The Glamour of the Deck

The glamour of working the deck in a marlin tournament is all about the parties and going out with your buddies for a good time right? The top teams in this sport can be found laboring away on all of the boats systems to make sure everything is ready for the task along with readying the tackle for the job at hand. That’s right, I said job. If you want the slightest chance of being successful in a marlin tournament, you had better bring your “A” game and leave the parties to someone else because that is what the competition is doing. The deck of a tournament fishing boat is definitely the hub of all the action and without preparation you may as well save your entry fees or better yet make the check out to your favorite charity.

I have fished many tournaments with different crews and I am amazed at how many times I hear the vote for the cockpit guy going to the least experienced crew member for the simple fact that all they need to do is put out a few jigs and wait for a bite. I have always thought that one of the best guys should be in the cockpit since this is the person with the first shot at a fish. When a marlin comes into the pattern, it is the cockpit guy that sees the fish first and has the first shot at dropping a bait back to a willing fish. Many times when a marlin is spotted in the gyro’s, it is this same person that gets to the bow first to cast a bait. I want my most experienced person on the crew in the cockpit ready to feed a marlin at a moments notice. The need for an alert person in the cockpit is paramount, especially during the waning hours of a tournament when your mind can wander about what could have been or even worse, there are only 45 minutes to go in the tournament and we are in the lead. I can’t stress enough, the importance of staying focused as I have been handed a second place check instead of a first place check because there were only minutes left to fish and the second place team needed two marlin to overtake us. That second place team remained focused and their determination prevailed that day and proved to me once again that you never, ever stop fishing until the final gun.

I have worked the deck on tournament boats on both coasts and I can tell you that not having to rig ballyhoo all night or set out nine rigs and two teasers behind the boat is a dream here on the west coast. We do of course have one of the most prolific live bait fisheries anywhere in the world. With that said making bait is the first duty of the deckhand and should be shared by all on board to expedite the filling of the bait tanks, especially when bait is scarce or hard to locate. The more people on deck making bait, the faster the tanks get filled. Everyone needs to figure out the amount of bait that their tank can hold comfortably so as not to over crowd the bait. Most every top captain can tell you how many mackerel that their tank can hold and in most cases, each bait is counted going into the tank to keep from over crowding the bait. When moving bait to the bow tank, it should be moved in a bucket with water and gently poured into the tank. The bait net is not for transferring bait to the bow. A technique used by the top captains to establish which baits should be moved to the bow, is to feed the bait and see which ones will eat. These are the baits that should be moved as they are the healthiest and happiest baits in the tank and should transition well.
The tackle is the responsibility of the mate, and should be cared for like a child. As a deckhand, I spent many hours stripping and re-spooling line into the wee hours of the night, lubricating and maintaining the reels, checking roller guides for proper operation, and sharpening hooks to the point of having blurred vision. Assuming your reels are in working order and the line is fresh, it is time to check your drags. If you are used to checking your drags by pulling line off of the reel with your hand then it’s time to use a drag scale. When setting up for marlin on the trollers it is a good idea to establish your strike setting at the customary 30 percent of line breaking strength. How many of you know how much drag the reel puts out at full at this setting. Now is the time to check and yes you can cram the drag in the corner under certain circumstances when you need to lift a fish, just be ready to back off the drag should she decide to run. When setting your drags, make sure you take the time to warm up your drags prior to putting a scale to them. This can be done by putting light pressure on the drag and turning the handle while holding the spool or by stripping the line off under tension several times, either one will prepare the reel for setting the drag by giving a better representation of the drag during battle.

The deck needs to be free and clear of all obstacles and that means everything. I was working the deck on a yacht down in Cabo San Lucas a few years ago and everything was coming together nicely with a large black on and the crew working together for one common goal. I had two wraps on each hand and two my surprise; my feet were rising over my head before I could get loose of the leader. I looked on the deck and couldn’t figure out why I had lost my footing. After we successfully released the big girl my thoughts returned to the deck and I was literally on my hands and knees trying to figure out why I nearly went over and I found a small piece of leader on the deck. This six inch piece of leader material nearly cost me my life and to this day you will see me hosing the deck off many times throughout the day and making sure there is nothing on my deck, ever. While on the subject of leadering a fish, there is a new school out there that uses wind-on leaders which allow the angler to basically crank the fish right to the boat. This is very good when it comes to the safety of the crew as it keeps the leader man from getting wrapped up in a fish and getting hurt.

I, being from an older school, am used to being wrapped up with a fish and I believe that an experienced leader man is an invaluable tool on a team. The leader man can move around with a fish much faster as well as regulate the amount of pressure being put on a fish easier. When I was a lot younger and on a different coast, we as kids used to practice with 400 pound leader attached to the bumper of a car. The trick was to get the car moving without breaking the leader. We would also attach the leader to the cleats on a large yacht and try to pull it against the wind. You would be amazed at how much pressure you can put on 400 pound leader. The most important part of learning to leader a fish is learning how and when to let go and with the advent of the wind on leader, this is becoming a lost art more and more. Another safety concern while leadering a fish is to always wear some type of eye protection. I have had many injuries from swivels and broken line. I had one swivel come back at me and hit me in the chest so hard I had a bruise the size of a softball with a hole in the very center. It looked more like I was shot with a 22 caliber weapon. I have had my knuckles busted many times but the strangest one of all was when I had to pull about 2 inches of leader material out of my arm. While trying to get a quick release on a marlin, the leader snapped and return with such force that the bare leader actually stuck into my arm, I can’t imagine what that would have done to me had it been in my neck.

The most important tools of the trade in the cockpit are line cutters and gloves. There are several makes of safety line cutters but the one I am partial to is called a release knife and features two razor blades faced inward and can cut through mono leader like butter. The blades are protected so you can keep one of these in your pocket without fear of dismembering yourself. I will usually have one in each pocket when fishing for bigger fish just in case I can only get one hand free. A pair of pliers should be handy to remove hooks from fish. A good pair of gloves is invaluable and will save your hands from line cuts that can slice to the bone. I have several different styles of gloves depending on the species and mood. I use anything from the yellow snot gloves up to the heavy leather welding gloves. I have gone so far as to line the heavy welding gloves for more protection on a big fish. The one thing I want when it comes to gloves is for the leader to be able to compress the glove. If the glove is to heavy or thick, I lose my feel for how much pressure I am putting on the fish. Make sure you have gloves with enough grip that you can bill a marlin without losing her. On a recent trip to the East Cape, the only gloves available at the time were very well worn yellow snot gloves. I grabbed the bill of a small striped marlin three times before I finally got a good grip. Had this been a money fish or had there been more than one marlin hooked up this could have meant disaster. If you are new to leadering or “billing” a fish, be very careful and deliberate. I would recommend the use of wind on leaders to start out and once you go for the bill of a marlin, do not hesitate and do it with authority. In other words, when you grab the bill of a marlin, grab it with enough pressure that you can control the fish and keep her head in the water.

Cabo San Lucus, Mexico, Bisbee's Black & Blue Marlin Tournament,  Baja California

There is much more to working on the deck of a marlin boat than throwing jigs in the water and waiting for the clicker to go off. If you are chosen as the deck person on a marlin boat think of it as an honor and stay alert until the jigs are out of the water and you are back home. When I am on the deck, I can often be seen standing at the stern staring at the jigs and ready for a drop back. I have been startled many times from other crew members sneaking up behind me while on the troll as I can get fixated on the pattern, waiting for any sign of life. You don’t need to look all around the boat since there are probably four or five other guys doing that and once you see a pack of stripers come in to the pattern you never want to take your eyes off of the jigs again. I fished one tournament a few years ago where we were fortunate enough to have five marlin come into the spread at once and we eventually landed three of them. This is a rush you won’t experience if you are napping in the salon or not paying attention. The deck is a definite thrill and although I am spending more time running boats now I still enjoy getting down on the deck and going head to head with a marlin at leader. Once you have a blue marlin jump at the stern of the boat while you are hanging on to the leader you will see why the deck is where all of the action is.

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