Three Ways We Lose Fish

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

by Jason Tucker

Dusk falls slowly on a June summer evening.

Zach and I stood knee deep in the tannic flowing water of a Northern Michigan stream, the calls of the day birds urgent as they headed to bed, before the night birds emerged. We waited, the sky impossibly bright despite the late hour, as the mosquitoes whined in our ears. In the last of the Boreal light the first Hexagenia of the evening emerged. Still we waited.

A few minutes later 3 large brown trout began feeding just upstream from us. They were over two hundred feet away, and just when we start to move upstream to meet them, a small fish fed thirty feet above us.

“Let me feed him some Hex” I said to Zach, tossing a cast up, more a joke than a serious attempt at fishing. My fly landed, and was pulled down immediately in a great sucking gulp.

I set the hook and without hesitation the fish ran upstream and took half my fly line. It paused for a moment, gave three or four great shakes of its head and ran again upstream, taking the rest of my line and forty feet of backing with it.

I looked at Zach in the gloam and said “It looks like we have to go after this one”, lunging forward in the dark water. Even as I did, the fish took off once more and my leader parted. I stood there breathless and stunned. It had all happened so fast.

I was fishing my eight weight rod with a straight twelve pound leader.

There are a lot of reasons we lose fish, and we all have stories of that one that got away. Personally I’d like to have fewer of these incidents, though they do add a certain something to campfire storytelling sessions. I’ve been party to a lot of big fish being landed or lost over the years. Every year, I find I’m kicking myself over some stupid mistake I’ve made that results in the old Long Distance Release. While entire books could be written on the subject, I will focus on three of the most common causes of losing good fish.

Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight

Very often we either stick to fishing our favorite gear, or we gauge our gear to catching small or average fish. That 3 weight is just fine on most brook trout streams until a big brown comes rolling out from under a log and crushes your fly, and then the battle is on, and frequently lost. Heavier gear is called for if you suspect you have a chance at bigger fish. A 5 weight may work just fine during the day on your favorite stream; late at night when much bigger fish come out you may need to go up to a six weight or heavier. There was a reason I was fishing an eight weight in that opening story, because we had been hooking and catching fish well over twenty inches. I’ll never know how big that fish was, but that night my eight weight felt under powered.

The same can go for your tippet size. My good friend Tom, an excellent angler and caster, told me a couple of years ago that he quit fishing tippet smaller than 4X. He was tired of breaking fish off on 5X. His reasoning was what good does it do to hook up on a fish if the tippet doesn’t survive the hookset or the fish? All you’ve done is needlessly lost a fly without accomplishing anything. Since that conversation I’ve started using heavier tippet and losing fewer fish.

If you’re after big fish at night don’t hold back. I don’t use anything less than 8 pound tippet at night and often go up to 12 pound. You can also shorten your tippet considerably at night.


You Aren’t Mentally Prepared

This is one of the most common mistakes I see– we hook up on a big fish unexpectedly and lose our shit. Never mind that you’ve landed dozens of salmon or steelhead in the past, or that you’ve chased saltwater fish, big stripers, carp, musky whatever. In your current situation you’ve been catching average trout all day and suddenly you have a monster come out, suck down your fly and beat you up like a red-headed stepchild before spitting it back at you.

In Michigan rivers I’ve landed one sixteen inch brook trout, but I can’t tell you the number of fish that size and bigger I’ve lost over the years, and it always seems to go the same way. I’m catching average fish all day and suddenly a monster appears out of nowhere, eats the fly, goes berserk, and I suddenly don’t know how to fight a fish. So never mind the number of steelhead you’ve landed over the years. A sixteen inch brook trout when you least expect it can be your most challenging ever. I’m probably not much help on this as it happens to me still on a regular basis.

What will help are good fundamentals– making sure you are in good position at all times, with your rod pointed at your fly, making sure you don’t have too much slack on the water. Set the hook, follow through and keep tight to the fish. Do this every cast, with every fish and hopefully it becomes automatic enough that when that big fish hits you’ll land it in spite of yourself.


Fumbling the Details

I was out on Michigan’s famed Au Sable river with good friends Ethan and Jon at the height of the Hex hatch. We launched at dusk, already tired from a week of working all day and fishing all night. We wouldn’t reach our takeout until the sun was up the next day. We pushed downstream for several miles before it was fully dark. Soon the hexes took to the air, a river of bugs flying in counter current to the river beneath. The fish weren’t far behind.

We had worked our way down to a hard corner. On the inside bend three enormous fish were feeding in tandem, displacing an outsized amount of water with each sucking slurp. We tried everything. We changed flies, casters and boat position. It was on my second turn casting at these fish that Ethan insisted I cut off my fly and tried one of his. On about my fourth cast the last fish took and my line came tight. Line hissed through the water as the fish shook it’s head and ran. Then it was gone. Reeling in my line I found a nice curlicue in my tippet. That’s right– I had failed to set my knot properly and it unraveled.

The devil is often in the details. Always check and double check your knots. Check your entire tippet regularly for nicks, wear and abrasion. Tape your ferrules or check that they are seated regularly. Make sure that your line isn’t wrapped around your reel seat or your wader boots after a cast. Sometimes it’s those little things that make all the difference between pictures, and a good story to tell at the campfire.

Jason writes the fine blog Fontinalis Rising

Jason Tucker

Gink & Gasoline
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12 thoughts on “Three Ways We Lose Fish

  1. Excellent advice, Jason. Been there and done that on all three points. When you lose a big fish, ideally you want to be able to tip your hat to the fish with no regrets on your part.

    Some years ago my fishing buddy Jay taught me to use high-quality flourocarbon tippet in 3x or 4x rather than 5x or 6x which was my staple. This is especially important on our smaller southern Appalachian streams that hold bigger fish. With tiny flies, I find a loop knot allows you to use tippet oversized (by convention) for the fly while still keeping realistic action.

  2. Wow, it hurt just reading about those LDR’s (long distance release)
    Thanks for insight Jason, your right about being prepared ALL the time

  3. Were you writing this about me?!? I took you everything in confidence!
    My biggest issue has been losing focus as the day wears on. Nice long drift…mend at that seam…..oooh, squirrell!

    After a buddy of mine list a 20″+ brown on a tiny little NLP brook trout stream I check my drag and my knot / tipper almost obsessively.

    Great stuff, keep it up!

  4. Jason; you write;

    ” A 5 weight may work just fine during the day on your favorite stream; late at night when much bigger fish come out you may need to go up to a six weight or heavier. There was a reason I was fishing an eight weight ”

    disagree on the 8 wt. A fast action 5 wt with a soft enough tip for tippet protection has served me well. A St. Croix Legend Elite, 9-5 for instance, will do it all if you use it right.

    Drag. and a smooth operating one. I have a low – mid level reel with silky smooth drag and it makes all the difference in the world. BUT ; not if my line is loosely or carelessly coiled on the outer edge of the spool when that big trout makes its original charge.

    7, or 8 wt for streamers, sure

    • I’m only responding because Jason and I used to fish the same rivers, even the same spots before he moved to Georgia. He reccomends using a heavier weight because our rivers are small and full of large woody debris. I have literally lost big fish in those rivers with 5 wts but got the job done with an 8 wt. He’s talking about browns that weigh 4-6 pounds. If you have ever fought a fish like that, you know that the big rod is appropriate. Further, when presenting flies in the dark, it doesn’t need to be as delicate of a presentation. And if you’re tossing mouse patterns, then it’s certainly easier with a bigger rod.

      Just letting you know what his train of thought was. If the rivers were bigger and had less debris you could get away with a lighter rod, or if you never throw mouse patterns.

      • Spencer; thanks for the education. . did not realize the type of conditions he’s talking about. have fought browns that size on a 5 or 6 , but most of the obstacles were round rock in easier fighting / landing zones. Right on. Learn something every day. Apologies, Jason for being a doucher.

  5. Yes, it hurts when it’s our fault. Not checking for or fixing a wind knot, not checking the tippet for nicks, not checking the ferrules for tightness every once in awhile, not checking knots–that stuff happens and it typically happens less after we lose a big fish that way. A 2×4 in the forehead is a good learning tool. But, much of the time a big fish requires a lot of luck to land even when you do everything right. They more or less decide where the hook is buried, or whether it’s buried. If they take and turn and you get a nice hook plant in the corner, better odds for you. Hooked in other places and it can come out easily with a little back-and-forth–and big fish typically give you a lot of back-and-forth. Sometimes they roll and a gill raker slices the tippet–nothing you can do about that. Big fish simply lower the odds of taking, hooking, and landing, and that’s why they are the object of our desire.

  6. Pingback: Tippets: Sight Fishing Tips, Flies for Winter Trout, Ways We Lose Fish | MidCurrent

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