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.
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.