So many factors have to work in unison to achieve the moment when a fish is brought to the boat. You had to rig and maintain the vessel, prepare and rig the rods, reels and baits, and find the time in everyone’s crazy schedule to get a day off at the precise moment the weather is good.
All of this preparation and anticipation for is for this one moment in time; but “no pressure” as the gaff man makes his approach. We’ve all been there, when the plan goes awry and the fish makes his boat-side escape. Often bearing the scars of a close call with those aliens from above. Meanwhile that eerie silence falls across the boat, and the gaff man is mustering the courage to turn around and face the music. Oh yea, I’ve been there too and I remember the sting of the loss. That is why I have been learning and working to minimize having that awful feeling again. I know it will happen again, because sometimes it wasn’t meant to be. Or your no-good buddy brought that banana that one time last year, but that’s another story.
So here are my tips to making the most of your gaffing opportunities.
First you need to pick the right gaff for the job. Nothing is harder than trying to gaff a fish with the wrong size gaff. I carry two gaffs for everyday use and ideally have a small flier or harpoon onboard. How handy you have the big stuff depends on what you’re fishing for.
The “pick” gaff is the standard for smaller fish, skinny fish and most bottom fish. I like a longer version for a pick gaff (8-foot) with a sturdy two-inch hook. Make sure you get a good one, as the cheaper versions have wimpy hooks that can bend. AFTCO is the gold standard in gaffs for me , though I often make a bamboo pick gaff from the bamboo that I grow. Here in the Atlantic, this gaff is used for king mackerel, dolphin (dorado) under 15-pounds, and all bottom fish, unless it’s a giant.
For larger fish, I like AFTCO’s 6-foot pole, 3-inch gap with the heavy-duty hook.
I can gaff anything I can lift with this as it takes a large bite in the fish and will not bend.
I use this gaff for larger dolphin, tuna, wahoo over 15-pounds and all cobia. This has been my main gaff for my entire career. A gaff hook that is too big is awkward and you often cradle the fish and it slips away. A large-gapped hook makes you have to aim with the point and that it is counterproductive.
A flying gaff is for much bigger fish, like billfish, sharks and such. The hook portion is reinforced and detachable from the pole. A rope on the gaff head is attached to a rope-ring with clips around the fighting chair pedestal. A cockpit cleat will work in a smaller boat.
The harpoon is another option to secure a heavier line to a big fish. The dart-line is normally tied to a length of rope and a small polyball. After you poke the fish, you can throw the polyball over and you have a back up to your fishing line and a heavier connection to leader the fish to the gaff.
Next, make sure you keep your gaff sharp. Just like your fishing hooks, you should pay close attention to keeping the business end pointy. Some common ways the gaff gets dull are when you hit the bottom of the boat or the rub rail as you are bringing the fish in. Another is when your buddy hits the tip of the gaff with an aluminum bat as he tries to subdue a fish on the deck. Whatever the cause, a dull gaff can cost you a fish as it slides off the mark and sends the fish into a hook-throwing panic.
If you are trolling, you want to keep the boat moving slowly ahead when the fish is near the boat. You may have to use one motor or go in and out of gear depending on your boat, but the forward motion maintains control of the fish. Careful not to go to fast or you can hinder the process too. Good communication between those in the pit and the captain is essential. Yell loud so both parties can hear what is being said.
The wireman has a very important role to play in the final moments of a fight.
Knowing how hard you can pull depends on the tackle, hook and leader size and where the fish is hooked. Pay attention to that as you bring a fish in. Is the hook buried in the jawbone, or is it snagged in a piece of stretching-out skin? Adjust your pressures accordingly. After the mate has the leader, we have already coached the angler how to back off the drag to half in case the mate has to let go. This way there is not a big hook-pulling surge as the line comes tight to the rod again. Wind on leaders are the standard now and have eliminated much of this concern, but the angler needs to be alert that his line stays ready in case the fight continues.
The wireman should always wear gloves. Many get complacent and go without, but they are the ones that get cut or worse when a barracuda panics your fish at the boat or many other scenarios. Things happen fast so be protected. You can use fingerless gloves if you are tying lots of knots.
As a fish comes to the boat, the wireman should keep the leader angle as low as you can to the water and walk the fish hand over hand to within reach of the gaff. If you fight the fish from the rod tip, it naturally reels the fish’s head up and into a hook-shaking jump. If I’m a one-man show, I lay the gaff-head beside me on the gunnel and pick it up as the fish slides within range. If you have more crew or on a really big fish, let the wireman do his job and a gaff man come in behind and close the deal. If we are fighting a big fish, we have a second gaff standing by and handy.
The wireman should bring the fish up alongside the slowly moving boat. Do not bring it to the back of the transom as the swirling water will suck the fish up and under and things do not go smoothly. Be prepared that the fish may change sides and move with him. Keep the deck free of objects, buckets and people. Everyone naturally wants to crowd to the back to watch, but get them back for everyone’s sake.
As you bring the fish to boat side, don’t lift the head out of the water, but lead him calmly to the side and place the gaff, hook down, behind the head in the meaty shoulder area. Literally lay the gaff on the fish’s back as you sweep back. You want place the gaff behind the leader so that if it does not stick, the leader is not across the gaff. Many fish go away because of that one mistake.
Hit the fish and lift in one continuous motion.
Two common mistakes are swinging at the fish and poking the fish but not lifting. Many times the fish will come back off the gaff and go crazy. Lift with the gaff handle up in the air, don’t hold the gaff horizontal and try to lift that way. If you miss or the fish darts away, don’t panic and start swinging, regroup and pick your next shot.
Know where you are going with the fish and have everyone back before that moment. Keep the cockpit clean and secure the hooks of the rods you have cleared to prevent accidents. Never leave a hook on the deck or leaders stretched across a pathway. I learned that one the hard way.
I prefer to go straight into a cooler or fish box and quickly close the lid. Teeth and hooks are flying and caution must be taken or someone can get seriously hurt. I’ve heard horror stories of the mate throwing the wahoo into the customer’s lap. I box the fish, unclip or cut the leader and get the hook back later. Trying to get your hook back from a thrashing fish is when people get hurt too. You want to be prepared enough to have another rig at the ready. If you need to go to the deck first with a big fish, clear the area of spectators and keep the gaff in the fish to maintain control.
There are some variations with different species of fish. Dolphin or dorado lead well up the side if the angle of the leader is low. Wahoo do as well and a low angle helps prevent that dreaded headshake that has robbed us all of our prize at one time or another.
Tuna are often digging or in a circle. If your using heavier gear, you want to break the tuna’s head out of the water and the fight is over and you can gaff at will. But more often in modern times we are using super light leaders just to get the bite. This means you pretty much have to fight the fish to the rod tip without much leadering involved. Resist the urge to reach way down for tuna. They will make a fool of you when they surge off with your gaff. Be patient and wait for the fish to pass near the surface.
When to take the shot can be a tricky thing.
Go for it early by reaching way out or down and it often goes badly. Wait too long and the fish has more chance to come off or cut-off on the boat. Experience is the best teacher, and hindsight can torture you if one gets away. Don’t get in a hurry and don’t wait too long, it’s a tricky line to walk.
“Settle down! Take your time.” he said and that precious advice still rings true in my head to this day.