Recently, while fishing a soft-bait under scattered birds, I hooked something large, fast and seemingly unstoppable.
Gannets were diving into packed concentrations of baitfish, almost certainly anchovies or pilchards, which showed sporadically as dense marks on the sounder, sometimes turning the whole screen red. The birds were moving around a lot – too fast to realistically chase – but the activity was confined to the same general area and had been underway for at least a couple of hours. It looked very fishy.
Not surprisingly, we’d hooked a few nice snapper – not necessarily from amongst the working birds, but in the general area – by repeatedly drifting with the tide through the fishy-looking zone.
Unfortunately, I’d hooked the big fish on a light soft-plastics outfit: a 2.3m rod and a Penn Conflict 2500 reel loaded with 4kg SSP Fibre Glide braid from Black Magic. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit the braid had been on the reel for maybe two years, but only ever seem to remember it’s overdue for replacement when hooked up to good fish. Similarly, the reel was probably due a little TLC after several seasons of hard use, too.
The baitfish-coloured, three-inch soft-bait was hardly a big-fish attractor, but obviously closely matched the schooling baitfish; I was fishing it on a quarter-ounce 2/0 jig-head tied to a 15lb fluorocarbon trace.
The fish struck as the bait was descending through the water, and upon lifting my rod in response to the slight ‘tick’ felt through the line, I knew immediately it was a big one. For a split second I wondered if I’d snagged the bottom, but the ‘bottom’ soon started to accelerate away against the drag.
Big snapper can make impressive runs when hooked, especially in shallow water, but don’t run 30, 40 or maybe even 50 metres against the drag. My first instinct as my little spool emptied was to tighten the drag, but good sense prevailed and I backed it off instead. (With 40-odd metres of line dragging in the water behind the fish, and the reduced diameter of a half-empty spool increasing the effective drag pressure, not backing off the drag would almost certainly have resulted in a bust-off during the first run.)
The other tactic my companion Mark Kitteridge immediately employed was to fire up the engine and chase the fish. The goal was to shorten the line as much as possible to reduce water drag and lessen the change of snagging the line on any underwater obstructions.
The fish behaved itself to begin with, leaving the shallow, reefy area where it was hooked for deeper water over a sandy bottom. This allowed us to take stock and get settled into the fight. With such light tackle, lifting the fish was out of the question, so for most of the fight our opponent was very much in the driver’s seat.
While the fish – almost certainly a good kingfish due to its power and speed – was out in 25 metres over a sandy bottom, we were relatively safe, and I could concentrate on getting line back on to the reel. However, when the fight was straight up and down, I had to be careful of my rod angles to avoid point-loading my light graphite rod and also resist the temptation to pull too hard trying to lift the fish.
Over the sand, we used the boat to our advantage, sometimes letting the fish run away from us to change the angle of pull in an effort to plane it up from the bottom. Unfortunately, for most of the fight it stayed stubbornly deep, hugging the bottom, or diving back down again every time I made a few metres of line. With the light gear I was using, I didn’t have the means to control the fight.
After 20 minutes or so and no progress whatsoever, I was beginning to feel very under-gunned. Even after all this time, the kingfish would make powerful runs, forcing us to follow it with the boat all over the ocean. Unfortunately, the seafloor wasn’t sandy everywhere and the fish seemed to know exactly where it was going. Time and again it made a beeline for isolated outcrops of foul ground in an otherwise flat bottom, but somehow, each time we averted disaster.
After 45 minutes the kingfish decided it had had enough of deep water and headed inshore, dragging us all the way back to where we’d hooked it, over a reef in seven metres of water. This time we were unable to prevent it reaching its goal, and the bumps and vibrations coming up the taut line told me it was dragging my gear through the kelp.
Fearing the worst, I again eased the drag pressure and Mark drove the boat over the line until it was vertical in the water. Amazingly, the braid cut through the kelp and came free without contacting the rock beneath, leaving the line festooned with kelp fronds that were cleared upon sliding up to surface. The fish, meanwhile, set off on yet another run.
As time wore on, we kept revising the size of the fish upwards, from a well-legal kingfish initially, perhaps 10 or 12kg in weight, to 15 kilos, and then 18 kilos. As the hour mark approached, we began to talk 20-kilos plus.
But all was not well. About 20 minutes in I began to notice uneven patches on my braided line. As already mentioned, I knew the front section was a bit worn: it had started to look furry in places, as commonly happens with GSP lines over time, but I hadn’t got around to replacing it.
Pretty soon, though, the uneven patches became clumps of fibres clinging to the line and these became larger as the fight progressed. My line was disintegrating before my eyes, and I suspected the cause was either a damaged guide or a malfunctioning bail roller (I later found my roller was seized).
Fearful my line would break at any moment, I was again forced to ease the pressure, which extended the fight, and ironically resulted in further damage inflicted on the line.
Despite the damaged braid though, good teamwork had got the crew of Gotcha into a position where we began to think we might win the battle. I was finally starting to move the fish off the bottom.
Then, just as it clearly became visible on the sounder 9m below the boat, the rod tip flew up and suddenly it was gone. We were gutted but not surprised given the circumstances; I’d struggled with that fish for more than an hour – a hard-fought battle that had taxed angler and tackle to the limit (and beyond!). What did surprise us was where the break had come: it wasn’t the severely damaged braid that had failed, but the fluorocarbon trace, which had finally worn through at the knot.
I connect my jig heads with a Lefty’s loop/Rapala knot, which is strong and easy to tie, but the free-swinging jig head wears on the line, which can lead to failure. When the knot is under sustained pressure, as it was in this case, the damage is accelerated, and nor was it the first fish I’d hooked that day. In fact, I hadn’t tied the jig head on fresh that morning, either – it was still there from the previous session…
I tell other fishers to rig new traces and tie fresh knots at the beginning of every fishing session and then re-tie loop knots after catching big fish. It’s good advice I should have heeded myself…
So what lessons did I learn?
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