How to

Maximising Drag


LAST weekend we headed out wide of the continental shelf in my six metre plate aluminium boat. It had been the worst fishing season in over 20 years when it came to the weather, with floods, strong winds and never ending rain. This has been the same story for the entire East Coast of Australia. This particular day was one of those rare jewels on the predictive weather app, and after a disrupted start due to Covid, we headed out the Gold Coast Seaway on a calm dirty ocean. The blue water was out well beyond the horizon, in fact we had trolled for an hour in very borderline water until we hit a depth of 540 metres and the current finally changed into that inspirational deep purple water that all game fishermen crave. The water temperature also increased to nearly 27 degrees and our confidence level climbed.

It had been a while since Gemma 3 had caught a blue marlin. Prior to getting a double hip replacement in November I’d spent a year in considerable pain with restricted movement and was beginning to think my offshore fishing days were behind me. But thanks to surgery my pain is gone and I’m back in the seat! On this day I was pretty excited and confident. I could almost smell a big fish coming. I’m not into premonitions but sometimes you just know something big is coming your way. On this day after about half an hour in the good water we had a bite. It’s hard to say a blue marlin strike is a “bite”, it kind of undersells it. We didn’t get a bite, we got an explosion! The blue and silver Bahama lure on the short corner was crashed by an angry 300 pounder that charged the boat before jumping and throwing the hook. After a quick verbal spray we reset the lures again, and in 10 minutes a bigger fish came in on the teaser. It pulled on the lure next to it just giving a few clicks of the ratchet, a bit like a door bell ringing to get attention. We were all razor focused for the return strike.

A high dorsal fin popped up behind my now favourite blue Bahama lure. When a blue marlin is going to bite it can be instant or circumspect. When you see the dorsal fin wobble from side to side as the fish adjusts its position you know it will eat. The body of this fish was almost black as it piled on the lure before screaming off in a crazy surface run. At first it was behind the boat, then it was in front as it drove itself half out of the water for hundreds of metres. The reel was screaming and I had to chase the fish to avoid being spooled. I’ve been fishing at sea for almost fifty years, and after a bit of an absence this fish confirmed that there is absolutely nothing in the ocean that excites and thrills me like the opening run of a blue marlin!

Johnny Carmody was on the rod. He’s an experienced angler with a few marlin under his belt and an always positive attitude. The fish, after about 10 minutes went down deep into the abyss. We hooked that fish in 582 metres roughly seventy kilometres offshore, so it had a bit of depth to play with. On 37 kilo stand up game tackle I set the strike drag at around 8 kilos, but troll with the lever drag back off the button a bit so it is around 6 kilos. I learnt from some of the best local game skippers that the hook-up rate improves on marlin with a slightly softer drag, because it lets the fish turn around and run on strike, which sets the hook as the fish screams off. I also find there is very little point increasing the drag when the fish is going crazy and running at top speed. I’m not sure how fast some blue marlin actually swim, but they can empty a big reel with a kilometre of line on it in less than a minute if you aren’t careful. At this speed the water pressure alone creates considerable drag, so much so that even on 24 kilo mono they can bust you off on the first run even using a soft drag.

After we survived the spectacular part, we entered the tough part of the fight. With a hard fighting fish probably three to four hundred metres down we began the tough grinding part of the fight. On a Shimano Tiagra the drag cams build up the pressure as you push the lever drag forward. It soon became clear to me that John wasn’t mucking around with my “pussy” drag pressures. He’d pushed the lever up to almost the sunset position and was probably working with around 16 kilos of drag. The fish was holding deep in a southbound current, and the tactic was to drive the fish north into the current in an attempt to pull it up. After driving the fish north so the line angle came up, I’d quickly turn the boat south so John could regain some lie. The spool slowly filled but it was a dour battle. The reels are full of about 600 metres of Dacron (a bit like hollow core braid) with a top shot of 200 metres of 80 pound nylon monofilament. After a bit over an hour there was mono starting to go onto the reel, and a bit after two hours we had the fish boat-side, a chunky blue marlin around 170 kilos.


There’s a lot to learn when it comes to understanding how to use the right drag pressure and how to apply it when you are fighting a fish. This equally applies to small fish on light tackle as it does to big fish like blue marlin. In our case John applied maximal pressure when the fish was holding deep and swimming slowly, but minimal pressure when the fish was running. This principle applies to a lot of fishing; only increase the drag when the fish has slowed down. Sometimes, particularly when I have a good fish close to the boat, I decrease the drag as this is the time where there is little stretch and there is a risk of pulling the hooks out.

Many years ago I used to fish in quite a few old ANSA competitions. The scoring system was worked out by the weight of the fish you caught divided by the line class fished multiplied by 100 and then multiplied by the fighting factor of the fish. That sounds pretty complex, but as an example a 3 kilo mackerel tuna (fighting factor 1.5) caught on 3 kilo line was worth 150 points. These competitions were held all over the country, probably the most famous being the Narooma Sportfishing Conventions. What these ANSA competitions taught me was how to effectively catch big fish on light tackle, something that has become a somewhat lost art. You had to develop feel and touch and learn to wear a fish down from the sustained application of pressure. I remember spending months trying to catch a record striped tuna on one kilo line. I think I lost about 40 chrome slugs to catch that fish! I learnt that the key to success was to keep as much line as possible out of the water, and when I finally caught the fish I wanted, a striped tuna over 3 kilos, I spent most of the fight standing up on the boat seat so I could minimise the water pressure on the line.

All modern reels should have smooth drags that cover a range of drag pressures. Some companies market small threadlines and baitcasters as having “maximal” drag pressures of 8 to 10 kilos as a selling feature. In my mind that is complete garbage. You don’t need that kind of drag on even 15 kilo braid, and you’ll lose a lot more fish than you catch if you fish too heavy a drag. The rate limiting step is where the hook is placed in the fish. Similarly, when you set a reels drag it needs to be done on a “fast pull”, that is, you set the drag pressure at the same time line is coming off the reel at speed. This overcomes the drag mechanisms inertia and gives you a true reading of what the pressure will be when you are fighting a fish. There are few situations where you need a heavy drag setting on your reel at the point of hook-up. This really only applies when you are trying to pull big fish out of heavy cover, such as mulloway around wrecks, mangrove jacks or black bass in New Guinea.

Most modern reels have great drags that require little maintenance. Despite this, it is important to regularly check your drags and disassemble if you feel any sticking or bumping. I remember years ago having to take reels apart under torch light to fix a sticky drag or replace a washer. I think I could take one of those old ABUs apart in my sleep! Fortunately as technology has improved these episodes have become rare! However, in small reels that regularly hook fast running fish drag washers do wear out and sometimes need replacing.


The next important factor that controls the drag you are using is the angle of the rod. A low rod angle holding the rod at 90 degrees to the fish increases water pressure and the rod itself, from the friction across it, can greatly increase the effective drag separate to the reel. If you hold the rod high you reduce the water pressure effect but maintain the drag created from a bent rod. I’ve used both of these methods to good effect on a wide variety of species. These tactics come in handy when you hook an unexpected monster in an unlikely place, such as a big mulloway on a small soft plastic when fishing for flathead or bream. No fish is lost until the hook comes out or the line breaks, and if you are patient and soft handed it is surprising the size of fish that can be caught on even the finest of braid. Never pump your rod on a fish that is running as the variations in pressure can lead to the hooks pulling out.

Thumb control is also important. By thumbing the spool you can increase the drag for a second or two. This is a very useful method to use on light threadline tackle where you are fishing with soft hands. It is a learned skill, but sometimes the judicious use of thumb pressure can be used to turn a fish and hold it in the current. I use this method all the time when I am barra fishing where the main risk is having relatively small hooks pull out due to too heavy a drag. It can also be used when gamefishing.

When fighting a big fish it is important to understand that the drag set on a reel with a full spool is much greater than it is when you have a lot of line off the reel and the spool line diameter is greatly decreased. This particularly applies to overhead game fishing reels, but also applies to jig reels used in deep water fishing. Some ambitious anglers are starting to deep jig in waters up to 500 metres of water, and with that much line off a reel the drag may be more than double that of what it is with a full spool. This is particularly relevant as in order to get enough line on the reel, thinner lighter braid is used, which has an increased risk of breaking. This type of jigging is at the forefront of sport fishing and is breaking new ground. It isn’t for everyone but if you are trying this, drag settings are critical.

A smooth drag is essential to all fishing. As the above shows, there’s a lot more to it than just the drag on the reel!

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