Prince Edward Island tuna the size of submarines crashed chunks alongside the boat as I locked the rod gimbal into place and slipped the harness straps onto the lugs of the Penn 80VSW. It was packed with 1,300 yards of 200-pound braid and topshot, and mounted on a custom 5-foot stand-up rod aimed at producing enough stopping power to beat and release one of these massive fish within the one-hour time period decreed by Canadian fisheries law. The captain was pulling line off the rod tip so he could toss the herring impaled on my hook into the next handful of chunks when he turned and asked, “You ready?” Silly question!
As soon as the bait hit the water, it was inhaled by an 800-pound-class bluefin, and when I pushed the lever up to engage the initial 45 pounds of drag, the fish reacted with a blistering run, stripping half the line off the reel. As the fight progressed, I increased the drag incrementally for each successive run until it was maxed out at more than 70 pounds. In the end, the fish was beaten and released in 44 minutes, and victory high-fives ensued. That afternoon, my friend Brett Surgent would fight and release a grander on the same outfit, and he had never caught a tuna on stand-up gear before.
You don’t have to be a weight lifter to do it, although being in good physical shape is a plus. It takes matched tackle, and a knowledgeable coach to teach you the ropes. Fortunately I learned from some of the best. My initial attempts were with sharks, yellowfin and bigeye tuna in the mid-1980s, but it was off California on the Royal Polaris that I began to understand the synergy between tackle and technique. Sometime later I was tutored by stand-up guru Dennis Braid, an incredible angler who developed the belt-and-harness systems and techniques that made it possible to beat the giants in PEI this past September.
Stand-up tackle — designed to provide anglers with a mechanical advantage over big fish — works on the principle of the lever and fulcrum. The tuna is the load, the rod is the lever, and the belt and harness create a fulcrum point that allows the angler to use his body weight to counter and raise the load. However, there are additional factors that figure into this equation: the fish strength, the flex and rebound of the rod, and the drag pressure generated by the reel. The drag acts as a buffer between the load and the lever. At no point will the angler lift more than the pound setting at which the drag slips, while the flex of the rod absorbs shock and aids lifting power much like a bow launches an arrow, only in slow motion. The system works so well, it allows the angler to balance body weight against drag pressure when the tuna runs so he is expending very little energy while tiring the fish. When the fish stops, the angler uses body weight to turn and pull the tuna closer to pick up line.
Assembling a stand-up system starts with the pound-test of the line, which determines the drag pressure that can be exerted. With 50-pound line, a fighting belt that positions the rod gimbal at the top of the thighs should be matched with a lightweight harness that fits just above the hips. It’s paired with a relatively soft 5-foot-9-inch to 6-foot rod, which has plenty of lifting power for a maximum drag setting less than 30 pounds, while allowing the angler to crouch into a relaxed fighting position. You can use any variety of two-speed lever drag reels, as long as they offer adequate drag and line capacity. For 50-pound line, I prefer a 30-wide like Penn’s 30VSX loaded with mono, but with braid the reel size can be even smaller than that.
For 80- and 130-pound line, everything is taken to the extreme, with the angler facing up to 70 pounds of drag. Rod length is no more than 5 1⁄2 feet for 80-pound, and even shorter for 130, with a fast action and much stiffer butt section. Reel size increases to hold as much as three-quarters of a mile of line. In PEI, I used Braid’s PowerPlay system. The gimbal rests on drop straps at midthigh and moves the fulcrum point lower to work with the shorter rod, providing more mechanical advantage to the angler.