Thoughts on Fighting Fish (Part One)

One of the most popular questions we receive from first time novice anglers that fish with us on Lake Ontario is, ”How are we supposed to reel in the fish when they bite?” Our typical response is, “Don’t worry. We’ll be happy to talk you through it when it happens!” After many years of charter fishing Lake Ontario, we have been able to form some generalizations as to how people react when they are extremely excited, especially when they are hooked into a mature king salmon that’s screaming a bunch of line out!

We used to take the time to explain to our customers what to do when a rod went off. The problem is that we have several different rod applications being deployed at once while we are trolling. Applications include, but are not limited to, rigger rods, Dipsey Diver rods, and long lines that are run either of the back of the transom of the boat or off planer boards. Each of these set-ups requires a different method to effectively hook the fish and keep it hooked until it is fought back to the boat to be netted.

When a downrigger rod goes off, the first response should not be to go over to the rod and take it out of the holder. Instead, one should go over to the rod and while leaving it in the rod holder, grab the rod grip above the reel and with the other hand reel down by cranking the reel handle until the rod is doubled over again. It is then that the rod should be removed from the rod holder while it is still doubled over and lifted up to set the hook. It actually takes longer to describe it than to actually do it. When it is done correctly it appears as one fluid motion. The hook set itself should be more of a pulling up (like pulling a sledge hammer up over your head motion) rather than a jerking up motion, even though it may appear like it is being jerked up hard when it is observed being done. Also keep in mind that how hard one pulls up to set the hook will depend on what pound test line is being used and how deep down the riggers are being run in the water column. Also, note that when a salmon is on the other end of a rigger rod it is a good idea to pull up several times to insure that the hook is really set good. By attacking a downrigger bite this way, the extra bit of time that is saved by not first pulling the rod out of the holder and then reeling down has been shown to significantly increase the hook up percentage on downrigger bites. This technique was first shown to me many years ago by retired charter Capt. Bernie Bacon from American Charters. Thanks Capt. Bernie!

Dipsey divers require a totally different approach when they receive a bite. The hook set is actually inherent in the application. The only requirement, providing that the initial set-up was done correctly, is to get the dipsey rod in a vertical position and hold it there until the fish stops peeling off line and the drag stops screaming. On our charter boat, the “Ace”, we have two Bert’s ratchet rod holders on both the port and starboard sides of the boat mounted on the gunnels. As far as I know, Bert’s was the first company to come out with the ratcheting rod holder system. My clients have caught literally over a thousand Lake Ontario king salmon using these ratcheting rod holders. They are the cat’s meow! What these rod holders do is to allow anybody, even children, to easily lift the holder with the rod still in it to a vertical position. It can be very challenging to get a Dipsey rod out of a non-ratcheting rod holder when there is a king attached to it and the rod is riding in a horizontal position. Note that Dipseys are most often set up to be trolled in a horizontal position and require considerably less effort to be removed from a rod holder when they are vertical.

Long lines such as coppers, lead cores, and flat lines can be deployed two different ways. When a rod is run off the transom or down the “Shute” and gets struck it may or may not require a hookset. Most times it does not. Rods that are run off of the boards in most instances do not require a hookset, either. For all practical purposes when fishing for king salmon on Lake Ontario, the only rods that do require a firm and repeated hookset are the rigger rods.

In the past, even if we took the time to explain all the variations and possible scenarios that exist on a charter boat such as ours, what was described in theory looked nowhere like what appeared in practice. We have had customers that have been either to aggressive and break fish off by trying to set hooks on Dipseys and long lines or we have had customers that have been too passive and have not set the hook efficiently when they were supposed to on a rigger bite. This is why we have changed our orientation on rod handling with our novice anglers. We have found that if we “live in the moment” and give instruction as things are happening that the customers have a much better experience. Once they get the hang of it they seem to re-act much better when a fish bites and require a lot less instruction.

When a Lake Ontario king salmon smashes a bait causing a rod to go off, the excitement it generates can be quite unnerving. By listening and following proper instruction when a rod does go off without any prior ill-conceived notion on how things should be done, an inexperienced angler should be able to get the rod up into a vertical position. Getting the rod to a vertical position with the hook properly set and the fish up and running is the first big step in the angling process of fighting fish. In my next article, I will describe the battling technique and the end game required to bring the fish to the net.

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