Fine Tuning Your Drag

by George Poveromo

Don’t touch that drag!” It’s an admonishment heard on charter boats around the country when the captain or mate notices a customer – usually one who’s exhausted after fighting a stubborn fish – attempting to increase the drag pressure on his reel to end the fight. In many cases, the angler gets his wish, albeit not in the way he had hoped.

Adjusting a reel’s finely tuned drag in the middle of a fish fight is a time-honored taboo, and for good reason. However, there are situations when increasing the drag with your fingers is acceptable, even advisable.

Anyone who has tangled with a big bull dolphin or tuna knows how these fish can thwart all attempts to dredge them out of the depths once they have sounded. The reel’s drag will eventually wear the fish out, but it can take a long time, especially on light tackle. In the meantime, the hook may work free or the line may be stretched or abraded to its breaking point.

The Feel Factor

To break the spirit of a fish that has turned the fight into a standoff, you need to apply extra pressure at opportune moments, and this can be best accomplished with your fingers. If the fish makes a sudden run, you can quickly remove your fingers and let the reel’s drag take over. It’s a balancing act, one that can be mastered only through experience.

When I’m fighting a stubborn fish on spinning tackle, for example, I often cup the reel spool with my left hand and use the fingers of my right hand to pinch the fishing line. In addition to creating more drag pressure, “fingering” the line lets me monitor the tension level – I can feel when the line is nearing its breaking point and immediately reduce the strain by releasing my grip.

To gain line and pump the fish toward the surface, I release my grip on the line and spool, then reel as I lower the rod. After pausing just a split second to see if the fish is gearing up for another run, I re-apply extra pressure with my fingers. Whenever the fish surges, I let go of the line and spool and let the reel take over.

Of course, the key to all this is developing a feel for your line, knowing just how much pressure it can be subjected to, and anticipating the movements of the fish.

Setting the Drag

When setting your reel’s drag, the general rule is to go with 20 to 25 percent of the line’s rated breaking strength. For example, with eight-, 12- and 20-pound-test line, the drag should be set at two, three and five pounds of pressure, respectively. These settings, which should be set with a scale and with the rod held at a fighting angle, are usually enough to set the hook and wear down a fish.

Once the drag on a light-tackle outfit has been set, it shouldn’t be adjusted during the fight. The one exception is when a substantial amount of line has been pulled off the reel, since the decreasing diameter of the spool will increase the amount of pull it takes to turn the spool. This, plus the strain created by water resistance, makes it necessary to “back off” the drag to prevent a broken line.

Striking the Fish

Monofilament line stretches as much as 25 percent when submerged. Therefore, it’s important to eliminate that stretch when setting the hook. When trolling or drifting with 20- and 30-pound-class tackle, for instance, I set the hook by reeling rapidly until the fish begins pulling line off the reel. As the fish takes off, I’ll stop winding and make a few quick rod strokes to ensure the hook set. If I feel that more hook-setting pressure is needed, I’ll thumb the spool as I rear back on the rod.

With eight-, 12- or 20-pound-class tackle, extra force is often needed to set the hook, especially when fishing for hard-jawed species like tarpon. In this case I’ll either thumb the spool (with a conventional reel) or cup the spool (spinning reel) for a second or two when striking the fish. However, this maneuver needs to be executed as soon as you come tight to the fish; increase the drag when the fish takes off and the line is sure to break.

This light-tackle strategy works well when fishing from a stationary boat, where there’s no forward momentum to help set the hook. It’s also effective when you can see the fish take the bait or lure.

Thumbs Down

As mentioned, holding the line between your fingers and/or cupping the reel spool are two effective ways of applying additional drag with a spinning outfit. The same applies to conventional tackle. Take my recent trip with kingfish ace Dave Workman, Jr., off Louisiana. Although our high-speed conventional reels were spooled with 20-pound line, the drags were set at a mere three pounds to prevent the kings from straightening or pulling the light treble hooks commonly used in this fishery.

The object was to let the fish take off on its long initial run and expend most of its energy. When the fish stopped, we’d start to slowly gain line. Because of the ultra-light drag setting, we applied extra pressure by thumbing the reel spool and occasionally pressing the line against the rod’s foregrip. We also used slow, steady pumps with the special light-tipped rods to avoid any pulled hooks.

We were careful to apply just enough pressure to slowly raise the fish, and reacted immediately to any surges, no matter how slight. When the fish would run, we’d lift our thumb from the spool or foregrip and let the light drag do its job.

Near the end of the battle we’d apply light thumb pressure to the spool as the king swam off, further wearing down the already tired fish. Maintaining a light drag and applying thumb pressure when needed allowed us to land kings up to 40 pounds.

Big-Game Strategy

Fishermen who pursue tuna, marlin and other big-game species can also use thumb pressure to their advantage. When a big fish sounds and sulks, I’ll often apply extra pressure by pressing my thumb(s) against the side of the reel spool or pressing the line against the rod’s foregrip.

The technique came in handy this past summer on a tuna-chunking trip off Ocean City, Maryland. Using 30- and 50-pound-class stand-up tackle from an anchored boat, we beat stubborn tuna up to 150 pounds by using short pumps of the rod and pressing the line against the foregrip. During some of the shorter runs, we applied extra pressure by thumbing the sides of the reel spool.

Boatside Tactics

We all know that most fish are capable of making last-ditch runs next to the boat that can easily result in broken lines or pulled hooks. When leading a fish alongside, I back off the reel drag and maintain pressure by squeezing the line between my fingers and either thumbing or cupping the reel spool. Should a large fish go wild at the boat, forcing the mate to release the leader, the light drag setting reduces the chance of the hook pulling loose or the line parting when it suddenly comes tight. When the fish stops, I simply advance the drag and fight it back to the boat.

Applying extra drag without adjusting the setting on your reel requires a feel for your line and the ability to anticipate the fish’s next move. However, once you get the knack of it, you’ll be amazed by how quickly and easily you can step up the pressure and make short work of a stubborn game fish.

  1. Cupping the spool on a spinning reel provides a bit more drag to help tire a stubborn adversary on light tackle.
  2. Another way to increase drag is by pinching the line, which also lets the angler monitor line tension.
  3. Thumbing the spool on a conventional reel can provide a quick burst of hook-setting tension when needed.
  4. Pressing the line against the rod’s foregrip can prove useful when pumping a fish to the surface.

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