While leadering an estimated 250-pound blue marlin off North Carolina during the 1994 Big Rock tournament, Chris Bowie was pulled over the side and disappeared under the surface, never to come up again. Just last year off San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sigfredo Santana suffered the same fate while leadering a 700-pound blue. Each man was a seasoned mate, fishing with experienced tournament anglers and captains who watched the excitement of bringing a large fish to boatside turn to sheer horror in a flash.
Both accidents occurred because of leaders - leaders so long that these men had to "leader" or "wire" the fish to pull it close enough to tag or gaff. This process really should be referred to as "hand lining" because that's exactly what happens when anglers can reel in their line only to the swivel before someone else must pull in the entire leader by hand. Thirty feet, 20 feet, even 10 feet is a long way. Serious accidents can occur at this stage of the end game.
According to International Game Fish Association rules, which apply to record catches and most offshore tournaments, leaders cannot exceed 15 feet on tackle 20-pound or under; leaders on heavier tackle can measure no more than 30 feet. Such unwieldy stretches of heavy line are hard to handle even before you leave the dock, but you can fish maximum-length leaders safely and conveniently. How? By using wind-on leaders.
What Are Wind-On Leaders
A wind-on leader attaches to the main line in such a manner that allows, as the name implies, cranking the leader through the rod guides and safely stowing it on the reel. Conventional leaders force anglers to stop reeling when the swivel reaches the rod tip, bringing only the double line onto the spool and leaving the rest of the leader hanging out the rod tip to deal with.
During the past two years, I've been speaking to fishing clubs along the East Coast about the advantages of wind-on leaders. Though most have heard about such leaders, relatively few anglers use them on a regular basis - mainly because they don't understand exactly what wind-ons are or how to apply them to a particular type of fishing. But once converted, few go back to using old-style leaders. Lee Green of Stalker Outfitters in Westhampton Beach, New York, says, "It takes some time and effort to fully explain the advantages of wind-on leaders but educated customers love them."
Wind-ons consist of the same materials (monofilament, fluorocarbon or cable) that make up conventional leaders, with the addition of about 24 inches of Dacron or Spectra at one end (called the splice). This braided line grips mono or cable just like the "Chinese handcuff" trick: Leader material slides into the hollow core of the Dacron or Spectra and cannot be pulled out. A loop at the end of the braided line provides a means of connecting leader to main line.
An end loop in the main line formed by a spider hitch, Bimini twist, Australian braid or other dependable knot, secures the wind-on with a double loop-to-loop (passing loops through each other twice). Though simple, this connection must be done correctly to ensure proper performance. In most cases, the resulting knot remains very small and has no trouble passing through standard rod guides. Note: You must use loop-to-loop connections; the wind-on will fail if connected to the main line via any other method.
The swivel hasn't been eliminated but relocated to a point much farther down the line, tied or crimped at the end of the leader. Most commercially available wind-ons measure 25 feet, which means you can attach 5 feet of leader material to all baits or artificials and keep the combined length an IGFA-legal total of 30 feet - the maximum allowed for 30-pound-and-over tackle and probably longer than your present leader. Adjust lengths of each section to fit your own needs. For example, if you prefer 7 feet of heavier material at the business end of your leader, just cut the wind-on to 23 feet. The total leader length remains 30 feet.
Why Use Wind-Ons?
This system allows greater safety when using 30-foot leaders because nobody needs to hand-line hot fish by taking wraps of leader. As the swivel reaches the rod, the fish lies 5 feet from the tip and the angler exerts considerably more control over the situation. Charles Perry, wire man for Stewart Campbell aboard the Chunda and without question the most experienced in the business, says,"Leadering large fish is dangerous, even for veteran mates. I feel everybody should be using wind-on leaders in most cases."
But not in every situation, as Perry explains: "When Stewart goes for world records on light tackle, usually 30-pound test, we won't rig wind-on leaders. We know we're in for a long fight and don't want the splice section and loop-to-loop connection to wear out by going through the guides repeatedly. On heavier tackle we always use wind-on leaders." Perry has wired close to 100 grander marlin and has been pulled over the side three times - by fish between 200 and 400 pounds, not granders.
If you want to see how fast this can happen, and not only to the wire man, obtain a copy of the video "Cockpit Chaos" (call Nautical Dreams at 252-441-2425). You'll see the angler - Campbell - yanked out of the chair and over the side by a blue marlin. The accident transpires in a fraction of a second. But just because you're not battling large fish doesn't mean you shouldn't be using wind-on leaders. Besides added safety, these leaders offer certain conveniences.
Stand-Up and Wind-On
Few recreational anglers fish with a professional crew on board, let alone a full crew with dedicated wire man. But when using stand-up gear and wind-on leaders, anglers can bring fish so close to the boat that a wire man becomes unnecessary. Several years ago, a colleague and I made believers out of two friends during an overnight tuna trip in the Northeast canyons. We set out four rods, each with a wind-on leader tied directly to a hook baited with a chunk of butterfish. Suddenly we were into a quadruple-header -- four people onboard, each fighting a yellowfin in the 80-pound class -- with no extra hands to gaff. When the first fish reached boatside, within 4 feet of the rod tip, my buddy simply put the rod in a holder and gaffed his own tuna. Our two guests had never before seen a tuna so easily subdued.
Capt. Walt Hendee runs the 57-foot custom Carolina, Sea Warrior, in pursuit of marlin off Cape May, New Jersey. Wind-on leaders grace all his trolling outfits. According to Hendee, "A wind-on leader makes an inexperienced mate look like an expert because he doesn't have to take any wraps of the leader as anglers bring fish boatside. Done correctly, grabbing a marlin's bill can be a whole lot easier than handling the leader -- and it's also easier to let go of. That bill can do a lot of things, but it's not going to wrap around your hand and pull you over."
Anglers lose fish at the transom for many reasons; wind-on leaders help cut down on these losses. During the fight, fish become used to pressure applied by the angler and tackle such as the pumping of the rod, drag from the reel and resistance of line in the water. The wire man fails to duplicate these pressures, and fish seem to come alive again when they sense this change, starting to fight with renewed vigor.
How often have you seen a mate grab the leader and accidentally pop off a fish? In no way can he know exactly when to let go just before reaching the line's breaking point. When using wind-on leaders, this point of no return never becomes an issue because the reel's drag setting maintains precise pressure on the fish. It's much easier for the angler to bring a fish right up to the boat with a rod and reel than for a mate to hand-line it, and since the angler exerts total control throughout the fight, lighter leaders represent a viable option because breaking strength becomes less of a factor.
Game fish spooked at boatside often dive under the hull. Faced with this situation, anglers using wind-on leaders can quickly extend the rod tip over the gunwale or even into the water to avoid cutoffs. Anglers stand a better chance of controlling and steering fish with the rod than a wire man does with only his hands and arms.
From the Chair
Fighting large fish from the chair presents a different scenario in wind-on angling. Someone must wire the fish, but not in the normal fashion. Instead of taking wraps on the leader to muscle fish to the boat, the mate uses his palms to keep the leader away from covering boards and other obstacles, steering the fish into position while the angler cranks in line and brings the fish closer.
But even when using wind-ons, it may be necessary to leader fish in the traditional way. For example, a fatigued angler may not muster enough force to keep a fish coming to the boat in the final stages of the fight. At this point, the angler can at least take up line that would normally coil behind the wire man and snake its way around the cockpit. Excess leader hanging loosely behind the wire man's hand or laying on deck causes serious problems to unfold with old-style leaders. Taking up slack and keeping tension on the leader behind the wire man makes it easier to release line should he need to dump the wraps. Also, no leader litters the deck where it can entangle crewmembers.
During seminars, I commonly hear the question, "How do I know what pound test to use for a wind-on?" Quite simply, select a wind-on leader the same way you currently choose leaders. The wide variety of wind-on leaders available on the market includes 20- to 600-pound-test mono as well as a large selection of stainless-steel cable and flourocarbon, so you'll have no problem finding options that suit your needs. The short leader connected to your baits does not have to perfectly match the wind-on. For example, lures rigged on 200- or 300-pound leaders work fine on a 200-pound wind-on. But you do have to use some common sense when gearing up. A 130-pound wind-on leader represents a poor choice when trolling a large artificial rigged on 500-pound mono.
A Splice of Color
Most manufacturers employ black Dacron or Spectra for splicing; some offer white, Tournament Cable even offers leaders with hi-vis yellow or orange splices. Rex Nelson, sales manager for Western filament (maker of wind-on leaders for Offshore Angler), says, "Peter Wright did extensive field testing and found black splices drew too many unwanted strikes. That's why he prefers white." Skippers working out of Guatemala's Fins 'n Feathers Inn use wind-on leaders made with hi-vis yellow or orange Dacron. The bright color helps anglers quickly locate baits in the pattern as well as estimate how much line remains in the water during a fight. Light-colored splicing material also shows any wear or torn threads more readily.
||Wind-ons work well
on both conventional and
spinning reels -- just be sure
to leave room on the spool to
accommodate the leader.
Don't rush out to order larger line guides for your rod just because you've switched to wind-on leaders. J&M Tackle's John Giannini says, "The best way to decide if you need new guides is to put a leader on the rod and reel and try it out. Generally speaking, you can use a wind-on leader of up to 200 pounds without having to change guides on 30- to 50-pound tackle." Another important factor involves how compactly you tie the double-line knot required for loop-to-loop connections. "Some people make Bimini twists so big and bulky that the knot alone has a hard time going through the guides," says Giannini.
Whether used for shark fishing or wahoo trolling, stainless-steel cable wind-on leaders have no adverse effect on roller guides. I've fished cable wind-on leaders for 10 years on the same rods with no sign of undue wear on any roller guides including the tip. They will, however, eat up a ring guide very quickly.
At first glance, wind-on leaders may seem quite expensive -- until you add up the savings proportioned by rigging individual baits or lures on shorter leaders. Trimming lengths to 5 feet -- compared to 10 feet or more required by old-style leaders -- results in much lower costs, especially if you use fluorocarbon.
Though extremely reliable when used properly, wind-on leaders should be checked frequently just like any other leader. Inspect for nicks and cuts, paying special attention to the splice and loop-to-loop connection. Look for worn threads, and make sure the serving at the point where the leader material enters the splice remains in good shape. This entire section of the wind-on takes a beating from rod guides; check it carefully and often.
No matter what style of fishing you enjoy or what size fish you pursue, wind-on leaders offer numerous advantages while increasing crewmembers' safety during the end game. Whether you purchase or make them yourself, in most cases there are no good reasons not to use wind-on leaders.