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How To Not Let the Big One Get Away

I do not do this often, but from time to time I will copy “stuff” I have found on other blogs or somewhere else on the interwebs and post it here on my blog.  This week my buddy Greg Wagner wrote a great blog on not just hooking big fish but then landing them, and what to do with them after they are landed.  Yes, I talked to Greg while he was writing his blog and he quotes me in a place or two.  Anyway, it is a good blog, let me spread it a little wider:

How To Not Let The Big One Get Away

All of us who love to fish have a story or two about the one that got away, don’t we? Invariably, the tale involves hooking the fish of a lifetime and losing it to unforeseen circumstances. Without question, these stories, however embellished, are actually devastating to those who have a passion for wetting lines. For as many wild and crazy occurrences that aren’t preventable when you lose a large fish, there are a number of things you can control that help to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Your blogger poses quickly with a large flathead catfish caught and released in a private sandpit lake in southeastern Nebraska. Photo by Rich Berggren/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Here are some pointers to greatly assist you with successfully landing that bona fide monster.

The Equipment

1. Sharpen your hooks

Dull hooks are one of the primary reasons as to why anglers lose fish, especially if they’re not hooked in the lip. You have two options to prevent losing fish from dull hooks, either invest in a hook sharpener (they’re very cheap and compact) or buy new hooks more often. For catch-and-release purposes with big fish, single circle or barbless hooks are the way to go. They radically decrease the rate of deep hooking and this is well documented in studies.

2. Use new line.

In this modern era of “high-performance” fishing, a number of anglers are making the switch from older monofilament lines to the newer braided ones. As its name implies, braided line is a kind of aggregate of smaller lines braided together, much like a rope is. While it tends to fray and make knot-tying harder, it generally outlasts monofilaments and won’t break as easily when fighting a Master Angler-sized fish.

3. Swivels and metal leaders.

Using suitable swivels and metal leaders can be the difference between a successful trip targeting big fish and one that ends up in total disappointment.  Yes, swivels and metal leaders are that important, particularly for bigger specimens in the pike and catfish families, but it depends on the scenario. Swivels and metal leaders are often two of the most overlooked pieces of equipment that anglers own.

4. Try a bit more flexible, longer, one-piece rod.

Stiff fishing rods often put more pressure than necessary on points of tension between you and the fish you’re fighting. Using a more flexible rod will allow the line some more “give”, and prevent it from snapping when a pressure overload is applied. Also, longer, one-piece rods may be more difficult to transport, however, they provide greater leverage and don’t come apart when landing large fish.

5. Adjust your drag settings.

Many anglers completely ignore the drag settings on their reels and it is a major mistake! Consequently, this equals lots of lost fish on the water. A light to moderate drag setting that will not apply a force greater then the line capacity should be employed. If the fish is making hard runs and leaping out of the water, adjust the drag to a loose setting. As the fish starts to lose energy, adjust the drag to a tighter setting. By using the drag to your advantage, it dramatically increases the chances of landing that big fish of a lifetime.

6. Tie good, strong knots.

Just about every angler, at one point or another, has tied a knot too hastily and ended up losing a big fish because of it. At a minimum, take some time to practice the two most popular line-to-hook knots: the Palomar Knot and the Improved Clinch Knot. With time, you’ll be able to tie them quickly and confidently when you’re on the water.

The Fight

7. Rule for setting the hook.

An excellent rule of thumb with setting a hook on a big fish is to do it twice, like a double-tap. When the fish initially takes your lure or bait and you feel the tension on the line, tug sharply and repeat.

8. Rod tip up, maintain pressure and change direction.

Once that big fish is hooked, maintain constant pressure on it by keeping the tip of your rod vertical. Change the direction of the pressure throughout the battle, forcing the fish to move in different directions. As the fish moves, try to bend the rod away from the direction in which the fish is swimming and slightly lower the rod to tighten up the angle. The fish will have to expend energy countering your moves.

9. Keep your line tight, no slack.

It is absolutely critical that you keep firm tension on the line at all times. If there is slack, the fish will have a better chance of throwing the hook, and you will be left with a huge amount of disappointment. (Although you might have a good story, but it’s not worth it.) Sustain pressure on the line by keeping the tip up and reeling in with a smooth, consistent motion.

10. Lift up, reel down, repeat.

When hauling in a super lunker, you can’t just reel, reel, reel and hope to get that sucker in fast. Instead, you need to lift the tip of the rod with a smooth and firm motion, pulling the fish closer to you. When you drop the rod tip down, this is the time to reel in line. Go slow, be patient, and you’ll catch more fish and have plenty of Master Angler Awards to prove it!

11. Let it run, but not near structure.

When a large fish decides to make a run for it, the worst thing you can do is try to hold it in place. Trust me, I know this from experience. By fighting its runs, all you are going to do is increase the chances that your line will break and your prize will swim away. Instead, set the drag so the fish can take out line while still tiring itself. This will wear down the fish; eventually their runs will get shorter, less aggressive, and less frequent. There is one exception though. If a fish is making a run for submerged or partially submerged structure or cover such as logs, rocks, docks, boat storage sheds, flooded trees, etc., steer it away. When fishing line is wrapped around that structure or cover in the water, a lot of strain is put on it and snapping normally ensues. If your trophy fish is heading for a snag, do whatever you can to keep it out of there.

12.  Follow it.

Follow the big fish you’ve hooked on foot along the bank or with a boat on the water to minimize the distance between you and the fish. Being close to it gives you better control and helps maximize the pressure you put on it.

A largemouth bass puts up a valiant fight after taking an artificial lure at Summit Lake State Recreation Area near Tekamah, NE. Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The Landing

13. Use your partner.

Use a fishing partner to provide assistance with the landing. Your partner can direct you to a shallow water landing area. Having a partner will also let you focus on effectively playing the big fish, reducing the risk that you will lose your potential, memorable catch when you release pressure to capture it with a net. By having a partner observing and assisting, the tendency to make mistakes and “winch,” “horse” or “beach” the fish should be reduced, too.

14. Finishing, rubber netting and gloving.

Remember, if you see it, it can see you. Prepare for a last-ditch escape maneuver by that whopper. If it dives under the boat, jab your rod tip in the water. Do not grab the line. Stay focused and keep that big fish off-balance. Use a long-handled, larger-meshed, rubber or rubber coated landing net in order to secure the fish. Be certain to lead it into the net head first. Keep in mind that rubber meshed landing nets should be utilized because other nets that have knots or string mesh can be quite harmful in damaging the fish’s mucus coating or protective slime and are more cumbersome and prone to tangling, not allowing for swift catch-and-release. Wet rubberized gloves also work well to handle big fish and do not cause undo harm to them.

15. Quick pic, video and release.

If you plan to release the aquatic behemoth you’ve landed (and you should), do so as soon as possible. You may have just fought the fish for 15 minutes or more; that fish is now exhausted and extremely stressed. It cannot afford to stay out of the water for very long, so get a quick photo or video, perhaps a fast measurement, and then release the fish back to its home. You’ll help preserve a healthy fish population and hopefully give another angler the chance to enjoy a big catch.

Bauer Says Big Fish Matter

Ask Daryl Bauer, biologist, expert angler and fisheries outreach program manager at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission about big fish and here’s what you get: “Big fish matter. Big fish aren’t hard to catch because their smart, it’s that they are so rare. There are only so many big fish that occupy a given water body or waterway.

Daryl Bauer of Game and Parks shows off a large rainbow trout he landed and turned back to the water at Lake Ogallala State Recreation Area near Ogallala, NE. Photo courtesy of Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Big fish are always the least abundant in fish populations. When they go home with somebody, they are less abundant. Those big fish are likely to have the best genetics in the population so you want them returned to the water to live, breed and spawn. Properly release those big fish!”

Daniel Bauer of Lincoln, NE displays a sizeable muskie landed at Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area near Valentine, NE. Photo courtesy of Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Daniel Bauer gently releases the muskie shown in the previous photograph. Photo courtesy of Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Jeremy Wade On Big Fish

In an interview with Maxim, Jeremy Wade, author, biologist, extreme angler and host of the popular TV show, River Monsters, airing on The Animal Planet, offers these insights on catching big fish:  “I tend to gear up for the biggest fish I’m likely to find. But set against that, fish, for all their tiny brain size, are quite intelligent. It’s quite humiliating to be outwitted by fish on a daily basis, but it happens to me a lot. They can sometimes detect a very thick bit of wire, or a big hook, so what you’re doing is, you’re using the strongest gear you can get away with.

Most fish actually weigh nothing in water – we say the fish was 200 pounds or whatever, but in the water it weighs nothing. The reason they’re hard to bring in is that their force is proportional to the mass – it’s not their weight that’s the thing that you’re up against, it’s the fish’s engine.

The challenging thing for us with River Monsters is that we want you to actually see the animal that the whole program’s been about, but we want to get the fish back alive, too – it’s a very important process of what we do. In order to do that, you want to have it out of the water for the shortest time possible, so all the things you want to say, you want to say them really quickly. One take, then back it goes.”

This 5-foot-7-inch, 161-pound goonch catfish (caught and released) took Jeremy Wade (left) weeks to hunt down in the rivers of northern India and Nepal. Photo courtesy of Animal Planet/DCL.

When it all comes together, a massive fish sucks in your lure or bait. What you do next is the difference between ‘ultimate glory’ or just another ‘yeah, almost’ fish story.

Good fishing!

Lexi Berggren of Elkhorn, NE happily displays a large channel catfish she caught and then released in a private sandpit lake in southeastern Nebraska. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Thanks Greg, well done!  Plan to practice all of that in the next few days!

About daryl bauer

Daryl is a lifelong resident of Nebraska (except for a couple of years spent going to graduate school in South Dakota). He has been employed as a fisheries biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for 25 years, and his current tour of duty is as the fisheries outreach program manager. Daryl loves to share his educational knowledge and is an avid multi-species angler. He holds more than 120 Nebraska Master Angler Awards for 14 different species and holds more than 30 In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards for eight different species. He loves to talk fishing and answer questions about fishing in Nebraska, be sure to check out his blog at outdoornebraska.org.

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