Stand-up fishing

Popular but incorrect stand-up fishing techniques can strain the lower back. Fishing rods should be short enough to fish at an angle without putting strain on the lower back. Fishermen can lean against the weight of the fish with customized harnesses.
The first striped marlin I ever caught was memorable for several reasons. I counted at least 97 jumps in the spectacular fight, and there may well have been more. I was fishing with the late Morton D. “Buster” May in the Humboldt Current off Cabo Blanco, Peru, from the rough wooden-planked deck of a commercial fishing boat. The rail surrounding the raised aft deck, to which a makeshift chair had been lag-screwed, was only ankle-high and Buster had a bad leg and a bad arm that made moving around a pitching deck difficult.

Despite his handicaps, Buster was not only a skilled, world-record-holding angler, but was also an expert photographer. I fought the fish standing up long after I would have normally gotten into the fighting chair because Buster was in the chair filming the show. By the time we got the fish, almost an hour after hooking up, my back was killing me.

The tackle was 30-lb. class, but, with new line, a smooth drag, and good roller guides, it was possible to use up to 20 pounds of drag. With the 51/2-foot-long rod tip and 18-inch butt I was using, the leverage against me magnified the 20-pound drag so that the strain on my arms and back reached torturous levels.

The rod became a second-class lever with a fulcrum in the padded belly gimbal strapped around my waist. Even allowing for the shortening of the rod tip by some 11/2 feet–due to the bend in the tip section–the overall lever (rod) was roughly 51/2 feet long.

Five-and-a-half feet of rod length times 20 pounds of drag yields 110 foot-pounds of torque trying to wrest the rod from my grasp. The straps of the shoulder harness I was using were fastened to the harness lugs on the reel, and thus supported approximately 73 pounds of pull (110 pounds divided by 11/2–the length from the butt-end of the rod to the center of the reel). That strain was painfully hard on my then-young lower back.

There is an unsettling amount of misinformation–some of it deliberately self-serving–being spread about fighting fish standing up. The most expert group of anglers at catching big fish standing up are the California long-range party boat addicts. They have developed highly specialized tackle and techniques that have gained wide acclaim and acceptance on the East Coast. Unfortunately, along with this popularity have come some incorrect and even dangerous assertions.


The drag settings some proponents are claiming and the angling methods they are espousing can be injurious to the lower backs of novice stand-up anglers. Admissions of how frequently some of the “experts” have to give up on tough fish are routinely missing from accounts of their exploits; and exaggerated size claims of other tag-and-release “captures” are giving false impressions of what stand-up angling is really for and about.

Cal Sheets customizes reels for the top stand-up tuna anglers in California. I was in his Pasadena shop recently and I asked what rods he uses. His personal rods for 80- or 100-lb. mono line for yellowfin tuna up to 300 pounds were much shorter, but not much stiffer, than the rod I had used with 30-lb. line for my first striped marlin. They were nothing like the heavy “stump pullers” we use from chairs when chasing giant marlin or bluefin tuna.

Also, the foregrips were much longer, allowing the rod to be grasped well above the reel, thereby decreasing the leverage against the angler as much as possible. “We really don’t ‘pump’ like you’re used to doing,” said Cal. “We use these short, flexible rods to lower the leverage factor, and we grind on the reels in low gear to pick up line when a tuna pinwheels.”

The specialized California harnesses allow an angler to almost sit against the weight of the fish without lower back strain. “I make reels that can put over 35 pounds of drag on the line, but there’s no way the average man can take that much pressure standing up, especially if the boat is moving in a sea,” Cal explained. “We need heavy line on the long-range boats because we have so many hook-ups at one time and the lines often get crossed.”

With the increase in small, fast, outboard-or outdrive-powered boats, standup gear allows the average angler to catch all but the very largest marlin and tuna. (To date, no one has claimed the huge prizes offered for 1,000-pound-plus captures.) But it is not a technique intended to replace using a chair for large fish. Finally, a tip: Forget pelvic thrusting or thrashing; just sit against the harness.

Stand-up Equipment

Reels: Two-speed reels are a must. To keep the rod and reel as light as possible, reels generally hold line testing greater than that for which they are rated–and they must be rugged! Fin Nor and Penn reels are preferred. Buy new reels or get good, older, one-speed reels converted. (Contact Cal Sheets for two-speed conversions. Phone: 818-793-5461.)

Rods: Stand-up rods are shorter and more flexible than standard trolling rods and have extended foregrips–all to decrease leverage against the angler. Top quality guides are a must.

Harnesses: Custom-made stand-up harnesses ride lower than normal to reduce back strain. Gimbals are set on padded fiberglass or metal and rest on the upper thighs. Harnesses pull from the hips and buttocks, not the kidneys or upper back. Braid, Rip-Off, Stinger, and Tanaguchi make harnesses used by California experts.

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