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Carmen Macdonald

A passion for fishing and hunting grew into a career that's included Alaskan guide, media sales, writer and the politics of outdoor recreation. My company, Vaunt Marketing, represents industry-leading brands in the US and Canadian markets.

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June 26, 2012

Redefining Reel Sizes

by Carmen Macdonald

It's been more than 20 years since Tuf-Line released the first braided Spectra fiber fishing line. In the first ten years, only a few knew what it was. Over the next ten years, braids exploded to the point that manufacturers from Tuf-Line to Sufix to Berkley are now producing designer braids with specific applications in mind.

Spectra fiber fishing lines exponentially increased breaking strengths in comparison to monofilament lines of similar diameter. What we have come to take for granted at the tackle shop was, and is, revolutionary.

As anglers, we took this incredible increase in breaking strength with extremely small diameters and, and, and… fished it on the same gear we'd always used for monofilament lines. Kind of anti-climactic isn't it? 300 yards of 25-pound monofilament takes up X amount of space. 400 yards of 50-pound braid takes up less space. Shouldn't we gain in this equation with lighter weight and a reduced footprint throughout our gear?

The simple fact is that braided lines constructed of Spectra and Dyneema fibers so radically altered the game, fishing reels have just begun to catch up. Reels designs now have the capability to be much smaller, with drag outputs suitable for much stronger braided lines. Yet to date, very few maximize this opportunity. And those that are out there seem to suffer from impressions and expectations with regard to physical size that are grounded in a world dominated by monofilament.

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Venice, Louisiana with the Northwest sales representatives from Okuma Fishing Tackle, as well as two members of the team at Fisherman's Marine & Outdoor. Of course, we were equipped for anything with Makaira, Cedros, Andros and Isis reels, Makaira, Andros and Cedros Coastal rods.

We met our captain for day one ay 5:30 in the morning. Two dock carts were brimming with outfits. Upon laying eyes on the carts, the captain glances around his boat, then back at the carts. It was quickly obvious that some sorting of gear was going to take place.

Let's take these, leave these, take these. You can picture the conversation. I had stepped away, but by the end of it, all of the Andros reels and the rods they were on were summarily dismissed and packed back in the rented minivan.

On the first day anywhere, you have to differ to the experience of the captain.

The Okuma Andros is one reel that was designed and constructed specifically for 50-pound braid. It's an incredibly compact two-speed lever drag featuring 15-pounds of drag at strike, 24-pounds at full. It's backed by a 17-4 stainless steel drive system and holds a touch over 400-yards of 50-pound braid, all in a reel that you can lay out in the palm of your hand.

The captain was unfamiliar with it, judged it simply by size and the discussion was over.

We caught four yellowfin tuna that day from about 30- to 65-pounds. All of them came on Makaira 20 or 30 sized offshore reels. It was overkill at it's best. For a bunch of Northwesterners, fighting the gear was as much work as the fish themselves.

Day two, different captain. We skipped the conversation about what gear to bring along and simply loaded it all quickly, making it work. Off we go, headed 65 miles offshore to a location called Devil's Tower.

I tied short six-foot bumpers of 50-pound fluorocarbon to the 50-pound braid on three Andros combos, along with a Makaira 10. About 30 minutes out from our destination, the deckhand leans over to me and asks, "Which rods do you want to use for live bait?"

When I pointed them out, I got the look back that can only mean "really?" Yes, really.

I had to go through the one-two on specs to get past the deckhand. In the end it came down to the fact that if we got the crap beat out of us by a fish, we'd rather go down on the small gear than to walk all over sub-hundred pound tuna with gear fit for fish two and three times that size.

The deckhand smiled, "Let's do it!"

Arriving at Devil's Tower, busting yellowfin covered a half a mile. Two baits get pinned on the Makaira 20's… we had no confirmation of size at this point, better safe than sorry on the first one. The Venice area has plenty of tuna in the 100- to 200-pound class.

It took maybe a minute for the clicker to go nuts. Come tight, Randy is on it. 35-pounder.

We circle back and I grab an Andros. Rather than slow trolling a bait off the outrigger, we're going to do it more West Coast style, dead boat and free-swimming baits.

It took about 12 seconds to get bit on the lighter 50-pound leader. Everybody grabs a rod at this point. Braille a few baits over the side and the school is suddenly trying to chew the paint off the bottom of the boat.

What followed was an intoxicating blur. Controlled chaos. Baits went over the side and were eaten immediately. Yellowfin boiled everywhere. They darted in all directions, dark silhouettes amazingly visible in the crystal clear, purple-tinted water of the Gulf of Mexico.

Laughter and high-fives. Of course it's fun when the fishing is wide open, but it's even more so when you're matched properly with gear. The little Andros 5 and Makaira 10 two-speeds owned these fish of 25- to maybe 50-pounds, with plenty to spare. We'd have been fine with 80-pounders. Beyond that, it might have gotten interesting.

Comfortable, controllable, light, easy, fun…that's how we fished.

After a couple hour melee, we went on to other things (both days included lights out fishing for a host of species on the rigs). The deckhand twice went over the Andros and Makaira throughout the rest of the day. How much drag? How much line pickup? Complete freespool at those numbers?

Seeing is believing, and he now had the bug.

In my albeit limited experience in saltwater fishing on two coasts and south to Costa Rica, fish over 100-pounds have been the exception rather than the rule, with the only exception being billfish. Dorado, yellowtail, amberjack, rooster fish, snappers, most halibut and tuna, big lings, they're all in the wheelhouse of these small, easily-handled and incredibly fun next-gen reels.

With modern design and materials including carbon fiber drags and premium stainless steel gears, there's only one limitation to how small a reel can get. That's spool diameter. You can only make the diameter of a reel so small and spin it with so high of a gear ratio. In a big fish reel, in addition to drag output and raw strength, you also have to be able to gain line to win the battle. As spool diameters get smaller and smaller, there's only so many tricks to play before you're just not gaining line when cranking. In the Andros, a custom spool and frame design maximizes the diameter of the spool within the overall frame size. In high gear it picks up 42.1-inches of line with each turn of the handle. Keep in mind though that that is with a nearly full spool. Dump half that line on a big fish and the number goes down. Something to keep in mind anyway as more reels enter the category and you're making comparisons.

In addition to the Okuma Andros, have a look at the Avet Raptor SX and Shimano Talica II. In all cases, you're looking for strike drag ratings roughly 30% of the breaking strength of the leader. To get the most out of 40- to 50pound line, you'll want drag output in the range of 15-pounds of drag at strike.

The next ten years should be outstanding as companies invest in new tooling and designs to begin to take full advantage of braided lines. Fishing is not getting any less expensive. With every day on the water precious, refined and balanced equipment that maximizes the enjoyment of every fish becomes more and more important. My only question is how long, as anglers, our predispositions to "understood" reel sizes, their drag outputs and capabilities will take to catch up to the gear as it comes out.

June 05, 2012

Willamette Sturgeon- Go Big or Go Home

by Carmen Macdonald

If you have yet to notice, there's a ton of over-sized sturgeon in the Willamette River right now.

Over the last few years, it seems like their numbers have been growing. From what I understand, the biologists are a bit mystified also. Food source is the leading theory. The hypothesis is that the fish are simply following the food, in this case shad. Just as with salmon and steelhead though, you cannot over look temperature and flow as motivational features, capable of causing change in fish behavior. And lastly, maybe inside their tiny little brains, they're simply tired of being eaten by an escalating number of sea lions.

Nevertheless, if you can hit a deep spot in the Willamette River between the falls and Lake Oswego, perhaps further down too, you're almost certain to hookup with a river monster.

That's not to say that you should.

A group of us put in at Cedaroak on Sunday for a last ditch springer effort (trip was a bust, 63-degree water temp, La Boheme echoed through the area). There were a number of boats fishing sturgeon, many of which seemed well under-gunned for the fishery, evidenced by the fact that they were fighting these fish for around an hour.

In the slow current of the WIllamette and with the proper gear, these fish can be bested pretty quickly, as they should be. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing at all against targeting these fish. It can be a ton of fun to watch someone else manhandle one of these big Bertas. But at the same time, you have to have the gear to ensure you can win the battle as quickly as possible. In speaking with guides on the Columbia prior to that fishery being shut down, their target number was 15 minutes, in a lot more powerful river.

The big fish in the Willamette right now are all the big spawners. Not every one of them is there to spawn this year, but they are all spawners nonetheless. They hold the keys to the future of a population that seems to be suffering from poor recruitment.

These fish cannot be legally harvested. Fishing for them is 100% for sport. Here are a few thoughts on how to minimize the cortisone buildup within these fish to make sure you're releasing them in the best condition.

1. Power up the reel. Leave the star drag reels with 10-pounds of maximum drag output at home. They're great keeper reels but don't have the power for the over-sized fish. Get a lever drag reel with much greater drag output. They don't have to be the shiny marlin stuff. Many brands make affordable graphite framed lever drags. Okuma Solterra and Shimano TLD come to mind.

2. Heavy up the rod. Perhaps more important than the reel because if you cannot move the fish, it's pretty difficult to gain line. Think heavy, halibut-type rods with ratings in the 50-100 or 80-120 pound line range.

3. Stay right on top of the fish. Keep the boat right over the fish and don't give an inch. A good operator can save both the angler and the fish a lot of time and effort. Staying over top of the fish maximizes the available leverage in the rod.

I don't believe that the over-sized fishery at Bonneville dam played any role whatsoever in the recent decline of available keeper-sized sturgeon. I do think, from a simple common sense standpoint, that if these fish of spawning size are going to be targeted for catch-and-release, that doing so in a manner that minimized stress is simply good policy for anglers.

Have fun out there! Last night at Fisherman's I saw an end cap of big, slide-on rod butt cushions. I might recommend one of them too. It'll save your groin, stomach, kidney, liver and arm pits!
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