In 48 years of running a charter boat, I discovered five boneheaded ways to lose big fish — with only myself to blame

It happened on the last day of the Boothbay Harbor Tuna Tournament in early August 1978. We were aboard my old Shark II, a 34-foot lobster boat I had rejigged for the charter trade, and we were drifting on a flat, pewter-colored sea about 6 miles south of Seguin Island in the Gulf of Maine. The mood was pretty melancholy, as we hadn’t had a legitimate tuna strike all summer, and we had just pulled the hook on a big thresher shark that had picked up a bait and rocketed to the surface. My vision of receiving the Largest Shark trophy and $50 prize — to thunderous applause, no doubt — evaporated into the humid air.

But the little yellow balloon closest to the boat suddenly popped, and 130-pound Dacron began streaming off the 14/0 Penn Senator. Glenn Hodgdon of Southport, Maine, jumped into the fighting chair and snapped the harness to the reel’s lugs. We scrambled to bring in the other lines, and I hit the starter button. The big Buick V-8 roared to life, and we were off.

A bluefin tuna was not in the cards for Wilson Kipp.

The tuna streaked away just under the surface as we backed down, then dove deep. For nearly three hours, Glenn determinedly pumped and reeled, gaining a few yards now and then, only to lose them as the fish made run after run. Finally, the line began angling upward, and the tuna surfaced.

What a fish! I could tell by the distance from the dorsal fin to the upper lobe of the tail that it probably weighed more than 700 pounds, maybe in the 800s. The largest one entered in the tourney’s Rod and Reel Division so far was a 537-pounder, so here was a likely winner that might even smoke the guys in the Harpoon Category, who generally brought in the biggest fish.

Glenn redoubled his efforts and worked the tuna closer and closer as the afternoon southwest breeze picked up. I put the engine in neutral, and with trembling hands, I grabbed the wooden-handled Pompanette flying gaff and placed the eye of the rope over the starboard stern cleat. I wasn’t going to trust this gaff shot to anyone else.

I grasped the double line and, with Glenn, worked the big bluefin alongside. What a monster, glowing blue-green just 10 feet down. Suddenly, the fish disappeared as the line angled under the boat. I let go of the line, and Glenn pulled back mightily. The rod arced over but hung in place. He backed off on the drag. Nothing. The line had fouled on the skeg. The giant fish was gone. It was a long, silent two-hour ride back to the harbor as the 5 o’clock tournament deadline passed.

I never forgot two lessons from that day. Never try to land a big fish from the downwind side of the boat because it may well drift over the line. And never leave the controls. Ever. If you don’t have a crewman capable of leadering and gaffing, you shouldn’t be out there.

Out of the Loop

It had been a long, tough day. One of my better clients, a group of guys from Allied Container, a packaging company in Auburn, Maine, was out with me trying for bluefish. The weather wasn’t good, with a chilly easterly breeze and periods of drizzle, and the blues had either hightailed it, gone deep, developed lockjaw or all of the above. We had been trolling our reliable Rapalas and pink Bomber Long A lures, but outside of a couple of mystery knockdowns, we had nothing to show for the effort. It got pretty quiet down in the cockpit.

Finally, around 2:30, just off Sloop Ledge at the mouth of the Sheepscot River, the right ’rigger pin snapped, and 20-pound line poured off the reel. The head guy of the group, Larry, took the rod out of the holder and held on. Line continued to melt away at a good clip, so mate Dean Krah leaned over and pushed the drag lever up a notch on the Shimano Charter Special.

Capt. Barry Gibson with a “market” cod taken aboard his charter boat Shark II more than 40 years ago.

Capt. Barry Gibson with a “market” cod taken aboard his charter boat Shark II more than 40 years ago.

This was no bluefish. This was a big striped bass, a single fish that would save the trip. Earlier in the summer, Lucky Star, another Boothbay charter boat, had landed a 55-pounder in the same location. Could this one be as big?

Larry did a great job, pumping carefully and winding, keeping the line tight. After 15 minutes or so, the rod tip snapped upward and straightened. The fish was gone.

Larry reeled in the line. The plug was gone, leaving just the loop at the end of the 30-pound mono leader, which had split in half. With a heavy heart, I immediately identified the problem. I had tied a loop directly to the fixed eye of the Rapala, which had not sported a split ring, in order to maximize the lure’s action. But hour upon hour of trolling had caused the lure’s eye to wear through the mono to the point where the loop failed at just the wrong moment.

Lesson learned: Use a split ring or, if you have to attach the eye of a swimming plug to mono leader with a loop knot, cut the leader back every couple of hours and retie.

Knot Thrifty

In early October 1996, I was on a busman’s holiday aboard my friend Capt. Ken Sullivan’s 36-foot Blackfin, Hopscotch. The mission was to catch my 11-year-old son, Mike, and his friend J.J. Shields of Beverley, Massachusetts, a blue shark.

I had brought along a couple of beefy spin outfits from my boat, with fresh 20-pound line I had spooled the night before. The weather was great, a fine fall day, and around noon a blue shark came into the chum slick and nosed one of the balloons. Within seconds, J.J. hooked up.

This kid was way beyond his years when it came to fishing. He hung tight to the rod as the shark peeled out line. J.J. worked the fish back, only to have it tear off again. The rest of us became J.J.’s personal cheerleading squad. Then the shark made another strong run, and the rod arced dangerously over. J.J. held on, but within a nanosecond the line parted with an audible ssssnap! J.J. almost fell over backward. The shark was gone.

I picked up the rod, examined it, then looked at the reel. Oh no. Can’t be, I thought. The mono had caught solidly under the bulky back-to-back uni knot I had tied to connect the new line to the old. I’d figured that it was late in the season, so there was no need to replace all the line. I thought I could get by with just freshening up the first 30 yards or so.

J.J. survived the ordeal and became a fine charter skipper in his own right. But I doubt he’s forgotten about that shark.

Totally Tubular

It was Sept. 3, 1991, and Dean and I were out trolling for tuna in my 31-foot Rampage, Shark III, with Wilson Kipp, a retired New Jersey marina owner. Wilson had a summer home in East Boothbay, Maine, and chartered with me every Monday morning during fishing season for many years. He loved catching striped bass, but his dream was to land a giant bluefin. He had been out on several other charter boats in years past but with no luck, so we thought we’d give it a shot.

It was a perfect day for trolling: sunny and warm, with just a slight southwest breeze. I had attached two brand-new Mold Craft 12-inch squid spreader bar rigs, which my friend Frank Johnson had just sent me, to the 10/0 Fin-Nor outfits. The squids danced enticingly in the wake, and the three of us brimmed with optimism. There had been tuna around, and a 566-pounder had been brought in two days before.

Toward midafternoon, while Wilson dozed in the fighting chair, there was a tremendous swirl under the rig behind the port-side ’rigger. Then the pin snapped, and the rod arced over. Jolted from his reverie, Wilson grabbed the harness straps as Dean lifted the rod out of the holder. Within seconds, the tuna was gone.

Wilson dutifully reeled in the spreader rig, and I lifted it over the gunwale and pulled it down onto the deck. What I saw made my heart sink to my toes.

The hook on the last squid in the daisy chain down the middle — the only one armed with a hook — still had a 2-inch section of clear plastic tubing over the point and bend, which the manufacturer slides on at the factory before the rigs are shipped. The idea is to prevent the hook from sticking into anything.

I maneuvered myself between Wilson and the squid rig so he couldn’t see, leaned down, twisted off the tubing and jammed it into my right front pants pocket. Wilson never knew the difference. I planned to tell him about it at some point but kept putting it off. And off. Years rolled by. And then he was gone. He never did get his giant bluefin.

Sooner or later, I’m going to meet up with Wilson on the other side, and I’ll confess. I have no clue as to how he’s going to react, but I have my suspicions! After all, he was from New Jersey.

Mate Dean Krah and a young charter customer with a 45-pound striped bass taken a week after the loss of a similar size fish sent the boys from Allied Container home empty-handed.

Mate Dean Krah and a young charter customer with a 45-pound striped bass taken a week after the loss of a similar size fish sent the boys from Allied Container home empty-handed.

Shaming of the Screw

Sometime during the summer of 1976, I noticed that one of two screws was missing, screws that attached the left side plate to the reel stand on one of my reliable Penn Long Beach No. 65 reels. A missing screw was unusual, so I didn’t have a replacement on hand. The reel seemed a little wiggly, but I figured I could get the rest of the season out of it. What could go wrong?

A week or so later, we were on a bottom-fishing charter over Great Ledge, some 6 miles below Maine’s Damariscove Island, and we were doing pretty well with cod, pollock and cusk. The 8-ounce Bridgeport diamond jigs were doing their job, and by lunchtime we had 100 pounds of eatin’ fish in the box.

My charter folks took a break for sandwiches, then went back to jigging in 200 feet of water. Suddenly, the woman at the port corner — as I recall, her name was Maria, I think from Massachusetts — let out an “Oh my gahhhd!” She was hunched over and grasping the rod, which was hard on the rail with the tip bent toward the water.

This was no cod or pollock. The rod tip bounced up and down mightily, and I instantly realized what it probably was: a halibut. At that point in my chartering career, I had hooked and lost one other fish that I was pretty sure was a halibut, but I had never landed one.

We buckled a leather rod belt around Maria’s waist, and she began pumping and winding. She’d gain a few yards, and then the fish would bang-bang-bang its way back down, pulling 50-pound braided Dacron against the tightest drag I could safely set. And then, with a grimace, Maria stopped reeling. “It’s stuck,” she said, gasping. “I can’t reel. You try.”

She thrust the rod at me, and sure enough, it wouldn’t wind. I noticed that the reel’s cross bars and side plates were at slight angles to each other. The second screw of the left side plate had sheared off at the reel stand. The whole business was adrift.

The fish pulled hard, but now the spool wouldn’t even rotate to give up line. I handed the rod to Maria, told her to back up, and reached out and grabbed the line, taking a single wrap with my bare right hand. I started pulling, but the Dacron burned painfully into my fingers. I had no choice but to let it go. The guitar-string-tight line slid along the stainless steel bang plate on the outside of the gunwale until it met a screw head that barely protruded. That’s all it took. Game over.

We never even got a glimpse of the fish, but I’m positive it was a halibut, maybe a 100-pounder. Or maybe a 200-pounder. When you lose ’em, they can be any size you wish.

Capt. Barry never got another shot at a halibut until his son, Mike, landed one on the Shark Six in June 2012, some 36 years later. The fish was 5 inches short of the 41-inch minimum and had to be released. Barry is still looking for his first keeper.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Anglers Journal magazine.

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