Fighting Fish For A Quick, Caring Release

We all have a responsibility to land fish as quickly as possible so we can release them in good shape. There’s a series of prerequisites to accomplishing this. It begins with leader selection, which is determined by presentation issues, the fish species and our knot tying skills. Then it involves our understanding of how to apply pressure to a fish that is relentless which ultimately messes with the fish’s ability to swim effectively. It ends with our capacity to handle them respectfully when they come to hand (and to maybe snap quick pics before a release). The ‘base note’ that runs through all of this is a deep understanding of how to bend a rod and to take the fight right up to a fish, to break the fish without breaking our tackle.

Within reason we should be fishing the heaviest leader/tippet we can get away with. In trout fishing this has more to do with that critical drag free drift than it has to do with visibility. In the drama of the saltwater world it might have something to do with providing an inbuilt weakest link. But in some situations, even in the saltwater world, leader visibility is critical and the need to go finer is the difference between bending a rod or remaining fishless.

Consequently our knot tying skills play a really crucial role in leader set-ups. If our knots aren’t up to scratch we have to turn to using heavier tippet material or because we don’t have faith in our connections so we apply insufficient pressure to subdue the fish effectively – drawn out fights with tired fish are the result.

I don’t think there’s a better species for teaching us how to really fight fish than carp. They’re a much maligned fish for their invasiveness, but learning to live with them is now our lot and savvy fly fishers seize the opportunity through spring and summer to sight fish for them in the shallows as they tail and forage their way through flooded margins.

Near to where I live in a day you can hook up to 30 carp from 6 to 16lbs. As you fight one fish there’s a shoreline dotted with the backs and tails of feeding fish beckoning you, so you want to land each fish quickly so you can move onto the next. The first time I fished for carp on the flats, almost every fish took me into the backing. It wasn’t long before I started using the sort of tactics we use on saltwater fish such as a snapper or grouper, species that put everything into getting back into cover and have to be stopped.

Initially we fished 6lb tippets on 4-weight rods and quickly learned that even through these rods, and with those tippets, we could land these fish in just a few minutes. We increased the tippet strength and went lighter with the rods down to 3-weights and shortened the fight time even more – and we’ve never broken a rod on them. How do we do this? In a couple of words ‘unrelenting pressure’.

If you’re really serious about your fly fishing and releasing fish in good condition, using a set of scales to measure the pull you can generate through a bent rod is a revelation – it certainly was for me the first time I did it and it completely changed the way I fish. You can do this by yourself by using a game fishing drag scale.  These have a slider that will mark what you’ve pulled when you back off. Attach the scale to something solid and loop the leader onto the hook on the scale.

Stand back and pull noting what sort of pressure you are registering with various angles of the rod. I do this in my classes with an old fiberglass rod because it allows me to really demonstrate what high sticking is, and how little pressure it actually puts on the fish. The higher in the air you point a rod the less pressure you apply to the fish and the greater the breakage risk from high sticking.

As we lower the rod angle we change where the pressure is being applied to the blank. The lower down the rod you apply the bend the more pressure you can bring to bear on a fish. This is how you take the fight right up to them. Dangers arise when you’re fishing with light tippets, or you have dodgy knots, because the margin for error becomes much less, especially as the stretch comes out of the line system.

These pics were shot in my backyard. The drag scales are attached to a deeply buried tent peg. The rod is an old fiberglass 12-weight that I use just for this demonstration.

High Sticking - Fighting Fish - Sage Fly Fishing

A high bend that I would call ‘high sticking’. If this was a graphite rod you would probably break it at this angle. On the scales I could measure only 4lbs of pull, much more and the rod might have broken. High angles similar to this (but not as dramatic) are essential for protecting very light tippets and fine hooks. On a 5-weight you would be lucky to register a half a pound with this sort of angle. There’s plenty of give in the rod to absorb head shakes. Its also a safe angle for late in the fight on softer mouthed fish.

Sage and Effective - Fighting Fish - Sage Fly Fish

Looking a bit more like a really effective generally fighting angle, but even here I could only register 9lbs on the 12-weight. On the plus side there’s plenty of bend to absorb any lunges and head shakes. The bend is in the middle of the rod, which is reasonably strong. This is a safe and effective bend.

Serious Pressure - Fighting Fish - Sage Fly Fish

Now we’re talking pressure and here I was registering 16lbs on the scales. The rod is deeply bent through the strongest part. By now much of the stretch has been removed from the line and the pressure is very directly applied to the fish. With this kind of angle you want to be very confident in your knots and in your reactions to any sudden surges from the fish. This kind of angle really knocks them over quickly and won’t break your tackle but exposes poor knots.

About the author: Peter Morse is a television presenter, journalist, author, fly fishing photographer, teacher and communicator. Peter proudly considers himself to be a fly-fishing purist with 35 years in the sport, the last 20 of those full time “living the dream.” He’s guided around the South Pacific and fly-fished most edges of the Australian continent including many of the rivers and lakes. With a species tally of 280 there’s not a lot he hasn’t done in the world of fly-fishing. “There’s no such thing as a bad fish” he says, “some are just better than others, but who are we to decide which is which, they all teach us something”. He’s a strong proponent of pursuing any and all species with fly tackle and techniques.  Learn more on his website:

5 Responses to Fighting Fish For A Quick, Caring Release

  1. Kyle Tinny says:

    I found this article to be validating to my own experience. I used to do a lot of angling for bass, both Largemouth and Smallmouth,with traditional casting and spinning rods of course. I found that high sticking when I was finesse fishing, especially for Smallmouth would protect 6 and 8 pound test all most 100 percent of the time. Even when fishing around grass I could manage to get them free and to the boat or shore as long as I didn’t put the screws to them sideways. I then started landing more big bass with heavier casting tackle when setting the hook to the side slightly and then fighting the fish in with a lower angle as well. I find it funny to note that most tournament anglers that I see on t.v. and so on still set the hook upright and fight the fish high, shows they don’t know everything. Also, I’m going to give the carp a try on my 9 weight rod on the local creek here which is loaded with big carp,some of which run 20 pounds. Thanks for the article guys. Peace.

  2. Bernd Ziesche says:

    Hi Morsie
    Great Stuff!

  3. Pingback: Playing a Fish? - Fly Fishing Forums

  4. JoeG says:

    We had very knowledgable guides on a fishing trip to Alaska. We were using 5 or 6 wt rod, 4x tippet using 18 nymph and dry fly for 20-25 in rainbows in swift water.

    Much like your carp experience, we learned you catch large fish quickly with constant and determined pressure. Fish would always get you deep in the backing, and occasionally the knot would break or the hook would unbend, but if you keep them on after first several lunges, they were usually landed.

    Also learned the secret to netting fish with near 100% success.


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