Blog article: Simplicity of the handline

Simplicity of the handline

We all have our fetishes for certain ocean equipment. Some are obsessed with their surfboard, others fixate on spear guns or flip-flops, while some feel that a pair of good swim fins are all they need in life. I’m pretty sure I’ve obsessed on all of the above at some point in my past but today my ocean gear of obsessive choice is the handline — fishing line with lure wrapped around some cylindrical device that you hand-over-hand fish with.

The hand-line has been around for a long, long time so by no means do I claim any aspect of its origination. The Polynesians were using bone hook and a plant-fiber line to hand-line back around 300 AD. Tons of other ocean-going civilizations used the hand line to catch their fish all the way up to the commercial cod fishery around Georges Bank of the 1880’s and beyond. The handline has been getting it done for men and women for a 1,700+ years now and there’s no end in sight. Cruisers let out meat lines while they make their sailing passages, subsistence fishing persists today from dugout canoes with the handline, and recreational tuna fisherman will add handlines to their rod / reel troll set-ups.

When you look at fishing in general, technology has changed much of the way we do it today. From electronic depth sounders, satellite imagery of sea surface temperature to composite materials and electric reels, the sport and life of fishing has changed. But not the handline. Not much anyway. 
At its core, the handline is a roll of fishing line with a hook tied at the end. That’s it.

The material used in the handline has changed — I use tuna cord instead of woven plant fiber — but the simple concept of the hand line has not been touched. And that’s what I love most about it — the simplicity.

To use the handline, just unwind your line into the ocean. Jig your bait or lure up and down. Get bit. Then slowly and gently pull up your catch. Repeat. Anybody can use the handline effectively and I’ve seen my kids catch fish with it when use of ‘advanced technology’ rod and reel set-ups were too difficult for their young hands (and minimal patience).

While usage is simple, so is the set-up and maintenance. My current handline is about 80 feet of tuna cord (200lb strength) with 8 feet of 50 lb mono leader attached to a 32 oz water bottle. The bottle is multipurpose as reel, float, and carry case for fishing license, granola bar, and extra lures.

That’s it. Simple.

I use my handline exclusively from my soft top surfboard and compliment it with a small gaff, knife, stringer, and bungee cord. Add in a pair of mesh gardening gloves to protect against fish spines, teeth, and gill rakers and you’ve got yourself a highly mobile and effective fish catching set-up.

What you tie to the end of your handline is of personal preference. I always work with heavy jigs that go straight to the bottom with minimal fuss. Steel and glow diamond jigs are all I use on my Northern California reefs where various species of Rockfish, Lingcod, and Cabezon struggle to resist a bite.

Don’t be fooled though, there is some elegance required to fishing the handline effectively. This includes giving big fish line when they make a run without letting them take it all or tie you in knots. It also requires gentle looping of line coils on your lap or boat as you bring the line back in. Winding the line back onto the water bottle while fighting a fish is tricky and I’ve lost more fish than I care to admit trying this. Instead, coiling your line neatly in a hygenic pile while bringing in a fish will allow you to give line if needed while also allowing you to quickly send your jig back down once you’ve finished fighting your fish.

There are few things more frustrating than having to untangle a rats nest of tuna cord on your lap — it requires full focus but, if you are fishing in a sharky area, tends to distract your mind from the shark attack possibility (silver lining). 

So go build yourself a handline today. Even if it’s a spool of mono line with a swim bait tied to the end — it’s so simple to get in the game. Fish that thing from a dock, boat, rock, surfboard, kayak, or anything and catch a fish like how our ancestors did 1,700 years ago. Only keep what you will eat, throw back what you won’t

Simple 🙂

This Ocean Life Podcast blog -- handlining