The great debate: stand-up harness fishing versus the traditional fighting chair. The best method to fight and release/land pelagic gamefish continues to be just one of the several issues argued in the big-game fishing community.
Amid the evolution of a decades-long offshore-fishing career of learning, adapting and continually improving, I’m convinced that with the proper knowledge, preparation, training and techniques, stand-up fishing will ultimately provide superior fishing results and enjoyment to that of using a stationary fighting chair. Why? Because I’ve done both.
Prepare to Succeed
In order to achieve maximum success and fulfillment in stand-up gear, it requires advance preparation in both properly selecting the correct stand-up shoulder/back harness and fighting belt, and acquiring the suitable fishing tackle to match. Strong physical conditioning from both a cardio and weightlifting perspective is also a must if you want to land a big fish on stand-up, and your comfort in the belt and harness is paramount. I prefer a lightweight aluminum version with rubber padding for the belt—which properly distributes the load on the legs and thighs—and a comfortable back harness. I also prefer a customized rod-and-reel setup, specifically designed using 50-pound tackle for pitch-baiting and 30-pound tackle in the riggers. And the rod must have enough backbone to raise a large marlin from the depths but also be equipped with enough sensitivity for a good feel on the bite.
It is essential that all of these elements work as one and be in alignment with the angler. I’ve seen many cases where anglers simply aren’t fit enough to fight a large blue marlin on stand-up, which severely limited the options and competitiveness for that particular crew and vessel. All preferences in the proverbial deck of cards are usually required to succeed in today’s extremely competitive fishing environments.
Even for the best of us, there could be an occasional scenario that requires transferring from a stand-up harness to fight the fish in the chair, such as if a large marlin or bluefin sounds on you. In that case, it’s not worth a back injury to continue fighting a fish like that on stand-up. This consequence can act as motivation to train even harder in order to avoid the same fate in the future. Muscle memory and endurance gained from actually fighting fish is the best form of training, and no amount of gym time can replace true on-the-water experience.
The Bite, the Fight
In preparation for the bite, the angler should always be ready, alert and in the cockpit. Usually, it’s best to put yourself centered on deck behind the rocket launcher, equal distance from the left and right bridge teasers and riggers for the quickest reaction time and ideal positioning. Billfish teased in toward the transom have lightning-fast closing speed, so a quick reaction and rapid pitch-bait deployment will allow for an ideal position behind the dredges but in front of the teaser, making the fish best visible in the strategic second as the teaser is removed from the water. I suggest that the angler wear the belt at all times while fishing because I’ve seen many fish lost from the slack line created when an angler’s hand briefly leaves the reel to put on the belt. Should the angler choose not to wear the belt, it’s critical that no slack be allowed in the line while getting it on. Easier said than done.
Following the hookup and momentary attempt at a multiple thereafter, I suggest aggressively pursuing the fish in forward—as stand-up uniquely allows—and as quickly as possible to close the distance gap, especially in areas such as the Virgin Islands, where sharks can be a problem should the fish sound on you.
Among the many advantages of stand-up fishing are its flexibility, mobility, and maneuverability to handle multiple hookups simultaneously, quick-changing vessel directions, and the ability to work multiple angles over the left and right covering boards, with much more leverage to raise both the line belly and a sounding fish. Greater sensitivity to the fish in order to make adjustments, and using the drag between waves and swells, will ultimately allow the vessel to go forward on the fish for a decisive speed advantage over the fighting chair, as well as keeping the angler, crew and cockpit dry when pursuing the fish up-sea.
When putting pressure on the fish, the best rule of thumb is to use more drag and rod pressure on the fish when the boat, seas, and fish are calm and the fish is closer to the boat, with less pressure and drag applied when the boat is rocking, moving, or the fish is running fast or is far away. The angler will need to constantly adjust as needed from experience.
All of this preparation, effort and anticipation ultimately culminates into the endgame. As soon as the swivel breaks the surface, it’s time to push both physically and mentally as hard as you can for a safe and successful outcome.
After seeing several notable anglers get pulled overboard when the leader got wrapped around the rod tip (or guides) at the same time the mate went to dump it, in every case when the mate grabs the leader on Mon Chari, I have already disconnected the harness clips that connect me to the rod and reel. This is a hard-and-fast rule I live by, because being connected to a wild fish and going in the water could literally mean life or death.
We also practice these two other safety steps during a stand-up billfish release: 1) the angler uses a free hand to pull any excess leader taut so that there is no slack on the deck or around the mate, and 2) we cut the leader behind the mate in the unlikely event the leader has to be released suddenly or unexpectedly.
Doing these three things allows for a safer release, and gives everyone time to take pictures and video to capture the moment of triumph.
By taking the time to outfit yourself with practical, comfortable gear and making minor adjustments to your technique, your next stand-up experience will be both successful and memorable.
This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Marlin.