Sunday Classic / Fight Big Fish with the Butt Section of the Fly Rod Not the Tip

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Jeff Hickman applies perfect side pressure on a big fish. Photo By: Louis Cahill

If you fly fish long enough and pay your dues, it’s just a matter of time until you hook into a giant fish and experience defeat.

I’ve always loved the saying, “It’s always the big ones that get away”, like it provides anglers a viable excuse for losing battles with big fish. I’ll admit there are times when we’re at complete mercy of big fish, and defeat is 99% inevitable, but most battles are lost due to angler error, specifically by fighting big fish incorrectly with the fly rod.

For many anglers, every time they lose a big fish, a portion of their fish-fighting confidence disappears with it, and they become more paranoid with each unsuccessful encounter. Overtime, this paranoia and lack of confidence distorts their fish fighting instincts, and they begin to play big fish too conservatively, thinking if they put more pressure on the fish, the tippet will break or the hook will pull free. What they end up doing most of the time is fighting the fish with their rod tip instead of fighting the fish with the mid-section and butt section of the rod. This seriously limits an anglers ability to apply power and steer the fish during a fight, because all the power comes from the butt and mid-section of the rod, not the tip. It also will keep the leverage in the fish’s court, which will take it far longer for you to tire out a big fish. Fight times can be doubled, sometimes even tripled, and that’s bad news for a trophy specimen if the battle is taking place during the year when oxygen levels are low (you can play a fish to death). Furthermore, the longer the fight is prolonged, the better the chance something could go wrong, resulting in a fish being lost during the fight (teeth wearing through tippet, fish raking you across rocks and breaking line, fish snapping you off in a snag, ect).

Fight a big fish the right way

First, set your drag precisely before you wet a line. Doing so, you’ll be confident if you begin applying too much pressure on a big fish, your reel will smoothly let out fly line. Second, when applying side pressure (to flex the mid and butt sections of the rod) on a fish, it’s critical you make sure you’re pivoting your body around and rod away from the fish, while also keeping your rod tip low. You don’t want your rod tip and body pointing or facing towards a fish if you’re trying to apply side pressure, it won’t work near as well. Third, unless you’re at the age where you cannot aggressively follow a fish up and down the stream during the fight, make sure you’re staying right with the fish during the fight. My client the other day, was fighting a giant wild brown trout in the 25-27″ range, and he snoozed for just a few moments, standing stationary, and this allowed the brown to move downstream into fast water. As soon as the fish hit the fast water, its momentum was too strong to stop, and it went straight into a snag and broke us off. If my client would have stayed with the fish by quickly moving down stream, there would have been a really good chance we could have turned the fish and eventually landed it. If you have bad balance and can’t risk chasing after a fish, try dropping your rod tip under the surface and very gently and slowly begin reeling in. Quite often you’ll be able to slowly work the fish back to you upstream.

For more information about fighting big fish and common mistakes anglers make, check out this great post from Andrew Bennett at Deneki Outdoors.

5 Common Mistakes Fighting Big Fish with a Fly Rod

Keep it Reel,

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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4 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / Fight Big Fish with the Butt Section of the Fly Rod Not the Tip

  1. Excellent advice. I lost a fish in the 24″ range earlier this year because of a 1 second snooze while the fish took ran into deep fast water..

  2. Great post.

    Although it generally takes anglers time on the water and thus experience to trust the amount of pressure one can put on a fish with their tackle, the examples discussed above are paramount for the ability to tire large, strong, or especially athletic fish quickly.

    Besides the down and dirty technique mentioned above in terms of rod angle, fighting with the butt of the rod, and body position, changing the direction of the force (read pull) you are putting on the fish is of great benefit as well. If the fish heads to your right, pull form the left, if the fish heads left, pull form the right. Saltwater flats trick where all fish encountered are kick ass strong and this has, “INVALUABLE”, application to freshwater angling situations. Confuses the fish along with tiring them out more quickly leading to fish coming to hand in a lesser amount of time.

    Hook your conventional set up (no matter what tippet, leader, rod you are using/ Trout to Tarpon) to a stationary object and see how much force you can put on the system before something breaks. I was always surprised when I did this to find out how much a 4x or 5x tippet can take before popping. Lee Wulff advocated for this in his book, “Trout on the Fly”, so the idea had been around for quite some time.

    Again, great post, I always think I owe it to the fish to fight it as hard as the effort it is putting in to fighting me as a measure of respect.

  3. Great post, Kent. One mistake I see newbies make with big fish(and even some experienced anglers) is putting their free hand on the rod above the cork and applying two-handed pressure. This defeats the purpose of the butt section by removing the strongest part of the rod from the fight and can even cause the rod to break. If your arm is tired, man up and be thankful you have such a big fish on. Do not grab the butt section of the rod.

  4. Great article. My experience with fighting large red fish while wading educated me on the importance of reel position when fighting large unruly fish. When the reel is aligned with the rod tip the reel will react faster to an explosive run, which will take pressure off of knots and leader. Conversely, positioning the reel at a 90° angle to the rod tip (as seen in the photo) will act like breaks helping slow down big runs and contribute to tiring out the fish.

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