If I looked backed on my early fly fishing days and had to grade my fish fighting skills, it would yield a discouraging report card. I lost way more fish than I actually landed during those first few years after picking up a fly rod. I’ll never forget how tense and anxious I was every time I’d find myself hooked up with a nice trout. It seemed like every second of the battle I was terrified that I was going to lose my trophy. In turn, I constantly second guessed my fighting instincts, I wouldn’t follow after my fish if it swam upstream or downstream of me, and I knew very little about the correlation between rod position and applying fighting pressure. Furthermore, I was really clumsy when it came to clearing my excess fly line and reeling in the fish. I always had a hard time figuring out when it was a good time to do that. When all said and done, I bet I only landed one or two fish out of every five fish I hooked during my rookie days. That’s not so hot, probably a D average if I was grading myself extremely leniently. We’ve all been there at some point during our fly fishing career, some of us may even find ourselves with that D average right now. Here’s the positive outlook though, most trout that are hooked and lost during the fight can be linked back to a handful of common mistakes. Yet, most of the time, they all can be easily avoided if you pay close attention to what you’re doing when you’re fighting a trout.
Mistake #1 – Not being in the hook set ready position
I know it sounds elementary, but during my early days, I would often find myself fumbling around with my fly line during my drifts. I didn’t always have my fly line secure in my rod hand, and that usually put me with too much slack in my fly line to pull off a solid hook set. I see anglers all the time during their drifts holding their fly line in their stripping hand only. Bites often come when we least expect them. To increase your chances of getting a good hook set and landing the trout, always make sure you’re in the hook set ready position. Get in the habit of putting the fly line in your index and middle finger on your rod hand immediately after you present your fly. This will have you ready to set the hook the instant you get a bite, and you’ll find your line management will improve.
Mistake #2 – Anglers fail to keep tension after the hook set
Not all the time, but more times than not, trout will swim towards you after being hooked, and it’s critical that you keep your rod tip up and immediately begin stripping in your fly line after the hook set. Doing so, you’ll have a good chance at eliminating the slack and maintaining tension on the fish. Instead of stripping, some fly anglers feel compelled to swing their body around and begin moving away from the fish after setting the hook. This puts the angler out of position, shuffling their feet awkwardly and also doesn’t allow them most of the time to take in the amount of slack needed that’s being created by the fish moving towards them. Another common mistake I see anglers make is dropping their rod tip down after setting the hook. Although they get a good hook set, by dropping their rod tip down immediately afterwards, they’re providing significant slack to the fish. This causes tension to be lost, and increases the chance the hook will be dislodged by the trout.
Mistake #3 – Anglers have a death grip on the fly line
I see this mistake all of the time and adrenaline is usually to blame. Big fish are notorious for making hard charging runs right after being hooked. It can all happen within seconds of the hook set and if you’ve got a death grip on your fly line, and don’t let the trout take fly line, you’ll almost always break the fish off. Keeping a firm grip on the fly line after the hook set is important, but you always need to be ready to loosen up your grip and let that fly line slide through your hand or fingers when a fish makes a powerful run.
Mistake #4 – We apply too much power when the trout is head shaking
When trout are violently shaking their heads and doing a death roll during the fight, it’s very important that anglers don’t apply too much pressure or pull too hard on the trout. In this scenario, all you want to do is keep a conservative amount of tension on the fish, just enough in fact, to keep the slack out. The combination of an angler applying too much pressure and the trout violently shaking its head, can cause the hook to be pulled free or your tippet to break. We all like to tell ourselves when this happens, that the trout got lucky and spit the hook, but in most cases that’s not it at all. Most of the time we lose the trout because we’re applying to much pressure during those intense moments. If we just back off power and let the fish work through the head shakes, we’ll usually stay hooked up and land the trout.
Mistake #5 – Anglers are in too much of a rush to get the fly line on the reel.
Trying to reel in your excess fly line on the reel too quickly or at the wrong moments during the fight, accounts for many fish lost by anglers. It shouldn’t be your first objective during the fight. Instead, your first objective is to get control of the trout and make it through the first ten to fifteen seconds of the fight. After you do that, you’ll want to wait for a moment when the trout settles down enough that it provides you a safe period to begin reeling up your fly line on the reel. If the trout makes a run away from you first thing, let it start taking the excess fly line in the process. This will make it quicker for you to get the remaining fly line cleared and on the reel when your ready. In some cases the trout running will clear all of your line, and that just makes your job of landing the fish that much easier.
Mistake #6 – Anglers don’t follow in pursuit after a fish
Some of us aren’t as sure-footed as we used to be, so this mistake isn’t always an easy one to fix or avoidable. But if you still have good balance and you’re pretty mobile, you have to be willing to move quickly in pursuit after a fish that gets downstream or upstream of you during the fight. Keeping a perpindicular position to the trout (straight across from the fish) provides you the best control, and will allow you to apply the the most leverage and power on the fish. If you’re older and can’t risk chasing after a fish, try slowly working the fish back to you with the rod tip high and slow steady reels. If that doesn’t work, you can then try dropping your rod tip in the water and slowly reeling the fish back to you. It won’t work all the time, but I’ve found success with it a great deal over the years. There’s something with the rod tip and fly line in the water that makes it difficult for a fish to gain leverage over you.
Mistake #7 – We’re not ready for the trout to make a sudden u-turn
Trout are sneaky buggers. They seem to all know, that creating slack in the line is one of their best chances for getting a hook dislodged in their mouth. One of the best ways for them to create a significant amount of slack is to employ a sudden u-turn during the fight. By them quickly changing their swimming direction, it immediately puts slack in the line and forces the angler to struggle to eliminate it. As we all know, trout reels aren’t the quickest at taking in fly line when being reeled. And in the heat of the battle, we often forget this notion and fail to abandon the reel when we should be stripping in our fly line instead. If a trout makes a u-turn on you and you find yourself with a bunch of slack, stop reeling, start making long quick strips and raise your fly rod as high up in the air as you can. Doing this, you’ll turn your 9-foot rod into a 12-foot rod, and you’ll usually be able to take in the excess slack quick enough to regain tension and land the fish.
Mistake #8- We get too anxious during the final moments of the battle
I’ve done this countless times. I’ll manage to make it through all the chaos during the beginning and middle stages of the fight, but I’ll lose my patience at the end, and it costs me the battle. Just as I’m getting the trout within netting range, I’ll apply too much power on the rod and the hook will either pull free or my tippet will break. Keep in mind, you have very little stretch in the fly line when the fish is really close to you. This stage of the fight requires patience and finesse. Sometimes, I think trout no exactly whats going on, especially the ones that have been caught before. In my mind, I think big trout often try to make the battle about patience. If they can prolong the fight long enough or trick us into getting anxious and rushing the fight, they know we’ll eventually slip up and make a mistake that sets them free. Keep your focus and patience when you’re fighting a trout at all times, and you’ll find you make less mistakes and your catch rates will increase.
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