Pulling on a truly big fish with heavy tackle sits at the core of all big-game fishing. We all grew up reading stories of titanic man-versus-fish battles lasting for hours and hours until one of the combatants finally gives in to the pressure and quits. Historically, these heavy-tackle shootouts usually resulted in the death of the fish, a broken line or near death from exhaustion of the angler as well.
Those old-timers, however, had an excuse for fighting a 600-pound fish for hours at a time: Their line, tackle, fighting chairs and tactics couldn’t withstand the drag pressures that taking a big fish quickly requires. Luckily for us, several decades of offshore fishing improved the tackle and tactics to the point where a good crew with a bit of knowledge stands a fighting chance against a great big fish and it shouldn’t take an inordinate amount of time to catch it, either. Some people say that speed kills. While that might be true when it comes to driving, when it comes to fishing, drag kills.
Fighting from the Chair
The first time I ever fought a fish from a fighting chair, it was a disaster. I was using 80-pound tackle on a 100-pound blue marlin in a chair that was never adjusted. I felt like someone had strapped me into a medieval torture device. My knees were up around my ears and the fish couldn’t pull my ass off the seat, so I pretty much just slid back and forth and tried to wind whenever I could. It wasn’t fun, and the chair didn’t offer any advantage when used this way. All of that changed when I finally met Capt. Peter B. Wright and saw how he set up a fighting chair to match the angler’s height and girth; with shorter anglers calling for a low, closer-in footrest, and with tall anglers getting the low and long adjustment. With the proper adjustments of the gimbal, chair legs, and harness links, pulling 70 to 90 pounds of drag with the straight-legged method becomes a breeze!
Of course, if you have an angler in the chair who can hold up to 90 pounds of drag on your 130-pound line, it becomes extremely important that your terminal tackle and line/leader system can also take that much pressure, and a bit more. Even though that macho ethic of overpowering a big fish still exists today, few anglers, or even big-game fishing teams for that matter, are well-schooled in the art of subduing big fish, either to the point of getting a tag or taking the fish in a tournament or for a world record. But before any of that tagging or boating occurs, your terminal tackle has to withstand the pressure of 130‑pound gear, as well as the added pressure of an eager leader man on the wire. Here are four big-game rigs used by two captains known for their ability to catch the largest game fish that swim.
Pulling on Tuna
Born in the Bahamas and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Capt. Andy Moyes fished all over the world chasing marlin and sails, but it’s his skill at catching giant bluefin on unlimited tackle that we turn to here. For the last five years running, Moyes has traveled to Nova Scotia to pull on bluefin tuna weighing between 800 and 1,000 pounds. While more and more sport fishermen are making their way up to Nova Scotia, this tuna fishery is still firmly attached to its commercial roots, so crews here get a lot of experience using — and breaking — tackle that tests well above 130-pound test, which is considered the upper limit when fishing by IGFA rules.
Since the bluefin here reach incredible sizes and can pull like a freight train, the really heavy application of drag needs to wait until after the fish makes its initial run. “We start our drag at around 25 pounds on the strike and let the fish pull off some line,” says Moyes. “Once the fish starts to run out of oxygen and slows down, we push the drag up to anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds, depending on the size of the fish. We don’t put any heavy drag on the fish until the mono top shot is on the reel.”
Moyes’ wind-on leader system doesn’t use any knots and only one crimp; all connections are spliced or loop-to-loop. Even so, it’s an incredibly tough leader system. “With our setup, we can use whatever it takes to overpower the fish. We usually don’t experience any breaks with this system unless we’ve caught several fish on one leader or if something touches the leader in the water. The biggest problem we’ve had over the years has probably been the integrity of the Dacron itself in the backing.”
“During the end-game, they can really pull. They are a giant tuna, so they can do what they want,” says Moyes. “When you hook a bluefin up there, they are like a 1,000-pound bonefish: They tear off across the top. You are better off fishing light drag at first to avoid tearing up your gear, and then once you get on top of them and they slow down, you can start putting it on them.”
The Bluefin Wind-On Rig
A wind-on leader system with no knots creates a stealthy profile and also allows the mate to help the angler gain line once the wind-on enters the rod tip. The mate can grab the wind-on and pull up on the leader as the angler winds it on. By Canadian law, Moyes must use 180-pound line or better as his main line, but he still uses a 130-pound Amilan monofilament for his top shot. He uses 200-pound Tuff XP braid for backing when commercial fishing. When making IGFA-legal line and leader systems, Moyes starts with straight 130-pound Dacron as his main line, with the same 130-pound Amilan mono top shot.
The system starts with the 130-pound Dacron backing on the reel. From there, Moyes splices a 100-yard section of 130-pound Amilan monofilament to the Dacron, pushing 10 feet of the Amilan up into the Dacron and then using a series of half hitches with waxed thread to secure and finish the splice.
At the end of the 100-yard top shot, Moyes splices a 6-foot section of 200-pound Spectra braid to the mono in order to make a loop to attach the swivel that starts the wind-on. He folds the 200-pound braid in half and splices 2 feet of one leg over the Amilan top shot. He then passes the end of the braid through one side of a 240-pound Spro swivel and starts splicing the braid back and forth through itself to create the loop. After going back and forth through the braid several times, he then splices the tag back up into the braid to complete the loop with the swivel attached. This small, yet strong swivel has an incredibly small profile that easily winds up through the guides on an unlimited rod.
On the other end of the swivel, Moyes uses another 6-foot section of 200-pound Spectra braid to attach the wind-on, only this time he’s splicing the other end to a 30-foot section of 250-pound fluorocarbon leader. He uses the same back-and-forth pattern in the wind-on to make the loop before inserting the remainder of the braid back into itself. The hook end couldn’t be simpler: Moyes crimps on an 11/0 Gamakatsu heavy-duty live-bait circle hook tight to the leader without any chafing tube. With no double lines or knots, and only one crimp, this leader system can withstand the incredible pulling power of a full-grown bluefin tuna and still provide a streamlined leader system that winds on to the reel.
Black Marlin: Blue Water Brutes
While blue marlin usually get the edge when it comes to speed, black marlin have the advantage when considering their sheer size and ability to pull. Blues do get bigger overall, but it seems that many more blacks reach that magical 1,000-pound mark than blues. To catch these hard-pulling titans, the boys in Australia — who see more granders than any other fishermen on the planet — have come up with some incredibly tough, yet surprisingly simple leader systems.
Capt. Bo Jenyns, a longtime Aussie captain, mate and Marlin U instructor, honed his skills as a young man fishing on his father’s charter boats. He started his freelancing career fishing with some of the very best heavy-tackle captains on the Great Barrier Reef and continuing on to places like Madeira and Ghana, chasing giant blue ones. As one of the most sought-after big-fish wiremen in the business, a lot of what Jenyns considers good leader material is guided by his time spent handling big fish on the wire.
Since most crews in Australia pull one skipping bait on the surface, usually a large tuna or mackerel, and one swimming bait on the wire, we asked Jenyns to show us the pros and cons of each rig. They are very similar in construction with the exception of the .040 stainless wire in the swimming rig. But as Jenyns explains, wire isn’t always your best option with a swimming rig, either.
The Wire Swimbait Rig
Jenyns says that most crews on the Great Barrier Reef use 130-pound Amilan if they are using mono as their main line; if not, then they are pulling 130-pound Dacron. Since they are very cognizant of world-record opportunities, they take great pains to make sure all of the lengths of each component are IGFA legal (for example, the combined length of the double line and leader shall not exceed 40 feet in line classes over 20 pound-test).
At one time, most crews used .040 diameter stainless wire for all of their leaders, which gave birth to the term “wiring” to describe when a mate grabbed the leader. While a lot of crews still use the wire when rigging their swimbaits in Australia, Jenyns prefers to use heavy mono for several reasons. “I’ve had a couple of the wire leaders break on big fish,” he says. “I’d rather have the mono. In the old days, mono wasn’t that good; you could chafe them off. Now, since they can make much tougher mono, I feel comfortable using the mono on my swimbaits as well.”
There are, however, still a lot of crews who prefer to use the wire on the their swimbaits because they do swim a little better. Wire also breaks at a very consistent point and it doesn’t stretch at all, allowing you to get a lot closer to a full 30 feet of leader. Here’s how Jenyns builds the swimming rig on wire.
Jenyns also prefers to use 130-pound Amilan for his main line because it is pretested to break where it’s supposed to per IGFA regulations. To start, Jenyns ties a 6- to 8-foot double line with a Bimini twist (he thinks the Australian braid is too time-consuming). At the end of the double line, he ties on a 200-pound heavy-duty ball-bearing snap swivel. He likes a thick snap that is very stiff.
To make the leader, he takes a 30-foot section of .040 wire and puts a loop in one end using a haywire twist and a Bimini wrap. You might want to use a pair of pliers if you don’t twist a lot of .040 wire! At the other end, he passes the wire through an 18/0 circle hook to match the size of the swimming scad. The scads are weighted internally and have a loop of Dacron sticking out of the top of their head that allows you to attach the hook via a loop knot. This setup is a simple, yet strong leader system, with minimal drag to keep your dead or even live bait swimming deep.
The Mono Skipbait Setup
In Australia, they pull monstrous dead baits that most anglers in the States would love to catch on rod and reel. These big baits attract some enormous takers, and here’s how Jenyns keeps them on the leader.
The rig starts with the same 6 to 8 feet of double line, secured with a Bimini twist. From there, he ties on the same 200-pound, heavy-duty ball-bearing snap.
To make the main section of mono leader, Jenyns prefers to use 28 feet of either 550- or 650-pound Lindgren-Pitman mono (you cut it down to 28 feet to account for any stretch in the mono, again to make sure you are world-record compliant). It’s hard enough to resist the abrasion of a black marlin’s bill, but not so stiff as to be unmanageable when the fish is on the leader. A simple crimped loop at the top section goes in the snap, while a crimp and chafe tube on the bottom secures the hook. You need the chafe tubing on the hook end when you crimp on your 18/0 to 20/0 circle hook, depending on the size of the bait.
A lot of crews are turning to wind-on leaders these days because of their durability, cost savings over the long haul, and ability to store lures with very short trace leaders. But they aren’t the best bet for every application, says Jenyns. “With just a straight piece of mono, you can get rid of a fish faster once it is caught. With a wind-on, you have to wait until you have the entire wind-on leader up out of the water and on the reel so you can cut under the swivel to let the fish go. You can’t just cut it off anywhere or you’ll lose all that splice work and gear. A lot of guys on the Reef have switched back to straight mono from wind-ons for just this reason. If you have a charter that’s worn completely out, or it’s a big fish that’s been on for a while and you know it’s close to chafing through the leader, you don’t want to have to get the entire leader in the boat before you can cut the fish off. You need to get rid of the fish and you don’t want to lose all that money and time spent on the wind-on.”