How to Gaff a Fish

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How to Gaff a Fish

To become a successful saltwater angler, there are a multitude of skills to learn before a person can truly declare themselves proficient. Most beginner anglers struggle to catch fish and are busy searching for the correct locations, tackle and bait. More experienced anglers know how to locate and catch fish, but may struggle with the proper ways to land them.

Landing large saltwater fish requires a gaff. Gaffing is a skill best learned through hours of practice. Even with practice, experienced anglers miss the gaff and lose the fish. The entire boat loses confidence in the gaffer and the excitement can plummet.

As a gaffer, a thousand things are running through your mind before the opportunity presents itself. These thoughts become distracting and can lead to a lost fish.

Here are a few tips to help you focus and properly gaff a fish:

How should I hold a gaff?

The first step is to find a comfortable location to stand. Do you have good balance, are you able to put power behind your push, etc. When holding the gaff, make sure the top is held by your dominant hand farther up on the handle so you can get the maximum amount of reach.

Always hold the tip of the gaff over the edge of the boat. You don’t want to throw your gaff into the boat and completely miss your chance at the fish.

Where is the leader?

One of the most important things to keep in mind is the location of your leader. By the time you’re set to gaff, the leader is likely worn and one touch of the gaff hook will cut the line and free the fish.

When you’re in your athletic stance overlooking the side of the boat, locate the leader. While it may be tempting to gaff the fish in the head, you’d have to go over the top of the leader and massively increase the risk of losing the fish.

To be safe, aim at the forward shoulder with your gaff. As the fish makes its turn towards the boat, stay behind the leader and gaff the meaty part of its shoulder behind the gills. In this area, the fish have bones and tendons that will hold the hook in place.

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Where could I gaff the fish?

As mentioned earlier, the best place to gaff a fish is in the shoulder area right behind the gills as it turns towards the boat. This location, however, may not always be possible to hit. The time to gaff a fish is limited and you may have to settle for a lesser location if you want to land the fish.

Another option to gaff is the head. If placed correctly, you’ll instantly kill the fish and receive much less of a fight when it’s hooked. Remember to watch out for the location of your leader before you attempt the headshot.

Do your best to avoid the tail and the stomach of a fish. These are fleshier areas and a strong head shake from the fish can easily set them free.

How do I hook the fish?

Once you have plunged the gaff into the fish, lift up with gaff. This will ensure that the hook is lodged into the fish and has less of a risk of setting itself free. If you forget to “set the hook” the fish may lash about and hook itself, but that is not always the case. Be sure to properly hook the fish before you try and swing it into the boat.

If you’re the angler, don’t pull the head of the fish out of the water while it is waiting to be gaffed. Keep the fish submerged so it minimizes the thrashing.

What do I do once it is hooked?

When you are ready to gaff, be sure you are able to swing the fish into the boat once it is hooked. You want the fish in the water for the least amount of time possible once it is gaffed. Sharks are likely nearby and as soon as you add in the blood from the gaff, it does not take long for a shark to strike.

The fish may severely thrash around as soon as it is gaffed, so it’s not a bad idea to hold it in the water near the boat for a few seconds to let it calm down.

After you “set the hook”, swing the fish into the boat. You may have to request help from others on board to help you lift the fish. 

What happens once it is on the boat?

You want as clear of a path to the cooler or box as possible. Some anglers drop the fish on the deck once it is gaffed, but this creates the potential of someone getting hurt. These fish are extremely strong and often have sharp fins so a strong swipe can severely injure somebody.

If possible, carry the fish and place it directly into the cooler. This allows it to stay as fresh as possible and out of the way of people and equipment.

What kind of gaff do I need?

Depending on the fish you target, you may have multiple gaffs in your boat. The most common length is a 6-foot gaff with a two or four inch bite. The two inch bite works for securing fish similar in size and makeup of dolphins. The four inch bite is best to use on fish like Yellowfin Tuna or Wahoo.

If you’re targeting larger fish like Blue Marlin or Bluefin Tuna, you’ll need a flying gaff. A flying gaff is similar to a harpoon. It is attached to a rope and the rope is anchored to the boat. The hook fully detaches from the rest of the gaff once sufficient force is used. At this time, the hooks are attached to the fish and those on the boat can control the fish with ropes.

You can also choose between aluminum, fiberglass, titanium and carbon fiber poles. All of these have their own strengths and weaknesses. The titanium and carbon fiber poles are newer products and are much lighter than aluminum or fiberglass. However, you can save quite a bit of money if you choose one of the older models.

There are numerous types of gaffs to choose from so be sure to know your target before you make your decision.

What Gaff Should I Buy?

There are many different options for buying a gaff for your boat. We’ve compiled a few of our favorites!

The Aftco GFA465GLD Gaff Hook, 6-Foot x 4-Inch

Cuda 6 Foot Carbon Fiber Gaf Shaft with 3″ Hook

Aftco MST1GLD Tail/Release Gaff, 4-Feet, Gold

Why gaff a fish?

Gaffing a fish should only be done if you know you are going to keep it. Anglers must be responsible when it comes to choosing whether or not to gaff a fish. Be aware of the rules and regulations regarding size and amount of fish you are allowed to keep.

Also, remember to gaff the fish in a responsible and ethical way. You were fortunate enough to catch it so be sure to treat it properly when landing the fish. If you’re concerned about the fish not being a keepable size or your ability to gaff it in the correct spot, then don’t gaff it.

Final Recommendations

Proper storage of a gaff is often overlooked. These are extremely dangerous tools and it’s important to always have it stored away when it is not being used. Whether it’s covering the tip with a tennis ball or placing it in a storage tube, safety should always be the top priority.

Also, be sure to properly dry the gaff before it is stored. Salt water leads to corrosion. There’s nothing more frustrating than losing a piece of saltwater equipment because it was not properly cleaned.

The most successful anglers are those who are detail oriented. Be willing to make sacrifices and go out of your way to make the gaffing process as efficient as possible and you will always be pleased with the end result.

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