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BIG GAME FISHING 101


What Is Big Game Fishing?

If the term ‘big game fishing’ has you picturing anglers heading out into the middle of the ocean and catching monster fish, bigger than your average catch, you wouldn't be far off the mark. Big game fishing is all about reelin' in some of the biggest and baddest fish in the ocean.

 

big game fishing
A boat rigged for big game fishing.
 

The sport first came about shortly after the invention of the motorboat in the late 1800's, gaining popularity with better boating technology in the early 1900's. Big game fishing requires a team of people working together on a medium to large-sized boat, with one person usually reeling from a fighting chair while the boat continues its forward motion. A chair gives the angler a stronger base for fighting a big fish, while the boat's movement helps the fish to keep moving in the same direction as the retrieve. Everyone else helps land the fish when it gets close.

The species most associated with big game fishing are as follows:

Billfish (marlin, sailfish, and swordfish)

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Henry Waszczuk with a big sailfish.

Anglers from around the world consider billfish to be the cream of the crop when it comes to fishing, especially marlin – few would argue that the ferociousness of the fight, as well as the entertainment value, makes marlins the king of all big game fish. Many tournaments are held each year in North and Central America, many focusing on preserving these beautiful creatures with a catch-and-release format.

Tuna

Bluefin Tuna
Bob Izumi (left) catches a bluefin tuna.
Credit: Izumi Outdoors Inc.

Billfish get all the glory for their jumping ability when fighting, but tuna can be just as fun because they are often heavier fighters that can take even longer to reel in than marlins. The larger species are especially a treat, including yellowfin, bigeye, and bluefin. Prepare for a fight lasting several hours if you manage to catch a bluefin tuna over 1,000 pounds. Tuna is a big target for the commercial food industry, but make no mistake, it's big business on the recreational side as well.

Sharks

Sharks provide the fear factor for big game fishing trips. Mako sharks are among the most popular among anglers, thanks to their incredible fighting spirit and range throughout much of the Atlantic Coast of North America. However, there is also a sportfishing market for the more well known and larger toothy creatures: hammerheads, tiger, and yes, even the infamous great white shark. As you could well guess, caution is paramount when fishing for sharks due to their long, sharp teeth.


Why Go Big Game Fishing?

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Marlin
NOAA

In two words: it’s fun! Catching a big game fish, especially a larger-than-normal foe, is one of the most exhilarating adventures you could have. Watching that marlin jump for the first time will get anyone’s heart racing, while seeing the teeth of a mako shark up close will leave you speechless. Big game fishing trips are also a lot of fun because you never know what exactly is lurking underneath your boat, and the anticipation of what may strike your line is almost as exciting as catching a fish. Even if you don’t catch that monster you’re looking for, it’s still more than likely you’ll catch all kinds of accidental species that are still fun to reel in, like wahoo, barracudas, and dolphinfish.

As if getting out into the deep blue and doing your part to win the man vs. nature debate isn’t fun enough already, big game fishing tournaments bring an even greater level of intensity to it all. Adding the competition of others to what is normally just you and the fish makes a catch all the more pressure-packed, especially when tens of thousands of dollars are on tap for prizes, or even more in some tournaments.

The pursuit of getting the biggest fish you can find is not limited to personal glory or fishing tournaments. Big game fishing world records are hallowed accomplishments that will have your name forever enshrined next to a specific species – not too shabby a legacy. This is especially true for species notoriously hard to set a record for. Most recently, an angler broke a 33-year-old record for yellowfin tuna that has earned him international fame in the fishing community.


Best Places To Go Big Game Fishing

Big game fish are found all over the world, but if you really want the biggest, and plenty of them, then treat the locations below as your own personal angling bucket list.

Florida

shark fishing
Shortfin Mako Shark: 'You're going to need a bigger boat.'

The influx of the Gulf Stream makes the waters around Florida arguably the best fishing spot in the world. The Keys, especially, is a big game fishing hotspot for many species of fish, and you don’t even have to go farther than a mile from shore to find success. Marlin, sailfish, swordfish, tuna, sharks...Florida has it all. Though not always included in the technical definition of “big game,” the Keys are also home to the best tarpon fishing in the world, a fish just as powerful and entertaining as any marlin.

California

The birth place of deep sea sport fishing, especially for big game. Pacific bluefin tuna, striped marlin, and broadbill swordfish are the triple crown of big game fish for this state.

Cairns, Australia

In the world of big game fishing, nothing tops black marlin for its combination of size, speed, and power. The largest of all billfish, black marlins are known to breed in only one area, and that’s near Cairns, Australia, the black marlin capital of the world. Want a 1,000 pound specimen (affectionately known as “granders”)? Then a big game fishing trip to Cairns is just what the doctor ordered. And in case you haven’t heard, Australia is home to a large great white shark population, if you care to master your fear and give it a try.

Central and South America

Marlins are very prevalent south of the equator in the Americas as well. Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Costa Rica are all well-known for having a massive sport fishing fleet designed for marlin and tuna.

Nova Scotia

tuna fishing
Anglers pose around a 396-pound, 14.4 ounce bluefin tuna.
South Carolina DNR

If you want the biggest tuna in the world, then there’s only one place to go – Nova Scotia. The world record for bluefin tuna, the largest of all tuna species, was set along the northern coast: a 1,496-pound behemoth. Stop by in the summer and fall for when the fishing's at its hottest. Tuna's the big draw, but blue and mako shark fishing is also a popular sport in Eastern Canada.

Hawaii

Fishing may not be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of vacationing to Hawaii, but you’d be missing out on a terrific fishery for this popular getaway destination. The Kona coast, in particular, boasts one of the best blue marlin hotspots in the world. Marlins over 1000 pounds are not too uncommon.


What Equipment Do I Need To Go Big Game Fishing?

Going deep sea fishing isn’t as simple as hopping into any old boat with a simple rod and reel and hightailing it for the middle of the ocean. Having the right equipment is just as, if not more important, than your own skill and endurance when finding, catching, and landing big game fish.

Boat

big game fishing
An angler uses a fighting chair to reel in a big fish.
Rick Gaffney/NOAA

The most important piece of equipment is your boat. It's possible to catch big game fish from shore, but for the most part you need to get out to deep sea to fish for big game. Having a trusty, reliable boat that can get out and back worry-free is the ideal vessel. Boats for big game can be as short as 18 feet in length, which are used commonly in Australia and Hawaii, to as large 100 feet for long-range fishing, as seen off the coast of California. More often than not, however, boats fall somewhere in the middle, usually around 35 feet long. Big game fishing boats need space in the stern for a fighting chair and room to walk around and hold the fish if bringing the catch on board.

The cost of running deep sea fishing boats is expensive. Not only for the initial price of the boat for sale, but also the fuel, necessary electronics, maintenance, docking fees, insurance, and more. It is for this reason that most big game fishing is done through charters, so casual anglers can just hire a boating service for cheap rather than go through the finance and overall hassle of owning a boat.

And then there's big game kayak fishing. Sound ridiculous? Well, it helps having other boats around for support, but it is possible to catch a good-sized marlin in a kayak. Just check out the video below.

Electronics

For best results, boats should come equipped with radar, down or side-scanning fishfinding sonar, and temperature gauges measuring surface and below surface temperatures.

Bait and Tackle

Fishing rigs change based on the species you're targeting, but needless to say, a heavy duty rod and reel combo is critical for retrieving trophy big game fish. For example, a typical set up for catching big bluefin tuna is a 130-pound class reel with 200-pound Dacron line. Lures are possible for all species of big game, especially tuna, but more often than not, live bait is the way to go. Often, anglers will spend some time fishing for smaller fish – like wahoo and barracuda - and then using their catch as live bait.

Knowledge is Power

Having all the equipment to catch a fish is a great start, but they're all useless if you don't know where to find the fish. Big game fishing reports can be found all over the internet, containing a wealth of information submitted by other anglers concerning where fish are biting, what they're favoring for bait, where they're schooling/migrating patterns, and so much more. Finding trust sources will only help your fishing success.

Another good idea is to keep big game fishing journals. Document all your trips into a big game fishing journal not only for memory sake, but also as a resource for fishing patterns. For example, say you had success one year at a certain spot for sailfish throughout the month of September. Chances are they'll be back in the same spot next year at the same time. Documenting the weather for every trip will also give you an idea the best times to go out and what to expect.

Fishing License

Rules are rules, so be sure you have all the necessary license for the area you fish. Remember, just because you have a license for saltwater fishing in Florida, doesn't mean you're allowed to fish in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Fishing charters often include the cost of a day fishing license in the overall expense if you do not already have one.


Common Big Game Fishing Techniques

There are two primary ways of catching big game fish: trolling and chumming.

Trolling

Trolling is when you have one or more fishing lines, baited with lures or live bait, drawn through the water behind the boat as the vessel moves in forward motion. Artificial lures are more popular for tuna species, while live bait works best for both marlin and sharks. Spoons and flashers, plugs, and squid-shaped tubes are popular lure choices. When a fish is caught, drivers continue to keep the vessel in motion to help keep the catch astern of the boat.

Chumming

big game fishing
Fishing bait that could be used for chum.

Chumming is where you throw chunks of bait fish overboard to attract gamefish. This is an especially useful tactic for sharks. However, please read the regulations of the area you are fishing in as some states do not allow the process of chumming. One example can be seen in Alabama, where chumming was deemed illegal in certain waters in an attempt to prevent the potential danger of sharks associating feeding with the presence of humans. Once fish get in the area, anglers cast out lures or live bait in an attempt to entice a bite. You can also chum as you troll for good results.

Fly Fishing

For monster-sized big game fish, trolling and chumming is the way to go, but there are other methods, though they tend to yield smaller catches. Big game fly fishing is becoming a popular activity for both marlin and tuna. As you can imagine, having heavy enough tackle is paramount to success. Chumming the water and waiting for fish to arrive is a useful tactic.