How NOT to Lose a Fish

Everyone makes mistakes, but fishermen seem especially adept at granting a hooked fish its premature freedom. Here are 10 simple ways to avoid another tale about the one that got away. Written & Photographed by Tom Richardson

Line Items

Always check your line for damage after it comes in contact with rocks, pilings, moorings, lower units or any other object. The safest bet is to simply cut off the suspect section and re-rig. The same applies to your leader. Feel for nicks or scrapes after every fish fight, and replace the entire leader if you detect even a hint of damage. After a prolonged fight with a big fish, such as a tuna or trophy striper, it’s a good idea to remove the last 30 to 50 feet of line. That’s because the line—monofilament in particular— can be stretched, twisted and generally weakened by a long battle, contact with the fish’s body, or repeatedly sawing over the rod guides. You’re best off playing it safe. Lastly, consider replacing the monofilament on your reels at least once during the season, regardless of how much action it has seen. Prolonged exposure to salt, heat and sunlight can weaken mono and make it brittle. Braided line can withstand more abuse than mono, but it too should be inspected and replaced on a regular basis, depending on how hard you fish.

Guides to Success

Inspect your rod guides periodically, especially if the line is breaking for no apparent reason. This happened to a friend a few years back. His braided line kept breaking during casts and when fighting a fish, and he wound up loosing a good deal of gear—not to mention his quarry! At first he blamed the line for being faulty, but closer inspection revealed a chipped tiptop guide that was slicing the line neater than a knife. Ceramic guides can be checked for damage with a piece of cotton or section of pantyhose. The material will snag on any cracks or rough spots, alerting you to the hazard. Perform this task at the beginning of the fishing season. High Rollers The line roller on the bail arm of a spinning reel can be a source of problems. Make sure the roller turns freely and that there are no gaps between the roller and its mount, where the line might become wedged. Sometimes all it takes to fix the problem is tightening the little screw that holds the roller in place. On heavy rods equipped with roller guides, make sure the guides turn smoothly. If the rollers don’t roll when a piece of line is passed over them, they need to be cleaned or replaced.

Drag King

There’s no telling how many fish have been lost to a sticky or overly heavy drag, but I’ll bet the number is pretty high. Always make it a point to test the drag by pulling line off your reel before making that first cast. If the drag feels jerky or sticky, have the reel serviced. Lastly, remember to back off the drag after you’ve finished cleaning your reels at the end of a trip. This will release pressure on the washers and prolong the drag’s life.

Speaking of drag, fighting a fish with a drag that’s set too light will lead to a prolonged fight, thereby increasing the chances that the fish will win the battle due to line or equipment failure. This is especially true of species such as tuna or false albacore. Knots can slip, monofilament can stretch and the repeated sawing of the line over the guides or the fish’s body itself during a long fight will eventually create a weak spot. Also, the hook will have a chance to wear a larger hole in the fish’s mouth, making it more likely to fall out.

Knot Likely

Nothing points a finger at an angler’s incompetence more concisely than a pigtail in the end of his line. That curlycue of monofilament is the unmistakable calling card of a hastily or poorly tied knot. Take your time when tying each and every knot, and only use the ones you have complete confidence in. Further, test every knot by securing the hook to a stationary object and pulling on the line. Make sure the knot is fully seated and looks right. If you have any doubts, cut it off and retie.

Look Sharp

Here’s an old chestnut that still holds true: Keep your hooks sharp. Hooks get dull pretty fast, especially if you fish around structure, and a dull hook is yet another way for a fish to win its freedom. Fortunately, it’s not hard to bring back the point with a few swipes of a file; the key is reminding yourself to inspect your hooks often, and keep a hook file handy. Rust is another area of concern. If the hooks on your lures or in your tackle box show any sign of rust or corrosion, replace them. No sense in risking the fish of a lifetime over a 30-cent piece of terminal tackle. Keep a supply of hooks in various sizes and a good pair of split-ring pliers on your boat or in your tackle bag, and you’ll be ready to make an upgrade on short notice.

Easy Does It

Some species, such as fluke and weakfish, have “soft” mouths that tear easily. When the angler sets the hook like a television bass pro or pumps the fish in too aggressively, the hole widens to the point where the hook can drop out if given enough slack. This is particularly common when using heavy jigs and metal lures. You can avoid this problem by setting the hook with firm but controlled pressure, and by bringing the fish in with slow, steady strokes of the rod. And make sure to maintain a tight line each time you lower the rod on the down-stroke.

Net Gain

If you play fast and loose with keeping a net aboard your boat, you’re going to regret it some day. A landing net is mandatory when a trophy is on the line—and the bigger the net, the better! Also, make sure your net is sturdy enough to handle the species you intend to catch, and that the mesh is in good shape. I’ve seen fish lost when they slid through a hole in the mesh, or when a landing net better suited for trout was asked to handle a 30-pound striped bass. When it comes time to employ said net, make sure you do it right. Never swipe or slap at the fish or you’ll risk sparking an explosive run or dive. Instead, slip the net gently into the water and have the angler lead his prize head-first into the net as you slowly sweep it toward the fish in a controlled motion. Make sure the fish has at least three-quarters of its body inside the net before lifting it from the water; otherwise it can flop its way to freedom.

Slam Dunk

Few things are more disappointing than losing a fish at boatside because it suddenly ran under the boat, cutting the line on the hull, trim tab or engine. To thwart your quarry’s last-ditch escape tactics, be prepared to dunk the rod tip deep below the surface, walk it around the bow, or thrust it far out beyond the engines as you follow the fish around the boat. Whatever you do, don’t just stand there like a dope. Bust a move!