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Rigging a Small Boat for Big Game Fishing

By Mike Christy

When asked to describe a boat geared towards big game fishing, often many anglers think of a thirty or forty  foot sport fisherman with a fly bridge, tuna tower and fighting chair. When you add Yankee ingenuity into to the equation, one may include simple downeast type boats, or craft with Novie style hulls, both of which are very comfortable and at home in our New England waters. Mount a few swivel rod holders in the gunwales of these classic New England boats and your all set to go. 

One style of boat which may not immediately come to mind for use as a big game rig is the common center console. I often think back to the New Bedford whaling days and those old black and white photos of men fishing from 16 foot dories. Some of today's small center console boats can be more sea worthy than anything those poor souls had to keep them afloat. So why cant big fish still be caught from small boats? They can, just as long as you are prepared, have safety in mind and watch the weather closely.

This article describes how I rigged my 20 foot Mako center console Shortfin for giant tuna fishing. The improvements and enhancements range from rebuilding hatches, reinforcing gunnels, to simple items like extending rod safety lines.

From what I understand many fishermen today do fish for giant tuna from center consoles. They either fight the fish from a gunwale mounted swivel rod holder or use some sort of rod mounting apparatus in the bow. A center console has little deck space for a fighting chair.

Big game fishing out of Shortfin is focused around a battle station mounted on her bow. The battle station I chose is made by Gibi-Inox, an Italian engineering company in Padova Italy that has been manufacturing big game fishing equipment since the sport began. The Gibi battle station has been called the Swiss army knife of fighting posts, and for very good reason. It can be adjusted to almost any configuration you require. The IGFA compliant gimbal rod holder can be set to free swing, or it can be set to stop at any angle and still allow the rod to be pumped. The unit can swivel a full 360 degrees. The height can be adjusted over a wide range. The brace can be used as a stand-up support, or inverted and used as a seat in what I call fighting chair mode. The unit in my opinion can be used in any number of situations. On Shortfin, I decided to use the battle station in stand-up mode, where the angler stands behind the support and fights the fish. (Gibi-Inox products can be purchased through Pesce Trade)

Shortfin's bow area is made up of a raised deck, with a large hatch covering a storage tub beneath the deck. This initially posed a problem as there was little strength in the deck to support the battle station, let alone the force that would be applied during a fight with a giant tuna. I fully expect to be towed by a giant tuna fish, and with around 30 pounds of drag on a 130 outfit, that equates to hundreds of pounds of force at the base of the rod. I would have to design a solution to mount the battle station and find a way to distribute that force over a large area throughout the deck. Since the battle station would have to be mounted on the hatch, the hatch would need much work as well since it was merely fiberglass with a plywood core.

At first I thought I could tie into the hull stringers below the storage tub in the deck. Or at the very least tie into what was supporting the bottom of the tub. If I could gain access to what was under there, and somehow bring supports up close under the deck, I could somehow mount the battle station. But I would loose all the storage space provided by the tub and would be creating large holes in the tub. I could be jeopardizing the integrity of the boat's floatation design when, god forbid she ever became swamped. I couldn't do that. Storage on a center console is limited, and with the extra safety gear required for tuna fishing I would also need all the storage space I had.

Plan B involved installing 4 inch stock aluminum angle under the deck. The aluminum beams would traverse from the starboard to port side under the deck. They would both pass through the storage tub and under the hatch. One beam would be mounted near the hatch hinges close to the bow, and the other beam mounted near the hatch handle. The beams could tie into the two support beams that are under the deck. I could reinforce the hatch and somehow bolt the hatch down to the beams when fishing.

This seemed a little more feasible and I wouldn't be loosing much storage space. I now wished I had taken more of those mechanical engineering classes in school.

At this point I decided I should probably ask for some professional advice before finalizing my design. I contacted a very helpful engineer at Mako Marine named Doug Cratch. He is one of the very few who has been with the company long enough to still remember how the older center consoles where built. Plans are no longer available for these boats since the company was sold. Doug confirmed my thoughts that tying into the stringers wasn't a very good idea, and that there probably wasn't much under the tub to lend strength, but my second idea was very feasible.

With a plan in place, I spent the winter of 2003 designing, mixing epoxy, cutting and fitting what would become the structure to support Shortfin's battle station. It hoped it would be strong enough to fight a giant bluefin tuna, and more.

The first task at hand was to rebuild the front hatch. With my trusty Roto-Zip tool I cut away the fiberglass shell from the inside bottom of the hatch. By doing this I exposed the wet plywood core, I'm now glad I did this, that wet plywood needed to be replaced. With a chisel and hammer I carefully removed the wood. The wood was bonded to the inside top of the hatch cover, and it was no easy feat to separate and remove it. A few hours later I had an empty fiberglass shell of the hatch cover. The next step was to fit and epoxy a new 3/4" piece of marine plywood into the shell. I also reinforced the area where the hinges would be through-bolted. I tied everything together with narrow strips of fiberglass cloth and epoxy around the perimeter. To complete the strengthening of the hatch cover, a 3/8" thick piece of aluminum plate was gooped with 5200 to the bottom. Finally I applied three coats of battleship gray marine deck paint to protect and seal it.

The 3/8" aluminum plate was drilled with four holes which lined up with the mounting bolts for the battle station. This was done previous to mounting the plate to the hatch cover. Gibi sells a mounting kit for the battle station which gives a very professional result. The kit supplies four knobs with bolts and four stainless mounting adapters which install flush with the deck. This kit allows the battle station to be easily removed from the deck when not in use.

The one very critical step in the building and fitting procedure was that of marking and aligning the hatch hold down bolt holes. These bolts reside in the beams (more on them later) and pass up through the hatch where they are secured with large hand knobs from the top. These bolts keep the hatch from opening when there is hortizontal force placed on the battle station. Obviously this force will be from the fish when he's towing the boat around the Gulf of Maine.

All holes in the deck and hatch where drilled oversized then filled will epoxy. The holes were then re-drilled to the proper size. This procedure isolates the plywood core from the elements and keeps it from getting wet and rotting.

Since the core of my front deck hatch was wet, and I knew my live well hatch had cracks on the bottom side, I decided to refurbish it was well. Both hatch tops were painted with non-skid deck paint.

Instead of using aluminum angle or I-beams, I decided to manufacture the reinforcing beams for under the hatch from 3/4" plywood. Rebuilding both hatches only used a half sheet of marine plywood, so why not use the remaining to make the beams?

With West Systems epoxy I laminated several lengths of marine plywood together to make two solid beams of 4" x 4" x 4'. I used a 6" hole saw and my Roto-Zip to create the openings in the side of the storage tub for the beams. These beams where fitted under the front deck then bolted in place. Bolts and 3M 5200 adhesive were used to adhere the beams and spacer/distribution blocks to the underside of the front deck. When installation of the beams was complete, foam insulation was sprayed into the gaps where the beams pass through the tub sides. This helped seal the tub and retain the vessels flotation properties. I installed and epoxied 1/2" stainless bolts in the beams that pass up through the hatch. The hatch is fastened down secure with stainless knobs from above, and can be accessed easily by unscrewing the knobs.

Other modifications to Shortfin include:

  •  Installing 15 degree swivel rod holders in the gunnels. I installed 2 holders on one side and one on the other. Pieces of the same 3/4" marine plywood was fitted, drilled and secured with 3M 5200 adhesive under the gunnels. The holders were installed with stainless baking plates. Reinforced safety cleats were installed near the holders for the rod safety lines.
  • Instead of using a huge 128qt marine cooler for bait like most guys do, I've downsized. Shortfin only has room for small coolers so I use two 60qt Icy Tech coolers instead. These smaller coolers are easier to move when full and they stay colder than the larger coolers. I can load a tote of bait on to the boat by myself much easier with two coolers than one. I use stainless bungee cords to secure the coolers to each side of the front deck.
  • I've mounted a 60qt cooler on the bow which stores my gloves, harpoon lines, many loose items that normally don't have a place on board but are needed for giant fishing.
  • Extra line cleats near the stern for hauling the anchor, tying off the painter, tying off fish.
  • Extra line chocks near the fore left and right quarters for use as anchor line toggle points for when the tide and wind are opposite.


Some of the project costs: 

  • 1 sheet 3/4" marine plywood $70
  • 1 gallon West Systems Epoxy, Glass, Tools $100
  • 2'x2'x3/8" Aluminum Plate $40
  • Stainless T-Hinges $70
  • Knobs, SS bolts, hardware, $100
  • Battle Station $800
  • Rod Holders $300

Taking large game fish with a small boat is challenge, but with the proper planning and right equipment it can be fun. Advantages of a small boat include maneuverability, speed and economy.  When fishing from a small boat offshore you really need to become competent in forecasting weather. You need to use the land and marine forecasts only as guides, and with experience you'll  soon understand what days are doable and which are not. 

Tight lines, fair winds and screaming drags!

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