What to do when pulled overboard by a big fish

Veteran billfish angler Stewart Campbell was pulled overboard by a blue marlin. He was fortunate the line broke. Or did it? Photo is a screen grab from the video

Veteran billfish angler Stewart Campbell was pulled overboard by a blue marlin. He was fortunate the line broke. Or did it? Photo is a screen grab from the video

Sure, it sounds easy. Just let go of the fishing rod if you feel a big billfish or tuna pulling you overboard. Well, it isn't that easy. Not if you're big-game fishing and the fishing rod is clipped into the fishing harness you are wearing. Getting pulled overboard can and has happened.

The most celebrated incident occurred to the late Stewart Campbell, a legendary big-game fisherman who is in the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame with 20 world records.

In 1996 while fishing off Madeira, Campbell was hooked up to a 1,000-pound blue marlin when he was pulled overboard. Here's video of the incident, which occurs at the 1:05 mark:

IGFA wrote that Campbell was dragged under, yanked back to the surface and towed a distance before the line broke, though we wonder if Campbell actually somehow extracted himself from the harness since he climbed back into the boat without it.

Here are sequential screen grabs of the incident:

sequence 1

sequence 2

sequence 3

A similar incident happened to John Whalen a year later when he was pulled overboard by a giant tuna off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Unlike Campbell, we know for certain how Whalen escaped.

Whalen, a big-game fisherman, would tighten down his drag as far as it would go so the fish could not take out line. He enjoyed the challenge of seeing how fast he could bring a 300-pound tuna to the boat, where it was typically released.

But he thought, what would he do if he ever got pulled overboard. He envisioned the exact procedure he'd use if it ever happened. And then it did happen.

Clipped into a fishing harness, Whalen was pulled overboard when the boat dipped and the fish, a 350-pound bluefin tuna, took a hard run. Whalen took a deep breath before hitting the water and got dragged underwater.

A big-game fishing reel showing the two holes where the reel is clipped into a fishing harness. Photo from Penn International PI Facebook page

A big-game fishing reel showing the two holes where the reel is clipped into a fishing harness. Photo from Penn International PI Facebook page

A nearby fisherman saw what happened and thought Whalen was a goner.

Steps 1 and 2 that Whalen had rehearsed in his mind—unclip the fishing rod or use a knife to cut the line—were out of the question so Whalen immediately applied Step 3 and went into a sort of autopilot.

He spread his legs to create drag to try to slow the fish. Blindly, while twisting through the water, Whalen felt for the clicker on the reel. A fishing reel put into free spool without first engaging the clicker would allow line to freely pull off the reel, and line unwinding too quickly would cause a tangle or what fishermen call a bird's nest. For Whalen, that would have meant certain death.

So Whalen engaged the clicker and slowly backed off the drag until line was freely unwinding with no chance of tangling. He then kicked his way to the surface and was retrieved by his fellow anglers.

Once on the boat, Whalen reeled in the fish and then released it.

These examples serve as a teachable moment for big-game fishermen. If you decide to wear a fishing harness, make sure it comes with a reliable quick release system in the event you get pulled overboard by a big fish, or make sure the harness is secured to the boat with a safety line.

And it wouldn't hurt to rehearse what you would do in case it ever happened to you. Doing so saved John Whalen's life.

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