Those who’ve been around the game for a while will tell you that the bite is what gets them fired up. And while we all love a good crash bite, it’s what happens next that’s crucial. The first step is keeping your cool, even though that potential money-winning fish just destroyed your flat line. Each crewmember should know their role, and success is achieved between the point of getting bit and landing the fish. But before you even get to the chair, there is a critical span of time where a lot of money has been lost over the years. Thinking about—and breaking down—this process well before the shotgun start can ensure that your cockpit runs like a well-oiled machine.
While having a boatful of experienced anglers is more common now than ever, many of us don’t have that luxury. And even if you’ve been doing the dance for decades, it never hurts to reevaluate the process. Like anything in fishing, what we discuss here certainly isn’t the only way to do things, but it is meant to point out the details when it comes to battling a big fish from the fighting chair.
Whenever we’d have inexperienced anglers on Benchmark who might be slow to pick up our techniques, I’d hear Chip Van Mols’ words echo in my head: “There are no bad anglers, only bad teachers.” The bottom line: It’s up to you to make sure your anglers are up to the task at hand. The more time you have to practice, the better; whether it’s multiple pre-fishing days before a tournament or just sitting at the dock, everyone needs to be comfortable in their role. In the same way professional football teams run plays until it becomes second nature, fishermen also need to practice, because when the moments of panic ensue after the hours of boredom, anglers should not be thinking—they should be reacting.
Plan of Attack
When using a fighting chair to fight big marlin on heavy tackle, one of the first decisions that needs to be made is who is going to be designated as the first angler. I prefer to cut down on confusion in the cockpit and have an angler order chosen ahead of time so that I can set up the chair and harness accordingly. Next, I’ll educate the angler(s) on the many scenarios that could happen following the bite. This means reviewing with your anglers the steps for when a fish is hooked immediately off the bite, doesn’t get hooked and needs to be teased, or if you’re in a situation that requires a drop-back and feed.
In heavy-tackle lure situations, I always demonstrate our teasing process, even determining an exact number of cranks for the angler to start a tease that will get the lure back in the same position before it popped out of the clip. The more specific the instructions, the better, and keeping the communication clear and concise is especially crucial. There should be only one voice the angler hears from this point on. Hearing five voices saying five different things doesn’t help your cause at all.
Rod Holder Removal
Once the fish is connected, I usually teach our anglers to slowly back off the drag to a predetermined mark before trying to move the rod. I highly encourage this spot to be marked on the reel. I also preach slow drag movements to prevent any accidents with the lever. After slightly backing off the drag, the angler can more easily get the rod out of the holder, especially when it’s a bent-butt: The rod must be pulled back to relieve the pressure that’s being put on the forward part of the rod holder for it to be effectively removed.
This is a simple concept, but one that many anglers forget in the heat of the moment. When grabbing the rod to pull back and free it from the covering board, I ask my anglers to put one hand near the curve of the rod butt (usually the right hand) and the other on the rod grip as far away from the reel as they’re comfortable. When practicing this at the dock, we try to simulate the pressure that will be coming from the rod tip so that they can prepare themselves for this difference in resistance.
As the angler removes the rod from the holder, I ask him to put the left side of the reel against his right hip and point the rod at the fish. This creates three points of contact for the rod and keeps body parts away from the drag lever so that the reel doesn’t inadvertently get bumped in free-spool. This not only prevents accidental backlash, but it also keeps the angler in control of the rod.
Have a Seat
Now that the rod is out of the covering board and the angler is mobile, the real estate between the rod holder and chair will be, at times, a path of obstacles. Does a safety line need to be removed or stepped over? Is there a deck hatch that isn’t flush that should be avoided? Anything that can get in the way will, so obstacles should be removed or, at minimum, pointed out. Some are agile enough to walk directly to the chair, but for those who need extra stability, I encourage them to use the gunwale to slightly lean against as they walk to the chair. Either way, the idea is to get the rod butt secured in the chair gimbal, and the angler to get into the chair without incident.
Many chair gimbals swing easily, so I use rubber bands, a bungee cord, or some other method to reduce the swing and give the angler a solid target for the rod butt. Some anglers prefer to put the rod in the gimbal first, then step over the footrest. And while it’s likely the safer method, others of larger stature might find it easier to step over the footrest first, then put the rod butt in the gimbal.
Once seated, be sure to keep a hand on the rod grip as the harness is connected. The clips should hang to the outside of the chair so that the angler knows where to find them each time. A crewmember can hand the angler these clips but must be careful to not touch the rod or do anything that would violate IGFA rules, if required.
Putting the clips into the reel eyes from the inside out is the quickest, safest and most efficient way to have anglers clip in. The bucket harness and footrest should also be adjusted to the angler before the bite, so be sure the chair and harness are set up for him accordingly. If the angler designation changes, the equipment adjustments also change, so once he is strapped into the harness, the battle can begin—no matter how long it might last
Details, preparation and confidence are the keys to billfishing, and every kid grows up hearing the adage that “practice makes perfect.” This is no different. Whether it’s fun fishing or there’s millions on the line, use every rep to get you ready for that fish of a lifetime. Preparing your crew and anglers, keeping communication clear and concise, and having an action plan will keep your team sharp and ready for the moment of truth, because the details make the difference when the right fish shows up.