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To Reel or Not to Reel

To Reel or Not 300Over the last couple of years I’ve been slowly converted to the joys of a reel gun. It has been a gradual transition but I now have reels mounted on all but one of my guns and I find it hard to consider using anything else.

The main benefit you get from going to a reel is freedom from the drag of a floatline and floats and the associated tangles. Using a reel does have some major disadvantages over the traditional set-up which will be discussed later but for me at least the benefits far outweigh the extra hassles.

I have used many different types of reel set-ups over the years but had always considered them unsuitable for the majority of my diving, particularly with big fish like kingies. A trip to South Africa and several dives with Rob Allen and a few of his mates however forced me to reconsider a lot of my assumptions. These guys were almost exclusively using reels. They were diving in deep water in strong currents and targeting big fish. Everything else from the Dive Factory has been perfectly suited to New Zealand conditions so it made sense that the new Vecta reels would be too. The performance benefits to your diving without a floatline holding you back are profound but the inadequacy of the light weight, euro reels available were a major hold back. At the time of my trip the Rob Allen Vecta reels were well and truly in full production and in typical RA style had solved all the practical issues plaguing the other reels on the market.

The more diving I do the more important I find simplicity in my equipment. The fact of the matter is that if you want to shoot more fish you need to get closer to more fish first. This means maximizing your time on the bottom in the right areas and diving better. No amount of slip-tips or bungees or breakaways or extra rubbers are going to help with this. If you want to enter the water as an athlete you need to be as free as possible. When I first started out with a reel I was only using it while snapper snooping in the shallows. It was fantastic. I no longer had to think about where my floatline was going before I dived and I could concentrate solely on where I thought a fish might be parked and the best way to get myself there unnoticed. Then I started thinking that it would be nice while weedlining as well in some deeper water. Good weedlines have a reasonable amount of current running over them and when diving with a float and line I’ve often had to pull the float up next to me so that I don’t get a lot of drag when I dive. The reel gun made diving the deep water a breeze. No drag meant I was more relaxed on the surface and could stay longer on the bottom without my float trying to pull me off.

Matt 30kg 300wBy this stage I was becoming hooked. The one thing that still worried me though was what would happen if a big fish rolled past? Big snapper can fight really hard but in the shallows they’re not much of a concern and out on the weedlines tarakihi and boaries etc were no problem but what if a big kingy turns up? The guys in SA were shooting some massive fish with their reels but they were mostly spanish mackerel and garrick and other fish that speed off and fight near the surface. A big kingy only wants to go in one direction and that’s straight down. How would I stop it without a float? That got me thinking about floats – I’ve shot a lot of kingies and some of them have been very big but I have never once had a fish pull my entire floatline out and fight against my float. Not once. I’ve seen others try and let their float do the work but unless you’re in very deep water it inevitably results in a huge tangle and a lost fish. So no float was going to be more of a psychological barrier than a real one. At about 2mm reel line is much thinner than a typical 6mm floatline though so the actual fight is going to be more difficult and extra care needed to prevent tangles that could end in disaster. There was only one thing to do and that was to go and plug some small kingies and see what happens. What happened was some of the most thrilling fights I’d had in years. The fight with reel line is much more intimate, you have to be far more aware of what’s going on and its fun, really fun. After the first few kingies I was confident I’d be fine on a big fish and it would only be a matter of time until I met one. When that time came it was probably my most memorable fight ever. I had been diving on a goldy rock out at Great Barrier Island and had just started what I was expecting to be a long descent to around 25-28m. A few moments into my drop some movement caught my eye and I saw a couple of very healthy kingys lazily swimming along a crack with a bronze whaler in tow. Usually a bronzey would dwarf a kingfish but these ones didn’t seem much smaller so I decided to have a closer look. I angled my fins to alter my descent to intercept the kingies just as they would pop out of the crack into clear water. My timing was good and I placed a great holding shot through the gill plate of the last fish. Then all hell broke lose. While my shot would never pull out it hadn’t hit the fish anywhere important and it wasn’t injured or slowed down at all. I was now down 20 odd metres with a long climb ahead and I had to try and pull this raging fish away from a cave by a line that was starting to look and feel like dental floss. I managed to fight my way back to the surface and keep the fish out of the rocks and then got my arse kicked for the next 5 minutes. It was awesome. When I finally got the fish in close my spear had been bent almost 90 degrees where it had gone into the fish’s head and been bashed against the rocks. There were deep gouges out of the steel and its head was all cut up where he’d been trying to get into caves. The kingy went a shade over 30kg and confirmed in my mind that a reel was more than up to the task of hard fighting fish.

Now I use reel guns for just about everything. My 120 Carbon RA with reel is my weapon of choice for most things in New Zealand and my 130 version for in the coral. Diving in the tropics I’ve found the benefits of the reel even more pronounced than here. Most of the diving is deep and in current so the freedom of the reel gun is fantastic. I’m also able to get much closer to the very flighty species we target without a floatline jerking around me. The other benefit that I hadn’t thought of is that with a reel you get the main advantages of running a breakway rig without any of the associated problems. When a fish runs you still have the gun in your hand so the fish is far less likely to tangle up if it gets to the bottom (this is why I recommend dyneema as the best line to use as it won’t cut if it gets run over rocks or coral) and if it does tangle down deep you’ll only lose your spear and some line rather than your whole gun.

Whoops 300Before you mount a reel on your gun though there are a few draw backs that you need to consider. The first and foremost being that you no longer have a float. You can still use a float and line with a reel gun but it seems a bit pointless to me. As mentioned earlier I don’t think that a float is important for fighting the fish but their other functions are;
Visibility: Your float is your main piece of safety equipment. It signals your position to boats and to friends keeping track of you. A friend of mine had to swim 20km through the night after his boatman lost track of him in a large swell in Indonesia. If you dive in areas of high boat traffic you must have a float or boat flying a flag very close to you. If you are diving without a float it’s important that you have a safety sausage or other signaling device on you at all times.
Transporting your catch: What are you going to do with your catch if you don’t have a float – tying it to your weightbelt is the wrong answer! I very rarely shoot more than one or two fish when I dive and usually swim them straight to the boat. Other times I will stash them up on a rock and pick them up later (I find a loop of cord helps as extra security in case a rogue wave comes through). For small fish, like tarakihi, I don’t mind having them tied to the handle of my gun for short periods of time.
Security: With reelguns, if you drop them you lose them! When you start using a reelgun you must remember to hang onto it. You wouldn’t be the first to shoot a great fish and automatically let go of your gun but I doubt the knowledge you’re in such good company will be much consolation.
One way of getting around these problems is by having your float on a drop weight or hook rather than attached to your gun so you can drop it whenever you like. This works particularly well on some weedlines or pinnacles where you’re diving a relatively small area. You can just anchor the float and dive around it. This system is a little convoluted if you need to cover some distance though.

The second major drawback is the thinness of reel lines and the entanglement hazard. Obviously having a lot of slack, thin cord floating around you with a hard fighting fish attached is a major hazard. If you find you ever have difficulty keeping a normal floatline under control it may be best to get a few more hours up before switching to a reel.

There are also a couple of unique hazards to reels that usually result in a lost gun that you need to be aware of.

Matt NYE 10kg 1(copy)The first is muzzle wrap. This is when your reel line gets jammed around the muzzle or rubbers of your gun and stops the line from spooling off the reel. No big deal with a small fish as you can just skull drag it up but with a big one it can mean you have to let go of your gun. There are three things that usually cause muzzle wrap. The first is the type of muzzle your gun has. With basic open muzzle design where the rubber isn’t actually held firmly in place and is able to ‘flip’ over there is a far greater chance of the rubbers tangling the line. The next is the position of the crimp or knot holding your shooting line into the spear. There’s no set distance for where this crimp should be, as a general rule the crimp should be about level with the back notch on your spear, but sometimes they just seem to catch. If you have just changed your shooting line make sure you have a few shots with it before tackling any monsters. The last, and probably most common, cause is simply not having your lines all rigged up neatly. Make sure that your shooting line isn’t making wraps around the spear and is going to be able to run freely as soon as you pull the trigger.

The second is reel jamming. This usually happens one of two ways either by an overfilled reel jumping the spool or by the reel free spooling and getting jammed. You must be very careful not to overfill your reel. There should be a good 5-10mm of spool sticking out from the line. I used to take this too far by only putting 30m of line on my reel. I figured that would be more than enough for me to reach the surface if a fish holed up on me. Lying at 22m watching a 20kg+ kingy practically eating my spear tip while I did calculations about how far a fish could swim horizontally in the time it would take me to climb to the surface showed me the folly of that approach. When you first spool you reel up try not to do it too neatly as you’ll never be able to repeat it in the water with gloves on and you’ll end up with too much line on. Free spooling occurs when you don’t have the drag set right and a fish tears off and the reel keeps spinning from the force creating a birds nest. This is an easy matter with a quality reel but with lots of the lesser products around the drag is loosened as the reel spins – one reel in particular from a very big brand is notorious for the whole spool unscrewing as your fish screams off. When choosing a reel make sure it has a drag system. This is usually simply a nut that screws down pressing the spool against a bushing that regulates how easily it spins. Remember that in all things spearfishing less is more and stay away from any complicated designs. The best way to test the reels drag system is to set the drag and then yank the line as hard as you can – if this changes the setting either tightening or loosening stay away from it as it will eventually result in a lost gun.
Personally I always swim around with the drag cranked right up tight. After shooting I immediately ascend to keep the line off the bottom. If it’s a small fish and/or shallow I grab the line and just try and drag the fish up with me. If it’s a big fish and/or I have a long climb ahead I back the drag right off as I ascend and grip my gun mid barrel with the line running under my fingers. As I ascend I can control the line by changing the strength of my grip and by tilting the muzzle up or down. Other divers like to use the palm of their hand directly on the reel which essentially does the same thing. As soon as you hit the surface you throw the gun away, grab the line and fight the fish as you would normally. It is absolutely essential that you keep swimming upcurrent constantly to prevent your line entangling you on the surface. If your buddy is fighting a fish with a reel it can be very helpful if you crank the drag right up on their gun for them and/or wind up some line.

So as you can see reels have a couple of drawbacks and may not be for everyone but they’re definitely for me and other divers who hate the drag of a floatline As we come into winter your focus is going to be on smaller fish and snapper where the reelgun is ideal. Give it a go and it may be hard to go back to your floatline come spring!


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