Solo Game Fishing
by Peter Pakula
It's normal in my business to dart out to go testing lures as soon as the prototypes are ready. On April 1, 1992, the new Mosquito was ready to try. I grabbed one and ducked out in "Cockroach" (my 14 1/2 foot Haines Hunter) to give it a swim. As I had made two of them, I'd left one at home so it wouldn't get damaged and rigged the one I had with me. Normally I don’t put hooks in prototypes as there is normally only one at testing time.
This was actually the first ever time I had gone to sea solo. Quite simply, the sea had always scared the hell out of me. Most of my fishing previously had been club related, and witnesses were always necessary to have tags or captures count. That day was to change my whole outlook on fishing and promote the solo experience as the biggest source of adrenaline that this fisherman has ever experienced.
Within an hour, a sailfish had securely attached itself to the new Mosquito and the next hour showed a great number of weak links in what I thought was a highly refined system. That sail stimulated the development of a solo game fishing system that, while still evolving today, is a lot more reliable than the events leading to the chaotic capture of that sail.
Solo game fishing is nothing new - throughout the world, natives in dugout canoes have been tackling monster fish successfully for thousands of years. Of course, everyone can share the deep feelings for Santiago in Hemmingway's classic "The Old Man and the Sea". Indeed, it's hard to stop scenes from the book replaying in the back of the mind every time a large predator is encountered while fishing solo.
Further inspiration came in New Zealand from meeting a chap in his mid-teens who had crossed the wild Manakau bar on the west coast and returned with a pair of enormous striped marlin while fishing solo.
In solo fishing, there are no points, no trophies and no public acclaim. There is no one there to see how good you are. Nobody to help out in a tight situation. No one to find anything. There's only you. You are both the strongest and the weakest link in the system. It is just you, the sea and the fish. To me, it is the ultimate form of fishing and the ultimate adrenaline rush. This is possibly because in all of my previous years of fishing, I realise just how dangerous it can be. Many possible scenarios are lethal ones.
After all, that's what game fishing means - the hunter and the hunted are on a more even playing field. The fish really does have a chance of winning.
PREPARING THE SOLO SYSTEM
When you hook up, it's too late to do any preparation. If the tag isn't in the tag pole and if you can't reach it, you're not going to be able to tag the fish. If you can't reach your pliers, you're not going to be able to when you need them. Are your harness and gimbal set up to fit you? There's no one around to do the adjustments in the heat of battle. If you haven't worked out where the spare rods are going to go while you're fighting the fish, they will surely get in your way. If your tracing gloves aren't within reach, you're in the shit. All of these points have to be taken into consideration BEFORE you even put a lure into the water.
THE BATTLE PLAN
- All rods, reels, lines and knots are to be double checked. In all fishing, you should be worried about all of the different ways that you can catch a fish, not about all of the different ways that you can lose one. While fighting the fish and driving the boat, battle times can be extended well past the norm, so heavier tackle than normal is appropriate.
- To enable tagging or gaffing off the rod tip, lure leaders should be shorter than the tag pole and doubles as long as possible as you can use the double to aid in raising the fish.
- All equipment should be available within reach. Ideally, one of everything is positioned on each, side of the boat. Keep in mind that you will be manoeuvring the boat at the same time as you're fighting the fish, so any gear that is not duplicated should be within reach of the helm when you are driving. Checklist of equipment required; tag poles, gaffs, gloves, camera, gimbal belt and harness, pliers that are capable of cutting wire easily. Personally, I also have a pair of bolt cutters strapped to the gimbal bucket.
- It is essential that all solo fishing uses both a gimbal and harness and all reels used have inbuilt harness lugs - even in extra-light tackle. Using a harness allows you to have both hands free to handle other equipment around the boat.
TESTING THE SYSTEM
It's important while solo fishing that you're confident that the system will function. The only way to be sure of this is to test it before you hook up.
Ideally, this could be done on the water, however, you can test the system with the boat on your trailer in the backyard. All equipment (such as rods, tags etc) should be placed where they'll be while you're fishing ……. and one of the rods goes off.
Once you pull a rod out of the holder with a fish on it, you cannot put it down, (although you will not gain any points or acclaim it is part of the achievement to follow the IGFA rules) so having your harness and gimbal belt fitted and wear them before you put the first rod out and before you touch anything else is crucial. The next part of the test is to get all of the other lures, rods and leaders clear and out of the way. Now see if you can actually reach your helm and throttle while harnessed up. In many boats, this will be quite a task. Next, while harnessed up with the rod, put on your gloves, grab the tag pole and then put them away again. Then grab your pliers. If you can do all of that, then you're ready for action.
This is not the place to explain all that there is to know about finding and hooking up, so let's just assume that you've achieved the state of being connected to a very large and angry fish, by yourself, out in the blue water. What do you do?
The reality is that for the first minute or so, you have no control whatsoever, so you can take advantage of this time to clear some of the other rods and teasers, the ones on the same side as the one that has the fish on are the ones to clear first. As long as line is peeling off the reel, you can go on clearing the decks, making sure that everything is stored in its pre-determined position. All hooks and leaders must not be left on the deck and ideally, these are stored in an area where they cannot bounce, roll or fall onto the deck.
Before grabbing the rod with the fish, put on your gimbal and harness, then remove the rod from the holder and clip yourself in. Start the fight by increasing drag and winding the belly (which is sure to be there) out of the line. When the belly is removed, move the lever back to normal strike drag. It is important to keep pressure on the fish at all times. As the fight settles down continue to clear the rest of the rods and lures.
- A great deal of the initial fight involves positioning the boat in accordance with a simple set of rules.
- The boat should be down wind (or current) of the fish.
- The boat should never be in neutral.
- Most of the fight is completed while driving away from the fish, keeping the pressure on and the hooks in.
- Don't worry about losing line, your reel has hundreds of metres of it and it's only a problem when you lose the last metre.
- Never back the reel to below the strike drag.
- Stay cool and be aware that the last thing you want is a green fish in the water beside you. Getting fish quickly while solo fishing is a recipe for injury. Personal experience backs up this point!
- When the fish has settled down and begins to tire, it is then time to recover line and get close to it. This is done by slowly driving the boat on an intercept course to the direction in which the fish is swimming. The boat should never be travelling faster than you can wind and maximum pressure should be exerted while recovering line.
- If the fish surges or a belly forms in the line, then drive directly away from the fish. As the fish again settles, resume the intercept.
As you get closer to the fish, get the tag pole out and put the gloves on. Ideally at this stage, the fish should be close to the surface. If it isn't, drive away from it while keeping pressure on. This should plane the fish up. To maximise this effort, do it while driving down-current.
As you come to finally intercept the fish, re-position the boat so that the fish ends up along side. Once again, the boat should be down-wind of the fish so that you don't drift over it. As you position alongside the fish, tag it, but do not grab the leader. The fish will probably surge and/or jump at this stage, but as it's pointed in the same direction that you are, it's not a dangerous situation. Draw alongside the fish again to either cut the fish free or get the hooks out.
If it is a small marlin, grab it by the bill and in one motion, lift it straight on board to remove the hooks. Any other species can be grabbed by the tail and lifted aboard. Make sure that your gloves are on. All small fish are far too dangerous to remove hooks from while still in the water.
In the case of larger marlin, use of a bill rope is essential. A bill rope is any soft rope that's tied to the gunwale near the helm. In my case it's a centre cleat that takes the load. Roping the marlin is simply a case of a couple of half hitches around the bill. Tighten the rope and pull the fish's head out of the water to remove the hooks. Slacken the rope and let the fish's head back down into the water to revive the marlin before release. It is incredibly important that the boat is travelling forward throughout the tagging, bill-roping and releasing process. Going into neutral at this stage is lethal.
It is at this time that the adrenaline takes over and you fall into a useless heap in the bottom of the boat. If you can regain enough senses to measure and/or take photographs, do so - I haven't!
One important part that I have left until now is the awareness of how dangerous the practice of solo gamefishing really is. Whenever I have been able to call another boat over to babysit while fighting fish, I have. Apart from the fact that they can generally get a good photograph, they are there in case anything should go wrong. While fighting fish solo, I also radio my exact position and the state of the fight to anyone within radio range.
It's not that I recommend that everyone quits their gamefishing team and trades the 35 footer on a 20' centre console, but for me, the following is true. Fishing solo does many things; once set up and trolling you have time to yourself - which for me is rare! It's time to work out what you are working towards and really what my life is about. And indeed at times the scream of the reel is a shattering intrusion into this precious time. But who cares….
Because of the complication caused by fishing solo (admittedly with the aid of technology) it forces you to analyse what you are doing and eliminate inefficient techniques and unnecessary clutter in your boat's setup. That is - keep things simple and effective. It's a way of thought that benefits all fisherman - not just the bluewater adrenaline junkies.
It's great to succeed. To work out where the fish will be, trigger a predatory response and then put some the pieces of massive jigsaw puzzle together that results in the tag and release of what is truly one of the ocean's most awe-inspiring animals. The memories of my own solo experiences are etched deep into best-of-the-best memory file that no-one but me can ever know. That's what this is all about. Getting to know yourself, your limits and your abilities.