Not too long ago, before porgy seasons shut down so early, we were bailing some nice autumn scup aboard the Nancy Ann off the north side of Plum Island. Just for fun, I had rigged an outfit specifically designed to get the most out of every 14-incher, an old “downrigger rod” with lots of bend and a conventional reel without any drag at all, an antique Shakespeare Marhoff filled with 200 yards of 12-pound dacron.
I had chosen the 60-year-old level wind reel deliberately to get a better feel for catching fish the old-fashioned way, using educated thumbs instead of drag washers. When a slammer bluefish, a 13-pounder, got into the act, swiping a small scup on its way to the surface, line disappeared from the whirling spool in a hurry; after a minute or two, I could see the last turns of line and anticipated being “spooled” while a long white filament headed north toward the Connecticut side of the Sound!
It was nothing more than dumb luck that turned the yellow-eyed thief when I clamped down, but I was made aware once again of that old fisher’s rule: spool up with more line than you think you’ll need for the “average” fish, because there’s always something bigger out there ready to embarrass you!
Nowadays, as warming waters change fish movements, it’s not at all unusual to find atypical critters interrupting summer and fall patterns. Only a couple of weeks back, a pod of bluefin tuna wreaked havoc among surfcasters on the Fire Island National Seashore beaches, spooling all but one sharpie, who managed to subdue a bullet in the 30- to 40-pound class that crashed his pencil popper.
Indeed, the line load that suffices to turn mid-sized stripers, teen-sized blues, and even the heftiest false albacore, often isn’t enough for the exceptional fish, e.g., the big scombrids or the 60-pound striper that comes out of nowhere.
With an array of technically advanced gear, today’s anglers take a lot for granted. Even the smaller winches we use have drags sufficiently smooth to put tremendous pressure on fish; with current super-braids we see folks spooling reels with 30-pound-test, even 50-pound, where they once loaded 15- or 30-pound monofilament. Since the braids have such small diameters (equivalent to eight- or 12-pound test mono), so the logic goes, why not use a truly small reel with limited line capacity? It makes the outfit so much lighter and more pleasant to use all day long! And besides, with smooth drags set at one-fourth or even one-third of breaking strength, you’re able to turn anything easily. Right? No!
Long ago, when Janet’s uncle asked me along on a salmon trolling trip out of Coos Bay, Ore., he kidded me all day about the light gear I brought aboard, including a mid-sized Penn 209M loaded with some 400 yards of 12-pound mono. He opined that his ocean spinner stuffed with 100 yards of 50-pound could handle anything, and he was right when it came to the silver salmon, which were so common then. Indeed he dispatched them easily. But he never anticipated the 40-plus king salmon that came up behind the flasher, engulfed the herring, and blasted away, spooling Uncle Clarence in no time at all!
Given the choice of line test versus yardage loaded, we’ll take yardage every time for predators that work the upper levels of the water column or prowl the surf. Two hundred yards may be comfortable for freshwater lakes or shallow bottom fishing, but we prefer 300 minimum for open ocean beaches or brawling rivers. And if you risk encounters with the giant mackerel or tunas on the ocean, it’s awfully nice to insure yourself with 400, even 500 yards! We’ve seen Atlantic salmon go 250 yards into braided backing on a super-sized fly reel, 16-pound albies hooked on the troll that took nearly 400 yards to turn on eight-pound mono, and even one crazy 30-pound sailfish that lined straight out on a 12-pound outfit and finally quit running at the 450 yard marker.
Nevertheless, any large bodies of water, especially the world oceans, have creatures that can overpower any angler, however well prepared he or she may be. Janet and I fished a lot for North Sea cod to teen sizes when we worked in Hamburg, and our 12-pound spinning gear, each reel loaded with 300 yards of mono, was perfect for the task. Yet there was one time when a small cod, halfway to the top, stopped dead, then began moving inexorably out to sea. No, we weren’t hung up; there was almost no drift. With most of the line gone, we reluctantly broke the thing off. Years later, we learned that, on rare occasions, porbeagle sharks over 300 pounds prowl the surface waters off Helgoland, though none of our seagoing friends had ever seen one. In that case, getting spooled was simply unavoidable!