Play, land, and handle fish
One of the great thrills in fishing is hooking and playing a big fish, and one of the heartbreaks is losing it! All fishermen want to catch a big one. It’s an integral part of the sport. And all fishermen taste disappointment when a lunker comes off, even when they would have released it alive if they’d landed it. Still, it’s the uncertainty of this sport that makes it exciting. If you knew you’d land every fish you hooked, fishing wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to land every fish you hook You should, and this is why you need to learn proper playing, landing and handling methods. By using the right techniques, you’ll enjoy the “thrill of victory” more often. In the following pages, you’ll learn to play a fish to keep the odds in your favor; how to land fish from a boat or on shore; and how to handle fish both for your safety and for their well being in case you want to release them alive and well.
Fine Art of “Playing” Fish
Playing fish and fighting fish mean the same thing. These are terms for tiring a fish out and reeling it dose enough to capture. Playing small fish is easy; they don’t have as much size or fight, but playing a big fish can be a tough head-to-head battle. There are two overall “concepts” for playing fish. One is to play them with the main purpose of having fun, of stretching the fight out and giving the fish maximum opportunity to get away. Anglers who like to do this frequently use light or ultra light tackle because it takes more finesse to land fish with light tackle. With this tackle, you don’t have as much control over the fish. You can’t power them in, so you have to wear them down more. The longer a fight lasts, the greater the odds of the fish getting away. The second way to play fish is with the purpose of landing them as fast and efficiently as possible. They are more concerned with the end result—landing fish—than how they land them. Tournament anglers or those fishing for food are more likely to use these “power” methods, which typically involve heavier tackle and stronger line. Each angler must decide which approach he prefers. Neither is more or less acceptable than the other. They are just different playing styles for different purposes and philosophies.
Pointers for “Playing” Fish
These are pointers for playing large bass, walleye, stripers, pike, catfish, muskies and other big fish. Rule number one is to keep the line tight at all times. This is no problem if the fish is pulling against you. But if it’s running toward you, reel in line fast enough to keep out slack When a fish jumps, it’s easier for it to throw a lure or hook if the line is slack. Therefore, when a fish goes airborne, keep the line tight to control headshakes. Many experts try to prevent or control jumps by keeping the rod tip low or even poking it in the water when a fish starts up. Sometimes this downward pressure will cause the fish to turn back down. When fighting a fish, use the bend of the rod to tire it out. Except during jumps (when you’re pointing the rod down), hold the rod or pole high with maximum bend. You must adjust your playing technique to the type of tackle you’re using. Obviously, if you’re using light tackle, you can’t exert as much pressure on a fish as you can with heavier tackle. On the other hand, if you’re fishing around thick cover (brush, weeds, timber, docks, etc.), you may have to apply maximum pressure to keep a fish from burrowing in and tangling your line. Use heavier tackle and line when fishing thick cover. This will allow you to apply more pressure to turn a fish. With really big fish, a pump-and-reel technique works well. Lift the rod slowly and steadily to pull the fish toward the surface. Then reel in the line as you lower your rod tip back down. Repeat this process, always keep the line tight. This keeps constant pressure on a fish and tires it quickly. Don’t be in too much of a hurry. If you “over-play” a fish by reeling in too fast, you risk pulling the hook out or breaking your line. Unless a fish is headed for thick cover, keep steady pressure and let the fish tire out before you try to land it.
How to Set and Use Drag
Drag is an elemental concept in playing fish, and it’s one that all rod-and-reel anglers must learn to use. Basically, drag is a slip-dutch mechanism built into a reel that allows line to slip out when a pre-set amount of pressure is exerted on the line. It is a safeguard against pulling so hard against a fighting fish that you break your line. Drag settings are adjustable, and drag should be set at some point below the break strength of your line. Then, when a fish applies this amount of pull, the drag will slip and give line rather than allowing pressure to build to the breaking point. For example, say you’re using 8-pound test line. You might set your drag to slip at 6 pounds of pressure. Then, if you hook a big fish and it makes a strong run, the drag will give before the line snaps. As the fish tires and stops pulling drag, you can reel in line and land the fish. When a fish is pulling out drag, don’t keep turning the reel handle, this can cause line twist in the reel. Instead, hold the red handle steady until the fish stops running or until it turns back toward you. Then begin reeling again to keep tension on the line as you play the fish.
Two Methods for Setting Drag
Setting the proper amount of drag can be a complicated process. Several factors go into knowing how much drag is just right. Strength of the line, weight and strength of the fish, how much line is out, and the amount of line on the reel spool all affect how much drag is needed. Also, conditions that determine the optimum drag setting can change rapidly when fighting a fish. Obviously, you won’t know these variables before you start fishing, so drag must be pre-set according to the “best guess” method. Many fishing experts set drag to give at half the rated break strength of the line. For instance, for 6-pound test line, set the drag to slip at 3 pounds of pressure. This method for setting drag is precise, but it takes more effort. Tie one end of a small fish-weighing scale to a stationary object. Then tie your fishing line to the other end. Disengage the reel spool or trip the bail and back away approximately 20 yards. Then re-engage the spool or bail. Hold the rod at a 90-degree angle to the scale Oust like you’re fighting a fish), and reel the line tight. Then start pulling the line with the rod while adjusting the drag setting. Have a friend watch the scale and tell you when you’re pulling out the desired amount of pressure. Adjust the drag so it slips at this weight. Then it’s properly set.
Another method for setting drag is the “feels-right” method. You simply run the line through the rod guides. Then hold the rod handle with one hand and pull the line off the reel with the other. Adjust the drag setting to slip before the line snaps. This method isn’t nearly as accurate as using the scale, but it’s much faster. Also, remember that you can readjust drag setting whenever you wish while actually fighting a fish. Baitcasting and spin-cast reels have star drags next to the reel handle that can be tightened or loosened as desired. Spinning reels have knobs either on the front of the spool or behind the gearbox that can be turned to tighten or loosen drag as desired. Overall, knowing how to use drag properly is a mark of an accomplished fisherman. Proper use of drag will allow you to catch many more fish in the course of your angling career.
How to Land Fish
Landing a fish is the end-result of playing it. This is the actual capture, when you net, grab or beach a fish. Regardless of where or how you’re fishing, the number one rule in landing is to make sure the fish is tired out. Too many anglers try to land fish while they are “green” (still have some fight left), and the fish escapes in a last-ditch lunge. So, unless you plan to release the fish alive, play it down to the point where it’s easier to handle. If you’re fishing from a bank that slopes gently into the water, simply drag the fish onto land. If the bank is steep, or if you’re fishing from a boat, lift the fish out of the water with your rod or pole. To do this, however, use line that has a higher pound-test rating than the weight of the fish. If you try to lift a 6-pound bass with 4-pound line, the line will break. When beaching or lifting a fish, it helps to have the fish’s momentum going in the direction you’re trying to move it. If the fish is swimming, you can steer it up on the bank or into shallow water where you can grab it. Nets are great for landing fish from the bank, from a boat or when wading. The netting procedure is always the same. After the fish is played down and under control, lift its head out of the water with gentle rod pressure. Then lead the fish headfirst into a stationary net held just below the water’s surface. When the fish is in or over the net, lift up. Never chase or stab at a fish with a landing net, and never attempt to net a fish tail-first.
A third common way to land fish is by hand. In doing so, you must be extremely careful. Sharp fins, teeth and spines can inflict painful injuries. There are two ways to land fish by hand. Species that don’t have teeth can be grabbed and lifted by the lower jaw. Reel the fish up close and lift its head out of the water with rod pressure. Then stick your thumb in the fish’s mouth, clamp the lower jaw between your thumb and forefinger and lift the fish from the water. Species that have teeth, however, should be grabbed across the back, pinching firmly on both gill plates. They may also be lifted by placing a hand under the belly. In either case, the fish must be played down fully before you land it. Many anglers also land fish by inserting their fingers into the gills or by squeezing thumb and forefinger into the fish’s eye sockets. These methods work, but are not recommended. Some species have sharp gill plates that can inflict a nasty cut. Also, if a fish is to be released alive, its gills or eyes can be damaged by such rough treatment.