I hate losing fish. I’ve hated it since I was 12 years old and lost a monster 20 feet off the rockstudded shoreline of a remote Canadian lake. It happened on day six of a weeklong family camping trip.
An obsessive young fisherman, I’d launched well over a thousand casts from that same stretch of shoreline below our campsite. Fish were hard to come by, so when I finally hooked a big one, I panicked and reeled hard to get the beast to the bank.
Funny how time slows down during a traumatic event. I can still see the violent swirls in that dark, bogstained water; I can almost feel my line stretching. And I’ll never forget the sickening snap of that 12pound mono parting, as the fish of my dreams broke free and swam off into legend.
Fact is, nobody likes to lose a fish. Especially a big one. But while losing fish is part of the game, there are many ways— from hookset to landing—to increase your odds of getting them into the boat.
Back in October 2001, we brought you a trophy hunter’s manifesto in the form of “Fight To Win,” an article that detailed the noholdsbarred tactics of fishing allstar and NAFC confidante Larry Dahlberg (see sidebar for select excerpts). From rod angles to drag settings, Dahlberg covered a lot of ground on how to beat the biggest, baddest fish on any block.
But given today’s trend toward lightlining jigs, cranks and rigs in clearand deepwater conditions, we thought it was time for an update. So here goes: everything you need to know about fighting—and winning—using the lightest tackle possible.
If you’re looking for advice on fighting big fish on light line, you need veteran bass busters in your corner like Dixie diehards Mike Goodman and Jimmy Mason. Both anglers routinely battle behemoth largemouths, spots and smallies on bantamweight gear.
“My home water is Lake James, North Carolina, and it’s gin clear,” says Goodman, a fishing guide and serious competitor on the Bassmaster and FLWStren trails. “You can see 20 feet down. In the summer, when I’m not throwing topwaters, I’m fishing light jigs and dropshot rigs off points in 20 to 30 or more feet of water.”
Going light isn’t an issue when working baits such as Zara Spooks and PopRs on top. Bass rocket to the surface and crush the baits with little regard to line diameter. In fact, Goodman considers light line a drawback in such situations. “I use 17pound test with big topwaters because all that casting wears out lighter line,” he notes.
However, downsizing is key when he fishes light jigs—like 3/16and 5/16ounce Baby Boo and Boo Bugs in deep water. Same with dropshotting and deep cranking. The issue’s not really visibility as much as it is getting small baits deep, while maintaining the ultimate in lure action and angler sensitivity. In all three scenarios, Goodman spools up with 8pound Silver Thread fluorocarbon and adapts his fighting techniques to avoid breakoffs.
“Whether I’m using a spinning reel and a dropshot rig or a baitcaster with a jig or crankbait, I never use the drag,” he explains. “I simply don’t trust any reel’s drag system to do the job when a big fish makes a hard run or sudden lunge.”
Instead, Goodman locks down the drag as tightly as possible and relies on his own reflexes to react to each development of battle. “I backreel with a spinning reel and use my thumb on the spool of a baitcaster,” he says.
Backreeling is almost a forgotten art. It requires lightningfast reactions to quick surges and headshakes—along with an almost paranormal ability to predict what a fish will do next. Proficiency requires practice, but once you’re good at it, you’ll be amazed at the rewards.
Rules Of Thumb
Obviously, thumbing the spool calls for
applying the correct amount of pressure to strength for slowmoving brutes like cat keep a fish from spooling you or running into cover,
without breaking the line. Again, practice makes perfect.
One easy trick to speed the learning curve with both backreeling and thumbing is to tie the end of your line to a scale and pull as you would when fighting a fish. See what 6 or 8 pounds of pressure really feels like—and how much resistance it takes on the part of your thumb or the reel handle.
Experiment with the line you plan to fish with, and see how much muscle you can apply before it breaks. The results will make you a much smarter fighter.
Like Goodman, Mason trusts his thumb more than a baitcaster’s brake. But when it comes to spinning gear, he rides drag.
“Backreeling is so tricky, a lot can happen in that splitsecond between when a bass makes a quick surge and you start to reel backward,” says the Alabama pro, who fishes the Bassmaster Elite Series and FLW events. “Plus, with even the slightest amount of slack from overreeling, the line may coil up and tangle—and that’s not good when you’re fighting a big fish.”
If Mason trusts his drag, it’s only because he checks it compulsively throughout each trip. “Every time I stand up on the bow to start fishing a new spot, I pull a short length of line off the reel to test the drag,” he says. “Too much can hap pen to throw off the setting, from bouncing around during a boat ride to me accidentally bumping the adjustment control.” Speaking of which, setting the drag is a matter of personal preference —and faith in your reel. A good general rule is to set it at twothirds of the line’s break any knockout punches.
If you’re fishing in or around cover, structure or other hazards, job one is to get the fish out of lunging range. “If there’s anything nearby that a fish could
fish, but closer to onethird the test for largemouths, smallies and other fast surgers. Keep in mind that the more line you have out, the more force is needed to activate the drag.
“Sometimes during a fight, I pull the line with my fingers to get the drag started,” Mason notes.
You’ll put more fish into the boat if you know what to expect and how to react to each of your adversary’s moves. Fortunately, most fight sequences you’ll get into are predictable and, with a little forethought, you can avoid suffering get into or wrap the line around—thick weeds, dock posts, rocks, tree limbs or other lines—get him away from it as fast as possible,” Mason cautions.
“Before you set, bend down and tighten the line (if it’s not already), then sweep the rod back—and keep reeling throughout the hooksetting process,” he explains. “This strong, steady pressure should get the fish moving away from the cover.”
In general, short casts to the outside edges of cover offer the highest odds of a winnable scuffle. If you can muscle the fish out of harm’s way immediately after setting the hook—and get it headed toward deeper, snagfree water—you’ve dramatically reduced the number of things that can go wrong.
When it’s necessary to fish over or in nasty cover, get the fish to the surface as quickly as possible and “plane” it over the jungle below.
“If the fish manages to get buried in vegetation, don’t stay out there in open water, pulling on the line,” says Petros. “Position your boat in so you’re right above the fish and pull it up slowly. This is your best angle for not having the hook pull out. You may end up with 12 pounds of weeds and 10 pounds of bass, but you have a good chance of boating the fish.”
When fighting in open water, or after getting a fish away from heavy cover, you can set about methodically wearing down the fish. Raise the rod, reel down, raise the rod, reel down. Let the fish take line as needed. But always keep the pressure on.
“After the hookset, most fish make a hard run,” says Goodman. “Sometimes a big smallie will come straight up and jump, but typically spots, largemouths and smallies will run on you.”
The same is true for a number of species from walleyes to lake trout. Knowing that a hard, fast run is coming, plan for it even before you set the hook. Be ready to thumb the spool, backreel, or keep a steady bend in the rod while the drag does its thing.
If a fish decides to go airborne, standard countermeasures apply. “When you hook a bass in 20 feet and the line starts shooting toward the surface, you can’t do much to stop the fish from jumping,” Petros concedes. “The best you can do is hope you got a good hookset. But, if the fish is near the surface and you see it coiling up to jump, you can usually knock him back down by keeping the rodtip low.”
During the fight, use your rod as a shock absorber, as well as to lift and wear down the fish. Reeling is strictly for gaining line while lowering the rodtip, or taking up slack if the fish charges the boat.
“The amount of force to put on a fish during this stage of the fight depends not just on the strength of your line, but on how the fish is hooked,” Petros says. “If a fish is hooked on the side closest to me, I hold the rod relatively high and go easy. But if it’s hooked on the opposite side, I hold the rodtip low and pull the hook straight into the fish.”
Close The Deal
As the fish tires and nears the boat, it’s time for a wellplayed end game. “This is where a lot of big ones come unbuttoned,” Mason grins.
“Be prepared for two or three sudden bursts of energy when the fish gets close to the boat,” Goodman adds. “When you get the line back and are ready to land it, don’t let the fish thrash on the surface, just keep it coming toward you and either lip or net it.”
Mason disagrees a bit.
“I prefer to bellyland bass,” he notes. “When you’re getting a largemouth in position to lip it, the line rubs along the tooth patch on the top of its mouth. That can be enough to break light line. Plus, bellylanding immobilizes a fish just as effectively as lipping it.”
From that point, it’s a matter of getting your trophy back into the water (after a few photos, perhaps) as quickly and gently as possible,.
trategy and execution are critical when fighting big fish on light tackle, but the right gear can also boost your chances of winning these DavidandGoliath battles.
“I use long rods for better hooksets and control,” says North American Fisherman Field Editor Spence Petros. “My bass rods are at least 6½ footers, muskie sticks are 8s and my panfish rods are 7 to 9,” he says.
Jimmy Mason agrees, noting that his 6½foot Kistler Helium spinning rods are mediumheavy, for muscle to pull fish away from linethreatening snags.
Goodman favors 7 footers for bass, a mediumheavy action for jigging and medium for cranks. “The reel is important, too,” he observes. “I like a 5to1 gear ratio; highspeed gearing makes it too easy to overdo it on the pressure.”
Obviously, line is critical. Petros, Mason and Goodman all recommend spooling with fluorocarbon over mono whenever possible. “It lets you bump up from 6to 8pound test,” says Goodman.
“It also has great sensitivity, and because the line sinks, it’s perfect for fishing deep water with small baits,” Petros notes. “Like all lines, though, you should frequently check it for nicks, especially the last few feet near the end.”
Superlines are another option for obtaining high break strength with thin diameter. “I like braids such as Spiderwire Stealth better than fused superlines because of durability and longevity,” says Petros.
When it comes to the final connection with the lure, Goodman recommends a Trilene knot with an “extra lock on it.” To accomplish this, he threads the tag end through the top loop of the knot and cinches it down. “I don’t care what you hook, it won’t come untied,” he laughs.