Beating Bruiser Fish

Learn how to subdue the toughest fish in the ocean on fly tackle

big tuna on fly

big tuna on fly

Carter Andrews

Seven miles off Hannibal Bank, in Panama, the radar screen displays working flocks of seabirds. We’ve found the tuna and are closing the distance to the school.

My client is in the bow, with 70 feet of line stripped off his reel. The fish he’s about to throw to are all easily 100 to 150 pounds. I instruct him to cast to the edge of the baitball. The fly lands perfectly, and on his second strip, he’s tethered to a monster yellowfin tuna that immediately takes off with indescribable speed and power. The fly line is off the reel in the blink of an eye, and the backing on the spool shrinks rapidly. The rod tip starts to bounce, and the angler’s arm jerks hard. A second later, he lunges forward, and in a terrible instant, it’s over. My client looks down at his favorite rig, smoking and stripped clean. The fish, a brand-new line and the chance of a lifetime all sink back deep into the ocean.

Catching big fish on fly presents one of the greatest challenges in all of angling. From the get-go, the odds are in the fish’s favor. However, when that magical moment arises and the fish of dreams takes hold, a few simple things can tip the odds back in your favor.

Gear Up for Big Game
So many factors are out of your control when it comes to blue-water species that it pays to eliminate as many potential problems as you can. The first favor you can do yourself is to use tackle designed for the task.

For doing battle with truly large offshore fish, I prefer a 15-weight rod with a gimbal butt, since when a really big fish is on, comfort becomes key. I also use a huki (small fighting belt) to hold the gimbal, and for long fights, I even have an attachment that allows me to clip into a harness.

I strongly suggest matching your rod with a reel that offers the highest drag settings possible. Fish pushing 200 pounds make a smooth, hefty drag a necessity. That said, you need to have a thorough understanding of the drag system. You must be able to differentiate what 8 pounds and 12 pounds of drag feel like. You also need to know what a half turn or full turn of the drag knob represents in terms of pressure. Does a full turn add a quarter pound, 1 pound or 4 pounds? When a big fish takes off, too much thinking will only muddy the waters.

Your fly line needs to be castable. Many anglers have the impression that all big-game fly-fishing takes place right behind the boat, but that isn’t always the case. The line obviously needs to be strong and durable and should have a core that can take the strain of a big fish.

As for the leader setup — well, the way I look at it, there are two options: the International Game Fish Association record-book way and my way. The latter requires straight 60- or 80-pound monofilament. Rigging style is totally a personal preference. Personally, I feel that the memory lies in physically wrapping your arms around a fish of lifetime and not in the breaking strength of the leader it was caught on, but again, that’s up to you.

After the Bite
Once you find yourself attached to something bigger, faster and meaner than you could have imagined, follow these steps. After the take, attempt some sort of hook-set and clear the line. As soon as the line is on the reel, make a few short jabs to solidify the hook-set. Take note: This will light a fire under the fish. Then simply let the fish go; do not try to stop it. During the first minute of the fight, the fish is at its freshest and in control. At this point, your drag should be tight enough to make the fish pull. Right now, your job is simply to keep tight to the fish. Point the rod tip at it, and be alert for the first sign of weakness.

When the fish slows, you have to recover line quickly. Use the boat to your advantage; keep the lines of communication with your captain open. Maintain a slight bend in the rod, and crank in line with as little tension as possible. Don’t haul on the fish; remember, the drag of the fly line in the water will keep the hook in its mouth. As you reel, guide the line neatly across the full width of the spool with your finger. Once you have picked up as much line as you can, come tight to the fish with maximum pressure. A good rule of thumb is to fight the fish as if you are prepared to lose it. Once the pressure is on, keep an acute angle on the fish’s head to prevent the beast from going deep. If you lose the angle and the fish sounds, it becomes a battle of stamina.

Use the Butt
To maintain leverage and apply maximum pressure, you've got to put a bend in the butt of the rod. When there's a bend in this section, short, gentle pumps upward will gradually lift the fish. Be patient, stay focused and pace yourself. Many times, when lifting a fish, you are looking to get only one turn of line on the reel with each lifting stroke. By starting the lifting stroke with the rod tip a foot or more in the water, you can often gain an extra turn on the reel. When you are bringing up a heavy fish, you may find that you cannot lift it without pinching the line or holding the spool to keep line from coming off as you pump. Throughout, keep your movements calculated and smooth, and use the stiffness and strength of the rod butt to your advantage.

The Moment of Truth
You're exhausted, your reel hand is clawed, and there's salt in your eyes. You start to think about a nice massage, a pina colada back at the lodge — forget all that! Stay focused! This is the point in the fight when you can really start to recover line.

When bringing up a big fish, good boat handling is essential. On my craft, once we’ve established a solid hookup and the fish has settled down, I move my client to either corner of the stern. This places the angler in a stationary position away from the engines, and I can use the boat to make the fight as easy as possible. When the fish nears the surface, a long rod really gets in the way, and you have to be ready to move quickly around the boat. More than likely, the fish will trace big circles on the surface, and the boat will have to do the same. On the outside of the circle, the fish will tend to rise, giving you a little angle against its head. Maintain the angle with smooth pressure, and back up as the fish circles toward the boat.

Fighting big fish on the fly requires delicacy, stamina and a good deal of luck. Stay calm, keep it simple and take my word for it: Fly-caught sushi tastes a little bit sweeter than the stuff that the hardware boys serve.