Tips for handling fish in the Red Zone
Call it the Red Zone. Most anglers handle a fish well until they get it to within 50 feet of the boat. Once they see the fish, there’s a sudden urge to play tug-of-war and land it in the next ten seconds. Something has to give.
It’s only natural to be excited when you hook a good fish, but you can’t let it make you lose your concentration. Try to remain calm through the final moments of the battle.
Anticipation helps: almost every fish makes at least one final attempt at freedom once it sees the boat. This surge is either directly away from the angler at flank speed or a crash dive toward the bottom. In either case, the line must absorb this force and try to dissipate it over a much shorter length.
Anglers feel the need to pull back on the rod and clamp down on the drag at this moment to prevent the fish from moving away. This usually results in the all-to-common tale about the one that broke the line so close to the boat.
You can counter this escape tactic easily if you anticipate it. When you see or sense the surge, drop the rod tip and point it right at the spot where the line enters the water. Take your hand off the reel, allowing only the drag to operate. By pointing the rod at the fish, you reduce the drag to the minimum amount. Once your quarry has settled down, simply resume the battle.
Put time on your side: it makes sense to land a fish rather quickly, but take the luxury of a few extra minutes when that fish is in the Red Zone. You may have to work your catch back to the boat several times until the precise moment for landing arrives. If you hurry this last stage, the fight could end abruptly.
Watch that line: the bottom of a boat is not a friendly place for fishing line. Taut monofilament breaks in an instant if it touches a prop, trim tab, lower unit shaft, swim step or the hull itself. Fish seem to know this instinctively. Again, it’s a matter of being ready.
If that heavyweight decides to take a shortcut to the other side of the boat by swimming under the hull, get the line as far away from the boat as you can and follow it across the stern until you and the fish are on the same side. Use the boat’s engines to help avoid this problem. When you’re in those final stages, keep at least one engine idling ahead slowly.
Frequently, you can plane the fish and slowly work it close enough to the surface to land or release it. If not, stop the boat for a few moments, keeping the line tight, to see if it will swim higher in the water column, then motor the boat ahead again. This tends to give you a better angle and control, particularly with a large fish.
Don’t count on double line: long double lines and heavy leaders create a false feeling of invincibility. Locking down on a double line can cause tackle failure in a hurry. A better method involves a wind-on knot system that allows the connection between line and leader to pass through the guides. The angler can now fight the fish to boat side without someone else trying to strong-arm the quarry.
Lifting a fish on a leader without the cushioning effect of the rod takes delicate touch that comes with experience. Too much pressure causes hooks to pull or the leader to break. Yet very few newcomers to leadering ever yield an inch, figuring that the stout leader is going to hold and the hook won’t budge.
Gaffing: fish belong in the water. The buoyancy of water and its density reduces strain on line and leader. Whether you plan to release a fish or kill it, keep the fish just under the surface. A wildly thrashing fish is much more dangerous and difficult to gaff or turn loose.
If you plan to gaff a fish, keep the boat moving ahead slowly with the fish swimming right alongside. You can then reach down, plant the gaff, and lift the fish into the boat with one motion. There is less chance that a steadily swimming fish will make an erratic move and cause you to miss or, worst yet, hit the leader with the gaff.
During leadering or gaffing the fish, the angler must remain ready to continue the battle. Stay ready to drop the rod tip and give line if the person handling the fish happens to miss or must let go for any reason. When that occurs, stay calm and simply play the fish back for one more try.
Landing fish successfully comes down to concentration and anticipation. Victory can only be celebrated after it occurs and not before. Above all, never let your guard down. Remember this and your fish stories will have much happier endings.