Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I was working on my father’s drift boat, fishing out of South Florida. We caught king mackerel, mutton snapper, yellowtails, triggerfish, bonito and more, and used 40-pound-test line on Penn 65 reels. We broke the line on many fish on the initial run, or we were gifted with a nice backlash when the tourist angler decided to put the reel in free-spool. Dealing with the public teaches you life skills you need to be a good fisherman, such as patience, to name just one of many. As a drift-boat mate, I was getting good at my trade with lots of people watching my every move.
Gaffing fish was tough too because you usually had tangles and 30 people watching. It’s like making a putt with money on the line—don’t choke! Sometimes you would knock the fish off with a few misses, the hook would pull, and it looked like it was your fault. The same with gaffing a mahi when they are barely big enough to gaff in the first place, or when they go crazy at the last second. It’s humbling, for sure.
When I graduated to charter boats, we were using 50-pound line on Penn Senator 6/0 reels with star drags—you had to make sure your single- and double-hooked ballyhoo on No. 7 wire were not spinning. Most all of the time on a charter boat, you had to hook every fish for the clients. You were under pressure to hook all the sailfish, mahi, barracuda or bonito that bit. When you keep reeling in ballyhoo heads, you know your tip for the day is gone; the clients blame you, even though nobody could have hooked some of those tiny fish. You also had to gaff the good ones, and by then, even the salty old captain was yelling at you.
When I joined The Hooker with Jerry Dunaway (above), there was a video camera running all day, and each evening we would watch the video. Capt. Jeff Fay had plenty of experience with marlin; he had been fishing in Hawaii all his life, with a few trips to Australia too. He would critique us each night and teach us how to become better on the wire and the gaffs (back then, we used to harvest a few marlin to share with the locals). We shared our videos with only a few friends while they were hanging out with us on our boat.
Today, people shoot a ton of video to show their friends or the tournament committee what you caught—and sometimes, what you lost. Recently a team in a high-dollar blue marlin tournament lost a big fish at the boat, and someone posted the video on social media. The perfect people started bashing the captain and crew, which is what perfect internet people usually do. Then one big-name captain posted that this has happened to us all at one time or another. A few other well-respected crews agreed and posted the same. I was really impressed that these crews publicly went to bat for the guys who lost a nice fish.
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Over the past few years, I have seen some great videos of some solid catches, and some really lucky ones too: terrific boat handling, deckhands wiring fish while taking proper wraps, and making good gaff shots. Then I have seen others with crews struggling to wire big fish while the boat is still cruising along in gear. For me, it is an opportunity to learn from the good videos and to teach with the ones that aren’t so good.
I know I lost my share of fish as a kid on a drift boat, and then lost a bunch more while charter and world-record fishing. I always felt that I learned something from each catch—or loss. Fortunately for me, there was no internet back then…and my old VHS tapes are history.