Handline fishing is a simple but highly effective way of catching a wide variety of fish. While it’s often overlooked by rod and reel fishermen, fishing with a hand line enables you to catch the same fish with an absolute minimum amount of gear.
This minimalism makes handlining a great option for traveling, backcountry trips, or any time you need to pack light. All you need to get started is a decent length of line, hooks, sinkers, and some form of hand reel.
Due to the low cost of materials, and the potential for fantastic results, handline fishing is one of the best ways to introduce first-timers and kids to fishing. It also provides a real tactile feeling as you fight the fish – making the fight far more intense.
What is Handline Fishing?
Handline fishing – also called handlining – is a method of fishing using a simple handheld line with one or more baited hooks or lures attached to the end of the line. The line is often spooled around a round or oval-shaped object like a large diameter wood branch or a hand reel (sometimes called Cuban yo-yo’s). When a fish takes your bait or lure, you simply haul it in by hand!
Handlines can be used to catch a variety of fish – in both fresh and saltwater. They work well for shore, jetty, as well as boat fishing, and are versatile enough to use with different techniques.
In saltwater, hand lines are often used to catch squid and bottom-feeding fish, although they can also be used to target larger pelagic fish. Using heavy-duty handlines to catch larger pelagics like tuna, kingfish, dorado, and mackerel on the surface can be one of the most exhilarating ways to land these offshore bruisers!
In freshwater, hand lines are used to catch everything from panfish to walleye to catfish. Trolling, drifting, and casting are all viable options when fishing with a handline, while jigging is especially popular.
Wherever you prefer to fish, fishing with a handline will provide much greater sensitivity than traditional rod and reel fishing. You’ll be able to feel the slightest nibble on the end of your line, which translates into more successful hookups and more fish in your boat or fishing cooler.
Handline Fishing Techniques
Handline fishing techniques vary widely depending on your target species and location.
Both braid and heavy mono can be used to rig a handline, and circle or J-hooks work well for most applications. Sinkers are used with most handlines, as they’re generally more popular for bottom fishing that surface fishing. Adding more weight will also allow you to cast further.
When you set up your hand reel, wrap a layer of electrical tape around the hand reel spool before you spool your line onto it. This will help keep your line from sliding around on the reel. Leaders are also used with most handlines, as they’ll help you avoid tangles and excess twisting of your mainline.
Casting a handline is pretty straightforward, but if you’ve never done it before it’ll require a little practice.
For maximum casting distance, you’ll want to use a swinging lasso-style cast. Let out a couple of feet of line, making sure your leader and swivel are completely off the hand reel. Next, grab the line in your dominant hand about 6 inches from your lure or bait and swing your hook in a circle to build up some momentum. Keep your other thumb on the mainline as you do this to prevent any line from coming loose.
As you release your lure, use your other hand to face your hand reel in the same direction as your line. This will allow the line to come off the spool freely.
If you want to perform a shorter cast, you can follow a similar process but simply toss your lure in the water rather than lassoing-launching it.
Check out this in-depth video for a hands-on look at casting with a hand reel.
Jigging with a handline is one of the most effective techniques using this simple fishing setup. Firstly, you’ll want to make sure you use enough weight to get your line down to the right depth. Luckily, the increased sensitivity of a handline means you’ll be able to feel when your weight has touched the bottom.
Then, just as you would with a rod and reel, you’ll want to give several firm jerks on the line, as you slowly reel in the line. The increased sensitivity of a handline also means you’ll be able to detect subtle nibbles and bites that might go unnoticed with a normal rod, which should increase your hookup ratio.
Reeling in Fish
When you’ve got a fish on the end of your line, you’ll need to fight it a little differently than you would with a typical rod and reel. This is particularly true when you’ve hooked a larger fish.
Hand reels don’t provide much give, so you’ll need to be cautious not to let a fish snap your line. This can make landing a larger fish with a handline challenging, but highly rewarding. As rods provide a certain level of flex, and reels provide drag, you’ll need to create similar effects using just your hand reel.
To prevent line breaking, you can increase drag on the line by putting pressure on the inside of the hand reel spool with your hand. You can also hold the hand reel against your body, which will act like a makeshift drag system. If a fish is running hard, you can also let your hand reel free spool by facing the reel in the same direction as your line.
Handline Fishing Gear
One of the great things about handline fishing is how little gear you need to start catching fish. All you need to get started is a hook, line, and some form of compact hand reel. This makes it great for fishing on the go, as well as survival fishing scenarios.
One of the best handline fishing kits out there is the Yoyito Aluminum Hand Line Reel Kit. This well-made machined aluminum reel is not only highly effective, but it’s also compact enough to keep in your back pocket for whenever the opportunity to fish presents itself. The kit contains the hand reel, assorted hooks, sinkers, swivels, 30 lbs mono line, and a carrying pouch.
A word about gloves: Many newcomers to handline fishing assume they’ll need a pair of heavy-duty gloves to avoid thrashing their hands. In my experience, this is unnecessary for regular handline fishing. Yes, you can use gloves if you like, but once you get used to handling you’ll be able to manipulate your line and hand reel without the need for gloves. Heavy-duty gloves also dampen the tactile feel you get from handling, negating one of its greatest advantages.
If you’re planning on using a handline to go after larger offshore species (yes people do this!), then you’ll need a more heavy-duty setup. As mentioned previously, handlines don’t have much give to them, which means you’ll need to add some form of shock absorber to your line when you’re trolling for large species. If a tuna, dorado, or other large species snatches your hook, they have enough strength to snap your line plus they’ll sense the drag right away and spit out your bait!
Shock absorbers used for handling are referred to as snubbers and are usually made from a length of strong bungee cord attached between the handline and your boat. Check out the BNR Tackle Alabacore Handline for a length of tuna handline with a built-in snubber.