to the strike.  Some boats will assign everyone a number and call that number when a strike occurs, and some boats will do a rotation that gives everyone an equal amount of time being assigned to a particular rod.  Find out how the rod assignment affects YOU, so you can be ready when you are called.  A case of lockjaw can easily set in when a fish strikes, so get this information secured right away and continually think about how you will get to the rod and/or the chair as the day wears on. 
  • IGFA or not IGFA.  Find out if you will carry the rod to the chair or should if you should go to the chair and wait for the crew to bring it to you.  This is an important question because going to the chair and having the crew hand the rod to you will disqualify a fish from any IGFA records or sanctioned clubs.  While this seems simple enough, trying to remove an 80 or 130-class rod and reel from the holder of a moving boat with a screaming fish on the other end takes a little practice.  Since many anglers are first timers or have little experience catching a large fish, many crew members will provide this assistance in order to reduce confusion when a fish first strikes.  If you have any intention of submitting a claim for any IGFA recognition or are quite confident in your ability to fight a fish from beginning to end, clear this issue up with the crew immediately so they have confidence in you and everyone on board knows their assignment. 
Here, the crew assists with the fishing rod

Here, the crew assists with the fishing rod

  • In conjunction with the issue above, if you’ll be removing the rod from the holder you should find out about the length and operation of the safety lines.  Although we believe all rods should be tethered with safety lines that are long enough to reach the chair without disconnection from the attachment point, some skippers run their safety lines short, and others use special clips.  Learn how the boat is equipped so you can react accordingly.
  • Determine the best route to the chair.  Many skippers run bent-butt rods from the chair’s armrests, causing chair access to be difficult at best.  Some boats have the footrest close to the transom, leaving little room to maneuver.  Finding out these important details are like learning the escape route in a building fire, and the difference between being ready to fish and not ready to fish sometimes means only three seconds over the course of an eight-hour day.
  • Find out how the harness fits for YOU.  Try to determine the adjustment methods, and if you are fishing on a solo charter or with one other person, don’t be afraid to have the harness in the chair and ready to go as you leave the harbor. 
  • Angling technique.  Ask if you can practice retrieving a line with a dummy fish (such as a lifejacket or boat fender) so you can practice your technique.  Many people are not used to cranking heavy tackle reels, and a two or three-minute practice session involving level-winding the line, feeling the cycle of the crank, feeling the bend in the rod, and if applicable, how to shift from high gear to low, may mean the difference between catching and losing a nice fish.  Foolish as you may feel, no crewman or skipper will fault you for wanting to practice such techniques prior to experiencing a fish, and your enthusiasm will also demonstrate to the crew your eagerness to learn.

Taking the time to familiarize yourself with these things upon leaving the dock will greatly boost your confidence level and will help you calm down and focus your attention on fighting a fish when it happens.  

The hunt

After the boat leaves the harbor and the lines are set, the boat will troll along nicely and the hunt will begin.  Fishing in Hawaii is about patience and accepting the trade-off between catching large volumes of fish and the possibility of catching the fish of a lifetime.  Sure, there are days in Hawaii when a cargo net is found and you spend the day hoisting one Mahimahi or smaller tuna after another out of the sea, but the main draw for fishing here is the chance to land a big fish.  The mindset should be focused on big predators for the duration of the day, regardless of the action that has taken place.  If a small Ono or a barracuda hits the lures, fine, but the key is to remain focused and alert that at any time a great fish can strike.

It’s a conscious decision, really.  Anglers need to prepare for a day of searching and hunting, enjoying the scenery and the company of a good skipper and crew, and when the time comes to fight the fish, be able to shift the focus from finding to fighting.  We suggest you stay prepared at all times.  Don’t leave the cockpit for long periods of time, don’t take a nap, and don’t spend too much time up on the flybridge or the tower.  These actions will all cost precious time when a strike takes place, and thus taking away from the whole purpose of going on a fishing trip in the first place. 

We have seen too many anglers step ashore claiming their trip was a “waste of time and money” or “a $700 boat ride” while having no idea how close they came to hooking into the fish of a lifetime.  Sometimes when a skipper spends the entire day hunting for fish and they can’t be found, people even stoop to comments such as “that guy had no idea what he was doing” when that same skipper caught a big fish the same way only two days before, and caught another the very next day. 

The bottom line is this: fish don’t strike every boat every day.  And if you think you are the unluckiest guy in the world because you came to Hawaii and got skunked, it’s the wrong attitude.  We feel the right approach is to recognize that big fish are caught in Hawaii all the time and have faith in the skipper and crew to give you your best shot at it.  Then if it happens, treat it like you are a fortunate person with the cards dealt right that moment in time.   

The fight

Now the strike happens.  The crew screams "hookup" and everyone immediately sets themselves into a panic trying to figure out what to do next.  If your number is called (or you already know it’s your rod because you were paying attention), follow the directions of the crew and either remove the rod from the holder and take it to the chair, or jump in the chair and await the rod.  In most cases, trolling at 8.5 knots is sufficient speed to set the hook on a fish that strikes the lure assuming the hooks are sharp and properly set, so it is not necessary to jerk upward on the rod like you would when a bass swallows a worm. 

Within the first minute or so of a strike, Marlin and Mahimahi will often will break the surface and perform aerial acrobatics.  If the hooks are sharp and the line tension is adequate, everybody on board will be able to enjoy the show.  When this happens, the feeling is indescribable.  This is what fishing in Hawaii is all about and this is what you flew five thousand miles to see. 

If you are the angler, you should try to resist the temptation to watch the fish in the air, because you will need to concentrate on keeping tension on the line by reacting to the rod bend and feeling the tension.  Glance up or catch it from the corner of your eye when you can, but do not let the tension on the rod go for a moment.  If the fish is foul-hooked, bill hooked, or not set very well into the jaw, a loss of tension for a millisecond can be enough to let the fish off. 

Rather than assume you have a good hookup and play the fish like there is no chance of it coming off, always assume it is not hooked very well challenge yourself to land it against the odds.  Keep the rod tip up, working between a 30 and 60 degree angle, winding whenever possible. 

Assuming there are at least four people on-board, with a fish on you as the angler and the skipper now busy.  If the fish is an Ono or smaller tuna, many skippers don't bother bringing in the rest of the lines in the hopes of multiple hookups.  However, if the fish is a larger tuna, a Mahimahi or a Billfish, or if the weight/species cannot be identified fairly quickly, one of the crew (most likely the gaff/tag man or crew member not participating) should begin to reel in all of the other lines as soon as possible and stow them safely out of the way.  

The use of a harness is not a decision to be made based on the strength of an individual who is fighting the fish.  The decision should be made based on the size of the fish and the anticipated length of time the fish will be on the line.  Even the strongest body builder will tire after just a few minutes of fighting a powerful fish if he is not using the strong muscles on his body, however, a 90-pound female or child can place an extreme amount of mechanical leverage on a fish by using a harness and rotating their body weight on the fulcrum created by the rod butt in the gimble of the fighting chair.  If a harness is needed, ask the crew to retrieve and install it, but keep your concentration on the reel.   Remember, the tension comes from the work you do and the harness is a tool to help, but if you stop fighting the fish to put on the harness, the fish might be gone. 

Now the fish is still on, he’s settled into some type of sub-surface swim pattern, and you are about 5 to 15 minutes into the battle.  Your sunglasses are in your face, your sun-block is running into your eyes, you are sweating profusely, and your biceps are already tired.  Keep focused.  Remember this is the moment you’ve been waiting for.  All the preparation and effort getting to this point must shift to the background as you remove yourself from your surroundings and concentrate on the fish before you.   

Use of a harness helps your body help hold the  rod

Use of a harness helps your body help hold the  rod

Develop a rhythm. 

There are four basic situations in fighting a fish you should be aware of, and each situation requires a different technique.  The situations are: line stripping (fish swimming away from the boat), slack line (fish charging the boat), tight line that can be gained without pumping the rod (fish reluctantly coming toward the boat – head towards you), and tight line that needs pumping (head turned away from you).  While reviewing these various techniques, keep in mind that fighting a fish is extremely dynamic and you will in all likelihood jump from one method to the next several times during the course of the battle.

1)       When the fish is runs and is stripping line off the reel, you get to rest.  Keep in mind these rest periods can be short, few and far between, and also keep in mind that some fish can empty a spool of 900 yards of 130 pound monofilament line and a 33 pound drag setting in less than two minutes.  Keep your hands clear of the line and don’t be surprised if the crew dumps a bucket of water on the reel to stop it from smoking from the heat.

2)       If the fish charges the boat, pay close attention to the instructions from the skipper and crew, and be ready for evasive action.  In most instances when the fish is coming at the boat, you will have to do everything you can to take up slack line as fast as you possibly can.  Your arm will hurt, but keep going.  The fish will either stop and you’ll have gained a whole lot of line on it (thus shortening the fight), or he’ll keep coming at the boat.  A thousand different things could happen, so listen to the skipper and do what you’re told without question.  Apologies and atta-boys can come later.

3)       If the line is tight but you can gain on the fish by cranking the handle, do it.  Be careful of turning the handle but not getting any movement on the reel which is the result of overpowering the drag.  When this happens, you are both tiring yourself out needlessly and placing extra wear on the gear.  If you can’t crank the handle without gaining line, move to step four.  Sometimes the skipper will slowly back the boat down to ease the tension enough to crank and gain line, and sometimes the fish will have his head turned toward the boat and begrudgingly allow you to close the gap.     

4)       When the line tension is sufficient to play music on, try strumming the “Star-Spangled Banner.”  Of course, don’t use the line from the reel because it’ll snap from the load, but try to get into a rhythm to draw the fish closer.  Lift the rod tip up to about 60 degrees, then smoothly lower the tip down to about 30 degrees as you take up a turn on the reel. Repeat.  Repeat again, again, again, and again as necessary until the fish comes toward the boat, and keep the motion smooth.  This technique will be used for much of the fight when the fish tires and/or becomes dead weight.  If the reel is two speed and you are able to stay in high gear, don’t try to take up more than a turn on the reel at a time.  Also, try to end each crank with the handle toward the butt end so it is close to the body and starting the next crank will be easier.  On low speed, you might be able to get two or three cranks per lift.  Single speed reels vary and you’ll be able to get a turn or two each lift.  The whole idea is to use the leverage of your body, the harness and the rod in the gimbal to take the majority of the load, and take up line only as you are able.

Level winding

During all phases of the line retrieval, you will have to make a conscious effort to keep the line wound on the reel evenly.  Big game reels do not have automatic level winders, so you will need to take the time to learn the techniques to do it right so the line doesn’t end up as a big ball in the middle of the reel.  Remember, if you are fighting the fish under IGFA rules, nobody else can touch the reel, the rod, or the line.  If you are just having fun, it’s OK to have the crew help you if you wish, but since it is easy to do, why not give it a try?

To level wind the line, simply place your left hand on the foregrip of the rod with your thumb up, just like the Fonz did in “Happy Days.”  With the line in the center of the reel and using your thumb, push line to the right of the reel as you wind in.  As soon as the line gets to the right side, release the thumb and the line will automatically start back toward the middle.  As the line gets toward the middle, place the thumb under the line and move it to the left side of the reel using the inside of the thumb.  Release when you get to the left side, and the line will go back to the middle. It’s easy, but just remember to pay attention in case the fish runs again and keep your parts away from the line, because a nasty line cut is only a good memory after it heals. 

Note the use of the left thumb to guide the line

Note the use of the left thumb to guide the line

Understanding the chaos 

When a fish hits, especially something big, the environment on board changes from order and relaxation to chaos as the crew tries to clear the remaining lines and maneuver the boat while helping keep the composure of the angler and other passengers on board.  At times like these, there is no such thing as a customer or vendor.  So long as basic safety is not being compromised, the fish takes priority.  The crew will need to move around past the passengers on the boat, and there just isn’t time for an endless display of “excuse me’s” and “please pass the gizmotch.”  The deck gets cluttered quickly, and what usually happens is the crew moves at a speed in direct opposition to that of the passengers. 

Don’t worry about it all, it’s the heat of the moment and the need to accomplish a task to save the fish is usually worth more than a misplaced phrase or two.  Besides, when you land a big fish and high-fives are passed all around, there will be plenty of time to re-establish the roles of everyone on board. 

In Fish University's 301 series we will discuss techniques for what to do when the fish is finally at the boat. 

Return to Fish University Course List