BY LARRY BROWN
1: Bait Selection and Presentation
The single most important skill for becoming a much more lethal long range angler is bait selection and presentation. Let’s just focus on sardines here because they represent 99% of the pieces of bait we use on long range trips. Selecting the bait that is nearly impossible to catch may sound funny, but that is the one you want. It is the one which is most alert, most skittish, fastest and most frustrating to try to scoop with your hand or net. It is frequently among the last baits in the well because it has effectively avoided the crew member chumming and all the anglers who preceded you to the bait tank.
Look for a light lime green sardine, frequently swimming below his friends and darting and weaving when he detects your face or hands hovering over the bait well. Before final selection, gently cradle the sardine and gently feel its body. The best sardines are firm, possibly girthier than the others and are nice and slimy (slippery). Try to avoid baits that feel rough, have lost their outer protective slime and scales, have bloody eyes or noses, or feel soft and are easy to catch.
Predetermine how you are going to hook your bait and where you are going to cast it. When hooking your bait, do it ever so gently and quickly to avoid traumatizing or damaging your bait. You carefully selected a bait with all of its protective slime and pristine scales, so don’t ruin him with a death grip. If your rod butt has lots of scales on it, you are abusing your bait. Learn how to quickly hook your bait in the nostrils, shoulder, butt or tail and when and why each one of these methods may be the most effective at this specific time.
For example, if the fish are boiling all around the boat, a butt- or tail-hooked bait is lethal because the bait swims down and away from the boat right into the zone where the fish are holding. If the fish are boiling and biting 100 yards away from the boat consider a nose- or shoulder-hooked bait. Once the bait is way out in the zone, you can work a nose- or shoulder-hooked bait back and out, and back and out, 50 feet, in the zone to provoke a bite. Just put the reel in gear and slowly retrieve your bait 50 feet. If not bit, free spool it out 50 feet and repeat 3 or 4 times before finally changing baits.
Lastly but most importantly, exercise zero tolerance with lethargic baits. Frequently, a great “looking” bait is not a good “behaving” bait. If your bait doesn’t swim like a bangy upon hitting the water, fire him and start over. Tuna and other pelagic fish detect movement visually or with their lateral lines. Strong swimming baits get bit 10 times more often than lethargic baits. You may have to change baits 5 to 10 times before you get a strong swimmer, but it’s worth it.
Be honest, how many of you practice casting in your garden, on the street or at a local park? Watch a crew member take nearly any rod and cast it right into the downwind chum circle and get bit right away. That alone should demonstrate how important a long, gentle accurate cast is and how important developing this skill is. A long, gentle cast is critical to get the bait “away” from the boat and hitting the water with minimum injury to the bait. The bait shouldn’t slap down on the water or get its little body yanked around by a jerky cast. Practice a gentle, lofty overhead cast as well as a gentle lobbing underhand cast at either of the starboard corners or the bow where you can swing the bait under the rail of the boat.
The crew member chumming baits will be throwing them downwind as far away from the stern corner as possible. Baits will want to swim back to the safety of the boat to hide under the hull from predators. Casting your bait a good distance from the boat will help avoid the bait from doubling back to hide under the boat. If you are able to cast your bait into the same 10-foot circle where the chum is hitting the water the bite is frequently instant. If you are able to cast a strong swimming bait 25 to 30 feet away from the boat and it hits the water running, you will frequently get bit instantly. And remember from tip #1 – if your bait hits the water and just sits there, fire it and start again with a new one.
Matching the right gear to the current conditions and size of bait and gamefish is critical for optimum success. Your gear should be balanced. Combining your smallest reels on your lightest rods with your lightest line and smallest hooks should be obvious, but I see guys fishing a clunky reel on a super light rod. I see guys using big clunky hooks with small baits and guys using light gauge wire hooks with heavier line, which will straighten out under a heavier drag and a big fish.
Always ask your crew member the best size line and hook to use and even which of your setups he suggests is the best for the current conditions. A 30- to 40-pound outfit may be perfect for 30- to 100-pound bluefin tuna, but using this same gear at Guadalupe Island for similar-sized yellowfin tuna will give you an ass kicking and heavy losses. Be willing to modify your setup to a lighter or heavier line, or a smaller or larger hook or heavier or lighter gauge wire if conditions warrant it. Rely on your crew members. They want you to catch fish and are happy to advise and help (i.e. if you listen to them and immediately implement their suggestions).
Plan out your gear assembly in advance. Line up all your reels and all your rods on the boat before you put your reels on your rods. Line them up from left to right, lightest to heaviest. Start assembling your lightest reels on your lightest rods and end up with your heaviest reels on your heaviest rods. Make sure your lightest line is on your lightest setups, etc. Sounds logical but I see many mismatched outfits on nearly every charter I’m on.
I always like to have dedicated jig outfits, which will have different terminal jigs depending on yellowtail, wahoo or tuna, and different setups for yo-yo style vs. surface irons. Finally, your gear should all be “sano.” This is a term coined by the old school pros which means “in perfect working order.” Drags should be smooth; free spool should be perfect; rod guides should be perfect with no cracks in the ceramic inserts or corrosion if steel guides; line should be continually checked for abrasion, flaws, knicks and teeth marks.
4: Rail time
You can’t get bit sitting down in the galley, visiting on the upper deck or sleeping in your bunk. If two anglers have identically equal skills, the one putting in the most rail time will generally end the trip with more fish. But when you are in the water, fish smart by applying the aforementioned tips. Time in the water using the wrong bait, wrong gear or fishing with your bait under the boat will not optimize your time or effectiveness. You paid a lot of money for the trip and all the gear, so put in the time and fish smart and you will reap the dividends.
5: Minimize Losses
Is this stupid? Is it obvious? No. Angler error is omnipresent. If you can avoid tangles and know how to get out of them quickly you will lose fewer fish. If you check your line frequently for knicks, teeth marks and abrasion and retie immediately, you will lose fewer fish. If you tie your knots and connections perfectly and then pull the snot out of them to test their strength before your bait goes in the water, you will lose fewer fish. If your gear is too light or drag is too light and you are fighting your fish for too long, you can lose your fish by hooks pulling, getting sharked or sea lioned or getting sawed off by another fresh bite, all of which could possibly be avoided if you landed your fish just 10 minutes earlier. Watch how hard crew members pull on fish and try to learn from their experience. Losing fish is inevitable but there are many protocols you can implement to minimize these losses.