Big-Game Gurus Weigh in on Best Billfish Hooking Practices

Captains in big-game fishing discuss the biggest mistakes made when hooking billfish.

Q: What is the biggest mistake you see anglers make when trying to hook a billfish, and how would you correct it?

big-game fishing hook-up practices
Top Left: Capt. Anthony Mendillo, Capt. Quinton Dieterle / Bottom: Capt. Chris Sheeder, Capt. Bubba CarterFile Photo

Capt. Quinton Dieterle

Cutting Edge
Key Biscayne, Florida

Capt. Quinton Dieterle
Capt. Quinton DieterleCourtesy Capt. Quinton Dieterle

The biggest and most frequent mistake I see anglers make, whether fishing from the kite or on the troll, is reeling as hard as they can before coming tight. Everybody has heard the first lesson on dropping back: Feed the fish the bait for 10 seconds and then set the hook. Right? Do you ever hear to first reel tight? No. The easiest way to fix this common mistake is to instruct the anglers to drop-back until they feel the line increase in speed off the reel and then reel the handle until the line begins to go out, then set the hook. After a few attempts, the anglers usually get the hang of doing it and are more successful.

Capt. Bubba Carter

Los Suenos, Costa Rica

Capt. Bubba Carter
Capt. Bubba Carter, Tijereta / Los Suenos, Costa RicaCourtesy Joan Vernon

The one big mistake I see 90 percent of my anglers make is they don’t hold the rod all day. They think they’re fast enough for the captain to call out where the fish is in the spread and have enough time to get to the rod and drop-back to the fish on time. This works about 50 percent of the time, but if you just hold the rod and watch your bait during the day, you’re going to be 20 percent better than the other guy. Another thing I see anglers do is try to put their rod in the rod belt before the fish is actually hooked. That’s just like taking your eye off the ball in baseball; you’re not going to fare very well.

Capt. Anthony Mendillo

Keen M
Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Capt. Anthony Mendillo
Capt. Anthony Mendillo, Keen M / Isla Mujeres, MexicoCourtesy Capt. Anthony Mendillo

One of the biggest mistakes we find while trolling for sailfish is what I call the blind dump. This is when an angler’s rigger or flat line pops out of its clip and the angler is late to the bite. The angler then just dumps the reel into free-spool to maybe a fish but often nothing. This method works great once you know there is a fish back in the spread, but the mistake is made when you drop-back a head or a weed, or worse yet, you drop the bait right by the fish that was happy to bite to begin with. I always want my anglers to wind up the bait so I can see what’s going on. Is it a fish? Do they even have a bait left? If there is a fish and things are good, drop-back, dump, do whatever, but we need to know what they’re dealing with so things are done on their terms when they do get the bite.

Capt. Chris Sheeder

Rum Line
Casa Vieja Lodge, Guatemala

Capt. Chris Sheeder
Capt. Chris Sheeder, Rum Line / Casa Vieja Lodge, GuatemalaCourtesy Capt. Chris Sheeder

Above all, if you’re not hooking billfish via bait-and-switch, you’re missing out on the most exciting and interactive way to catch them. But stay calm! Most billfish that are going to bite aren’t going anywhere, so take your time and be precise with what you’re doing. Stop shouting 100 words per second, and listen. Your captain has a better vantage point and might have some advice to help hook the fish. A well-positioned bait is usually much better than just getting it out quickly. Waiting for the right bite, instead of rushing a bad bite, saves bill wraps and lost fish. A calm and collected angler can easily time an aggressive bite with a controlled drop-back. The more you practice staying calm, the more everything will seem in slow motion. Once the billfish is on, you can go as crazy as you want, but staying cool beforehand will make you shine as an angler.