There's simply no excuse for losing a fish because of something preventable. So says Capt. Joe Sabonis, who considers organization the top priority as he and owner/mate Bill Spolar chase giant bluefin in the tuna-starved waters of Cat Cay aboard their 46-foot Merritt, Cat's Meow. "In four weeks of fishing you're only going to get a handful of shots at baiting a fish, so to let something preventable screw up your chance of hooking one is unforgivable," the meticulous captain says.
Many things can separate the good fishing crews from the exceptional ones -- experience, knowledge, performance, even luck. But often it is a more subtle skill that puts a crew over the edge -- the practiced skill of organization. Like in most areas of our lives, we all know we need to be more organized. But on a fishing boat, the factors that determine success often happen in seconds -- not minutes. For that reason, any amount of confusion aboard can easily breed failure. And the crews that don't recognize the detrimental impact those few seconds of confusion have on their success often are the ones that lose those once-in-a-lifetime fish when others manage to keep them.
Learn From the Hooker
Jerry Dunaway's Hooker has for years stood as one of the best organized crews in the business. Over the past 10 years, the Hooker team has redefined the sport of light-tackle record fishing, earning respect not just from novice anglers who have suddenly found themselves shattering world records aboard Dunaway's boat, but veteran anglers as well.
The Hooker crew are experts at the sport of "selective" fishing. The bait-and-switch technique practiced by Jerry and his wife Deborah, along with the Hooker's longtime Capt. Trevor Cockle and first mate Randy Baker, takes the guesswork out of record fishing by focusing in on one species with the necessary tackle to set a women's or men's world record.
Once the appropriate fish is raised on hookless baits and teasers, Cockle teases it to the boat for a final size estimate. Baker and mate Michael Deighan assist the angler with baited rods standing ready in the chair, which the angler feeds back to the fish.
As you might imagine, this is a split-second operation. Normally, the fish is lit up like a shooting star. He's darting and searching for the bait. To keep his interest, everything must happen smoothly, and fast. You don't get many second chances when fishing for big fish with light line; there's simply no margin for error.
"We maintain exacting standards of organization others might consider excessive," Cockle says, "although I don't think of them as so. A good crew should always be prepared to catch that once-in-a-lifetime fish."
Given the Hooker's remarkable 67 world records, it's obvious this crew is doing something right.
Everything in Its Place
After six years on the Hooker, first mate Baker knows what's expected of him. Every night, he and Deighan prepare a full complement of ballyhoo and strip baits for the following day, as well the lures they'll use for teasers. They also make a variety of leaders for each line class the night before.
These steps are important, because they leave the mates free each morning to focus on arranging for any live bait they need for the day and prepare the cockpit for the day's fishing. After all, much of good organization comes down to having all your equipment where it is easily accessible yet doesn't clutter the cockpit.
Terminal tackle such as hooks are organized by size and stored in a notched drawer for ease of identification. Each is triangulated and filed for maximum penetration, then is painted with a black marking pen to prevent impact-dulling corrosion and rust. Markings also verify which hooks have been sharpened, so the crew doesn't make the mistake of grabbing a hook without an edge.
Leader lengths are marked by size, hook, leader and line test to minimize error. Leaders for light tackle are measured out to 14 feet, 11 inches. For 30-pound and up, they use 21-foot leaders. Baker maintains a backlog of 60 pre-made light-tackle leaders along with 60 heavy-tackle leaders, each of which is coiled and individually packaged in zipper-style plastic bags, labeled and stored 10 at a time in graduating sizes, from smallest to largest.
When record fishing, the gaff equipment is vitally important, and the Hooker crew has no shortage of it. An 8-inch back-band reinforced straight gaff with a rope and three 10-inch Australian-made flyers are all tied off to the chair stanchion while fishing. When record fishing, two flyers rest like crossed swords, within arm's reach behind the chair, points turned out over the covering board. The tubular flyer handles have a lightweight fiberglass reinforcing rod, so not only are they strong, they float. Two additional 8-foot reinforced straight gaffs are located within three steps of the portside corner, in rod holders on the port tower leg. Designed for dolphin, sailfish, wahoo and smaller tuna, each of these has a 5-inch bite. Extra wiring and gaffing equipment is located in a single locker to far port of the centerline companionway door.
Immediately starboard is the double-door tackle center, with four drawers on each side that contain all the pre-made leaders, terminal tackle and other gear, all separated in logically arranged compartments. Just inside the companionway door are two large tackle drawers where larger lures are stored, each graded by color, action, shape and size, along with requisite selection of line, rubber bands, spare hooks, files, crimping tools and crimps, which Baker can easily access and rig while trolling, watching the baits. The 6/0, 7/0 and 8/0 ballyhoo rigs they sometimes troll in their lure spread are segregated by size, with leaders coiled and placed in the cooler along with strip baits and mackerel.
Extra pairs of cotton gloves, one with and one without plastic nonskid, rest on the seat of the fighting chair during fishing hours. These are in addition to the individual sets of gloves worn at all times by each mate. Fingertips of the second pair of Rubbermaid gloves mates wear are cropped, giving extra palm protection while retaining dexterity. Each mate wears a spare set of pliers on his belt, to cut the leader should someone be pulled over. The bat used to subdue the fish is stowed in the arm rest, within easy reach.
Four to five rods rest in the rocket launcher and holders on either side of the chair. To avoid confusion, rods are labeled according to line test. Those who fish the Hooker soon learn the drill. Rods with smaller line tests are stored forward, on each side of the chair. Leaders of key line-test tackle to be fished that day hang uncoiled with baits rigged, ready to toss, in the cooler on the footrest. Backup rods rest immediately aft of the two target rods. These are rigged and ready for pre-rigged baits on ice in the cooler, the leader neatly coiled and held in place on the foregrip with quick-release Goody (pony tail) Bobs. (No tangling on this boat.)
To facilitate teasing the fish, hookless lures are fished only in the forward position of the covering boards. "We run the port teasers on fourth wave and the starboard teaser on the fifth wave," explains Baker. Cockle's shotgun or bridge teasers are run from the third wave and fourth. A daisy chain of Moldcraft squid or fresh swimming mullet are run from the starboard side of the boat; a flat-head lure or giant modified Hooker swims the portside. All of the 200-pound mono lines are marked so the crew can easily position the teasers at the appropriate distance behind the boat.
As fast as a NASCAR pit crew, the Hooker mates make the transition from trolling to catching in seconds. Once a fish is raised, mates tease it to within casting distance, and the angler feeds the bait back. As soon the fish eats, all extra rods and the 60-quart bait cooler, which normally sits on the footrest, are cleared. The chair is then turned and gaffs come forward. Whoever is wiring that day dons gloves, then assists the angler.
"All these things happen automatically on the Hooker," says Dunaway, "in a logical manner to maximize efficiency."
One thing the Hooker does that many boats fail to do is have a variety of different species and sizes of baits ready to go.
"No matter what fish comes up, we have the right bait ready for it," says 34-year-old Baker. This is important, "because fishing light tackle like we do, we don't want to be presenting the wrong size bait to the right size record fish. Trying for a marlin or sailfish on 2-pound test, we'd probably cast a rigged ballyhoo or live goggle eye. Trying to catch a blue marlin on 16- or 20-pound, we'd go with a small little tunny or skipjack. For a blue on 8 or 10, we'd bait with a small bonito or frigate mackerel." At all times, Baker adds, a live goggle eye or tuna is rigged and ready to present.
Once the fish is near the boat, Baker and Deighan always lead the fish to the port side, because that is where the transom door is located. Gaff ropes always are tied off from the chair rather than hawse pipes or side cleats, from which ropes would be more likely to pin mate and tag/gaff man to the gunwale.
As you can see, virtually everything that happens on the Hooker is planned for beforehand. In fact, when it comes to light-tackle fishing with 2-, 4-, 8- and 16-pound tackle, you'd be hard pressed to find a better-organized game fishing operation. And the precision which the Hooker crew strives to achieve offers plenty of lessons even if you prefer traditional heavy-tackle trolling to specialized light-tackle record fishing.