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Making a hand line for offshore fishing

Jan 1, 2003

Most voyaging sailors fish for food rather than sport. Given that fact, the question arises as to what type of fishing setup to use.

With all the rigging on most sailboats, it is usually difficult to maneuver rods and reels when a fish is hooked, to say nothing of the fact that on split-rigged yachts, the rods get in the way of the mizzen booms and sheets. In my opinion, a hand-line is the way to go, but some voyagers aren't quite sure how to rig one for easy use and stowage. I'd like to offer a description of a hand-line used on many Pacific Islands. I don't know why it is called a Polynesian hand-line. It does make use of surgical tubing, such as is used in the hand-held spear termed a "Hawaiian sling."

This hand-line is simple to make, easy to stow, and very effective in catching fish. To construct it one will need a length of surgical tubing (found in most fish or dive shops), some heavy nylon cord (I prefer something with around 450-pound breaking strength), waxed marlin (or dental floss), heavy monofilament leader, a heavy-duty swivel, two snaps, lures for the waters one will be sailing in, and a piece of stiff wire like a coat hanger or some stainless-steel seizing wire.

Any hand-line requires some sort of snubbing device to prevent the fighting fish from breaking the line. Most of the time, the extra line that hangs between the ends of the snubbing device will tend to catch on anything that protrudes around the boat. The secret to this hand-line is the way in which the extra fish line is held within the surgical tubing that is used as a snubbing device.

The surgical tubing should be the largest diameter one can find, and anywhere from 1.5 to three feet in length. This tubing will do the work of fighting the fish, as well as preventing the rest of the rig from being broken. Sunlight and salt water combine to rot surgical tubing, so I always keep about 10 feet or more in my tackle box to make new lines as necessary. To make the rig last longer, rinse it well with fresh water after use, and stow away in the freezer if room allows.

Once the tubing has been cut, insert the wire through the center of the tubing and tape the heavy nylon cord to the end of the wire. This will facilitate "fishing" the cord through the tubing. Fishing the wire through the tubing is the most difficult part of the entire procedure. Once the cord is through the tubing, tie a bight in one end of the cord so that it can be attached to a cleat or fixture on deck. Tie an overhand knot about a foot or so from the bight, and work a half inch of the end of the surgical tubing over the knot. Wrap some of the waxed thread tightly around the tubing so that the knot cannot slip out. I have found that half a dozen tight wraps around the tubing, followed by a few half hitches, does the job.

Drop the bight of the line over a cleat on deck or on the dock, and take the untied end of the surgical tubing in hand. Hold the tubing tightly enough so that it won't snap out of one's grasp, but loosely enough to allow the tubing to slide over the cord. Pull the tubing out as far as possible, then tighten one's grip to hold the cord in place and walk the tubing back to its original length. This will cause the cord to bunch up neatly inside the tubing. The tubing can stretch as necessary when fighting the fish, and the cord will remain inside, rather than forming an unsightly loop on the outside that will only get in the way and catch on something.

When the tubing is back to its original length, pull about an inch of cord back out of the tubing and tie another overhand knot as close to the end of the tubing as possible. Stretch the tubing out one more time, this time pulling the end over the knot, and secure it in place with more waxed thread.

The cord should be cut to the proper length and then be secured to a swivel. I use about 10 feet of heavy monofilament line at the end of the swivel (something with a breaking strength of around 150 pounds). I do this for several reasons. In the first place, I am fishing for meat rather than sport; I'm not trying to set records catching heavy fish on light tackle. Secondly, the heavier line is easier on the hands when one is trying to gaff the fish and get it aboard.

Some sailors like to use all monofilament, being of the opinion that at slower speeds the fish can see nylon line; but 10 feet of monofilament seems to serve the same purpose. Also, I tend to use a short leader between the lure and the mono-filament line because I can't always get to a pair of gloves when I get a strike, and I don't want to have my hands cut up with a light leader.

Lures will differ depending on what the local fish like to eat. Even that will vary depending on water temperature, food available, etc. Professional fishing skippers change lures regularly. They will also gut the first fish they catch to see what the fish have been eating. In my case, I have found two lures that work exceptionally well on hand-lines. One is a small flying fish that's made in Japan, and the second is a gray or brown rubber squid with a light weight in the head. Many fishermen in the Hawaiian waters swear by feather lures, but the other two types have served me well for mahi-mahi, wahoo, jack, yellow-fin tuna and Allison tuna.

Since it is hard to work a large fish when constrained by the rigging of a sailing yacht, I like to use smaller lures. There is always a chance that a large fish will take it, but one will usually end up with something in the 15- to 20-pound range, certainly large enough to provide a few good meals for the crew.

The length of the overall hand-line rig will vary, but I have found that a lure working about one and a half boat lengths aft works well.

Affix the bight of the rig to a convenient cleat, usually near the lifeline gate where the helmsman can keep an eye on it. Then coil up the surgical tubing and one or two feet of line. Wrap a rubber band around this coil using a slip knot, and hook the bight of the rubber band into the life-line gate hook. This gives a good indication of when a fish strikes. It also tends to set the lure better.

If one is running fast downwind, it may be desirable to slow down slightly to prevent the speed from tearing the lure out of the fishes mouth. In any event, it is easier to land the fish if one allows the surgical tubing to do its job and fight the fish until it is near exhaustion. It then becomes easier to gaff the fish. Even then, don't try to pull a large fish out of the water with the lure alone. Unless it is dead, a fish will begin struggling mightily when its head comes out of the water, and it may shake lose. Instead, work the fish close to the hull and gaff it using a short gaff.

J.R. Williams is an airline pilot who lives in Carson City, Nev., who has voyaged extensively in the central Pacific.