Fighting Dirty

I’ll admit that although I’m still a whippersnapper by some standards, I’m growing old of being young and reckless. At one time I was passionate and adamant about battling big fish on ultralight tackle—and I still am—but I’ve taken a step back and reexamined my approach when targeting super strong fish with today’s powerful, yet micro conventional and spinning outfits. Thanks to advancements in technology, once unimaginable feats are now real possibilities, but that doesn’t mean you have to beat yourself up in the process.


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In the past few years the latest lightweight spinning and conventional reels outfitted with powerful drag systems have been all the rage when chasing big fish. While the newest rod and reel advancements have led to stronger and more capable outfits, it was really the introduction of advanced braided lines that led the way to impressive light tackle battles. With the ability to spool hundreds of yards of line onto a micro reel that weighs ounces, anglers now have the confidence and line capacity to let big fish run.

With the ability to spool hundreds of yards of line onto a micro reel that weighs ounces, anglers now have the confidence and line capacity to let big fish run.

Another major benefit with small conventional and spinning reels is the ability to fight fish without struggling with heavy tackle. While the newest reels are lightweight and easy to move around, drawn out battles will still take a toll on your lower back and forearms and are anything but fun. Fortunately, small and unobtrusive harnesses like the AFTCO Maxforce II shoulder harness matched to a small fighting belt make it easier to subdue big fish on 12 to 30 lb. class conventional and spinning outfits. For fish well over 50 pounds rod belts and harnesses are pretty much standard equipment. While you can grunt it out and persevere through epic battles without such tools, I prefer to land fish fast and with minimal effort so I can start working on the next one. With skittish yellowfin tuna that turn on and off like a light switch you must capitalize when the bite is wide open!

For light tackle battles I prefer a shoulder harness over a kidney harness with the benefit of being able to use my upper back, shoulders and legs to beat big fish fast. The polyester covered bio-foam shoulder and back-band padding connect with ventilated mesh to distribute the load across the back of the angler. This allows the shoulders and upper body to carry the weight during extended fights against stubborn game fish.

Using a short bent butt, I adjust the harness so the rod sits at a 60 degree angle. This way when a fish is running the rod blank absorbs the brunt of the force. It’s important you have the rod belt and harness adjusted and sized for you before the battle begins. When you get a bite it’s important you focus on fighting the fish and not adjusting straps and clips. Let the fish make its initial run before fumbling around with your gear and getting comfortable for the long haul. If you’re anticipating a strike, like when fish are busting all around the boat, you can have your harness on and fitted so you are ready for battle.

Like any specific type of fishing, a single rod will not suit every situation. As a starting point, light tackle stand up duties require a short rod around 5’6″ to 6’0″ in length. I had a Revolution Fishing custom rod made specifically for live baiting tuna in The Bahamas and chose a Seeker blank that provides a fast taper and stiff butt section. When fishing braid I prefer to avoid roller guides and opted for lightweight FUJI SIC guides with stainless steel frames for flawless performance and corrosion resistance.

While one could certainly sweat it out and power through an excruciating battle without a belt and harness, prolonged fights tip the odds in the fish’s favor by increasing the chance of terminal tackle failure and predation from sharks. The bottom line is that the longer the fish is in the water, the greater its chance of escaping. With a belt and harness you will be able to apply maximum pressure for much longer compared to typical stand up battles.

When selecting a reel you’ll have to make sure there are lugs to attach the harness clips. Most conventional reels have them, but if you want to use a spinning reel you’ll need a solution for the lack of harness lugs. If you are building a custom outfit you can ask the builder to add rings to the reel seat, but there are also aftermarket options that attach over the reel’s foot. Check out for an excellent option that can be installed in seconds.

Anytime you go to battle harnessed to big fish, light tackle or not, it’s important to make sure someone has your back. In the event the mainline becomes wrapped around a rod guide things can go bad in a hurry. Wearing non-slip footwear is crucial, as is carrying a small safety knife. Next time you are on the tuna grounds, strap on and snap in. Beat up a few big fish while barely breaking a sweat and you’ll be a firm believer.