Every angler has their story of “the one that got away,” and in some ways, that’s all just a part of fishing. But sometimes, the one that got away wouldn’t have gotten away if not for a crucial mistake on the angler’s part. Just as likely, it’s because the angler’s equipment is not set up properly.
Capt. Stacy Garbett of Palmetto Lagoon Charters in Hilton Head said the number one reason most people lose fish is because they don’t have their drag set properly. He specializes in putting his clients on bigger than average fish, and he strongly discourages people from bringing their own fishing rods on his charter.
“Most people just have their drag set wrong, or they have it set wrong for the size line they are using,” he said. “It’s easy to forget about setting that, but when it’s wrong, you’ll know it right quick.”
Usually, said Garbett, people have their drags set too tight for dealing with big fish. “If you have your drag as tight as it can get, that’s way too much drag for most line. And maybe you’ll catch a bunch of smaller fish with no problems, but once you hook into a really big fish, here’s what happens. The drag is so tight that the fish can’t pull line out, so then it’s all up to the line. You want the drag to give before the line reaches its breaking point. If it doesn’t give, then your line will break, and way more easily than you think,” he said.
And while most people will just write that off as the fish simply being too big to catch, Garbett said that is very rarely the case. “Even if you’ve got 30-pound test line on your reel, a fish smaller than that can put more than 30-pounds of pressure on it, especially if he wraps you around a tree limb and can get some leverage,” he said. At the same time, said Garbett, you can catch a 60-pound fish on that same 30-pound test line, if you have your drag set properly.
The best way to set your drag on a reel is to use a digital scale like those used for weighing fish. Place your rod in a rod holder with it pointing straight up. Loosen your drag. Connect your hook to the scale, then pull on the line just like a fish would. Your rod tip will bend, and at some point, you will begin pulling line off your reel. Pay attention to what the scale is showing once the reel begins giving up line. Your goal is for that number to be twenty-five to thirty percent of your line rating.
For instance, if your line is rated as 20-pound test, you want your drag set so that line begins peeling off the reel once your scale shows between 5 and 6-pounds. This may seem weak to some folks, but it’s not as easy as you think to pull line out when it is set at that point. And you don’t want a fish to exert 20-pounds of pressure on 20-pound test line. Let the drag give line at the 5 or 6-pound mark, and allow the combination of you reeling, your rod flexing, and you steering the fish with your rod to wear the fish out.
“Some people think if they’ve got their drag set at 30-pounds, they’ll just whip any fish with brute force, but that’s really the opposite way to look at it. That simply means the drag won’t give at all until it’s pushed to 30-pounds of pressure. If you’ve got 15-pound test line on, that line will break long before the drag gives way. What you really want is for the drag to give way at 5-pounds of pressure. This keeps the line well below its breaking point, allows the fish to tire itself out, and with the help of your rod, allows you to reel that fish in whenever it tires or isn’t running away from you,” said Garbett.
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