Ross and I were going tile fishing in Atlantic canyons off New York. It was my first time. Reaching these fish requires sending bait 800 to 1,000 feet deep using between two and five pounds of lead weight, depending on the current.
We arrived at the canyon and I made my first drop using three pounds of lead. Half-way down my arms, hands and fingers were already seriously fatigued. I decided I’d better not continue letting line out, but instead try to retrieve what was already down. After substantial time, making many stops to rest, I managed to get the gear back up. I was unwilling to again try manual fishing using such heavy weight, going so deep.
Ross was using his electric reel—a winch fit onto his fishing rod. I’d never seen nor heard of such a device before. The reel was powered by a 12-volt car battery placed on the deck. Ross let me use his electric reel, and he used the manual gear. I didn’t catch anything—fish were hard to find, but the electric reel gave me many ideas.
Except for commercial anglers, using an electric reel in the Mexican Pacific is strictly forbidden unless one has permission from the Governor of Baja. Permission may be obtained by sport anglers who have proof of a cardiac limitation: the application must include an affidavit completed by one’s personal physician. This is the only time that I realized having had a heart attack was my good fortune. I applied for and was given permission to fish for any species using an electric reel!
Once my application was approved, I purchased an electric reel and spooled it with 400 yards of 100-pound-test braid (Kevlar line). I tied a six-foot leader of 100-pound-test fluorocarbon to the end of the braid—to which I would tie whatever lure I wanted to fish. Rather than use a car battery to power the reel, I obtained a high-capacity rechargeable lithium battery which held a charge sufficient to operate the reel at full power for four hours. I connected the battery to my reel using a waterproof power cord. I put the battery and most of the power cord into a backpack which I would wear while fishing.
I decided to use this system to “fish the slide” for wahoo—a delicious game fish which is an exceptionally fast swimmer and prodigious predator. Small schools of marauding wahoo are located by trolling four lures from the stern of the boat. When a strike occurs, the Captain disengages the engines, the boat begins sliding to a stop, and anglers who are not among the four-angler troll team cast wahoo lures perpendicular to and from both sides of the boat. Letting cast lures sink for a minimum of twenty seconds, the lure is reeled in as rapidly as possible to attract and hopefully hook a wahoo.
I had my first opportunity to try the electric setup on a ten-day trip. We were trolling for wahoo and I was waiting to fish the slide. Two trolled lures had simultaneous strikes, so I flipped my lure into the water and let it sink for thirty seconds—I planned to retrieve it with maximum velocity (at full power), and thus I wanted more “running room” to improve my chance of getting a hit. I got a hit! There were no instructions available on how to catch a wahoo using an electric reel. I immediately set the reel to maximum drag, and began retrieving the line using the maximum speed setting. To my surprise the line was neither retrieving nor going out. Instead, the combination of power and retrieval speed of the reel precisely matched the strength and swimming speed of the wahoo! The reel quickly became warm and then hot, and the motor was making horrific grinding noises. A bit of white smoke came out of the handle-side of the reel. Some anglers, shocked by the sound of the struggling reel, exclaimed “Planet” (my nickname). Moments later a great deal of white smoke emanated from the reel and it completely obliterated everyone’s vision as though we’d entered a cloud! Anglers loudly exclaimed “P-l-a-n-e-t!” I responded, unhappily, “the wahoo is smoking my reel!”
I lost the wahoo after I turned off the reel (to keep it from melting). When we arrived back at the home docks, I sent the reel to Japan (where it was made) for servicing.
The next trip I had formulated a plan. When the wahoo was hooked, I’d let it run, adjusting the drag to allow it to swim away at the same rapid speed that was normally the case when hooked using a conventional reel. When the wahoo finally stopped—because it was exhausted, I would turn the retrieve speed to maximum for a second and then back off—analogous to socking the fish in the nose, and thereby turning its head to the side or toward the boat. A second later I would turn the retrieve speed back to maximum. If, and when, the fish began a strong fight, I’d turn the reel setting to maximum drag—which lowers the retrieve speed. This plan was designed to let the fish wind itself, then surprise it, then haul it in depriving it of rest, then muscle it in the moment it decided to fight.
On the first hook-up I implemented my plan. After socking the wahoo at the end of the run (when it was exhausted), and then turning on full-speed retrieve, the wahoo came straight in for approximately fifty feet, then it began to weakly fight. I turned on maximum power and the fish came straight in. When it reached the stern, its snout clanked into the aluminum hull. It was gaffed without trouble.
My dear friend, Ralph Michelson—known internationally as “the Long Ranger”, was watching this. It was the first time that he, or anyone else on the boat had ever seen this—that anyone had ever tried this. Ralph is arguably the most famous tuna angler in the world, having set numerous world records. He is a miracle of evolution, only using the largest, heaviest, most robust reels. He never abandoned his equipment for newer lighter rigs, as he is always hunting for yet another world record. I tried to determine how he performs such Herculean feats. For every hypothesis I ventured, he flashed his kindly smile and pointed upwards to the Heavens.
On that day I successfully hooked and landed a total of six consecutive wahoo using this methodology. Every time the process and result were identical. The Long Ranger was behind my left shoulder on all of these fish, watching me operate the reel. After I landed the sixth wahoo, Ralph told me: “Planet, I’ve got to get one of those.” It was the greatest complement a long-ranger could receive. Here is a photo Ralph took with me on that trip.
On subsequent trips we sometimes anchored in water which held a mix of gamefish, usually yellowfin tuna and wahoo. I decided to try casting my wahoo lure, setting the electric reel to free spool. This mandated that no other anglers were near to me, and that few anglers were fishing for wahoo. Anglers using conventional equipment don’t have the pulling power of my electric reel, so they must run up and down the sides of the boat following the wahoo. The electric reel impedes my mobility, and I didn’t want to cause others to lose their fish.
When the bite died down and the frantic fishing abated, I went to the bow and cast off my favorite dark-water lure. I let it sink for a good thirty seconds to obtain sufficient line-out to make an impressive high-speed return to the boat. The lure was devoured by a wahoo, so I followed my plan: let it run, then smack and haul-in. Leaving for Siberia on a research trip a few weeks later, I posed for a photo with my wahoo and a sign saying hello to my guide.
Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.
May 5, 2021