Six of us brought 11 bluefins to the boat that day. Because I was sixth in rotation, I hoped the skipper would call it a day before No. 12 ate a bait, so I wouldn't be called out of my corner for a second round.
I ached where I didn't have parts.
So when I was invited to go during Dennis Braid's foray out of Morehead City last January to watch him fight giant bluefin with stand-up tackle, I thought it was a great opportunity to photograph somebody hauled overboard. Pulitzer shot, for sure.
The trip was scheduled for January 12 aboard Captain Pete Manuel's Delta Dawn, arguably one of the fastest boats of the Morehead City waterfront (252-240-1403). Manual is one of the foremost bluefin tuna skippers in this area with lots of stand-up experience.
You could say he's a stand-up sort of guy.
I thought this kind of fishing for this kind of fish looked like a young man's sport, and Manuel confirmed it.
"Even more than with billfishing, stand-up fishing for giant tuna is risky business, and not for everyone," he said.
The evening prior to the trip, I was in Morehead City where I met Braid and his fishing buddy, Dick Meirowitz, an attorney from upstate New York.
Big-game aficionados know Braid owns Braid Products of Palmdale, Calif., a manufacturer of big-game tackle, related equipment, lures, and specialty items (e.g., rods, gaffs, hook disgorgers). He's an inventor who creates items to do a job better, but not based on what writers write, authorities announce or editors emote.
He tests his ideas around the world from Mexico to New Zealand and beyond (a tough job, but somebody has to do it).
Meirowitz had stand-up fished with him for Pacific yellowfin tuna in the 200-pound class some 1,000 miles south of San Diego off Baja, Calif. These long-range, long-time live-aboard trips are unlike anything that happens in North Carolina, but for Braid and Meirowitz, it's just spring training for bluefins.
This year was Braid's tenth winter fishing for giants in the offshore waters of North Carolina. He's been doing it stand-up from day one, and promoting this fantastic fishing through national magazines, videos, and other enthusiasts such as local Pete Manuel.
Meirowitz has fished for bluefin tuna in the Hudson Canyon out of Montauk. But those fish usually top out at 200 or so pounds. He'd never tackled a quarter-ton tuna and didn't know until recently that giants occurred 500 miles south of his home, and a hop, skip and jump off the beach.
I was curious, expecting a fullback or a Schwarzeneggar-type willing to go toe to fin with a giant bluefin. But Braid looks like any guy you'd pass on the street or meet at a fishing club.
Because giant bluefin are awe-inspiring, I asked him how an average-size guy could stand up to a quarter-ton fish while, pardon the expression, standing up?
Braid gleefully whipped out a home video on how it's done.
Stand-up is counter-intuitive, with Braid in that video doing what I thought you can't, shouldn't, and couldn't do. But doing the unthinkable can work with the right equipment if an angler is willing to unlearn what he's done all his life and start over with an entirely new approach.
But it's risky, so safety comes first.
Stand-up fishing requires a leash in case (a "big" in case) the angler goes overboard through a mis-step, slip or simple bad luck. A short cable attached to the (vacant) fighting chair is hooked to the base of the reel, so if rod and angler go over the side, the gear remains cabled to the boat. The cable is short so an angler hauled overboard travels no more than a few feet off the transom where he can be reached. With the cable attaching the boat to the reel instead of the angler, the poor guy doesn't become a rubber band between boat and fish.
He's on a separate dropper (the detachable harness) out of the line of pull. Quick release clips from the harness to the tackle let the angler slip out so he can be pulled aboard while the rod is still tightly tethered to the fish.
The equipment is pretty special. Besides the short-stroke rod, heavy-duty reel, bucket harness and front plate-mounted gimbal, stand-up fishing entails line strong enough to hold the fish but weak enough to break in an emergency, plus gloves to protect hands from fine monofilament that could slice to the bone like a bandsaw, kneepads to protect from the bouncing, pounding transom and polarized sunglasses to help anglers visualize a fish when it's close.
Braid uses big Penn reels and a quality short-stroke rod his company manufactures. Equally important is a unique two-piece bucket harness with a back support protecting the angler's kidneys and spine and a lower section that wraps around the butt.
The two parts hinge together like a folding chair.
The bucket harness spreads and rotates the pressure above and below the angler's center of gravity, so the pressure is diffused over a wide area and can move around without an angler having to respond while keeping his balance. It's more comfortable than having to adjust the body and to balance to center the fish's heavyweight pressure.
The harness straps both rear sections to a large gimbal plate that protects an angler's groin and also spreads pressure widely.
Short forward straps from the harness latch onto the side plates of the reel. In his video, Braid used an 80SW Penn International.
The end clips of the quick- release strap are flared to easily slip in and out of the side-plate bracket holes. That lets the angler readily slip the clips from the reel without having to bend them.
Anyway, that's the theory. So far, Braid hasn't been pulled over the side as a test (maybe next year).
The knee pads and heavy gloves round out the equipment. But how does one use all this stuff?
When fishing over a railing, most anglers lift with their arms and back. When in a fighting chair, anglers push with their legs, but the arms and back still get a workout. In either case, older anglers eventually wear out and need a break.
Instead of lifting his arms or pushing with his legs, Braid (I couldn't believe this until I saw it) leans back into the boat's cockpit, keeping his upper body straight and seeming to fall backward, using his body weight instead of his arms.
He doesn't hold the rod, since the harness does that work. Simply bending his body backward results in the rod lifting upward.
With hands holding the top of the reel like the reins of a bucking horse, Braid evenly guides incoming line (when he gets any) onto the spool because his reel doesn't have a level-wind.
Once more from the top: by leaning or falling backward, all the angler's weight is on the fish, which either slows or stops, or drags the angler over the side.
In order to gain on the fish, the angler slowly rises, cranking as he goes. It's like pumping backward with his body instead of his arms and back (rod and body are one thanks to the bucket harness), and cranking on the rise as the rod is lowered to gain line.
"You can't let the fish rest," Braid said. "When he runs, he fights the drag, and when he stops, he fights my weight hauling on him."
Braid never lets up. At first, the fish has to fight a strike pressure set at 30 pounds. But then Braid pushes the drag lever forward to increase pressure to 45 pounds and finally to 60 pounds or more, twice what most of us use, which wears the fish out quickly.
Several companies can modify reels to increase maximum-drag pressure. Meirowitz's reel had been adjusted to more than 70-pounds drag pressure.
Stand-up fishing with a bucket harness allows an angler to use his own weight instead of his arm and leg muscles. Why wear out your muscles when you can relax them and simply drop backward?
If an angler sits in a fighting chair, it generally takes about 40 minutes to beat an average big bluefin. Braid averages 15 to 20 minutes standing up and has brought fish to the boat after 7 minutes.
Fighting chairs may look like wheelchair fishing, but sit-down is all leg and arm and back muscles, and muscles give out. Braid, on the other hand, can fall backward all day long without breaking a sweat.
During four days in January aboard the Delta Dawn, Braid and Meirowitz reeled in 11 giant tunas, the largest 528 pounds, probably none less than 400 pounds. Most fish were handed off to the Calcutta, one of two tagging boats (the other was the Forty Something).
Each fish was fitted with an archival tag under the Tag-A-Giant program. If and when these fish are eventually butchered, each tag returns $1,000 reward will assure the data aren't wasted.
Any high-quality, two-speed reel will work.
Braid alters his drags to increase braking power, which shortens the fight and helps survival of the tunas by preventing buildup of lactic acid in the bloodstream of the fish. More important is knowing what to do with what one has got.
Manuel uses Shimano Tiagara 50 LRS two-speed reels, with at least 350 yards of 130-pound Calcutta braided line backing, loop-to-loop connected to 100 yards of MoMoi Top Shot line. Manuel prefers a 5-foot leader of 180- or 200-pound-test MoMoi.
"I like a short leader, because there isn't much working room between a stand-up angler and the fish, and a maximum strength of 200 pounds is insurance that the leader will break in an emergency," Manuel said.
"You've got to understand that this is not for everybody. It's high-risk fishing, an extreme sport, and while you don't necessarilly need strength, you do need skill, confidence in yourself and the skipper, and you'll get better with experience if you can stick with it. A lot of guys don't."
About 15 to 17 percent of Manuel's bluefin tuna clients now try stand-up fishing, and it's been increasing every year because he, Braid, and others promote this new kind of fishing few people can imagine and not many skippers will accommodate.
Manuel won't take anyone out for stand-up sessions. He wants to look the guy over, question him and get comfortable the guy won't be a danger to himself and everyone else.
The short rod is a critical element. Braid manufactures his own, so I wasn't surprised to see his 4 ½-foot rod with short butt and medium taper. I had expected something a little longer for leverage.
"You've got it backwards," Braid said. "With a short rod and a position overhead, you've got the leverage on the fish, but with a longer rod the fish has leverage on you."
To use leverage, one has to be fishing down, not out, so it's the skipper's job to chase the fish and put the stern straight up above. That allows the angler to lift the fish's head up, putting the fish off balance, shortening the distance from the fish to the rod, and putting maximum pressure to tire the fish quickly.
It also helps to have relatively little mono on top (100 yards or less) to minimize stretching and to increase pressure. The non-stretch backing filling the remainder of the spool doesn't give up anything.
Manuel uses a mix of Braid's rods and Star standup rods but considers Braid's the best on the market. He also said Braid's Power Play bucket harness was the best-made harness - quality materials besides good engineering - he'd ever seen.
"I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it," he said.
This past year, the commercial guys asked for a delayed season on their limited take in order to get the larger fish that come later in the year. Are these fish really getting bigger? When I was at Morehead, I saw boats come in with what looked like 500-pound-class fish.
"Most years they average 275 to 300 pounds," he said, "but this year they've been running 350 pounds dressed, so there have been a lot of 500-pound-class fish."
It's been a tough weather year for Morehead skippers, with lots of hard blow days that scotched any possible commercial or recreational trips.
Manuel hopes for better weather this winter, and Braid is praying alongside him.