Fly Fishing: Is There a Time When Anglers Should Admit Defeat and Move On?

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Fly fishing walk of shame. Photo By: Louis Cahill

Is there ever a time when an angler should admit defeat from a trout, pay his/her respects and move on?

We’ve all been there before, sight-fishing to a trophy trout, only to have it ignore our flies time and time again. An hour or more can go by without the slightest sign of interest by the fish, while it remains in the same basic holding spot all the while unafraid, almost as though it’s staring you down and challenging you to catch it. You press on with unwavering persistence until your patience runs dry. You’d argue that the trout isn’t hungry, and that’s why it hasn’t eaten any of the fly patterns, but every time you start to believe it as a viable excuse, you see the flash of white, from the trout opening its mouth and sucking in a bug. You’ve changed flies more than a dozen times now, you’ve made well over a hundred casts, and you’re ready to throw in the towel. Yet every time you reel in your line and begin to walk away, the feeling of defeat shouts “halt, go back! Just make a few more casts. You can do this.” Sometimes you end up winning the battle, other times the take never comes. The times when your line does come tight and you do hook and catch the trout, do you ever wonder if the fish really ate your fly or if you just accidentally flossed it?

I have a good friend from Colorado that told me he once scuba dived in a river and watched his buddy drift nymphs through runs that were loaded with trout. He said he was astonished to see how many times the tippet of the leader drifting in the current went into the mouths of trout, resulting in the fly of the hook snagging the trout. If you’ve ever fly fished for fresh sockeye salmon, you know that the majority of the time that’s exactly how you catch them. Only on rare occasions do they eat your fly, and even then one could argue it’s only out of aggression from the pending spawn. When my friend told me his underwater account, it made me wonder how many fish I thought I’d gotten to eat my fly in the past, but were actually fish that I really just flossed with my leader and snagged. Were those catches legitimate? Not unless you believe calculated or accidental flossing is legit. Maybe if you’re starving to death I could go along with that, but most of us don’t live off the land.

I guess what I’m trying to say is we shouldn’t always feel like we’ve lost as anglers if we can’t get a specific trout to eat our fly. I believe in changing out flies and giving his or her all, but I do think if you’re not a rookie, and you’ve caught plenty of fish in your life, you shouldn’t let the inner voice persuade you to keep at it until you end up snagging the fish. I’d much prefer to think that there’s some fish that are too smart to be caught, and if they very well are fish out there where that’s the case, we should respect them by knowing when to reel in our line and walk away. After all, if we caught every trout that we fished to, would it really be all that rewarding or entertaining? The answer is no. If that were the case, we’d probably be wading trout stream trying to catch them with our bare hands instead of using fly rods and hand tied flies.


A prized catch or an accidental hooking? Sometimes its tough making the call. Photo Louis Cahill

I’ll never know with 100% certainty if this magnificent trout legitimately ate my fly or not. I hooked him below a waterfall in the middle of a fast water shoot, after about fifty consecutive blind drifts. With the size of his mouth, I have a bad feeling that I may have accidentally flossed the poor guy. Although I’m not proud of the possible accidental flossing, I am proud of landing this beast. When I set the hook on him, he shot out of the water like he had a rocket strapped to his back. Four additional jumps and two strong runs later, Louis netted him for me.

That’s my fly fishing rambles for today. What’s your thoughts on the subject of whether or not there’s a time when an angler should admit defeat from a fish and walk away?

Keep it Reel,

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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26 thoughts on “Fly Fishing: Is There a Time When Anglers Should Admit Defeat and Move On?

  1. It’s much more rewarding to me to tie a fly that imitates the food selection well enough for a fish to take, as opposed to using a stout enough hook to drag in a fish. I’d rather go fishless then dredge and grapple hook a trophy…though the fight and land would be fun.

    Remember to practice CPR
    Catch, Photograph, Release!

  2. It is the most difficult thing to do when you decide to admit defeat and move on. Because we seek the satisfaction of a completed goal of catching that ONE fish. If you have given a valiant effort, move on. You never know if there is another hog that is more willing to play and possibly less pressured further around the bend. Thanks for the deep thoughts and keep moving.
    Tight Lines,

    • Brian,

      Thanks for the comment. I know you’ve been in this situation a few times over the years 🙂 A Valiant effort is all that matters and you should be able to walk away without it hurting so much.


  3. My weakness has always been not being able to leave that fish until I am literally dragged away by friends.

    I have gotten better in recent years, and now trying a dozen flies is pretty close to my limit. I may sometimes keep trying because I am enjoying the water and scenery, and don’t want to move.

    In those cases, I am fishing from a different place than obsession.

    Great thoughts for Monday morning.

  4. Seems like I have ran into this type of fish before LOL. We all have, and have felt defeat from the fish. That’s why it’s fishing! Man , I have hung in there with the best of them and lost the battle and left with anger on my mind. I don’t think that was the way it was supposed to end. I think there is a point when one should walk away or maybe give the fish a break and come back later in the day. Sometimes the time of day makes a difference in the fish taking in your fly. No since in getting stressed out because we cant make happen what we want to happen at a given time. If the fish is actively feeding and has not even given a glance at any of you imitations, start looking and observing you surroundings and try to figure out what piece of the puzzle your missing. My daughter asked me last night if I could help her with a puzzle. I declined and she said but dad there is 500 pieces! I said to her, babe, that’s the fun and the point of a puzzle is putting it together! So, my friends, there are 500 pieces out there. Have fun putting it together, and if the fun stops, come back to it later! God bless

  5. Great post Kent. I have seen my fly hooked in the jaw but just outside of the fish’s mouth. Guess that’s a floss job.

    I admire the sentiment that giving up may be better than just increasing the chances of foul-hooking or flossing the fish.

    It is a pleasure to read blogs that are consistently meant to inform, or better yet to get the reader to think more deeply about a sport we love, rather than just telling war stories.

    Keep it up.

  6. Hey Kent,

    This article rings home for me and I can think of two spots and two fish on the Davidson that I constantly get “stuck” at. Sometimes I tell myself if I let the fish rest for 15 minutes it will be more willing to eat the next pass through with a new set up only to end up in defeat again….. The “stuck” phenomenon typically only occurs when I am out by myself because if a buddy were with me they would have called me crazy a few times and I would have walked on. To me this is why I continue to fly fish. The challenge and pursuit that those fish provide is enough to keep my competitive nature alive and provide a reason to keep coming back. If it were ALL blue sky days and all the fish were easy to catch it would be boring and unchallenging (although a few days like that don’t hurt…)

    Great article man.


  7. Redfish in the marsh sometimes present the same problem. Multiple casts to a fish and no takes although the fish is actively hunting a meal. Sometimes the fish will eventually take the fly, other times I am not so lucky. I often think the fish is aware of my presence and although he does not hightail it off the flat, he is never going to eat my offering. At such time I go looking for another tail.

  8. I’m more of a “run and gun” fisherman in general. I like to cover water, and am not one to post up on a hole, or run, for an hour. I’ll give several good drifts, and cover a run thoroughly, maybe change flies a couple times, but if nothing is happening then I’m off to the next spot. There have been plenty of times that I’ve found myself sight fishing to a large trout, but more times than not, I just have to tell myself that it wasn’t meant to be that day and move on. On another note, I’m interested in your buddy’s experience with flossing. I can absolutely understand how this happens in a run stacked with fish. Did your friend notice that he was hooking trout on the outside of the mouth at all? I would tend to think this would be a common occurrence if you were consistently flossing fish. Cool post man.

  9. Living in AK for 3 years now, I’ve already flossed hundreds if not thousands of sockeye. I’ve noticed that when doing so, 99 times out of 100, the fish is hooked in the mouth, but the outside of the mouth. When nymphing for trout, the majority of times the hook is actually inside the mouth. This is one way I try to distinguish when I’ve flossed a fish and it’s actually taken the fly.

    • Nate, Thanks for the confirmation. Makes prfect sense.

      Love fighting those sockeye, eh? Bolting like a freight train for the far shore. It’s been too long since I have done that.

  10. My comments are usually in the nature of “what about non-trout fish species” lately. I would bet this rarely happens with black bass species, but it probably happens a lot with shad and other fish that “stack up” during spawning runs.

    • On the contrary my friend. I was about to share my experiences of Smallmouth in complete refusal. I have definitely adapted to letting fish go on their way if I know they have seen my fly and refused. It’s different with smallmouth in lakes though because they are actually grazing, moving… not just sitting in one spot. However, the reason it’s so important to let the fish go and not completely disturb it, is because we might see that fish tomorrow, next week, or a hundred yards down the shoreline. These fish are averaging 10 to 15 years old and they DO remember things, that’s how adaptation and even animal training occurs. You can’t pester these fish because they will learn to avoid anything that is potentially dangerous for them and that makes fishing harder down the road. Ever fished the same spot everyday? I have on rivers and lakes. It’s a bad idea unless you want to see the fish learn to avoid you.
      Anyway, letting the fish go now may allow you to catch it later.

      • I was referring more to the “flossing” part of the article. I don’t think I could say that I have ever accidentally run my line through a bass’s mouth, thought it was a take, and set the hook on the side of the fish’s mouth. I would agree that it’s almost always futile to keep casting to a river smallie that’s tasted a fly. I have annoyed plenty of largemouths into striking with repeated casts.

  11. Being of a stubborn nature I tend to tough it out and ring the changes, whether that’s flies, position, or whatever change I can do to make that fish take. However, sometimes walking away and coming back later in the day with different conditions; light, weather, etc can make the difference and induce the take. You run the risk of that trophy fish moving on, however some species, especially the bigger brown trout, will take up a position and hold it for considerable periods of time and so even coming back on another day can do the trick!

  12. I’ve been in an ongoing battle with a HUGE brown trout over the past year. He’s beat me every time. He’s mocked me. At one point he swam over and sat at my feet under a log I was standing by. I love this fish.

    I only streamer fish this particular river. I have turned this guy 10 different times now and only hooked him once. When I hooked him, I was sure I had him. He hammered a big articulated streamer and came what seemed 3 foot out of the water. He hit the water and immediately ran upstream. I had the pressure on him and then….poof. He was just gone. I have no idea how. Just gone.

    I’v had no choice but to admit to defeat to this fish for nearly a year. And I completely agree with you….isn’t that what keeps us coming back? Of course it is!

    I’m going to keep sending streamers his way. Eventually I will hit it right. He’s is absolutely a 25″+ trophy. I am happy to loose to him again, but I will persist. I look forward to shaking his fin and then watching him continue to rule that run as long as he can.

    So, yea, there is a time to admit defeat an walk away. There will be another day. And in the end, this fish will have made me better. If nothing else, I appreciate him for that!

  13. As a traditionalist (dries and wets 99% of the time…) I can floss a trout on top with the best of them. They can be going after one of the knots in my hand-made tippet as I pick up the line at the end of a drift or I can floss them on a last second refusal when I set the hook.
    As a dry-fly man and tier, I view camping out over a particular trout as a chance to experiment with “new” patterns, relax and learn. Sure, any of us would have a general idea of what insect and what stage the trout are keying on and then empirically choose the best match from the box. But, when empirical guesses don’t cut it the first dozen times, it’s high time to spend some time reviewing the basics until we finally fall into rhythm with the stream and the trout.
    If it was just about the numbers of fish we happen to catch in an hour we would all use a gill net I suppose.

  14. My personal experience bears out the fact that, as long as a trout keeps feeding, he is not spooked and can be caught. That is where the challenge and appeal to keep trying comes in. Many anglers do not realize that a nymphing trout or a trout feeding off the bottom in the water column, will do the same thing to your fly as a surface feeding trout – they look at it passing by, don’t take it, and then maybe after 5 or 11 or 19 drifts, suddenly take it. Trout will and do also eat your nymph, and of course, many times you don’t see the take. In which case they merely spit it and continue feeding, and in 99% of the cases, they will not take the fake again. But a new fly, possibly. Fishing a single nymph and making accurate casts to have the fly, not the tippet present to the front or off to the near-side of the trout will help minimize flossing.

  15. If a fish hasn’t been spooked, I’ll give it a few shots and then move on. I have seen trout ignore me as I’m drifting a fly by, and on about the third or so drift look over at me and make eye contact as if to say “really?” At that point I definitely move on.

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  17. Interesting article and it makes me wonder how many trout I have Flossed over the years. In the end it really does not matter. The experience is the same.

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  19. If your nymph is inside the trout’s mouth, odds are it was not flossed. It is my understanding that flossed fish are generally hooked on the far side, outside corner of the mouth.

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