Don’t lose the fight in the last round
The reel’s spool was still clicking and it held so little line you could see through the line to the spool. The tiny rod was bent from just ahead of the first guide and the last three feet of it pointed straight towards the fish. All of us were watching the guy holding it and we could have had a great bet going on whether he’d beach the monster fish he had on. It was late November on the point of Hatteras, and we were catching blues on Stingsilvers. I was fishing an Ambassador 6000 with twelve pound test on a light eight foot rod. The guy with the big fish was using a bass rod with ten pound test and he was straining it to to hold the fish and keep what little line he had left. We didn’t know what he had on, but we knew it was big.
The second most common sad fish story is how the big fish hit the bait and simply snapped the line. He must have been a monster, the story goes, because it just snapped. The problem with this story is that it indicates the angler did something wrong or the fish couldn’t have snapped the line. With modern lines, breaks below the rated test of the line are rare. Modern reels have wonderful drags that, if set properly, allow anglers to catch 100 pound fish on six pound test. Most of those snap offs are simply drags set too tight. The big fish hits, the line comes taut, the drag is set above the breaking limit of the line, and the fish is lost. Sometimes this can happen with a properly set drag when the line is wrapped around the bail or a guide, but most times, it’s just a too tight drag.
The number one sad fish story is when the fish is within sight and within a minute of being in the boat or beached. Just at the fatal last moment, the fish surges and the line breaks. This can almost always be avoided. Most of those fish are lost because the angler got excited and rushed the process, but there are a lot of other factors that can affect the outcome. That last round of the fight often snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, and it’s the most critical part of landing or boating any fish.
When the fish is close to the boat or beach, there are a lot of obstacles that can foul the line. On a boat, the line can tangle in the motor or cleats and increase the strain on the line between the drag and the fish. Sometimes, it’s the landing net that causes the loss. Nets can tangle a line, and if the fish puts in another run he can break the line because it’s hung on the net. On the shore, there are snags or rocks, and in surf fishing, the effect of the waves is a huge factor because the outward flow of a wave can generate much more power than the fish’s fins and tail in open water.
When you see that monster looking like he’s worn out, and you’re just seconds away from holding a real trophy, you must keep your cool. Be aware of everything around you, not just the fish. Look around for all the things that can snag the line. Be aware of good Samaritans who want to help but might not know how to handle a big fish. More than once, I’ve seen a total stranger, excited by seeing a huge fish and wanting to help, grab a line and break off the fish. In the surf, with other anglers around, I make sure they know I’m bringing my fish in and might even ask them to step aside for just a moment while the fish is in the wash. All it takes is for someone to step on my line or wrap it around them while a wave is going out and the fish is gone.
The angler on the Point of Hatteras that day knew what he was doing. He was constantly putting all the side pressure he could on his fish, trying to get him away from all the other anglers and their lines. He worked the fish around to the south side of the Point and the fight continued for another 15 minutes. Eventually, we could see the fish. It was a 45” striper that probably weighed about 40 pounds.
Less competent anglers would probably have never known what they had on, but this guy was good. He worked the fish into slack water and kept telling the well-wishers to stay back until he had the fish on the beach. Eventually, the fish was really close and, as a final wave came in, guided the fish so the wave came in and deposited the big striper on the sand and left him there. The onlookers clapped and seemed happier than the angler.
It’s fun to be the hero on the beach and have everyone slapping you on the back. It’s fun to kneel on the beach holding a monster and getting your photo taken by friends as well as strangers. It’s fun to tell the story of the 40 pound striper you caught on ten pound line and show the picture on your mantle, but it’s no fun to hear the sickening snap of a line strained beyond its breaking point while the fish of a lifetime glides away in the water.
Keep your wits and stay focused when that big one is on your line. The line between victory and failure can be thinner than ten pound test line.
Dick Jones is an award winning freelance writer living in High Point. He’s a member of the board of directors of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association. If you’d like to have him speak to your group, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org