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What is a Gaff?

By Gerard S. Walen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A fishing gaff is a large metal hook that is attached to a handle or pole, and is used to hook a fish. A fisherman will reel in a fish to a boat, dock, or pier with a fishing rod, reel, and line. After bringing the fish close enough to reach, the fish will be hooked with the gaff to bring it out of the water. Because the fishing line may not be strong enough to land the fish, the gaff can be an effective tool to ensure the line does not break.

The length of a gaffing pole or handle varies. Fishing from a canoe, kayak, or small boat generally will require a hand gaff — typically shorter than 4 feet (about 1.2 m) long. Lip gaffs are a type of hand gaff that is used to grasp the mouth of a fish with minimal damage. These gaffs have become more common as part of catch-and-release fishing. Some lip gaffs come with scales so a fish can be weighed before it is returned to the water.

Someone fishing from a large boat or high pier will need a gaffing handle that is long enough to reach into the water to set the hook into the fish’s body or jaw. Longer gaffs are known as fixed gaffs or stick gaffs. They can be rigid or extendible, which means their handles can be extended to various lengths for use in a variety of situations.

Generally, fixed gaff handles range up to 12 feet (about 3.7 m) long. The handles can be made of various materials, such as wood, fiberglass, or aluminum. Hooks usually are made of hard metals, such as iron or stainless steel, and vary in size, depending on the type of fish. Hooks are usually either barbed or straight at their tips, and are either C-shaped or J-shaped.

A specialized item called a flying gaff is used for large fish, such as marlin or tuna. Flying gaffs usually have a long rope between the hook base and the handle. Once a fish is stuck, a sharp tug releases the hook part. Usually, the rope is secured to a cleat or post on the boat, and the fisherman or crew can pull the fish in with the rope.

Using a gaff hook can seriously injure or kill a fish, so the hooks are generally used only if the fisherman intends to keep the fish. People who are engaged in catch-and-release fishing — where the fish is returned to the water with as little injury as possible — often use landing nets or merely cut the line as close as possible to the hook after the fish is near the boat or the shore, but still in the water. Most hooks are designed to dissolve in water relatively quickly, so unless the fish deeply swallows the hook, it generally causes little or no harm.

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