9. Work a Pencil Popper
Ever since the late Stan Gibbs taught me how to use his creation, the pencil popper, it's been my favorite lure. Gibbs carved his unique popper to attract big stripers. As it turned out, that plug will turn on any surface-feeding game fish.
The standard Gibbs wooden pencil popper has been copied in other materials and all will do the job in the hands of an angler working it properly. There are times when a fast retrieve with practically no action works, but it's usually vital to impart lots of movement. Those used to conventional poppers often assume anglers working pencil poppers are wearing themselves out. Just the opposite is true. It is actually easier to impart lots of action to the plug and still cast all day.
In what is something of a misnomer, pencil poppers don't really pop at all nor do they necessarily resemble a specific baitfish. It is the popper's splashing action that often stirs up even the most complacent gamefish. To fish it properly, the lure should be mostly out of the water. All the fish sees is the butt end thrashing around.
It's all wrist and tip action with pencil poppers. Select a rod with a fast-taper tip and a long butt. Rest the rod butt against your thigh or between your legs (whichever is more comfortable) and work the lure by shaking your wrist as you reel.
Because pencil poppers are effective at any pace, you will be able to tease up fish that might not otherwise respond to lures zooming through their lair. This effectively broadens the strike zone. For example, you can virtually stop forward motion close to the boat by lowering the rod tip and yet make the lure dance in place simply by increasing tip action. Salt water game fish will rarely hit a plug when it's stopped next to the boat, but they'll often blast one that's still working at that point. I've caught dolphin, Pacific barracuda, rainbow runners, bluefish and other schooling species right at the boat. By taking a page out of the muskie angler's playbook, I use the rod to whip the pencil popper across the surface in an "S" pattern off the bow. I get the fish worked up in their failure to get at the skipping lure and then slow it just a bit so they can nail it.
10. Brine a Bait
Every offshore fisherman should know how to brine a bait, especially if traveling to an area where fresh baits might be hard to come by. Brining preserves the color and scent of a natural bait while enhancing its durability. Start with fresh-caught baits that haven't been processed or frozen and place them in a 48-quart cooler containing a slushy brine for a minimum of six hours (24 hours is better if you have the time). The brine is made of fresh water, crushed ice, a box or two of Kosher salt and a half-pound of baking soda.
With flash-frozen, pre-brined baits, which are carried by many major tackle centers, let them thaw naturally in the shade. Fill three-quarters of a five-gallon bucket with fresh water, mix in a liberal amount of coarse Kosher salt and about eight ounces of baking soda. The salt lowers the freezing temperature of the ice and draws moisture from the bait to toughen it, while the baking soda helps preserve the bait's color and retard decomposition.
Soak the thawed ballyhoo in the brine and begin rigging them. After each bait is rigged, wash off any blood and loose scales by giving it a final dip in the brine solution, and place it into the bait cooler.
The bottom of the cooler should be layered with ice, followed by a liberal dusting of Kosher salt and baking soda. Lay a plastic bag over one end of the ice, then arrange the rigged baits side by side - belly-down - on the ice, with the leaders laying on the plastic bag. When the first row is complete, lay another plastic bag on top of the leaders, which keeps them from sticking, followed by another layer of ice and a dusting of salt and baking soda. Repeat until the cooler is full.
11. Gaff a Fish
Although there are no percentage numbers to back it up, it is fair to say the majority of fish lost during an engagement are lost at the boat just prior to or during the landing, wiring, tagging or gaffing sequence.
As the wireman or angler brings the fish to the boat, the object is to "lead" the fish into position to be gaffed, therefore the term "leader." The best gaff shot is always from the head back to the shoulders, which helps to control the fish. As the old timers would say, "where his head goes, he goes." The best fish position for a good gaff shot is alongside the boat, where the fish is sideways and a broad target, not at the transom where the fish is facing you and provides a very slim target for the gaff.
Once the fish is in position for a gaff shot, the gaffman comes in behind and alongside the wireman or angler, not in front of him. This allows for the cleanest shot. If the fish surges ahead, the wireman can move with the fish and the gaff is not in the way of the leader or in danger of breaking it.
The gaff should always be held with the hook down, not up. By keeping the hook down, the gaff shot is made over the shoulder or body of the fish toward the boat. It also plants the gaff in the solid part of the fish, rather than coming from beneath where there is soft tissue.