Gaff and Release?

Tournaments should outlaw the practice of deck checking

conservation gaff release
Hamp Johnston

We all love competition and the allure of a large check or a trophy with bragging rights, but are rules being bent that could potentially have longer lasting effects than we want to admit during release tournaments?

It is not something we as fishermen regularly think about, or even want to think about, but we should keep it in the backs of our minds. When observers are not available to level the playing field, it is important for both tournament organizers and fishing teams to follow the rules and not to overlook the strides in conservation we have made in pursuit of the potential glory from winning a tournament.

The decision to get the gaffs out or to make sure you have high-quality video footage to earn release points is often one of the most critical decisions a crew needs to make. However, in some instances, crews might do both, as the alarming trend of “deck checking” becomes more prominent. For those who have not heard this term before, it stems from kill tournaments where a minimum length of a fish must be met before it can be brought to the scale. Consequently, some teams measure the fish on board to avoid disqualification. People call -football a game of inches, but when there are six- and seven-digit payouts separating a legal fish from a short one, it is hard to argue with this tactic.

But a fish that does not meet the -necessary mark can subsequently be slid out the transom door and called a “released fish.” Should a deck-checking team score the same points in the release division as one who released a fish without gaffing or hauling it through the transom door? Like the growing trend of “hero shots” where a billfish is taken out of the water for a photo, deck checking is prohibited. The federal regulation reads, “If a billfish is caught by a hook and not retained, the fish must be released by cutting the line near the hook or by using a dehooking device, in either case without removing the fish from the water.”

When this behavior is not explicitly stated in tournament rules, tournament rules typically do have language that states that all teams must comply with both state and federal regulations. A noncompliant team could very well be in jeopardy if questioned on this practice during the polygraph. While it is clearly illegal in the eyes of the National Marine Fisheries Service to take a fish out of the water unless it is intended to be landed, I suppose it is better than guaranteeing post-release mortality by bringing a short fish back to the dock.

There are many ways to measure a fish in the water without bringing it in the boat. A 99-inch federal -minimum length for blue marlin sets the precedent for some tournaments, but most establish an even greater minimum length, often up to 110 inches. Imagine hauling a 109-inch blue marlin (often exceeding 500 pounds) in the transom door only to find out it is short and then releasing it. It likely has a low chance of survival, further emphasizing the importance of measuring the fish boat-side. It does not matter whether you use an over-the-counter measuring device, such as a Release Ruler (, or the ever-handy rope with a tennis ball on the end to ensure the tournament minimum is reached. The importance lies in making sure that a fish not intended to be brought back to the scale gets released in the best condition possible.

Many of the tournaments I fished in North Carolina explicitly prohibit teams from potentially double dipping in both the kill and release categories. The rules in the tournament state, “To be considered a release, the crew cannot have attempted to boat or gaff the fish. Once the gaff breaks the plane of the boat, the billfish cannot be considered a release.” This important distinction comes into play if you take the example of an errant mate hitting the leader with the gaff attempting to sink it into the fish, only to cause the leader to break or the hook to pull. As the fish swims away, what now? When the team had the fish on the leader, they had no intention of letting the fish swim away for the release — it was a mistake. Yet, in many tournaments, the team still gets release points. If fishing in a tournament that used language similar to that of the many tournaments in North Carolina, the team would not be able to weigh the fish or permitted to gain points in the release category.

Tournaments should implement what could be coined throughout the sport-fishing community as the “gaff rule.” It would not only prohibit teams from potentially double dipping, it would also provide an enforceable rule for tournament committees to emphasize the intention and merit of the release-division. The likely counter will be that this could increase the number of fish hung at the scales or even possibly discarded before reaching the docks. While these points might be true, I believe this rule will force the hand of teams in making the critical decision.

With the ever-growing amount of attention brought to billfish tournaments and their enticing payout checks, the important thing to remember is that blue-water tournament fishing was built on a rich tradition in which anglers governed themselves on the honor system, only to walk away with a trophy for the mantle or a pat on the back. With the increased desire to be standing on stage holding a big check, teams could be tempted to bend or break rules.

While deck checking is only one example of many that could be the topic of this column, tournament directors and teams (and any anglers fun fishing, for that matter) should not sacrifice the strides we have achieved in billfish conservation just to gain increased fame from winning a tournament. Without the past conservation-minded decisions by the sport-fishing community, tournaments would not be what they are today. We should do the same.