Handling Fish Boat-Side

Top tips for netting, leadering and releasing fish
leadering a billfish

leadering a billfish

It’s always good to be right, and in this particular case, it was especially rewarding. Longtime friend Lou Volpe and I were in the Bahamas two years ago, shooting an episode for my television series, when he hooked into a robust cero mackerel. With cameras rolling, I slipped the net under the mackerel’s head to secure his catch. But as I was scooping up the fish, it suddenly launched itself headfirst toward the heavens and out of the net. What’s worse, the stinger hook tangled in the mesh, freeing the fish.

Volpe got downright angry and blamed me for losing his fish. Then I got angry with him over his attitude, and some words were exchanged. The cameras were turned off. Later that evening, I was shown a replay of the incident; lo and behold, it showed Volpe lifting the rod high as I was coming up with the net. Had he properly lowered the rod and let the fish drop into the net, it would have been a catch. Ironically, this video clip exists on under “George Poveromo loses his cool on TV,” where it serves as a prime example of how an angler can foil a textbook net job. Volpe is still in timeout over this one.

There are many ways to get fish to strike, and the ways to lose them are just as varied. We all have been in that losing position, whether it’s caused by nerves, inexperience or just plain reacting without thinking, and it’s not fun, especially when the entire boat watches a trophy fish swim away because of your flub.


Here are some ways to guarantee your hero status when it’s your turn to land a fish. Mastering these tactics will increase the release flags flying from the outriggers and the fish in the box, and ensure your safety.

Net Profits
When the game is striped bass, cobia, or large grouper and snapper, don’t bring a net that’s sized for largemouth bass; bigger is always better when you’re selecting a landing net. And as I mentioned, it’s imperative to slip the net in front of and underneath the fish, forcing it to swim into the mesh as you lift, providing the angler lowers the rod as he should. Trying to net fish tail first, or even belly first, is a losing proposition, as the fish can panic and swim out of the net.
Leadering Logic**
With long leaders, like those used for billfish, sharks, dolphin and wahoo, two vital things merit attention. Most notably, never take possession of the leader by wrapping it around your hands, no matter how many pairs of gloves you have on. If you do and a large, powerful fish surges or charges off, you risk serious injury or, worse, being pulled overboard.

Instead, grab the leader so it lies across the palm of your hand, with no wraps whatsoever, then leader in the fish, hand over hand. Should the fish take off, you can dump the leader simply by opening your hands.


Rhythm is the other crucial component. A fish is played to the boat under the specific pressure applied by the angler (and the boat moving forward, if on the troll). Be mindful of that rhythm, and try to duplicate it when taking the leader. Manhandling a fish on the leader often breaks this rhythm and provokes leaping, charging or sounding. And trying to hang on to a fish during such a reaction can pull or straighten a hook or break the leader. On the wire, gently and firmly gets the job done.

Billing Cycle
With sailfish, white marlin and small blue marlin, grabbing the fish by its bill enables you to remove the hook and, if necessary, revive the fish by holding its head in the water flow generated by the boat.

Prior to billing, locate the hook, or risk getting cut or impaled by it. Becoming one with a wild fish isn’t fun or pretty. Then grab the base of the bill, with your thumb pointing toward the tip. Do not grab the tip or first half of the bill, as it could break easily. Next, grasp the bill with your other hand, making sure your thumbs point toward each other and
are touching.


By holding the base of the bill and keeping your thumbs opposed, you gain maximum control over that fish. Should the fish lunge or leap, you can steer it away from you. Never bill a fish with your thumbs aimed in the same directions, as this will drastically diminish your ability to bench-press the fish away from you and keep it under control. It will also increase the odds of an injury.

And when you take control of a fish alongside the boat, keep it from beating and injuring itself on the side or transom.

More fish are lost at the gaff than any other way. Sticking a fish requires a gaff adequate in length and strength for the target, well-calculated placement, and a firm yet not overbearing delivery.


When a fish comes alongside the boat, follow the fishing line from the hook right back to the angler’s rod. Then visualize where you should stand to reach across the back of the fish with the gaff and plant it into the fish’s shoulder, without crossing over or interfering with the leader.

A gaff placed in the fish’s shoulder (as opposed to the soft underside of a fish) yields full control, with no worries over it tearing or pulling free. The farther back you gaff a fish, the less control you’ll have and the more meat you’ll damage.

Sinking a gaff like you’re swinging a bat for a home run is counterproductive. Rather, sink the gaff with a straight, firm pull. Then, in one smooth motion, lift the fish from the water and drop it in the fish box or cockpit.

For a tuna in the throes of that final spiral, time your gaff shot to the best shoulder exposure.

A Little Help from My Friends
When you’re hooked up and the fish is under control, keep the boat moving during the fight to maintain pressure and get the fish to swim with the boat.

Assign one person to the wheel, one to the leader and one to billing or gaffing. If it’s just you and a companion, opt for wind-on leaders (sold in 25-foot lengths at quality tackle centers). This way, one person can remain at the wheel during the fight, then once the fish is alongside the boat, the helmsman simply leaves the wheel to complete the billing or gaffing honors.