8 Common Mistakes Anglers Make Fighting Trout

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8 common mistakes anglers make while fighting trout. Photo By: Louis Cahill

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.

Keep it Reel,

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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43 thoughts on “8 Common Mistakes Anglers Make Fighting Trout

  1. I’ve been guilty of every single one of these…. but the one that I have to say I’ve struggled with most is numero uno on this list. Often times my ADD kicks in after several drifts (squirrel!) and the next thing I know I’ve almost had my rod taken from me by a nice trout slamming my fly. Then I sit there for a few minutes feeling retarded. More often than not I just laugh about it, it’s happened in every type of fishing I do. Maybe I’ll out-grow it one day……

    • Justin,

      Me too man. Here’s one positive though about you screwing up #1 more than all the rest. It shows you’re fully enjoying yourself and taking it all in when you’re fly fishing. Yes, maybe a little A.D.D. as well, I fall in the same court as you on that one, but you’ve caught enough fish over the years that it’s more about you just being out there on the water these days, not just about catching fish. Thanks for the comment.


  2. I used to make mistake #5 all the time and it cost me. If the fish is big enough that it should be on the reel, it usually pulls the slack through your fingers and is on the reel anyway without you having to look down, grab the slack line with your pinky and get the slack on your reel with tension, while trying to keep tension with your index and middle finger on the fish.

    Great post!


  3. Kent,

    Another great article. I think that over the past years of fly fishing I have made all of these mistakes. Number 5 is a killer.

    Anyway, I have a question for you. I am the President of the Local Chapter of Trout Unlimited (Leon Chandler Chapter 239) in Ithaca, NY. I also teach kids and adults to fly fish and tie flies in a variety of settings. As part of these activities, I write a monthly newsletter for the Chapter. We cover a lot of topics, from conservation to fly tying to fly fishing. This Blog says everything so well with respect to fighting fish on a fly rod. Can I use 8 mistakes in an upcoming newsletter. I will properly cite you as the author, and it is possible that doing so will get the Blog more regular readers.



  4. I was a victim of No. 7 the other day, as a fish in heavy current pulled a quick turn, first rushing straight at me and then reversing course and heading back the other way. Luckily it wasn’t the only fish of the day! And while I already regularly recommend your blog to all my friends, this particular article will definitely be shared!

    • A.J.

      Thanks for letting me know the post was helpful and telling your story about your latest fish battle on the water. Sounded like a smart fish for sure. Thank you for taking the time to pass this along with your friends. That is super cool of you and I appreciate it.


  5. Right on the nose! I just got back from N.Y. steelhead fishing and as usual experienced each of these items sometime during the trip. Thanks for the great tips and advise, as always good knowledge to share. Thanks.

    • Been there, done that, as they say.

      Something strange I have noticed in relation to no. 1 though. On stillwaters, the harder I fixate on catching a fish, the less I catch. No takes at all. It is only when I have given up hope of catching anything and am admiring the scenery that I get quite savage takes. Can fish tell when we are stressed? Or is it because my retrieve slows right down to almost zero while I am daydreaming?

  6. Can’t agree with number two if the fish is coming toward you from downstream, or racing upstream. Best option is to drop the rod tip and let the pressure of the river current, and the pull of the fish, keep pressure on the bow in the line while you either smoothly strip line in or get the line on the reel. Have seen too many anglers jerk the hook out of a fish’s mouth while trying to frantically strip in line with the rod tip held high.
    AS long as the fish is moving upstream there is no need to lift the line out of the water, in fact it is counter-productive.

    • Tony,

      I have no problem with you disagreeing with me. There’s always five different ways to do everything in fly fishing and you certainly no better than me what works for you. My post has been written according to what I’ve seen on the water over the past twelve years guiding novice anglers, who no very little about fighting trout.

      Thank you for providing us your input on the post and hopefully others will read it and find it helpful, maybe even help them land that big fish they hook.


    • Tony,

      I have no problem with you disagreeing with me. There’s always five different ways to do everything in fly fishing and you certainly no better than me what works for you. My post has been written according to what I’ve seen on the water over the past twelve years guiding novice anglers who no very little about fighting trout.

      Thank you for providing us your input on the post and hopefully others will read it and find it helpful, maybe even help them land that big fish they hook.


  7. Great article, I am going to put a link to this on a couple of forums I read that have beginner’s sections so that they can follow it over here and read this advice. Not that it’s just for beginners, though, everyone could use a good review from time to time.

    I would have added not keeping straight upward pressure on the fish, but trying to keep side pressure on it as well, switching from side to side as needed. When I bring small stream fishermen to some of the larger rivers I notice that they fight the trout like they do for an 8″ bow on their home waters. In addition to several of the mistakes you pointed out, they keep too much pressure on the fish and only from a straight up position, even when a big fish hunkers down in the current. This often results in them pulling the hook out of the fish’s mouth.

    Good article, Kent!

  8. I don’t know what you girls are talking about?! I just tell them to get into the net. {yawn} so boring…
    Ha. Yeah right! I’ll take one of each please

    • Chester,

      That seemed to work for you the other day 🙂 Next time we fish together, we’re going to work on you fighting and landing the fish on your own, because as quickly as you’re improving, you’re not going to need my assistance very much longer. This way you’ll be much more prepared. It can be a real bugger to land spunky fish on your own.


  9. Thanks for the great tips Kent.

    I learned a painful lesson related to #4 when I lost a nearly 30″ rainbow (the biggest I have ever hooked) last May in Slovenia. Just when I thought I had him beat, the fish made a spirited run right at my guide who stabbed at and missed him with the net. Touched by the frame, the bow got all juiced up again, peeled off another 30 feet of line and with one last leap and head shake came unbuttoned. I remember that I was applying so much pressure that when he spit the nymph at the height of his leap, it recoiled in the air back towards me nearly half the length of the 9′ leader.

    Bummer. I had just lost the fish of a lifetime. Some lessons are learned the hard way.

    • Tim,

      OUCH, 30″ rainbow. That’s definitely a life-time catch for sure and I’m sorry you lost the fish. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to hook it down the road and it will be over 30″.

      You pointing out what happened, would actually make a great blog post. As good as most guides are at netting fish, they don’t always hit their target. And we always have to worry about the fish turning at the last second and becoming out of range from our net. When we miss, the fish usually takes off like a bat out of hell, as you described, and that makes for a very fragile situation for the angler. It’s so easy at short distances for your hook to pull or your tippet to break when a fish makes an unexpected run, and quickly doubles the force it’s putting on your hook and line. Thanks for the idea, I may write a post about the need for anglers to be extra cautious when netting a fish.

      You’d laugh if you saw how long my net is these days. From head to handle I bet it measures five feet. I know it probably sounds outrageous, but it really helps me land those spunky fish and cuts down on fish fatigue.

      Thanks for your comment Tim. It was a good one.


  10. Great article. Not an easy subject to put in words, but well articulated by the author.

    An article on fighting saltwater species (part of a series?), particularly; bonefish, tarpon, permit and snook would be really helpful.

  11. Biggest thing I see with overseas anglers here in NZ is playing the fish off the rod tip. Our fish are too strong for that. The tip is the weakest part of the rod. The mid connects the tip to the strength of the butt. Fighting fish with a high rod does clear line from obstructions when needed but also brings the tip into play moreso than the butt. Keep the rod low with a solid flex throughout the blank to make use of the power reserve down deep. Use the heaviest tippet you can get away with and keep changing up those rod angles to disorient / tire down the fish asap. Fish hard!

  12. #5a – reel smoothly! i used to reel in like a madman sending waves down the line w/ my rod tip right to the hook. the hook would obviously come out. now i make an effort to reel fast but smoothly as well

  13. Finally caught a 9″ rainbow yesterday in Vermont. I missed several in a faster moving, deep pool while stripping the line after the initial hook. Pulled the hook out of their mouths during first several seconds.1-5 after going 14 for 14 in Michigan two weeks ago. Ouch!! Just as I got the line tight and felt the weight of the fish I pulled the hook free.

    I think they were hitting short and the current made it a trickier deal??Just when you think you got it down….!!!

    My thought is that maybe adjustments have to be made to accommodate the type of water ??

    Comments appreciated!!!


  14. Thank you for this. I’ve done some guiding for small mouth and pike in the past few years. Last year I moved from canada to New Zealand and these small back country rivers which have huge residential browns and bows have beaten me up time after time leaving me questioning my fly fishing skills and how I ever use to guide . Gimme big streamers or poppers and I’ll kill it with warm water species but these trout are a whole new game for me. I find myself landing 2 out of ten fish and can say I’m guilty of mAny things in this article. Tomorow on the water I will keep all of this in my mind. One thing I love about fly fishing is I’m continuously learning no matter how long I’ve done it for

  15. I have reverted back to barbless hooks here in NZ – and I have already lost two really good rainbows ( 5 to 6 pounds ) and the hook has been pulled or slipped when the bow which is under control decides to take off from the under the water to go ballistic above the water – I guess there’s nothing you can do because too tight on the line and it breaks or pulls the hook ? and just giving a little slack seems to pull the hook ?? is there something I can do or is just in a days fishing ? I don’t mine as I was going to put it back in any case – cheers Steve

  16. I wonder if this is true for as many women, where we are less likely to muscle a fish in. If so, get in touch with your feminine side guys. 😉

  17. Kent: Super breakdown on “the fight” fell out of habit last night. Had
    2 big ones beak me off at dusk. Reaction time is everything. I had 2
    seconds to let the line slip through my fingers. Getting passed the
    head shake is the biggy. This post was terrific sav for the wound.
    The learning in this sport is endly magic.

  18. Fishing the middle Provo from 7 am til noon, I very much enjoyed the start of the fall colors. One small 13 inch brown came home with me. He must have been defective in some way physically, as he was the only one of 10 other browns fought that day to find the bottom of my net. The last battle lasted about one minute, ending with a full catapult of the hook jawed ?24 inche plus? brown directly in front of me, only to toss my hook on re-entry. He was so close, I might have brained him with my rod. Sigh. I chased up and down the river with three others over 18″ only to a) get wrapped around a hidden stump and snapped off, b) committed #8 error, and c) sinned abominably with #4. I am of a mind to find some 20 bound test fluorocarbon and just hoist the little brutes onto the bank at first contact. That is, if they’d bite the #14 san juan so tethered by a cable. Trout are bast**ds.

    A longer net, you say?

  19. I appreciate your article. I’m new to Fly Fishing, and hung into a really nice brown trout my third time out, but I got so excited about the prospect of taking a picture of it, I rushed it and ended up breaking the tippet by lifting the fish up out of the water instead of netting it in the water, made me sick!

  20. Thanks for the brilliant (and generous) article Kent. I fish the Bow River near Calgary Alberta. Always a chance of a big powerful fish here, and my batting average is about 20%. Definitely guilt on #1,#4 & #5 but I think I will benefit most from #4. Will gave it a try after the snow stops.
    I have also improved results when fishing larger hooks (8 to 4 on streamers), as Tony Bishop mentioned above, by keeping the rod tip low and to the side so the flow of the river to helps keep tension, and dampens the severity of the head shaking.

  21. Female angler! I caught my first 22” bow a month ago in Montana. The water was high and raging. The bow was behind a rock near shore. I couldn’t budge him. He was at least 4 lbs so not too heavy. But he was dead weight. He ran about 50 feet twice. Played him for 15 mins on my 5x letting him do what he wanted. He always went back to that rock next to shore. Anyways I finally got him in the weeds with only 4 feet of leader remaining at my rod tip (so he was leadered). I reached for my net for my brother and he broke off. Ughh. Later a guide said that counted as he was in the weeds and leadered. Classic #8. But can fish hunker down like that? What caused it to break off with 4’ of leader left at the rod tip? New leader too. One theory was he was rubbing the line against the rock. Great article!!! Lots to learn.

  22. Great article. I just lost a good sized fish that definitely played the game of patience with me and I pulled instead of just keeping a tight line (probably 16+ but I kept him underwater). Lesson learned. I’m a relatively fly fisher and will be reviewing this to make sure I don’t make another one. I’ll be back to that spot to see if he’s there one of the nice deep pools with rocks in the right places to hide big fish.

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