The biggest losers
  |  First Published: August 2007

10 of the worst ways to lose a fish

SECTION: feature




Don’t panic, this isn’t an article teaching you the top 10 methods to lose your prize catch. If we know the reasons why we lose fish, we can minimise the chances each outing.


Let’s say you just lost a good fish (feel free to pick any of the following nine ways!) and hastily tied on another hook. How many turns did you do? Did you lock the knot? Did you lubricate it? Do any or all three things wrong and you ask for trouble.

Perhaps the all-time front-runner for losing good fish is a lousy knot. It just seems so fundamental and I guess in part this is often the problem. We’ve all been tying knots since we were knee-high to a grasshopper, particularly common ones like the blood knot, so we tie on a hook or swivel in the blink of an eye. Take the time every time and check your work with a good, careful yank.


I’m sure I’m not alone in having lost good fish to line failure. I can painfully see three big fish swimming away due to line problems. Perhaps it was a small fray, sun-damaged, or a little over-stretched. Whatever the reason, I can see one 25kg Spanish mackerel, a 20kg king and a 25kg jew paddling off because I didn’t check the line thoroughly before heading out.

But not all fish lost are from angler complacency. I’ve had several batches of braid and mono that were pure rubbish right from the outset.

Unfortunately, you usually find out the second you put weight on a good fish. Nowadays I give all my braid and mono (and knots) a good work-out at home before hitting the water. If they don’t break easily on dry land, they shouldn't break easily on the water.


Today’s reels are pretty amazing. Even relatively cheap models have silky-smooth drags straight from the box. Despite this, so many fish are lost due to incorrect drag pressure.

Usually we’re talking too much firepower. Crank the drag knob or lever too high and it’s all often all over bar the shouting – especially when using light line.

Heavier string is inherently more forgiving (to a point) and can soak up a little over-exuberance but even heavy line has a limit. Too many turns on the drag knob and things go pear-shaped real quick.

The general idea is set and forget. Set the drag to a comfortable setting for the line class being used (one-third the line breaking strain is about right) and don’t touch it til you get home.

Sure, if you’re super-experienced you can muck around mid-fight, but generally, set and forget is the safest bet.

Things can get hairy with some fish close to the boat or bank at the end of a fight because there’s not much line between the reel and the hook. Any quick lunge can add extra tension to knots and line, especially no-stretch braid. That’s why experienced anglers will back off the drag a tad – not enough to allow the fish its head to run free and snag you up – just enough to reduce that extra shock tension if it arises.


Landing nets are funny things. They seem to get dragged along every time you go fishing and, more often than not, you don’t end up using them. So, to avoid dragging the rattling, cumbersome thing around, you leave it at home.

And as sure as we pay taxes, the next time you head out, you hook a ripper. The only thing between you and your prize catch is that annoying thing collecting dust in the garage…

Equally as bad as not having a net is having one that’s too bloody small. After losing some awesome flathead over the years (usually they’re half in and half out, then produce one well-timed wiggle and fall back into the drink), I now have a net big enough to scoop up Willy Mason. My theory: big nets will easily scoop up little fish, so why own a small net?

And you should ensure that the net is in good condition with no gaping holes in the mesh. There are plenty of fishos who can tell you stories about fish escaping through holes or breaking rotten mesh. It then means you have to pass your rod through the hole in the net and hopefully your catch is still swimming away on the end of the line!


You may not be a net person; perhaps a big gaff is your thing. I wouldn’t go fishing without a gaff. There are two permanently in the boat and I have a 2m cane gaff for shore-based work. And, like most anglers’, all three are blunt!

You can tell they’re not sharp enough when they bounce off your mate’s prize jewfish. So, to avoid the fireworks it’s a good idea to carry a file or sharpening stone in the boat or fishing bag And give the gaff a good hit before there’s a 20kg-plus jewfish lying boatside.

Now here’s a good way to lose a trophy fish: You have a sizeable fish – too big for your Willy Mason net – and the only thing standing between you and fame is a piece of steel with a bent hook on the end. Too easy, just stick the gaff hook in fish and lift it into the boat. Sadly, like most things in fishing, nothing’s that easy.

If anything can go wrong, it usually will. The old proverb ‘There’s many a slip between cup and lip’ nicely points out that nothing’s a certainty, even an apparently spent fish lying ready to gaff.

Fish seemingly too buggered to fight somehow find a new lease on life a millisecond before the gaff hook finds its home. If you’re lucky, the fish will just race off cleanly but if not, you may hook the line, lure or fly, almost certainly losing the catch.

Species like cobia are nightmares, rolling worse than crocodiles the second the point is in. Hit them hard and keep them coming or they’ll roll straight back into the drink.


Filling your boat with all different types and breaking strains of wire is a sure way to ensure not one single, sharp-toothed pelagic will be within 100 miles. Head out with nothing but mono leaders and you can safely bet there’ll be mackerel or line-snipping leatherjackets everywhere. So what to do?

If you work on Murphy’s law that if anything can go wrong, it usually will, you’d have to take the wire route and hope the toothy critters put in a show. No point getting snipped every cast, so during mackerel, wahoo, couta or jacket season, rig most baits and lures on wire and see how lucky you are.


Like many sports-orientated anglers, I like to scale down my tackle and enjoy a good fight on light gear. But you have to choose your battles.

A mate decided to ‘have a play’ with a few small kings on 3kg string. Sounded like a good idea, should be fun, but my silly mate fed out a sizeable pike which was soon inhaled by a solid kingie.

What started off as a fun idea turned into three hours of stress as we followed the obstinate king 2km up the coast before finally landing the bugger. At 12kg it was a ripper on light gear, but pretty well the limit of patience and luck for the angler – not to mention the patience of the skipper.

I must admit I still like using light line but nowadays I’m careful about where I use it. There’s no real point chasing fish beyond the tackle limits. No one wins, except perhaps the local tackle store.


Another classic way to lose good fish is adjusting the drag during the fight. It’s tempting when line’s pouring off at a frightening pace but any slight adjustment (assuming you have pre-set it at 1/3 the line breaking strain) may push the line past its breaking point.

While many of today’s reels have super-smooth drags, they are still susceptible to heat build-up. Hot drags lose drag pressure, so in theory cranking it up mid-fight shouldn’t be too disastrous. But as hot washers cool again, often during the latter stages of the fight with the fish near boat, the drag returns to the pre-set level plus a few more kilos that could have been added in the excitement.

This is when those few extra turns will come back to haunt you. Next surge and it’s often all over.


The marlin hits your bait and tears off on a sizzling run. You lay back on the rod and start winding like crazy but can’t feel any weight and bring back an empty hook. Your mate grabs it and runs his finger over the dull, rounded business end – get the point? The fish couldn’t! Hooks need to be sharp to bed home, especially in hard-mouthed fish. Check the point when you tie a new one on and keep checking throughout the session, especially if you become snagged and then free your rig.

Or you’re battling that bream of a lifetime. You’ve just bullied it away from those evil oyster racks, your redlining drag is grudgingly giving a few centimetres of line as your rod tip bucks under the surges and the braid hisses through the water. The fish is under the boat and the net is waiting when, suddenly, it’s all over. You bring back your lightweight jighead, the hook straightened – you’ve discovered the weakest link.

The gauge of wire in the hook or treble should be up to the job you’re asking of it. With braids testing well beyond their labelled breaking strain, top-class rods and reels and well-tied knots, something’s got to give and it’s often a centimetre or two of poorly-tempered steel wire. Choose hooks and trebles from reputable brands and look after them. Replace trebles and split rings on those bargain-bin lures or when chasing outsized fish.


Some people think they are just plain unlucky. For these unfortunates, it doesn’t matter how well they tie knots, how smooth their drags are, how many good nets or sharp gaffs are in the boat, these people are doomed to fail.

Go for a walk on Sunday morning, you’ll see just what I’m talking about. Check out the local boat ramp. It’s not hard to find someone cursed with bad luck. First off, they reverse the boat into the water with tie-down strap attached. Then they push the boat off the trailer, only to be nearly clubbed to death by the wildly spinning winch handle.

Surviving that, they park the car and return back to a boat half-full of water. Then, with the bungs in at last, they’re ready to go. Well, they would be, if the bloody motor started… I think you get the picture.

I guess this is all about forethought and working out a sensible routine so that you can head off a lot of problems before they surface but there are indeed some people who just keep on inventing new ways to lose a fish. And chances are that if they take up golf instead, they’ll find at least 10 ways to lose a golf ball…

Fishing can present anglers with all sorts of problems. If we keep a good eye on the more common things that cost us fish, we’re sure to put a few more fish on the table.

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