How to Fight and Land Big Fish – by Josh Hayes

Rainbow Trout Alley Alaska

You’ve paid your dues. Fished and mastered your home water and you’ve had great successes that now far out weigh your fly fishing disappointments. So you scratch together a 50% deposit, push “All In”, and book the trip. The one where 30 plus inch Trout, Twenty Pound Steelhead, or Thirty Pound Atlantic Salmon knowingly ply the boils and riffles of an already infamous drainage.

For some fly anglers it is less important to land, or even hook, one of the giant salmonids that inhabit, or infiltrate freshwater – it being enough to simply make the pilgrimage to its locale, and to see personally where the wild things are. As I not so gracefully age, I now notice that my returning clients and friends fall mainly into this category, and I too find myself fishing the waters of this planet with a similar awe and admiration. But for those of you that do not share this spiritual, Zen-like path, who must lay hands on the mythical beasts of fly fishing lore, those of you who wake up with a chomp factor measurable only in exponents…This, my restless fellow angler, is for you.

31" of Alaskan Rainbow Trout

Battling big fish in any water is difficult. Make it big water with big river current involving snags, boulders, boats, oars, and/or motors and you’ve got a lot of potential disasters. As a fly fishing guide it is my responsibility to eliminate as many of these potential disasters as possible for my clients. Some pitfalls I can completely eliminate, others I can only hope to contain to a minimum.

Line management is possibly the number one key to finishing the task with big trout. Only utilize as much fly line as is required to make the cast, have as little fly line in your hands as possible while fishing, and put the fish on the reel as quickly as possible – stripping line in only when absolutely necessary. I think as a guide this is the most difficult one for me to watch – Unnecessary line dangling oh so delicately on everything in the boat including but not limited to laces, wader pouches, gear bags, sunglasses, beer (hard one to avoid), seats, the dog, and sometimes me. Keep your fly line usage to an as needed basis to avoid it hanging up on something when the fish finally decides to eat and run. In my opinion fighting the fish on the reel is always the best option so don’t make it more difficult on yourself by having excess line to pick up prior to getting the fish on the reel.

Drag is called “Bremse” in the German language, which translates into “Brake”. And I think many fly rodders today buy completely in to that description. I feel that drag is something a little less final. I support the theory that the drag is present just to keep the reel from free spooling/backlashing, while at the same time maintaining tension so that the fish is still connected when the run is over. At no time is stopping a fish with the drag my intention – that’s what the exposed rim on the spool is for, that is the “brake”.

The drag may be utilized to tire the fish quickly but that does not mean to stop the fish from running. The fish must run, it is their strongest defense, so let them. Stay calm and prepare for the next move or change in direction, it will be coming, but you must be connected after the run in order to experience it. Often I have found that big Rainbows in my area will have three go to moves – only one of which is the all-out sprint that empties the reel of backing. Staying connected through the end of the run is all I want to do – that is what the drag is there for, to avoid the backlash and to keep me connected to the fish during these long runs. I find that it is not until after that long initial run that you truly meet that fish one on one, mono a mono, and see exactly what both fish and angler are made of.

Another major downfall of many fly rodders and the “brake” concept is the tightening of the drag or palming the reel while fighting a fish, especially in the middle of a long run. The pressure the fish is putting on the reel and the engaged drag is completely different during the fight then when the drag was previously set from a static position. In addition to the fish, the river current on the fish and the line, the angle of the line entering the water, the angle of the rod relative to the fish and water, and the amount of line on the reel can all alter the pressure on the fish, reel and drag. Adjustments anytime during the fight are ill-advised and can often be the undoing of your chances of landing that fish. I will not say never but I will not endorse it even in the most dire of circumstances. Some of the newer reels come with engraved or inset numbers on the drag knobs; these can be helpful in many scenarios if you do choose to adjust mid-fight. Set your drag as light as possible to do the job, do not touch the reel during long runs, and you will find yourself connected after runs deep into your backing – thus giving you more chances at a close encounter with a fish of a lifetime.

After gear choices and line management comes the real test of the fly angler. The hook is set, the battle ensues and most fly rodders go straight up and down with the rod, acknowledging the age old chant of “Keep your tip up!” with an awkward, off balance tribute to The Statue of Liberty. This is fine initially, providing it keeps the slack out of the line and does not pull the fish all the way to the surface. But as the fish begins fight, rod angle can become a hindrance or an ally. I like to instruct my clients to “Bow to the fish” – I believe a little fish worship actually goes a long way.

If we think of the rod in the straight up, overhead position (Statue of Liberty) as twelve o’clock I encourage my anglers to bow and point in the direction of the fish with the rod at a lower angle – about two ‘o’clock, resulting in just a slight bend in the rod. This will achieve a few things. One, the fish will be pulling drag off of the reel in nearly a direct manner resulting in only the pressure of the drag on the fish with no extra force being exerted onto the hook by the rod or angler. The slight bend in the rod will provide just enough shock absorption and tippet protection from any abrupt jolts or head shakes by the fish. And thirdly, by pointing the rod in the direction of the fish, if the fish chooses to change direction at any time a large amount of slack line can be accounted for by simply pointing the rod in exactly the opposite direction. In fact, accounting for just a slight bend in the rod, if an anglers reach is six feet across and he/she is fishing with a 10’ rod, switching the rod quickly from the pointed position (two o’clock) to the opposite side of the body (10 o’clock) will result in nearly 25’ of line pick up (10’ rod to the right + 6’ reach + 10’ rod to the left) almost instantly. Often times this buys the fly angler just enough time to begin frantically reeling and keep up with the fish.

When all else fails and slack line begins to stack on the water or flag violently in the wind – stick the rod tip in the water. A trick taught to me by my late good friend and mentor Curt “Trout” Muse this has helped myself and many clients land unusually large fish. The water tension provided by the moving fish and the line in the water maintains just enough pressure in slack water to keep the fish hooked. In flowing water, because of the current, the line goes instantly taught when the rod tip hits the water. Keeping the rod tip under water and slowly, consistently reeling as the fish allows will typically get all of the fly line back on the reel. At which time the rejuvenated and recharged Trout will naturally take off on another good run, albeit shorter than the previous one. I am sure Curt does, but aside from the aforementioned theories I do not have any solid scientific, or even a guide’s explanation as to why this method works – it simply does. Try it, use it, send me a picture.

Rod angle is important in other ways as well. A low rod tip with side pressure on the fish from a position perpendicular or downstream of the fish is preferable. This will put increased pressure on the fish by forcing the fish to constantly fight the rod, drag, and current. This will wear the fish out quicker and it puts the angler in a position that keeps pressure on the hook going into the fish. When fighting a fish from the upstream angle, with the fish facing into the current, the angler is unnecessarily putting extra pressure on the hook by holding the fish into the current while allowing the fish to utilize the river current against the angler with just a head shake. With the tip low to the water the fish is less likely to get its head out of the water and shake/pull the hook loose or break the leader.

Typically I recommend that the rod tip stay low and at an angle that is downstream from the fish until the fish is ready for the net. I then have the angler guide the fish along the gunnel of the boat or slightly towards the bank if wading, with the rod tip low to the water. As the fish begins to cooperate and move in the direction initiated by the angler, I have the angler raise the rod high and lift the fish. This may require a couple attempts with the larger fish so be patient. The fish will eventually provide a head first shot at the net at which time you basically just need to put the net into the water and let the fish glide effortlessly into it, lifting the net only after the entire fish is within the safe confines of the hoop.

It is common knowledge that the quicker a fish succumbs to the pressures of the angler and is in the net, the better its chances of survival. This can be best achieved through proper pairing of hook, tippet, fly line, rod, reel, and angler skill. But the proper handling of the fish while in the net is also critical in minimizing the mortality rate of these amazing creatures. Please remember Catch and Release is not 100% survivable so we owe it to the fish to be as conscientious as possible when it comes to fighting, landing, photographing, and releasing these magical beasts. No photograph is worth a fish’s life. Enjoy the moment, but not at the expense of the fish.


Sipping Smallies – by Mike Exl

Smallmouth Bass Terristral
Everyone loves fishing a fly on the surface of the water. There is just something about a nice Rainbow coming up and slowly grabbing a fly or a bass coming up to smash a popper. That visual experience strikes deep in every fly angler. There is a great blending of these experiences with Smallmouth and fishing terrestrials. That’s right terrestrials are not just for trout. Continue reading

Destination Spain – On the Water with Barry and Cathy Beck

Fly Fishing Spain

Day One

Ramon, our Salvelinus fishing guide, quietly slips into the water. He watches as numerous rise forms start to appear upstream of our position and motions for us to join him. Like Ramon we move slowly in our approach until he signals us to stop. “Ants”, he says and then he excitedly goes off about how big they are in his broken English. One quick look and we see what he sees, large black winged ants are covering the water and us. If these things could sting we would be in deep trouble.

Flying Ants on the Water

Winged flying ants are nothing new to us, we have encountered ant falls on trout rivers and lakes throughout many seasons generally in the fall of the year. One thing for sure, they always bring trout to the surface and today this small tail water fishery in Spain is not going to be an exception. Heads are everywhere, it’s like a feeding frenzy at a fish hatchery. From experience we know that this will not last long so we need to quickly take advantage of it. Flying ants vary in sizes from small 20 and 22s to huge – like the size 10 insects in front of us. Black, red, and cinnamon are the most common colors. Ants are social insects who live in colonies and are ruled by wingless queens. Winged ants will appear in reproductive form and leave the colony to mate, this frenzy will often attract ants from nearby colonies and you can end up with thousands of flying insects of which many which will fall on the water available to hungry trout.


This mating phenomenon may last only an hour for a day or two so it takes a little luck to encounter a winged ant fall. If you’re lucky, you will have a winged imitation in your box because the trout key in on the wing and can get quite fussy about it. It might be the reflection of the wing or the silhouette, or perhaps both, but the bottom line is you’ll catch more fish with a winged pattern.

Brown Trout Rising for an Ant

Cathy’s wasting no time and already has a size 10 black super beetle tied on her 4X RIO tapered leader. I look at the beetle and she replies that it’s the closest thing she has to a winged ant, it’s black, has legs and a hi viz wing. She thinks it will work. Three casts later and her new Sage Mod is bent in half as a hefty rainbow goes airborne and heads for the far bank. Minutes later Ramon eases his net under the energetic rainbow. An hour later and the ants are gone but for a short time we had some unbelievable fishing to rising trout.

Day Two

Ivan Tarin is the manager and head guide at Salvelinus and runs his program from Hotel Casa Domenc in the tiny village of Aren, in the foothills of the Pyrenees and almost on the border with France. Over breakfast Ivan gives guide assignments to our Frontiers clients and informs everyone on which river or tail water that they will fish today. Our favorites are always the many spring creek-like tail waters, which offer dependable insect hatches and healthy good size trout. We rotate guides on a daily basis within our group and today we get to fish with Ivan on a small local tail water.

Fly Fising Spain

Our day starts with Ivan trying our new Sage MOD – he’s been salivating over the rod since we arrived. Hours later Ivan is still casting away and going on about how much he likes the MOD, but we all remain fishless. The water temperature is perfect, water level is spot on and there are a number of small caddis hatching but our casts go unanswered. Ivan tries nymphs and Cathy prospects with the streamer to no avail. Over lunch Ivan says he is optimistic about the afternoon, we think hope springs eternal, but don’t voice it.

By two o’clock we question Ivan’s optimism and then we see a bent rod and his smiling face. “Fish on”, we hear and shortly later he lands a nice brown about sixteen inches. Cathy follows with a smaller fish and I think it’s going to happen. No dice. We continue to fish until nearly dark and finally give in. It’s back to dinner. There’s always tomorrow. It’s still been a great day.

Fly Fishing Spain

Day Three

Our friend and guest, Art Rorex, gets to fish with Ivan and they return to the same water that we fished yesterday. I think this might be a bad choice with the slow fishing that we had, but I am not going to question the guide. Cathy and I head to another tail water with our guide, Alberto, who is totally buzzed about how great our day is going to be. Sure enough we have a nice hatch, rising trout and perfect weather. Our biggest fish just exceeds twenty inches. What more could we ask for? That evening I am almost afraid to ask Art how his day went with Ivan, the last thing a trip host wants to hear is a negative report from a guest. But when I ask he smiles and holds up his his small Nikon point-and-shoot camera. I stare at an beautiful brown trout that looks to be about five pounds. Art is all smiles and says. “It gets better”, and up comes a nine pound brown, weighed and measured. In the background I see one of the pools that we fished yesterday, a pool that didn’t produce anything for us. I sigh. What a difference a day makes.

Fly Fishing Spain

Day Four

We are back with Ramon and headed to a much larger tail water that often in the fall holds some big browns that migrate upstream from a lake. We string up our fly rods and opt for 250 grain RIO sink tip lines. Ramon searches through Cathy’s fly box and chooses a large size 4, black Super Bugger. I plan to follow with a white leech. It’s cast and strip and move on. We search every likely looking piece of water mixing up retrieve speeds with no response.

Fly Fishing Spain

Ramon is about to pull us out and go to plan B, which is a small freestone stream when Cathy hooks up. He gets a good look at the fish as it rolls on the surface and turns to me showing with the spread of his hands and by his expression that this is a monster. The fight continues down stream for about ten minutes and just as Ramon gets into position to net the big fish the line goes slack, the fish is gone. Angler and guide look at each other in disbelief and it’s a quiet walk back to the car. No one is saying anything so I have to ask, “How big do you think that fish was?” Cathy answers first, “It was a brown and I never really felt that I had control of that fish”. Ramon who looks totally dejected says, “At least ten pounds, but I think bigger.” Tomorrow is another day and another plan. Whatever happens it’s great to be here in the Pyrenees with Ivan and these exceptional guides. Not all of the fish are big, we catch a lot of small fish too, but the Pyrenees offers so much variety that a big fish is always in the back of our mind. Oh well, there is always next year.



Love Them or Hate Them, Indicators Work – by Matt McCannel

On a drift
Love them or hate them indicators will improve your success when you need to control an exact depth when nymphing.  There has been an explosion of new styles and an amazing new array of colors, but which will work the best for you?  Continue reading

A Guides Tips on How to Safely Photograph Fish – by Nick Teynor

Taking photos of fish has been a tradition in our sport since a guy with a camera, saw a guy with a big fish, and wanted to document it. It is human to want to share our joyous occasions with each other, and to have tangible proof of our great catch. I am a sportsman, and when I catch a great fish, I love to share it with the rest of my friends. Continue reading

Migration Time: The Fall Blitz at Cape Lookout – by Brian Horsley

Sage Fly Fishing Harkers Island

Massive schools of baitfish collide at exactly the right time and place to create fly-fishing nirvana.

Every year when August draws to a close I get twitchy. It’s as my wife and I are wrapping up our summer guiding season at Oregon Inlet, NC, when an uneasy feeling sets in. Soon, our urge to migrate is too strong to ignore. Continue reading