In a properly conducted fight, the line should always be moving. If the fish isn’t pulling drag, you’re pumping and gaining line. The fish should never be allowed to rest, but you are able to when the fish is taking line. On the initial run, with the drag at prestrike, you want the tuna to make a long, fast run under moderate pressure, burning up lots of energy. When it stops, push the drag up closer to strike and start pumping. You’ll gain some line, but the fish will still be fresh, and when it turns to run, it will be against increased drag. When it stops again, push the drag up to strike and pump with an even cadence, turning the fish back to the boat. Frequently you can get the fish to turn and run toward you: If it does, crank as fast as you can in high gear to take advantage of the opportunity. Experienced anglers say this strategy breaks the fish’s will. As it tires, counter each successive run with more resistance to make the fish give up.
The endgame is always the same. It’s signaled by the fish transitioning into lazy circles under the boat. Sometimes those circles start a few hundred feet down, at other times, it’s much shallower. This is when the angler is forced to lift the load as the fish is directly below the boat. With drag at max and the rod loaded with your body weight, you can pick up a foot or two of line per pump. Take advantage of the circling. When the fish is moving away, try to relax and hold position, but when it starts to come around toward the boat, start pumping. Identify the cadence, and you can get an extra turn or two on the reel handle with each go-round, so you gain hard-earned line with less effort.
Tangling with a giant on stand-up tackle was something I’ve had on my bucket list for a long time, and I managed to accomplish it two weeks before my 62nd birthday. Reinforced was my long-held belief that proper tackle and technique beat sheer brawn every time.
Setting the Drag
Ready, Set ... Adjust your gear and get to know it long before you’re on the water. Put on the harness system, lock the rod in the gimbal, and attach the harness straps to the reel. Stand straight and adjust the length of the straps so the rod is about 15 degrees above horizontal. This is ideal when a fish runs. When pumping to gain line, the rod should not rise above 45 degrees; any more and you'll lose lifting power and stress yourself.
Now set the drag while someone pulls the line, fastened to a scale, down and away from you. When setting the drag, first warm the drag washers by pulling a few yards of line off the reel at modest pressure, with the rod under mild load. Set at least three drag position markings on the reel. If the reel doesn’t have numbered marks on the side plate, waterproof tape works fine. The first setting is “prestrike” at 25 percent to 30 percent of the break-strength of the line. “Strike” is 35 percent to 40 percent, and “full” is 50 percent to 55 percent. To beat big tuna, the ability to generate maximum drag pressure within a line rating is critical.
Once you’ve established these settings, have someone run line off the reel at each one while you adjust your balance as the drag slips. Then pump them back using your weight to load the rod and reel down to retrieve line. Practice switching the reel from low to high gear, and feel the difference in cranking power and retrieve speed. With big fish and heavy line, low gear can be your best friend in a fight, but there will be times when you have to quickly switch back to high gear to pick up line.