Gaffs are an essential part of the fishing scene. They are the landing link that lets the angler handle fish too large to lift or net, and are a necessity for both rock and bluewater anglers. Gaffs, like their smaller cousins, can have a variety of point shapes. The principle ones are round or needle point, triangulated or knife-edge point, and barbed or toggle point.
For species like shark which have very tough skin, a triangulated point makes it easier to get the gaff in quickly. Some fishermen argue that a round point is better because it tears less of a hole when the shark starts to act up on the gaff, and supporters of this gaff style also point out that a properly sharpened round point will go in easily enough, if not as easily as the knife-edge style.
It can be pretty easy for a shark to bounce itself off a round point gaff, or a knife-edge gaff as well, so some fishermen use a barb to help hold the fish on. This barb can be cut from the shaft, then forged out into shape or sometimes the barb is a metal lug, welded on, then ground into shape. Making barbed gaffs is a labour intensive and costly process, involving welding, hand machining and then rehardenning of the metal to prevent deformation or loss of sharpness.
There are various gaffs made overseas and brought into Australia, such as Aftco and Pompanette, but several good gaffs are made in Australia as well, such as those put out by Dimax and Austac.
Things to look for in the various types of gaffs are:
- Small Hand-held Gaffs - make sure the handle affords a good grip.
- The head is securely attached to the handle.
- The Gape is the appropriate size for the body of fish you intend to use it on.
What constitutes an appropriate handle length depends on the size of the boat you are working from, and the size of fish you are gaffing. Small dinghy fishermen generally only need gaffs with handles about 45cm to 60cm in length, while fishing from large runabouts and half cabins you'll usually need a gaff with handles from 75cm to 110cm in length. Whatever the boat you're fishing from, the gaff handle should let you comfortably reach the water and the underside of the fish you want to gaff.
When gaffing larger fish, whether it be from a small or large boat, it helps to have gaffs with handles from 1.2 to 1.5 metres in length. The extra length lets you tuck the handle under your arm-pit and allows you to hold a strong fish more easily. This style of gaffing is usually done standing up, with the but end of the handle under your arm but pointing skyward. You soon learn to shuffle your hands up or down the length of the handle to suit the occasion, and you will appreciate the extra length if a fish starts to pull the gaff out of your grasp.
Fixed gaffs, which are those with the hook firmly attached to the handle, can have a tubular aluminium handle, some of which are capped and sealed so that they float if dropped overboard. Smaller gaffs can have either a slender aluminium tube or wooden handle, while some larger fixed gaffs, which are used primarily for game fishing, use large diametre bamboo handles.
Diamond point Fixed Gaffs, as the name says, have a diamond shaped point. With this head style, the point is first forged flat, then ground to shape and sharpened.
The most practical material to make gaff hooks out of is #316 grade marine quality stainless steel. This material is very hard and holds and edge well, something especially important with round point gaffs which are difficult to sharpen once they become blunt. The upper quality range of gaffs are nearly always heat-treated as well, however, so losing their edge is something that rarely happens. Home made gaffs, as seen in the picture on the right, that are not treated after forging, can easily open up when the strain comes on.
The same cat be said for cheaper gaffs. The points of some cheaper round-point gaffs made of spring steel (some are even made of mild steel) can fold over under stress. Even good gaff points can be bent if they are driven into the boat by a vigorous fish or a wild gaff shot misses, so in practical terms, the diamond point system has a lot going for it from the viewpoint of both manufacturing cost and maintenance.
Since like most hooks, it pays to keep gaffs sharp all the time. You need to carefully consider how your gaffs are going to be stowed away. Horizontal stowage is preferable to vertical, as there is nothing funny about having a sharpened length of stainless steel rod poised where you can bump into it with your shoulder, or worse, your head, as the boat pitches and tosses in the sea.
It's just as important when storing gaffs in horizontal racks, to protect everyone's shins by stowing them so that the points are held flat against the boat's inner hull, not allowed to swing out and catch an unwary leg. Medium to larger boats with some side-deck area make this easier to accomplish than it is in smaller tinnies, which have little or no side decks to speak of. For that reason, its a good idea to cut a length of PVC tubing, (a garden hose will do on gaffs with 10 to 12 mm hook shafts) and to thread this up and around the hook so that the point is shrouded and can't do any damage.
Making Your Own Gaff
To make your own gaff, visit the local tackle store and purchase the appropriate size gaff hook. Most stores carry 2/0, 4/0 and 6/0 hooks. As a rough guide, a 2/0 can handle fish from 2 to 10 kilos. While a 6/0 is suitable for fish up to 50 kilos. Also required is a Rangoon cane or, if you have access to it, you can also use tubular aluminium. Rangoon has the advantage of being cheap and much easier to work with. It also offers a flexibility not available in most alternative materials.
The cane should be cut to suit the size of the boat to be fished from or, in the case of rock fishing, the distance you are from the water. In most cases, the ideal length for off-the-rock gaffing is a pole 3 to 4 metres in length. When boat fishing, the handle should be long enough to clear the anchor well and gunwale.
Once the cane is cut, the gaff hook is measured against the shaft and positioned so that the point of the hook is roughly in line with the end of the stick. This is done for two reasons. Firstly, the end of the stick provides a good line of sight when gaffing. Secondly, the binding is easier to accomplish if you don't have to negotiate the point of the hook.
Once measured, a hole is drilled to accommodate the small right-angled point at the non-hook end of the gaff. This is known as the tang. Once the hook is positioned, it is bound into place with nylon cord. The binding should be started by wrapping over an end piece which is trimmed once secured by half a dozen wraps. Make the binding tight and leave a small eyelet about six wraps from the finish. Then cut the cord, feed it through the eyelet, and trim.
The bindings are then given a coat of Araldite and the gaff will be usable 24 hours later. When laying on the bottom layers of cord, it's a good idea to also bind in a short length of fuel line tubing. The protruding end of the tube can be fitted over the point of the gaff, as a safety measure, when not in use.
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