One of the most basic but challenging ways to catch fish is with a handline. While fishing with a conventional rod and reel set up, drag, gearing in the reel, and rod action are all working to help you tire out the fish and get it on board. Handlining has none of those advantages and it gives you the ability to feel the raw power of these incredible sportfish.
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In its simplest form handlining is fishing by hand using only line, bait, and hooks to help you catch fish. Other than noodling or spearfishing, this is one of the most basic and traditional styles of fishing that has been used around the world. The low tech tackle used for handling makes traveling with your gear easy while still allowing anglers to catch almost everything normally caught with a rod and reel.
Handlining uses simple tackle which makes it cheap and easy to maintain or fix. Similarly, because the gear is so basic the upfront cost is significantly less. A less obvious advantage is that handlining can be done while traveling to and from fishing spots without slowing down or letting out miles of line.
With a fishing rod, the line is held higher making trolling lures skip and dive between waves which is made worse with a bending rod that flings the lure around even more. Trolling the line in hand lets lures skip along the surface more easily because of the lower line angle and lack of spring in the line.
With conventional trolling when a fish bites and starts taking out line the captain usually slows the boat down or stops altogether, but with a handline that’s not necessary. Offshore handline setups usually use 200-300 lb test fishing line which means most fish will not break off. This means that you can still fight and land fish by hand without slowing down which means only one person needs to watch the line.
Handline gear can be set up to catch a surprisingly large variety of fish from sunfish at the lake to tuna on the rigs. Handlining gear can be adjusted just like conventional tackle where heavier and lighter tackle is used depending on the target species. While mahi mahi, snapper, and tuna are all attainable, a grander marlin is probably out of the question. Without the advantages that rods and reels offer, what is possible is limited by skill and the strength of your tackle. Smaller marlin might be manageable but catching exceptionally large fish that outweigh the capabilities of your tackle will likely get away.
Fishing with a handline is still popular in many countries around the world thanks to its simplicity and low entry cost. While I have personally seen handlining in use from Costa Rica to Hong Kong, you can get in on the action with one of our fishing trips in St. Barts.
Updated on April 6, 2023
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