Fly Hooks

Fly Hooks

How to Land Trophy Trout

  • By: Ted Leeson
Fishermen, as even non-anglers know, are apt to stretch the truth at times about the size and number of their fish, so I find a certain ironic symmetry in the fact that their most legitimate claim is often the least believed-the big one that got away. It's angling's most enduring cliche and perhaps its truest. For most of us, trout fishing consists largely of catching small fish, which has a charm of its own to be sure but doesn't offer much in the way of bankable information for those times when you tag a big one.

I should know. When I first began fishing places where large trout were a regular possibility, I lost a humiliating percentage of the ones I hooked. It got bad enough that I finally started paying some attention to the way practiced anglers fought fish and unpracticed ones, repeating my own mistakes, lost them. I've hardly become an expert-to know the good, as St. Paul says, is not to do the good-but knowing the good isn't a bad place to start.A few precautions go without saying. Whenever large trout could be in your future, make sure that your tippet material is fresh, hooks sharp, knots cleanly tied, your reel in good operating condition and spooled with enough backing to give a big fish room to run."Big," of course, is a relative term-but for our purposes we're talking about the fish in relation to the size of the tippet and hook. Obviously, you can't be as aggressive with a very light tippet and often must play a middling trout as though it were a much heavier one. And small hooks, say size 18 and below, don't hold as securely as larger ones. They can pull free easily, and as Darrel Martin has documented in Micropatterns, tiny hooks can bend, spring open, or even break before the tippet parts-again, considerations that require you treat even moderately sized trout with a certain deference.
  1. Get it on the reel. This is standard operating procedure, but anglers often ignore the operative qualifier: as soon as possible. Realize, though, that it may be later rather than sooner. I've watched many fishermen immediately turn their full attention to reeling slack off the water, as though this were an end in itself. Meanwhile, the trout is milling around or swimming toward the angler under virtually no tension. The primary concern is keeping pressure on the fish and-though some fishermen will probably disagree with this-getting the trout moving; a running fish is expending energy and on its way to tiring out.

    In fact, once the trout is off to the races, it often puts itself on the reel by pulling up slack off the water. As the fish moves off, let the line run through the thumb and forefinger of your line hand, pinching to apply a firm, even tension. If the fish stops before taking up all the slack, reel up any remaining line. But don't simply crank the slack up off the water; with no tension on the line, it may form loose coils on the reel that can foul. Use the hand position shown in Figure 1; apply pressure on the fish with the index finger and tension on the slack by pinching it in the crook of the little finger. As you're reeling, you can also move the little finger back and forth to lay line evenly across the spool face so that a high spot doesn't build up and jam on the reel frame.

    When all the slack is spooled, you can simply release the line from your fingers and play the fish directly from the reel. But many anglers prefer to keep the line running over either the index or little finger. Maintaining this kind of contact with the line allows you to adjust tension instantaneously-often necessary with a light drag or spring-and-pawl reel. If using the index finger, avoid pinching the line against the rod grip; control is too uncertain. Just let tension seat the line in the first finger joint, which you can squeeze or relax to alter pressure. I prefer to run the line over my little finger, leaving the index finger, which is stronger, free for gripping the rod. As line is retrieved, the little finger can help lay it evenly on the reel.
  2. Let the fish run. Though I certainly can't prove it, I'm convinced that, a) more big fish are lost to hook pullouts than broken tippets, and, b) the hook pulls out because anglers try to hold the fish rather than letting it run. The reaction is natural enough. We often play smaller trout by just clamping down and letting them fight the spring of the rod, and the tendency becomes automatic with fish of any size. Restraining a big trout, though, allows it to twist, roll, and pivot on a taut line. Your connection is essentially rigid and gives even a solidly hooked fish a fulcrum around which to lever itself free. A lightly hooked one can simply tear loose.

    Instead, let the fish run. Apply moderate (not maximum) tension on the line by using the drag, palming the reel, pinching the line in your finger, or some combination of the three. Working below the maximum pressure builds in a little cushion for the unexpected-a sudden surge of the fish or a mistake on your part.
  3. Apply side pressure. Some anglers might dispute this, but I think it's generally best to pressure the fish from the side. Don't raise the rod vertically and let the fish take off in a straight line. Rather, lean the rod almost parallel to the water off to one side of your body so that the line forms an angle to the trout's direction of travel: you can extend your rod arm outward to increase this angle. Consider this analogy: you've got a strong dog on a long leash and it takes off after a squirrel. You try to stop it by pulling the leash directly against the dog's forward motion. But a dog, like a fish, is built to apply maximum force in the forward direction. You are trying to control the animal by applying pressure in the very direction it's best suited to resist you. Imagine now that the dog bolts, but you move a few steps to the side and pull on the leash, exerting force at an angle. An animal, fish or dog, is not equipped to resist such pressure very effectively; it can't take advantage of its most powerful muscles.

    Often, fighting a trout like this will cause it to turn, straightening its line of travel to fight the resistance more efficiently. In this case, swing the rod 180 degrees and apply pressure from the opposite side, continually keeping the fish off balance. And as most anglers know, side pressure can help steer a fish into calmer water or away from obstacles-a particular help in small streams or close quarters.

    Side pressure is a tactic of diminishing returns, though. The farther away the fish gets, the smaller the angle you can introduce between the trout's line of travel and the direction of line pressure. At the same time, there's an increasing amount of line on the water, and eventually you cross a threshold where more of your effort goes to counteract current drag on the line and less to fighting the fish. Then you're best off lifting the line from the water, raising the rod high over your head, and trying to maintain as direct a connection as possible to the fish.
  4. Decrease drag pressure. As the fish runs farther, you need to decrease the amount of drag tension. Line drag on the water, current, and the increasing drag pressure that results from less line on the spool all add resistance that can pop the tippet or pull the hook free. You certainly want to keep the heat on when you're playing a fish, but the time for being aggressive is when the fish is closer, not farther away.
  5. Don't walk the dog. There may come a point when the trout stops-almost always downstream of you-and you can't move it; the current is too strong, there are obstructions, or you're already applying the maximum pressure. The only way to make progress is to wade or walk toward the fish. As you do, you must gain ground. I've seen a number of anglers in this situation raise the rod high and move to the fish without retrieving line. When the trout feels the decrease in tension, it swims or drifts with the current, and the fisherman ends up merely walking the dog, moving downstream as the fish moves down at an equal speed, never gaining any line. Don't, by any means, be hesitant about moving to the fish, but make it count. Ideally, try to get below the fish so that it must fight the current as well as rod pressure.
  6. Keep the fish moving. A fish on a long line is most apt to be downstream of you. When you regain control and get some fly line back on the reel, keep the fish moving, expending energy. Playing tug-of-war with a stationary trout is a slow and uncertain game, and if the fish is downstream, you're pretty much just fighting the current anyway. Side pressure is often the best way to get the fish going.
  7. Cut some slack (more or less). The standard wisdom on jumping fish says to introduce slack into the line, usually by lowering the rod and pointing it at the fish. There are any number of ways an airborne trout can break a tippet or shake a hook, and relaxing tension on the line may, sometimes, prevent some of them. The technique, however, is far from foolproof. First, fish don't leap in slow motion like they do on TV. A jump can catch you by surprise and be over in an instant; giving slack takes a certain presence of mind. Second, this approach can be significantly less effective on rivers than on still waters. A fast current will almost immediately tighten any slack you introduce, particularly if the fish is some distance away and you have a fair belly of line on the water already.

    Lastly, and this is merely my opinion, the technique can actually be counterproductive when using large, heavily weighted flies. A jumping trout flips and wriggles in the air, sometimes violently, and can generate enough momentum in a heavy fly to shake it free. It isn't difficult to see how. Pin a size 18 Adams into a piece of cloth (or the tip of your finger for a more graphic demonstration), and shake as hard as you want; it seldom comes free. Try the same thing with a heavily weighted size 4 stonefly nymph (particularly a barbless one), and you can shake it loose without much trouble. Still, in most cases, slackening on a jumping fish does no harm and may do some good-if you can react quickly enough to do it. I usually can't.
  8. Easy does it. When you're trying to gain line on the fish and get it close, take it easy. Bigger trout are commonly lost at this point. They typically end up on your downstream side, and against the combined force of fish and current, it is easy to exert enough pressure to break the tippet or pull the hook loose. In this situation, there's a technique that helps me gain ground, particularly in faster water. Instead of pulling the fish directly upstream toward you, apply side pressure-alternately to the one side, then the other, then back again, and so on, essentially"tacking" the fish upcurrent. I admit this sounds counterintuitive, even to me, since drawing the fish directly upstream minimizes the body area catching the current and moves the fish in its most streamlined direction, both of which should minimize the amount of force required. Moreover, fish can't swim backwards with any power and so can't apply direct resistance against your efforts. Yet I find the"tacking" technique far more successful. The fish can usually be persuaded to angle across and up the river. The angle may be shallow-mostly across and not much up-but as long as the trout moves even slightly upriver, you're gaining ground.

    As the fish gets close, watch your tackle. Trying to move the fish toward you by levering the rod back over your shoulder is one of the quicker routes to a broken tip. Think of the angle between the fly line extending to the fish and an imaginary line extending through the rod grip. This angle should be 90 degrees or more. If you decrease this angle, usually by pointing the rod behind you, you're essentially folding the rod tip back on itself in a tight radius, which can prematurely end your day.

    A useful way to eliminate this risk and give yourself an advantage in playing the fish is to use two hands on the rod-one on the grip and one about 18 inches up the shaft, as shown in Figure 2. Facing the fish, hold the rod at arm's length in front of you and roughly parallel to the water. Then draw both hands toward your body evenly, drawing the fish toward you. This approach encourages the proper rod/line angle and shortens the lever with which you're fighting the fish, giving you a greater mechanical advantage. When you've pulled the rod to your body, drop the tip and reel in the line you've gained; then extend your arms outward and start again. Under no circumstances should you hold the grip stationary in one hand and use the other to pull on the shaft, levering the rod around this stationary pivot point. It's very easy to double over the rod tip and break it.
  9. Head down. Not yours, the trout's. When the fish is close enough to think about landing it, use side pressure or a low rod tip to control the fish. Pressure exerted by a rod held vertically tends to lift the trout's head from the water. It doesn't like this. The reaction can be abrupt and forceful. And if you do succeed in lifting its head, what you've got is a big trout on a short tether thrashing around on the surface-the classic conditions for remote release. Keeping its head down tends to quiet the fish and better your chances for landing it.
  10. Handle with care. Though I've mainly been concerned about playing the fish, a few words about landing it are in order. The best way to land a fish is not to. Don't pick it up, don't even touch it; just slip the hook free. A hemostat or release tool helps.

    Handle the fish only if you must revive it. Second best is a net with a soft bag. The book on netting says to lead the fish head-first into the net; unfortunately, the book must have been written by a lake fisherman. In moving water, a big fish is invariably below you; if you try to net it head-on the current pushes the bag downstream, essentially turning the net inside out. Instead, get the trout alongside you; put the net downstream and under the surface. Let the fish drift back until it's over the hoop, then lift upward.

    Landing a fish by hand is like using a net. Get beneath it and lift up, cradling-not grabbing-the belly. As many anglers know, holding the fish upside-down tends to quiet it long enough to remove the hook.
  11. You can't win 'em all. Realize that you simply can't land every big fish you hook. The fault may not lie with your technique but with your choice of fishing spots.

    The biggest fish often live in the toughest water. On the Madison River, some truly monstrous browns inhabit a particular section of deep, vicious pocket water. The best run is reached by wading out just to the edge of disaster, moonwalking chest deep downriver, getting a tenuous foothold behind a submerged boulder if you're lucky, and fishing the fast water. I've hooked some fabulous fish there and never landed a single one. You can't chase them without taking a swim, turn them, or usually even slow them down. For all practical purposes, you couldn't land a trout there unless it swam up to your legs and turned itself in. It's only sensible to acknowledge that, in some spots, playing and landing a big fish is nearly impossible-though that's a whole different thing than saying you shouldn't fish for it.