BRAKE DANCE

THE ART OF SETTING AND US­ING DRAG

Sport Fishing - - EDITORIAL -

I was out­gunned, pure and sim­ple. Jig­ging for bluefin in the 40- to 80-pound range, I was us­ing 30-pound-class gear with 65-pound braid and a 30-pound fluoro­car­bon wind-on leader when some­thing sig­nif­i­cantly larger than ex­pected in­haled my rather puny 4-inch pink But­ter­fly jig. It would take two and a half hours — and an im­mense ex­pen­di­ture of sweat — be­fore we fi­nally saw color.

The tuna set­tled into its death spi­ral for a final tug of war about 20 feet be­low the boat. But with the drag set at 10 pounds of pres­sure, forc­ing the fish any far­ther up in the water col­umn was simply im­pos­si­ble. Should I ap­ply a bit more drag, or thumb the spool? These ques­tions shoot through the minds of count­less an­glers in the final mo­ments of an epic bat­tle.

We all know what forc­ing the is­sue usu­ally leads to: a heart-break­ing breakoff. So in­stead of tight­en­ing the drag, I backed it off and we pulled the boat away from the fish, chang­ing the an­gle of at­tack from ver­ti­cal to nearly hor­i­zon­tal.

The bluefin came out of its spi­ral and al­lowed it­self to be brought to the sur­face, al­beit 50 yards away from the boat. I kept the pres­sure steady but never ex­ceeded that of the pre­set drag, as the boat par­al­leled the fish, inch­ing closer and closer. Too tired to turn and dive, the fish’s left eye­ball was locked on my own when 10 min­utes later, the gaff struck home.

The ex­pe­ri­ence proved that hav­ing your drag prop­erly set — and then us­ing it prop­erly — is quite lit­er­ally a make-or-break factor.

A FINE LINE

“The old stan­dard of setting the drag to be­tween 25 per­cent and a third of the line’s rated strength still holds true,” says Shi­mano rep Capt. Bryan Wil­liams of Wilm­ing­ton, North Carolina, “but braid has changed things. In the old days, we’d move up the drag on big fish, but now I tell peo­ple to leave it alone.”

Wil­liams notes that as a fish takes line, the drag pres­sure in­creases with­out any as­sis­tance from the an­gler be­cause the spool’s di­am­e­ter shrinks. Move the drag lever for­ward, and you stand an ex­cel­lent chance of break­ing off. He says the same goes for spin­ning reels, even though the change isn’t as no­tice­able. Adding pres­sure by thumb­ing the spool on any reel is an even worse move, he says, be­cause you want the line mov­ing as smoothly as pos­si­ble.

“With to­day’s smaller, smoother reels, such as the Tal­i­cas I fish, touch­ing the spool cre­ates un­even pres­sure and in­creases the chance of pulling the hook,” he says.

Wil­liams does point out, how­ever, that you have to vary how you set the drag ac­cord­ing to the type of fish­ing you’re do­ing. When tar­get­ing grouper, for ex­am­ple, he cranks up the drag to the point that only a very large fish can take drag, and then only a lit­tle. “You have to force those fish away from the ledges very quickly,” he ex­plains, “or you’ll get chafed off be­fore the line has a chance to break from the fish’s pull.”

UN­DER PRES­SURE

Capt. Will Bur­bach of Tampa, Florida, who spends much of his time forc­ing large snook out of man­groves and away from piers and bridges, uses drag pres­sure the same way. “Fish­ing in heavy cover, you can’t set your drag for small or av­er­age fish,” Bur­bach says. “You have to use heav­ier gear and re­ally crank down on the drag. Yes, you will break off some­times, but if you fish a light drag, you’ll get fouled or cut off al­most all the time.”

When fish­ing in open water, such as tar­get­ing tar­pon on the beach, Bur­bach says you can go lighter on the drag with­out as much break-off risk. Still, he says he sets drags at a third of the line’s break­ing strength and of­ten is will­ing to risk setting it even higher. “Part of it has to do with the fish,” he ex­plains. “It has a bet­ter chance of re­cov­ery if you don’t stretch out the fight, and wear it down too much.”

Bur­bach also says that re­gard­less of how you’re fish­ing, the worst thing an an­gler can do is fid­dle with the drag on a spin­ning reel mid­fight. “Some­times peo­ple loosen the drags I’ve set be­cause it feels tight to them, and the next thing you know, they’re tan­gled in the man­groves,” he says. “Or maybe they over­tighten an al­ready tight drag, and break off. If you start mess­ing with set­tings while a fish is on the line, you’ll never know where the drag is and where it re­ally be­longs.”

SETTING THE MARK

In­ter­est­ingly, Wil­liams and Bur­bach dif­fer on how to set the drag in the first place. Wil­liams al­ways uses a scale, with the rod and reel at an ap­pro­pri­ate fish­fight­ing an­gle. Bur­bach, on the other hand, says setting by feel works well, just as long as you know your gear in­side and out. He tests the drag strength by pulling line by hand di­rectly from the reel. He ad­mits that this tech­nique does re­quire some trial and er­ror, and says you’ve “gotta get the feel” through ex­pe­ri­ence be­fore you’ll be setting drags prop­erly. Capt. Kevin Beach, who runs

Pale Horse out of Venice, Louisiana, uses both meth­ods. “I set my drags by hand with the light stuff, and by scale with the heavy stuff,” he says. Beach also points out that it’s crit­i­cal to set to your leader strength, not your line strength, when you’re forced to use lighter lead­ers to get bites from finicky fish.

Okuma’s prod­uct de­vel­op­ment di­rec­tor John Bretza stresses the im­por­tance of get­ting to know your gear. “I would take the time to fa­mil­iar­ize my­self with a new reel be­fore use,” he says. “The drag sys­tems in to­day’s reels can be your best ad­van­tage over big fish, but when used in­cor­rectly, can have the op­po­site ef­fect. Imag­ine driv­ing a car and rather than grad­u­ally com­ing to a stop at a light, you slam on the brakes. If you don’t have a good feel for your drag and un­der­stand how the sys­tem works, and you over­tighten the drag, you’ll have the same abrupt im­pact when a fish strikes your lure or bait.”

Like Wil­liams, Bretza also notes that the ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of braid has had a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on how an­glers set and use their drags. The elim­i­na­tion of sig­nif­i­cant stretch means that an­glers us­ing braid have a much less for­giv­ing sys­tem. When the drag is set right, how­ever, you have more fire­power at your fin­ger­tips than an­glers have ever had in the past, and be­ing out­gunned doesn’t mean you can’t catch that fish of a life­time.

Know the rules of the drag-setting game or pos­si­bly risk los­ing the fish of a life­time. I asked pros and ex­perts to give us their guid­ance.

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