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Harpoon Tips for Pelagic Species

Four-piece, 10-foot aluminum Quick Stick harpoon from Blackfin Rods, $360. Detachable dart (examples below) mounts on shaft, second from left.

A 300-pound swordfish is finally brought to leader after a 2-hour battle from the depths of the Gulf Stream. The fish is still fighting for its life, a dangerous fish at the best of times. Throw in 20 knots of brisk wind, 3-foot wind chop, and it's the dark of night, your sodium and underwater lights creating weird shadows. The safest way to end this battle and put the fish on deck is to harpoon the sword and then cleat her off; let the creature try towing a center console around. Pretty much a done deal, end game.

But like anything we do on the water, there are pros and cons to these decisions.

Harpoons: The Cons

Not IGFA legal, you put a dart in any fish, you just disqualified the fish for the record book, any tournaments that follow the rule book, disqualified. I'm an IGFA certified captain; I'm also a Maine bluefin tuna harpooner. I live in both worlds, so this is a subject I know a lot about. The rules are in place for a reason. The single con in using a harpoon over any gaff, is the International Game Fish Association. They do not allow it, period. Look, if you just want to fill your freezer with swordfish steaks and not worry about the record book, who bloody cares? Leave the flying gaff on the dock.


Think about how close you need the fish to be to place a flying gaff in a fish; 6 feet maybe? With a cockpit pole I have hit bluefin 30 feet out, and taming a mad dog mako or swordfish at a bit of distance just makes sense and is a pretty big pro right there. Also, putting a dart into a fish usually does way less damage to what you want to put in the freezer. I've had flying gaffs rip gaping holes or tear out, half filleting the creature. Aim for the backs on tuna; try not roll the fish on its side--the hide is way thicker on the blue backs than the silver sides of a tuna. When a tuna is tired and circling below the boat is when you want to throw. Swordfish, it does not matter; hit them anywhere. Chances are, you will button hole the creature (dart will go right though the fish, come out the other side). Just put a bit of beef behind your throw; give it to him.

Harpoon Rigging Darts Pelagic

For throwing lines, use a hundred feet of ¼- or 3/8-inch samson or three strand nylon, something that will hold a nice coil. If you are right-handed, hold the coil in your left hand, and as you throw at a fish the line will snake out with the pole. I throw the coil with the pole. Our Maine harpoons are 12 or 14 feet long, 1-inch to 1 ¼-inch aircraft aluminum poles; this is a bit much for a deck pole. For a cockpit pole, I either cut a pole down to 10 feet or I use what I used as harpoons as a kid: old-fashioned cones with screw in, 24-inch cold steel pikes, placed on a ten foot oak pole an inch and a half in diameter. The poles float about a foot-and-half of the butt end sticking up. After you iron a fish with it, easy to nudge the boat to and gaff it back on board, or use a tag line (I hate tag lines; long story).

Darts, we use a longer shank swordfish dart up in Maine, not the best choice for a cockpit dart. You can use a standard, inexpensive stamped brass dart if you are throwing at a fish that has been tired out after fighting. Spend your money on marlin lures.

On a small boat, storage is important, and finding a place for a 10-foot pole is probably no different than finding a place to store a flying gaff. The nice thing about a deck pole is the dart, throwing line and main line (3/8- to ½-inch nylon) can all be coiled up in a milk crate, and the pole can go on your hardtop or wherever. I splice my darts (see photo). The poly ball can double as a fender, so you are not talking a lot of extra gear here.

I mentioned briefly about cleating a fish off. Do it, but have that poly ball ready to go. That means a slip knot on a cleat. Watch the fish very closely after you stick it. Chances are it'll lay over waving the white flag, but if it starts swearing at you, throw the buoy overboard, dump drag and let it fight a poly ball instead of your boat. Really pay attention.

Time for one quick fish story. I threw at a swordfish as a youngster, missed the fish and the sword chased the harpoon as it blew by it. The fish whacked the hell out of the pole as I pulled it back. I reached down, grabbed the end of the pole and tried to pin the fish to the bottom, missing her a second time. The fish again chased the pole, whacking it about. The third time I buttonholed the creature.

Expect the unexpected, and be happy when they wave the flag.FS

First Published Florida Sportsman January 2016

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