Hang on Tight

T here area many ways to look bad when you’re fishing. One of the worst is to have the rod yanked from your hands by a big fish.

Forfeiting your equipment and being rendered a non-combatant in the company of finger-pointing, back-slapping, head-shaking companions is beyond humiliating. If the water is deep or swift, the blunder might also prove costly.

I recall an episode of the popular 1970s television series, American Sportsman, which featured a famous NFL quarterback fly fishing for large tarpon in the Florida Keys. The guide on the push pole spied a fish, and the angler standing on point made a decent cast.

The six-foot tarpon rushed the fly and the line sprang tight—and the rod flew into the water. Giving the QB credit for scrambling under pressure, he jumped off the bow and grabbed the departing tackle. The fish broke off during the soggy aftermath.

I remember thinking, “Wow, what a klutz! No way that would ever happen to me!”

Well, it’s happened three times. 

The first fiasco, which occurred about 20 years ago, mirrored that of the Super Bowl champion. Except the tarpon was smaller, maybe 20 pounds. I was fly casting along the shoreline of a mangrove lagoon in Mexico’s Yucatan. The slim fish nosed from the shadows, and I dropped the streamer out in front. 

The tarpon seemed to stiffen, then struck going straight away at a thousand miles per hour. Well, it seemed that fast. Maybe it was only a hundred.

Zowie! The nine-weight rod was yanked from my sweaty right hand. The marl bottom boiled as the fish thrashed against the dragging tether and promptly shook the poorly set fly. We could see the rod and reel on the shallow bottom so it was easy to retrieve. Not so easy was reliving the incident that night back at the lodge.

A big bonefish turned the trick on me at Christmas Island several years ago. I was wading thigh deep along the edge of a channel feeding an area known as “Paris Flat.” The channel draws schools of ocean bonefish moving on the tide and moon to spawn.

These are grand fish, averaging five or six pounds and weighing up to eight or 10. You see the gray/green blur of a wad of spawners approaching, cast a weighted fly ahead, and hope you’ve got enough backing if one of the jumbos inhales it.

I was waiting on an outcrop and here comes the blur—perfect. Several nearby waders jealously eyed my station. A smart loop drove across the trade wind, and the lead-eyed fly settled several feet. I correctly pointed the eight-weight rod tip down the line and began a series of long, smooth strips with the left hand.

Zowie! One of the front-runners smacked the fly and jetted forward, ripping the rod from my right hand. Fortunately, the left hand still clutched the stripped line. The suspended rod seesawed in the air for several moments, straining and stabbing like an exclamation point gone bad. The leader snapped. This was the predictable outcome, since nobody yet has figured a good way to handline a large bonefish on a fly rod.

I scrabbled after the empty rod amid a cackle of cheers. At least I retrieved the tackle. An Orvis Helios and a Tibor Everglades would have been a major sacrifice to unsympathetic fishing fate.

But here’s a setup I failed to recover. During the early 1990s, I was fishing in blue water from a 23-foot, center console off Golfito, Costa Rica. We motored near a large floating log and a dazzling swarm of dorados swirled into view.

I grabbed a ready casting rod and lobbed a topwater plug into the melee. A 15 pounder promptly smacked the floater and began running and leaping—big fun on the light tackle. As the fish worked close, a blunt-nosed bull trailed behind, glowing gold and green and neon blue. This was a serious dorado, maybe 30 or 35 pounds.

Wow, I thought, what a chance for a fly rod. The 12-weight, rigged with a sailfish streamer, was resting in one of the horizontal gunwale racks. The excited bull was cutting back and forth right under the surface, 25 or 30 feet off the stern. Without taking my eyes from the grand fish, I fumbled down with the free left hand for the fly rod and shouted for the skipper to grab the plug rod.

I swept my right hand to the rear and felt it make contact with something solid, no doubt the firm and confident hand of the able Javier. I let go of the rod.

“No, Señor!”

My hand had bumped the aluminum canopy rail.

Zowie! The high-dollar All Star and the top-end Shimano arced like a javelin above the water, landing practically on top of the bull. The rig sank on a slant, following the hooked dolphin and forever vanishing from sight.

The usual cause for the abrupt parting of ways—I mean, other than being a moron—is having wet hands. Water, sweat, sunscreen lotion, fish slime, all can compromise a firm grip on things.

The savvy angler should keep a hand towel nearby and use it often. Of course, this isn’t always practical when wading. But, afoot or afloat, the cork rod handle can get slippery, especially from slime, so try to keep it wiped down.

Yes, a synthetic rod handle probably provides more friction than a traditional cork one, but I’m not going there. I’ve never cared for the look and feel of dark “rubberized” grips on a light-tackle rod (opposed to a heavy offshore trolling rig), and I’m too old to change. You just need to concentrate on hanging onto the darn thing.

And don’t think that, in a careless instant, a fish cannot take it away from you.


Email Joe Doggett at ContactUs@fishgame.com


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