Although there are no percentage numbers to back it up, it is fair to say the majority of fish lost during an engagement are lost at the boat just prior to or during the wiring, tagging or gaffing sequence. Years ago in my early teens when I first started fishing tournaments it was made very clear to me that my job as gaff man was more than critical, some skippers joked my life was on the line, although I’m not sure some were actually joking. The “end game” was as critical as getting the bite. Fortunately, I worked for some of the best skippers who were also great teachers and the end game became one of my favorite parts of the game.
This spring after watching my deckhands miss several tags, I realized that I had wrongly assumed our finely tuned crew understood the “end game” sequence. I knew my deckhand Tim Mitchell and I had taken much of the end game for granted so we sat down and had a team meeting as we often do to review the day’s action. We discussed our miscues and set up a plan to be more efficient. After our meeting, my Mexican deckie Ricardo Cetina who is one of the finest deckhands we have worked with realized that he had never been taught what we had discussed. It all made so much sense he and Tim couldn’t wait to give our routine a try.
There are basic procedures for the proper taking of game fish alongside a boat utilizing a gaff or tagging for a release. First and foremost the boat must be uncluttered and the decks free of obstructions. The wireman must be able to lead a fish alongside the boat, keeping his eye on the fish to anticipate the next move, he cannot be worried about stepping around or over something like coolers `safety lines for heavy tackle that lay on the deck. They are dangerous when rigged in this fashion.
With a very large or agile and quick moving fish, the wireman’s ability to travel the length of the cockpit fore and aft as well as across the transom in seconds is paramount. While working as a deckhand on the “Cats Meow” for Capt. John Sabonis I had the privilege to learn the art of wiring from globe trotting deckhand Charles Perry. My practice subjects were Giant Bluefin tuna and Blue Marlin. Arguably the best wireman in the history of this sport, to watch Charles work a huge Tuna or Marlin around the cockpit to the gaff or tag stick is absolutely priceless. Like a great tailback, he sees and feels the whole field and uses it to his advantage with finesse more than strength. As the wireman takes the leader or the angler brings the fish alongside the boat with a wind-on leader, the object is to “lead” the fish into position to be gaffed or tagged, therefore the term “leader”. The best position for a good gaff or tag shot is alongside the boat, where the fish is sideways and a broad target, not at the transom where the fish is facing you and a very slim target with no place to land a tag or gaff. If a wireman grabs the leader of a standing angler, the angler must back off the drag, step back out of the way of the wireman and assume a position behind him, always ready to fight the fish again if the wireman cannot hold the fish and must dump the leader. The angler must be paying close attention to the wireman. Once the fish has been tagged or brought alongside for release, make the best effort to cut the leader as close to the fish as possible. handling the fish to remove hooks is a dangerous proposition and as well very stressful to the fish.
A dead boat with a fish swimming about erratically trying to escape usually means a lost fish. To help lead the fish alongside, The captain must position the boat according to the fish and maintain momentum in the same direction as the fish, then as the wireman brings the fish closer to the surface and in range for a gaff or tag, begin a slight inside turn if possible to give the tag or gaffman a good clean shot. By moving the boat with the fish, the wireman is usually able to control the fish a bit better by pulling or leading the fish to the boat thus not having the fish swimming around and under the boat in control of the wireman.
As the wireman works the fish closer to the boat, the gaff or tagman is at the ready, turning the chair with heavy tackle so the angler is in position to engage the fish if the wireman has to dump the leader. Once the fish is in position for a gaff or tag shot, the gaffman comes in behind and alongside the wireman, not in front of him. This allows for the cleanest shot and if the fish surges ahead, the wireman can move with the fish and the gaff or tag stick is not in the way of the leader and in danger of breaking the leader. The latest data shows the best tag shot is slightly back in the middle of the fish above the lateral line, the tag man should take care and pride in landing a clean and well placed tag. The best gaff shot is always from the head back to the shoulders, this helps to control the fish, as the old timers would say, “where his head goes, he goes”.
The gaff should ALWAYS be held with the hook down, not up. By keeping the hook down, the gaff shot is made over the shoulder or body of the fish, into something the gaff can hold and brought towards the boat, not under the fish lifting up through soft tissue that cannot hold a gaff. Several things are happening here, should the gaff not take, it is easier to get another shot overtop and closer to the boat. The down-turned gaff also helps pin the fish against the boat once the shot is landed. If the gaff is under the fish it is likely the fish will jump or writhe off the up-turned hook.
The next morning as we fought a nice Wahoo, Tim wired it up alongside the boat. I watched Ricardo slip in behind and alongside Tim and make a perfectly placed gaff shot in the head of a Wahoo that went over 50 pounds. He swept the fish up over the coverboard and into the ice box in one fluid motion. The similar procedure was repeated with a tag stick on a pair of White Marlin and several Sailfish later that day. On the way in Tim and Ricardo and I knew that we had become more efficient at catching, by employing basic “end game” skills.
Remember to talk about your end game with your crew before the fish is on the leader so you will all have a better understanding of what each person is doing. The next time you get the chance to gaff or tag a fish, remember to slow down, take your time and work through the procedure so the chances of cutting off or breaking off the fish by getting tangled with the wireman are eliminated. Treat every fish as if it is a tournament winner, practice the moves on everything you catch, even if you don’t actually tag or gaff the fish. Get in the habit of moving about the cockpit comfortably and efficiently. Come in behind and alongside the wireman or angler, look where you are aiming and take your best shot.