Catching large fish on relatively light tackle is a challenge, but good boat work makes a successful outcome more likely, writes John Eichelsheim.

Light tackle is a relative term, of course: 10kg breaking strain line is considered light when targeting kingfish, but would be unthinkably heavy when fishing for trout; 37kg line is heavy for snapper fishing, but for marlin and bluefin tuna, which can weigh in the hundreds of kilos, it may be considered light tackle.

When I was younger, I regularly fished 1kg and 2kg monofilament line on light spinning gear, not only for trout, but for kahawai and kingfish too. For snapper fishing, my go-to line class was 4kg, which ensured plenty of bites and entertainment when catching the normal run of school snapper. However, when I hooked a big one it was quite a challenge to successfully land the fish.

I’m not so much into light tackle fishing these days, mostly because modern fishing gear is so lightweight anyway and braided line is so thin, it offers the same advantages as light nylon when it comes to getting bites.

I learned that fights on light tackle could be long and bringing them to a successful conclusion required patience, skill and more than a little luck. I also found out a lot about the limitations of my gear, about working my tackle to apply maximum pressure, and about how best to avoid breaking fish off or snapping my rod. I became quite good at light tackle fishing, but I still lost plenty of fish, which is why I don’t generally fish ultralight tackle anymore. I’m much more pragmatic these days and use gear that’s appropriate, so as not to needlessly leave hooks in fish.


Although my soft plastics gear is spooled with braid offering nominal breaking strains anywhere between 4kg and 10kg (superbraid lines are generally classified by diameter rather than breaking strain, which varies widely between brands, lines and even across lines of the same diameter. Braided lines generally test much stronger than their nominal breaking strain, where stated), I often hook fish on soft plastics that are much bigger than the tackle is designed for. That’s when the light tackle training comes in handy.

Some of my most memorable catches have been large snapper hooked on soft plastics in shallow water – sometimes only two or three metres deep. There’s not much room for error when the water is that shallow and the bottom is made up of rocky, oyster-encrusted reef and kelp forest. Thin braided line, strong though it is for its diameter, only has to touch a sharp rock or an oyster and it’s game over. Your big fish is gone.

Get close to the fish.

One of the best ways to minimise break-offs, particularly in shallow water, is to get the boat as close to the hooked fish as possible, thereby reducing the line angle. A tight line dragged behind an angry fish at an acute angle almost invariably gets wrapped around underwater obstacles, which often results in a break-off. But by positioning the boat directly above the fish (or as close as possible), the line is now nearly perpendicular to the fish and the chances of it snagging on the bottom are much reduced.

You can also fight a big snapper more effectively that way, steering it around obstacles and hopefully preventing it burying its head in the kelp.

Of course this tactic is only possible where it’s safe to follow the fish with boat, which is not always the case in shallow water. You must also be fishing from a drifting boat. If you can’t get on top of a big fish because it’s too dangerous, or the boat is anchored, your only option is to hang on and hope. This tactic is successful perhaps half of the time, but it’s much better to get on top of the fish and control the situation where it’s safe to do so.

Getting on top of or close to a hooked fish is advantageous in deeper water, too. In general you want to keep the length of line in the water to a minimum and minimise the line angle so there’s less chance of the fish dragging the line through underwater obstructions.

For pelagic species like marlin and tuna, shortening the line is imperative, not so much to avoid break-offs on the bottom, but because a fast-swimming fish towing hundreds of metres of line through the water puts so much pressure on it, you risk pulling the hook or snapping the line. Game fishers routinely follow gamefish with the boat to shorten the line.


So, as soon as you realise you have hooked a big fish, you should start the engine and chase it with the boat, shortening the line as you go. All going well, you want to finish up directly over the fish motoring at the same speed it’s swimming, with the line angle almost vertical.

Have someone ready at the helm when fishing the wash.

Ideally, chasing a fish with the boat is a two-person job: one on the helm and the other on the rod. Good communication between the angler and the helmsman is essential with the helmsman responsible for the safety of the vessel and crew. If following a fish over rock-studded shallows or into the turbulent wash zone is likely to endanger the boat and its occupants, don’t go there. The angler will just have to take his chances fighting the fish from a safe distance.

When soft bait fishing, it’s usually only particularly large snapper or the occasional accidental kingfish that require following. Speed is of the essence: the sooner you get after the fish, the less line it can take and the less chance there is of a bust-off. My usual fishing buddies are all well-versed in the routine, quickly clearing their own gear, and one of them taking the wheel whenever the angler makes the call to follow a fish.

In my own boat, which is a side-console design, we always position the angler in the bow with the line angled slightly to the starboard side so the helmsman can see it. The angler calls directions and uses hand signals to indicate the direction the fish is swimming in.

In a cabin boat, the angler usually stands just behind the helm as the boat chases after the fish, keeping the line at a shallow angle slightly ahead and off to the starboard side. It’s a bit trickier at the helm than an open boat should the fish change direction, but assertive helming usually saves the situation.

Following a big snapper in shallow water is close-quarters stuff, with the fish often visible in the water just off the bow as it darts around attempting to wrap the line around the rocks and kelp. Sudden changes of direction demand some smart boat handling to avoid running over the line or getting caught on the wrong side of the boat.

It’s best to play the fish over the bow, especially in a kayak.

Initially, it’s always best to play the fish from the bow, but towards the end of the fight when the fish is tired, the angler usually works his way back to the cockpit. At the helm, the boatman spins the wheel, alternately selecting forward and reverse to keep the fish in the best position relative to the boat. It’s the same deal when a decent kingfish is hooked, only magnified by the kingfish’s extra power and speed. The chase is exhilarating and the whole team gets a buzz whenever a big fish is successfully boated.


Since I do quite a lot of fishing solo, I often have to drive the boat as well as manage the fish, which at times leaves you feeling like a one-armed paper-hanger. But the more often I do it, the better my solo fish-chasing skills become. The key is to keep calm, drive the boat assertively while paying careful attention to the line angle. Fishing solo, you are necessarily positioned at the helm most of the time and the key to success is keeping the fish on the boat’s starboard side for as much of the battle as possible.

A kingfish I caught recently on a soft plastic took at least 25-minutes to bring to the boat, during which time we covered a lot of distance as it sought to escape. The water ranged between 7m and 25m deep, so keeping on top of the fish was the only way I was going to boat it. The tactics worked, as they often do, and an estimated 12kg kingfish eventually joined my family for a delicious seafood dinner. BNZ