More fish are lost during the “end game” ceremonies boatside than at any other time during the rod-and-reel battle. The following eight tips have improved my success ratio over six decades of fishing.
1. Over or Under?
Reach over the fish (aft of the leader!) with the gaff point down. Pull the hook into the fish's head, sinking the steel into something solid and bringing it to the side of the boat all in one motion.
2. Head Shot
For fish that are meant for the dinner table, like mahimahi, tuna, wahoo, cod, etc., a head shot is always best, since it won't spoil the prime steaks or fillets.
3. Hang Tight
I add a wrist cord to all of my straight gaffs to prevent a hot game fish from ripping it out of my hands. A 100-pound tuna can generate instant horsepower, and the safety cord will save lost fish and prevent unscheduled trips to the tackle shop for expensive replacements.
4. Size Wise
Game fish come in all sizes and shapes. Keep at least two gaffs aboard: a 4-foot gaff with a 3-inch gap hook and a 6-footer with a 5-inch hook. If you are fishing for a record, the International Game Fish Association max gaff pole length is 8 feet.
5. Take a Flyer
When targeting makos, 250-plus-pound tuna and swordfish, a flying gaff (the head separates from the pole and is attached to a 15-foot line cleated to the boat) is a must for crew safety. Target the upper back area just aft of the dorsal fin so the hook will sink into something solid. When the fish calms down, straight gaffs are then used to control the subject to attach tail ropes.
6. Plane 'Em Up
Head into the sea at idle speed to "plane up" your leadered fish. This allows the gaffer to take aim at a more stable target for that "perfect head shot."
7. Dedicated Functions
Never try to leader the fish with one hand and gaff it with the other. To maximize chances for success, have one dedicated crew member leader the fish while another lines up the gaff shot.
8. Cover Those Hooks
Gaff heads are sharp and dangerous, both to the fish and the crew. Be sure to cover up all exposed hook points with a safety spring, cork, tennis ball or PVC tubing until you're ready to put them into action landing fish.