Playing Fish

By Steve 'Starlo' Starling

Starlo offers some very valuable tips on the important art of “playing” fish…

Hooking a fish is without question one of the most thrilling moments in angling. It’s the “high” that brings us back for more! You lift the rod tip, crank the reel and suddenly the line springs taut and an urgent, electric energy pulses through the previously inanimate outfit in your hands. You’re instantly connected to another life force by a gossamer thread of line and the excitement is palpable — you can taste it! But what happens in the next few seconds or minutes will spell the difference between landing that fish, and adding another “one that got away” story to your collection

If the fish is relatively small in relation to the tackle you’re using, you can simply raise the rod to about 45 degrees above the horizontal and crank the reel handle smoothly to bring it in. However, landing bigger, stronger fish require a little more finesse and artistry.

If you hook a fish that’s heavy and strong in relation to the strength of your tackle, attempting to use sheer muscle to haul the beast in is likely to result in disaster. Either the line will break or the hook may tear free or straighten out. In extreme cases, your rod might even snap!

It’s worth noting that more active fish such as tailor, salmon, trout, barramundi or tuna are all capable of breaking a line with a rated strength significantly greater than their actual weight. Many anglers are surprised to learn that a fish weighing less than 2 kg can snap a 4 kg line in a direct pull, but they definitely can! This is why larger, more active fish need to be “played”.

“Playing” a fish doesn’t mean we simply muck around with it in order to prolong the encounter for our own entertainment. Instead, the term means taking your time and bringing the fish in slowly and smoothly while using the flex of the rod as a shock absorber to protect the line and hook. It also means, if necessary, allowing the hooked fish to run, or take line against the reel’s drag, which you should set or adjust every time you go fishing.

As a rule of thumb, the resistance of the drag should be set at somewhere between about a quarter and a third of the rated breaking strain of the line you’re using, as measured in a direct pull from the reel. In other words, if you’re using 4 kg breaking strain line, the pre-set drag pressure at the reel should be adjusted to about a kilo or slightly more.

Serious game and sport fishers chasing record catches on light tackle will often carefully set their drags against a set of calibrated scales. In reality, few of us carry spring balances or weights around to test our drag settings. Instead, we develop a “feel” for the right drag setting, and learn how to sense when the drag level is too high and the pressure on the line too great.

Basically, if the rod bends too deeply or the line whistles and sings in the breeze when a strong fish is hooked, there’s a good chance that your drag is set too tightly! If in any doubt, it pays to err a little on the lighter side.

A big, strong fish can easily pull the rod tip down and rip line off against the resistance of the reel’s drag. If that drag has been tightened too much, the line will most likely snap. On the other hand, if the drag is too loose, the fish may be impossible to bring in, or may even strip all the line from your spool. It’s all about finding the right balance.

As soon as the fish you’ve hooked stops running and pulling line from your reel against the drag, you need to begin recovering lost line and bringing the fish in.

The best way to recover the line is to use a process called “pumping and winding”, which means lifting the rod without cranking the reel and then lowering the rod while turning the reel handle. The pump-and-wind routine is efficient, effective and saves your tackle from excessive wear.

To pump and wind, begin by smoothly lifting the rod from just above the horizontal until the butt or lower portion is angled up at least 45 degrees above the horizon. Don’t crank the reel as you perform the lift or pump part of the process, because that would put unnecessary strain on the rod and the gears of the reel. When the lower portion of the rod reaches that 45-degree angle, begin turning the reel handle as you smoothly lower the rod back towards the horizontal. Repeat this process of lifting the rod without winding the reel, then cranking the reel as you lower the rod to bring the fish in.

Be extremely careful to maintain tension on the line during the winding of the reel on the down stroke. If you don’t keep a tight line, loose line can easily wrap around the rod tip or create slack that allows the fish to shake free of the hook. The best way to avoid slack line is to actually start turning the reel a split second before you begin lowering the rod, and to maintain enough pressure to keep at least a slight bend in the rod right through the down stroke. Focusing firstly on winding the reel and secondly on lowering the rod is helpful in achieving this constant, steady line tension.

Above all, stay cool and have a game plan… It’s amazing just how large a fish can be landed on quite light gear if you keep your head!