Fish University 301: The Importance of Maintaining Terminal Tackle

It has been said that ninety-five percent of the fishing in Hawaii can be handled by medium (50 to 80 pound class) gear in average to poor condition. Certainly a 130-class rig complete with line and a 25-foot, 400-pound leader makes for a weak fight from a 35 pound Ono or 12 pound Aku, so there is truth to the statement. Thus, if you have no desire to ever catch a big fish in Hawaii, then there really is no point in reading any more of this class session. Kindly see the school administrator on the way out for your tuition refund. However, if you are the kind of person that lives for that other five percent and have ever dreamed about angling a big fish, read on.

Of the five main phases of fishing (finding, raising, striking, fighting and the final act of gaffing or releasing), the phase anglers have the most control over is the fight. Placing the boat over the right fish and getting it to strike is a combination of skill and good fortune, while the final act at the back of the boat can range from a match of wits to pure luck.

By control over the fight, I don’t mean you can stop the fish from jumping or pulling hard, breaking left, charging the boat, or even shaking the hooks. Those are all part of the game. What I am referring to by control is reducing as much as humanly possible the opportunity for the fish to come off or break free from an equipment failure, and is the focus of this class session.

Be prepared for the day you get lucky

Imagine the stress being placed on the terminal tackle

Imagine the stress being placed on the terminal tackle

If you went to Las Vegas and placed money on a card table or into a slot machine, would you get up and leave as the cards were just being dealt or the wheels were spinning? Of course not; the bet you just placed might pay off big. It’s the same thing when you fish these waters. Every day, anglers go to sea with gear capable of 95% of the fish they’ll encounter, but are not preparing themselves for the fish of their dreams. Leaving this aspect of the angling equation to chance is like leaving the table half way through a bet….it will only burn you when you least expect it. Opportunity only knocks so often, and when you try to go back to rectify the situation, the opportunity is usually gone.

I’ve heard hundreds of stories about the big one that got away. Most anglers have. But how many of those anglers ever admit the fish came off because of their own reluctance to spend a little more money or time double-checking their tackle and making sure it was up to the task? Not very many. The fish always was "too big," or "too feisty." Nobody ever seems to admit they just lost the fish of their life because they didn’t bother to replace the leader that had a small nick in it. They were lazy and got caught being lazy. They didn’t adequately prepare themselves for the day they got lucky. So without further ado, let’s break this down into the elements.

Terminal Tackle Defined

The terminal tackle for a Hawaiian-style lure or live bait rig is generally considered the last 50 feet of line, the double line, the swivel, the leader, and the hooks. The lure head itself slides on the leader, so once your fish is hooked up, the bait or lure essentially plays no role in the fight. Your job as a prepared fisherman seeking a large fish is to make sure your terminal tackle is in perfect condition, thus allowing your angling team to put the maximum amount of pressure on the gear at all times and do it with confidence.

The last 50 feet of line on a reel is often the most abused. It is extended out and retracted continually, absorbs all the shock every time a strike takes place, maintains the highest amount of contact with the sun, oils on your hands, rubber bands, etc. and is also the area of highest probability of receiving nicks and dings from a knife, a hook, belt buckle, or anything else that can get caught. Because the last 50 feet is so vulnerable, yet carries the entire load of the fish, anglers need to strip back about 100 - 200 feet every couple of days, weeks, or months, depending on usage. Once the line has been stripped back about four or five times, it’s time to replace the spool. 900 yards of 80-pound test line is 2,700 feet, so once about 1000 feet is gone, the chances of getting spooled from lack of line becomes a real danger.

Weekend warriors should be able to go a season on each spool, stripping back some line every couple of months. More frequent users will need to monitor their line and check it constantly for nicks, chafe, and sun damage. The slightest sign of wear should result in an immediate decision to perform the necessary maintenance.

The Double Line

Many anglers have no idea why they should use double lines when tying to the rod side of the swivel, so let’s try to shed some light on this. First, the breaking strength of the line is for the line itself as opposed to the knot. Most lines lose about 20-40% of the line strength at a knot, thus 80-pound line is actually only about 48 to 64 pounds of strength at the swivel. Tying double lines effectively brings the weakest point of the tackle back to a breaking strength in excess of the line class, and if there are no nicks in either line, no fish will be able to break off at the double. It’s that simple. For example, 80-pound line twice is 160 pounds. At the knot on the rod side of the swivel, you now have 96 to 128 pounds of breaking strength, which is more than the original 80 pound line. 

An example of the abuse taken by the last 50 ft of line

An example of the abuse taken by the last 50 ft of line

The lines should go from a single to a double in the form of a braid, because braids don’t return around a sharp bend on the swivel and generally only loses about five percent of the breaking strength of the line. That’s why it is also important to keep the double line section long; it maximizes the stretch on both sides and allows for an almost seamless transition from the main line to the swivel.

There are two times during the fight when the importance of understanding this principle comes into play. The first is when the fish is all the way out toward the end of the spool, and the second is when it’s up close and personal. At the end of the spool, the need for drag is very limited. Without getting into a huge scientific discussion, suffice it to say that 900 yards of 80 pound monofilament represents an enormous challenge to pull it through the water, and the force placed on the swivel at this point is at or close to the maximum the line can usually take. Since big fish have lots of torque, they can peel the line out this far, but it’s the constant steady drag that tires the fish.

If there is ever in your life a time when you want the terminal tackle to be as strong as it can be, this is it. A big fish with 900 yards of line out, thrashing around on the drag created by the line itself, is a force to be reckoned with. The line is stretched to the maximum, and at this point of the fight, the slightest contact with any foreign object will be enough to break it off clean. I for one have no inclination to hope my line holds out with a single knot at only 48-64 pounds of strength in this situation. There are too many other things to worry about, and this is one of the few areas an angler has control of.

Don’t leave it to chance. To test this theory for yourself, simply troll at six knots and let the entire spool out with nothing on the end of the line, then try to wind it in without slowing the boat. Then try it at eight knots.

Why waste good gear with bad line?

Why waste good gear with bad line?

The other time you want the doubles as strong as they can be is at the end of the fight. There are times when the skipper wants the fish under control and will call to heat up the fish. This means taking the drag to "sunset" or all the way up, then levering the fish hard using all the tension available to get the leader into the crewman’s hands. If the line is holding at 48 pounds of strength, pulling this maneuver is an invite for an immediate departure for Mrs. Big, and that two hour fight just went for naught. By keeping the double lines strong and long, as soon as a full wrap is made on the reel, the skipper can confidently call for sunset drag and heat up the fish, and get the beast to leader.

Even if an angling team doesn’t like to utilize the sunset drag technique, it is important to realize the line has had tension on it for awhile and the stretch in the line is severely reduced. And as stretch is reduced, the pressure on the knot increases, giving the fish all the more opportunity to break off.

IGFA rules allow for the use of a double line in world records, so anglers need to understand how and why to use it. On saltwater classes over 20 pounds, the total leader and double line cannot exceed 40 feet, 30 of which is the maximum for the leader. So if you keep your leaders at 20 feet, you have about 20 left for the double line. If you run 25 foot leaders, you have about 15 for the double.  In either case, use it all, remembering the double line measurement INCLUDES the swivel.  

Follow the leader

After the catch, this is where the leader belongs

After the catch, this is where the leader belongs

Even though it is physically located at the end of the line and is generally considered at trailing end, the leader is so named for a reason. The easiest thing to remember here is the fish is the real leader, and the humans are merely in pursuit. Once the fish is hooked up, failure to recognize this portion of the terminal tackle’s importance is another sure way to kiss a lot of fish goodbye.

A package of 100 crimps is about ten dollars, and 400-pound test leader is about twenty dollars for 50 yards. Thirty bucks is not a lot to pay to keep the tackle in good shape. Leader must be replaced when worn. If there is a nick toward the hook end, cut it back to the good line and re-crimp it. You’ll only lose a few inches. If there is a bill shave along the middle, replace it. Sun damage? Replace it. Ono chomp mark? Replace it. You get the idea. It’s not worth the anguish to spend $200.00 on fuel but save fifty cents on a crucial part of the tackle and lose the fish you set out to catch with that fuel anyway.

How about the hooks?

This is pretty simple. Keep them sharp, make sure the eyes are all the way closed, and be sure the hooks are big enough for the type of fishing you are doing. 6/0 hooks generally have no business on a Marlin lure in Hawaii. 9/0 are about the smallest you’d want to go, and the 10/0 and 12/0’s are better still. Stainless steel are the strongest and wont straighten, but they do carry a slight risk of shearing off from metal fatigue in the event of a long fight where it doesn’t set in past the barb on a Marlin bill. Use line saver on the crimps at the hook end, and frequently inspect the area to ensure chafe, salt or rust hasn’t set in over time. I’d also recommend replacing any hook that has encountered a fight with any fish over 400 pounds.

Fishing success is about paying attention to details. Just as some anglers roam the seas hoping for the aimless strike while others develop and stick to a game plan with period adjustments, successful anglers take the necessary steps to ensure they have absolutely maximized their odds of fighting a fish all the way home via the maintenance of their terminal tackle. Large fish, small fish, and everything in between need gear that is up to the challenge, and the few dollars a year it costs to keep the terminal tackle in top condition is nothing when compared to losing a fish of a lifetime from one’s own lack of diligence. Take the time to keep your terminal tackle in good shape, and you may just find you’ll reduce your number of fish stories of the ones that got away. 

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