Spooling up for gamefishing (2006)

I remember my first day on the deck of a professional fishing boat well. I was bloody nervous. 

Finally, after lots of phone calls and walking the dock, I had landed my dream job: crewing on a big game fishing boat in the world-famous Bay of Islands. So I didn’t want to stuff it up and end up back on the beach pleading for another chance with a different skipper. The problem was, I didn’t really know what I was doing and knew this would become glaringly obvious very soon. Fortunately for me, we were not fishing this first day; it was just pre-season preparation, and I managed to complete my first task without arousing too many suspicions — but that was just preparing and presenting the skipper’s morning coffee (‘blonde with two legs at hourly intervals’). 

The next job on his list was a little more complicated. At the start of any reputable boat’s fishing season, the line gets changed on all the reels. However, in this case the skipper pointed at all the shiny gold reels hanging in the boat’s saloon and mumbled explicit instructions that involved pulling all the old line off the reels, laying it on the cockpit floor, and then carefully, without tangling or standing on it, winding it back onto the reel again from the other end. According to the skipper, this would get him another full year from his valuable string. (I can almost hear the gasps of horror as people read this, but hey, I didn’t know any better, and the last thing I was going to do, even if I had known better, who was I to argue with the skipper on my first day at work?) 

Against the odds, I survived my gamefishing introduction, but for some unknown reason, we broke off an awful lot of fish that year, which the skipper naturally put down to my inability to tie a decent double. (Although, to be fair, this may have been a factor, too!) Most people today are aware that such a practice is pretty ill-advised. After all, your slender line is the only connection keeping you attached to what may be a much-prized fish on the other end. So what line should you put on your reels? That’s a bloody good question, and possibly the best way to answer it might be through answering several commonly asked questions, including: Is IGFA or non-IGFA a better line? What line weight is best? How important is the line’s diameter? What colour line works best? Should dacron backing be used? Perhaps I should consider using a spectra-type line?

Lines and IGFA ratings

Firstly, IGFA (International Game Fish Association) or non-IGFA line? This question is really quite easy to answer: if you plan to fish any tournaments, vie for the club prizes, or potentially qualify for any New Zealand or World records, then I strongly recommend using IGFA rated lines. Also called ‘pre-test’ lines, they come in the following line-classes specified by the IGFA: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 15, 24, 37 and 60kg. So if the spool says something like 11.4kg, then it’s not an IGFA rated line, but if in any doubt, look for ‘IGFA rated’ or ‘pre-test weight’ printed somewhere on the spool. Regardless of the guarantees on the packaging though, I recommend testing the line for yourself on your club’s line tester, as this is the only way to be sure. And if the line either over-tests or grossly under-tests, I suggest returning the line to its supplier. 

On the other hand, if you plan to just go fishing and have no ambitions to compete in contests, then perhaps the non-IGFA lines will do, with the added bonus that they are often quite a bit cheaper. And the following points may interest you regarding non-IGFA lines. For a start, they nearly always break well over their stated breaking strain, so ‘10kg’ line, for example, may break closer to 15kg, enabling the manufacturer to claim it as ‘the strongest 10kg line available’, and secondly, although not IGFA rated, this doesn’t entirely preclude them from being considered in their actual breaking-strain line class. Thus, a potential 15kg line-class record caught on that overly strong ‘10kg line’ can be submitted for consideration, and provided the line breaks below the 15kg line-class nominated, a new record can result. 

However, the main snags with non-IGFA lines are that you never really know what you’re getting, and that the breaking strain may radically change along their lengths, making it almost impossible to fish them to a ‘guaranteed’ maximum drag pressure, unlike IGFA lines, which are regularly tested so they test close to, but always under (theoretically!), their stated strain.

What line class?

The next question is what line class to use. This is mainly determined by the sort of fish you want to target and the amount of challenge you wish to have. Most anglers just want to target snapper, blue cod or the like, and perhaps handle a modest kingfish or hapuku if it shows up. They may not have a fishing arsenal as such, so generally opt for a line weight around the 15kg mark. This is a good starting point, although many anglers soon buy more gear and reduce their line weight to increase the challenge.
A common mistake made by anglers first trying gamefishing, is to buy medium-sized gear in the 15 to 24kg line class to save money — and then find themselves getting severely beaten up by huge Waihau Bay or Northland blue marlin. 

Although it would be reasonable to say that the 24kg is ample to take on 90% of New Zealand’s gamefish, a large blue or black marlin is a handful on even 37kg line. As exciting as it is just to see such fish, you might as well give yourself a chance at catching them too, and set yourself up with the heaviest gear you can afford. Much has been made of light tackle triumphs over huge fish, but these captures are usually made with the help of trained professionals who are well used to having the odds stacked against them. My sole ambition in life is to break the weigh-station, so when a fish shows up that’s big enough to do this, I want to hook it on the heaviest gear available, just to give myself some chance!

Thick or thin?

Line diameter is a matter of personal preference, like most of these questions, but it’s a consideration that must be taken very seriously. It is obvious that the thinner the line is, the more you can fit on a spool, reducing the chance of getting spooled. But on the other side of the coin, the thicker a line’s diameter, the more abrasion and wear it will generally handle before breaking. So which scenario offers the greatest advantage? I personally believe that if the line breaks, you’ve obviously lost that fish, so having never been spooled while gamefishing on properly prepared gear to date, I opt for the thickest line available. 

Secondly, there is only so much line you can lose into the water before the increasing amount of water pressure busts you off, which, with lighter line classes, may not be very much line at all. (For instance, when using 6kg line, anything much over 400m of line in the water and you may well be history.) 
However, another real advantage of thin line is it’s easier to retrieve, as the cumulative friction imparted on the line by the water molecules is less (although this problem can be turned to your advantage by using dacron backing with a thicker-type-mono top-shot, which I’ll talk about later). 
For my money, I prefer thicker lines on the whole, as they give a little more insurance against abrasion and general wear and tear. I am currently using Sufix ‘Key Lime’, and so far this has been pretty much bulletproof.

A matter of colour

Okay, so you’re standing in the tackle shop with a reasonable idea as to the line you’re after, except, damn it, it comes in about five different colours!  
The rule of thumb I like to follow is this: if it is to be used at night or on ultra-light tackle, I select a bright or fluorescent colour (ie. yellow, orange or lime), but if it’s for live baiting, I select a low-visibility colour such as clear or ice blue. (Some companies promote red line as having the lowest visibility in water, arguing that red is the first colour in the spectrum to be affected underwater, which is true, but it does not become invisible, it just appears brown — so what’s the advantage?) 
And I have observed the following phenomena with ‘high vis’ dyed lines: they tend to lose their tensile strength quicker than non-dyed lines upon exposure to sunlight. This means more care is required to keep them in good condition.

Top shotting

I recently completed a nationwide tour of fishing clubs, discussing some of the more technical aspects of tackle preparation. One topic I spent a good deal of time on was the practice of filling a game reel with 800 yards or so of dacron ‘backing’ and then splicing around 200 yards of monofilament on top of this. Dacron has been around a long time and is a woven product similar to spectra, except it’s hollow and usually IGFA rated. A standard item on professional gamefishing boats, it is not affected by UV light as quickly as monofilament and is not compressible, so therefore will last for many years (10 plus) on a reel. Consequently, the angler can just replace the top 150 to 200 metres of monofilament when necessary, instead of the whole 1000-plus metres, and this represents a substantial saving to a commercial operator, who may change his line several times a season. 

The second big advantage picks up on what I was saying earlier about line diameters: because dacron is comparatively thin, it is easier to retrieve quickly when chasing very large fish such as blue marlin. This also means the angler can use a thicker brand of mono as their ‘working line’ (the last 150 to 200m), providing excellent abrasion resistance, as well as enabling the line’s belly to be used to help tire and lift the fish to the surface with little risk of a bust-off. (I don’t have time to discuss this technique here, but it can be referenced in back issues of the NZ Fishing News, or contact me, and I will be happy to discuss it further.) 


The last real question when it comes to spooling up with a line, is whether or not to use spectra. Spectra, or superbraid, is an excellent product that has revolutionized many aspects of fishing around the world. As it is so thin, water drag effects it less, so it doesn’t hold up in the current so much, enabling it to sink more quickly. And as it has virtually zero stretch, the angler can feel even the lightest of bites. Spectra also possesses good abrasion resistance for its diameter, and will cut through many things when moving and under tension (ie. there’s a fish on the end), including weed and anchor ropes, but mostly other people’s lines. However, the downside of this feature is that spectra can damage poor quality rod guides, and as it’s so thin for its breaking strain, anglers need to be careful not to get a line wrap around a hand or fingers, as this can lead to a nasty injury, especially when dealing with powerful fish like kingfish and tuna.

Also consider that in most cases, spectra superbraids over-test the ratings on their spools, sometimes considerably. This is something that it is important to consider when gamefishing for world or national records, club contests, pinfish or tournaments. Under IGFA rules, the line class is decided by the heaviest line used, and in the case of a topshot over spectra, this may well not be the mono topshot. If, say, 37kg mono is top-shotted on spectra labelled as 37kg, but in fact tests at 50kg, it throws your gear up into the 60kg class, something that may have a profound effect in the situations listed above. BE VERY CAREFUL HERE. 

A last tip

Finally, change your line ruthlessly, as you never know when the BIG ONE is going to jump on. And never purchase any line from a shop where it has been displayed in sunlight, as this can make a big difference to the poundage and longevity of your line. Consequently, make sure your reels and spare line are stored in a cool, dark place.

2006 - Jeff Strang
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited