How to Fight a Big Fish on a Fly Rod

How to Fight a Big Fish on a Fly Rod

For many anglers, there isn’t much thought given to fighting and landing fish on a fly rod. Most of the time, matching the hatch, finding big fish, and fly presentation are first and foremost on our minds. Techniques for fighting fish and landing them in a dip net are essential to catching more fish and not losing bigger fish.

On the surface, this seems like a simple topic, but in reality, there are many techniques and strategies that can help you be more successful on the water. In this article, I will discuss some standard fish fighting techniques using a fly rod, and a few of the finer points as well. Here’s how to fight a fish and land it on a fly rod.

Table Of Contents

Achieving a Solid Hookset is the Key to Success

Before you think about how to fight fish, a solid hook set is essential to winning the battle. When a fish eats a fly, the hook is merely resting in the fish’s mouth. While on occasion, the fish will set the hook itself, most of the time the angler needs to drive the hook into the hard cartilage area that makes up a fish’s jaw. A quick hook set, and fishing larger flies will help to achieve a better hookset.

How to Set the Hook when Fly Fishing

Setting the hook fast and quick is critical to driving the fly into the fish’s mouth. A good hook set is quick and forceful, but not powerful. It doesn’t take much power to drive the point of a hook into a trout’s mouth. It is about being quick to recognize strikes. For that bass fish, a trout hook set is the same in speed and quickness but lacks the power.

Timing is everything. Most of the time when nymph fishing, anglers are too slow on the hook set. This results in missed fish or foul hooked trout. Remember, that when nymph fishing under an indicator, the flies are 6′-7′ deep in the water column. It takes a few seconds for the strike to travel up the indicator. If you don’t set the hook the moment the indicator telegraphs a strike, you are late on the set. The fish will already be spitting the hook. Any shake, twitch, sudden stop of the indicator, or if the indicator does anything other than float naturally, set the hook. I tell clients, “Hook sets are free, so set the damn thing”.

Forming an Overhead Triangle

The most efficient way to set a hook with a fly rod is to form a triangle over your head with your casting and line stripping hands. A quick and fast hook set, lifting the rod tip straight, with both your rod and casting hands together will achieve the desired results most of the time. Savvy anglers who are experts at hook sets will slightly angle the rod downstream or in the opposite direction of the fish’s head to optimize the hook set and drive it into the fish’s mouth instead of away from it.

Fish always face into the current. For example, if the water is moving from right to left, the trout will be facing upstream to the right. Setting the hook straight over your head and angling the rod tip slightly to the left will give you the best hook set. This is especially helpful when fishing smaller flies, as it gives you a better angle on the fish’s mouth.

A good analogy to visualize the concept of forming the triangle is to picture yourself placing a coffee cup with both hands on a high shelf that is just out of reach. Of course, as mentioned before, it needs to be quick and fast. Many anglers start their fishing careers bass fishing, setting hooks with excessive power. When trout fishing, this results in missed fish, lost flies, and broken leaders. A trout set requires finesse.

Small Hooks Versus Big Hooks

Many times, the biggest fish are caught in the spring or fall. Not only are larger trout spawning during those times of years, but typically anglers are fishing larger flies in these months. Spring runoff flies can be large #4 rubber legs or giant san juan worms. In the fall, anglers often fish giant streamers. Larger hooks have bigger hook gaps, are thicker steel, and they can withstand more pressure applied onto the hook without pulling out of the fish’s mouth.

It is not that big fish aren’t hooked in the summer, they are. The difference is the size of the flies. In the summer months, most fly fishers use smaller hooks to match mayfly and caddis fly hatches. In my experience, most really large trout hooked on a size #16 or #18 dry fly in the middle of the summer months are much more likely to bend or pull out of the fish’s mouth.

Will I lose a Fish if I use barbless hooks?

The answer is yes and no. We all lose fish no matter what kind of hook we use. The reality is, that no matter whether you use barbed or barbless hooks, hook sets and tight line pressure make the most difference when being successful at landing fish.

I once had a seasoned guide tell me that he believed a barbless hook was superior to a barbed hook. His argument was that a barbless hook allows for the hook to set deeper into the mouth. This is probably a matter of opinion, but several points I am certain of. First, barbless hooks are the law in many places, so fishing with barbed hooks isn’t an option. Second, it is ethical and better for the fish. Nothing is more disheartening than pulling in a beautiful rainbow or brown trout with missing mandibles and a scarred face. Barbless hooks require less fish handling, and thus they are better for everybody. Regardless of what hook you use, once hooked, big trout will make blistering runs that will require expert line management.

Using Your Hands and Line Control

Unlike conventional rod and reel tackle, fly reels lack a drag system that functions the same way a drag system works on a spinning reel or baitcasting reel. Conventional reels have intricate inner mechanisms that control the release of the line. Freshwater fly reels also have drag systems, but they are much simpler. Oftentimes times these are simple click-and-paw reels or basic disc drag reels. In addition, when trout fishing with a fly rod, it is rare that we hook a big enough fish that we need to use the reel drag. Most trout fishing involves striping or pulling the line in with your noncasting hand.

Line management with both your right and left hands is critical to managing and fighting fish. Once you make your fly presentation, using your noncasting hand, place the fly line in your rod hand pointer finger and apply pressure to the line. Trapping the line between your pointer finger and the handle of your fly rod is going to be the anchor point that allows you to strip line out or pull the line in. By losing the pressure of your finger it will also allow the gentle release of the fly line. This takes pressure off the tippet and allows you to play the fish without breaking the line. Your pointer finger becomes a very basic drag system.

The non casting hand is your line stripping hand. This hand pulls line in and is used to manage excess fly line on the bank or deck of the boat. I prefer to coil my fly line in my non casting hand. This allows me to strip line in and let it out in a efficient manner. It also minimizes tangles, foul ups, and keeps your fly line cleaner and in better casting shape. Managing excess line is critical and often overlooked by anglers. We go into greater detail on this point later in the article.

Keep Your Rod in the Proper Position While Fishing

Fighting fish and successfully landing big fish requires proper rod position at all times. The most common mistake most anglers make when fighting fish is to drop the rod tip towards the water. This momentarily release pressure on the hook, and it is in this moment that most fish are lost. This is especially true when fishing barbless hooks. Keeping the rod tip up the entire time you are fighting fish maintains pressure and decreases the chances of the hook pulling out. Not only will this maintain the position of the hook in the fishes mouth, but the angler will be using the strength and leverage of the fly rod to wear the fish out.

Your fly rod should be kept at an angle between 45 and 90 degrees. Using the entire rod is critical to fighting fish, especially big fish. The rod tip is the weakest part of the rod, and the butt section of the fly rod is the strongest. A common mistake that many anglers make is the keep the rod vertical at 90 degrees. This puts most of the fighting pressure on the rod tip, the weakest part of the fly rod. Anglers that only use the tip of the fly rod are putting themselves at a disadvantage. On the opposite end of the spectrum, maintaining a 45-degree angle with your rod tip in relation to the position of the fish will exert most of the pressure directly onto the hook of the fly. This will result in broken tippet, pulled hooks, or even straightened hooks on bigger fish. You might be able to get away with these mistakes on smaller fish, but when it really counts, they will cost you on the fish that matter most.

Finding the perfect balance between 90 and 45 degrees is critical to winning the fish fighting battle. When you are in the sweet spot, you will know it. Pressure is evenly exerted throughout the entire length of the fly rod. This is most evident when you feel pressure in the rod handle. This is critical when trying to land big fish.

Does the Length of My Fly Rod Matter When Fighting fish

Often overlooked and rarely discussed, the length of your fly rod plays a major role in fighting fish. Typically, the length of a fly rod is referred to in terms of different casting situations. For example, a shorter fly rod is better for small creeks and tight casting scenarios. The length of a fly rod plays an important role in fighting fish.

The shorter the fly rod the, less leverage a fly angler will have. Therefore, if you hook a big fish on a short fly rod (7′-8′), there is a good chance that heavier tippet will be required to land fish of significant size. The angler is at a distinct disadvantage. With shorter fly rods, finesse will be key, and keeping the rod at the right angle for the entire duration of the fight is critical to success.

In contrast, the longer the fly rod, (in the 10′-12′ range) the more leverage. Thus, you can fish lighter tippet and lighter rods. Both of these allow you to catch much larger fish on much lighter gear. This principle is one of simple physics.

If you have ever tried to change a tire on a car, and a had lug nut that is too tight, the solution is to slide a piece of pipe over the handle of the wrench to lengthen the overall length of the wrench. Greater leverage is achieved, and less pressure is needed to break the lug nut loose. This applies to fly rods and fly fishing as well. It is for this reason, that euro anglers use long 10′-12′ 2 and 3 weight fly rods. Not only does the extra length offer an advantage when casting minimally while euro nymphing, but the lighter rods are more sensitive to detect strikes, and the longer rods give anglers greater leverage over big fish. The longer rods allow for a more tactical approach without sacrificing strength or power.

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How to Fight Big Fish

To land a big fish, especially big trout, steel head, or inshore saltwater species, there are a few moments that anglers should anticipate before the fight ever happens. For new anglers, there is a steep learning curve. Fighting fish is a quick affair, and things happen fast. If unprepared, it can be overwhelming, exciting, and frantic all at once. Mentally preparing ahead of time for hooking really big fish is key to being successful.

Being Aware of Your Excess Line

When a large fish strikes your fly, the first thing that happens is an initial strong run away into the current. This explosive burst of energy is usually going to be the longest and fastest run. As we mentioned prior, line management is critical, and copious amounts of loose lines on the deck of a boat or in stream side bushes will often get wrapped around the fly reel handle, an angler’s feet, or in errant tree branches. Managing and being aware of where your slackline is, is the first step to winning the battle. Loose fly line will also often knot up, and knots will get caught on the guides of the fly rod as line is being pulled out of the rod. Line momentarily being caught in the fly rod’s guides will result in small bursts of maximum amounts of pressure applied to the hook and leader. When too much pressure is applied, it is heartbreaking to hear the snap of the tippet.

Putting the Fish on the Reel

Smaller fish are typically stripped or pulled in. Larger fish and exceptionally strong fish will pull all your excess fly line out of the end of the fishing rod. This is what is referred to as putting the fish on the reel. In freshwater fishing, this is a rare occurrence in my experience. Putting a fish on the reel most often occurs when trout fishing in a river and an angler gets a poor hook set and fouls the fish. The poor angle of the hook, and the flow of the current results in strong runs. Nonetheless, regardless of how it happens, the angler can know use the line hand and the drag system on the fly reel to reel the fish in.

If a fish jumps or makes a strong second run it is important to let go of the fly reel handle and let the drag system perform as designed. Many times, a fish runs a second time, and although it is not as powerful as the first, it will take anglers by surprise. Typically, a fish runs a second time when they get near the boat and see the angler. Inexperienced anglers will forget to let go of the reel handle and will often break fish off or pull the hook out of the fish’s mouth.

Side Pressure, For the Win

Once the fish is hooked maintaining side pressure on the fish and moving your rod from side to side will help wear the fish out. This is critical when trying to land big fish. Using the leverage of your entire fishing rod and applying maximum pressure by positioning the rod perpendicular to the water and in the opposite direction of the fish’s head will quicken the conclusion of the battle. Not only does side pressure decrease the chance of smaller hooks coming out of the fish’s mouth, but it is also easier on the fish, as side pressure will end the battle sooner.

Fighting fish quickly is important for two reasons:. First, wearing fish out and overplaying them will often result in an exhausted and dead fish. This is particularly true with cold water species in the heat of the summer. The quicker you can land a fish, the better it is for both of you. Secondly, the faster you land big fish the less likely it is that they will throw the hook. This is critical when fishing small flies. When guiding, if a big trout isn’t landed in the first few minutes, the chances that the fish will make it to the net grow exponentially as time drags on. As the angler applies pressure and pulls on the hook, every moment that goes by increases the chance that that fish will wrap itself around something in the river, or that the hook just pull out of the fish’s mouth.

Maintaining Proper Position in Relation to the Fish

When trout fishing in rivers, currents play a major role in how much pressure an angler can apply to fighting a fish. It is important to be prepared to move when you hook a big fish. Fish will always face into the current, if possible you want to maintain a slightly downstream and 45 degree position for the fish. When hooked, fish typically run out of softer water and into swift current. The strength of the fish plus the strength of the current, will multiply the amount of pressure that will be exerted on your rod and leader.

For the wading angler, moving downstream and chasing the fish is critical to giving yourself a chance to land a fish on the move. Running down the bank, scrambling over boulders, and moving over underwater obstacles will relieve pressure on the line and help to maintain the correct position.

While moving downstream, this is a critical moment in the battle. The angler becomes a shock absorber, taking pressure off the line and drag, while simultaneously gaining ground on the fish. If you cannot get downstream when a fish runs, then the pressure being applied to the line will pull the hook directly out of the fish’s mouth. If you cannot maintain your position or move below the fish, turn your rod tip towards softer slower water and keep the fish out of the current. This will likely be your best option to use your dip net and land the fish.

Common Mistakes When Fighting Fish

From years of guiding there are a few common mistakes that many anglers make when fighting fish. Eliminating these will increase your chances of catching fish. Usually, they occur in moments of panic.

Staying calm is critical if you want to land any fish especially big fish. Panic usually sets in when the hook is set and a large trout makes a strong run or leaps out of the water. All of sudden, beginner anglers have a look of “What do I do?” written all over their face. In addition, after catching 1-2 lbs of fish all day, the sheer force and run of a 5 lbs wild rainbow trout will induce shock and awe. It is amazing how a small animal only a couple of feet long can put an absolute ass kicking on a gown man. Preparing yourself for that moment is key. Visualizing what is going to happen and having a loose game plan in mind will help you overcome some of these moments.

In moments of panic, anglers usually make three fatal mistakes: first, they take their hands off the reel handle and grab the fly rod a foot or two above the handle of the fly rod with one of their hands. This creates a hinge point and effectively shortens your fishing rod. Remember earlier, we explained that a longer fly rod gives the angler greater leverage and thus an advantage over the fish. When anglers “climb the pole” as I like to call it, it shortens the rod from 9′ to 7′, and this results in a lost fish. Keep the rod at the correct angle and keep your hands on the cork.

The second fatal mistake when fighting a fish happens when anglers drop the rod tip. Dropping the rod tip allows for brief periods of slack line to enter the equation. As mentioned before, keeping the line tight and maintaining steady pressure is critical. More fish are lost by this mistake than any other.

There are three key moments when the rod tip is usually dropped. This occurs most often when fighting a fish just prior to it reaching the waiting net. It is usually an inadvertent mistake, but it often happens just at the end of the battle. Of course, this makes a lost fish that much more painful. I am not sure why this is, but there is usually a moment right before the fish slides into the waiting net that the tip drops. This is where many fish are lost.

Frequently, fish are lost when the initial run occurs or a couple of seconds after a fish is hooked. The first burst of power will take anglers by surprise and they either forget to let the line slip through their line finger, or they put the fish on the reel but forget to take their hand off the reel handle. I call this the grip of death. The extreme amount of pressure put in the fly line, because they have clamped down on the reel and rod handle will break even the strongest tippet.

The pull of the fish, and the lack of line coming off the reel naturally pull the rod tip to the water. The totality of the extra pressure directly on the bend of the hook, although for just a moment, is enough to pull the hook out of the fish’s mouth or break the tippet.

The last mistake that often results in lost fish, is when anglers try to put a fish on the reel when they don’t need to. If you can strip a fish in, then do so. Many times clients try to reel in the excess line, put the fish on the reel, and in doing so they unconsciously drop the rod tip. Pressure is lost and so is the fish. The result is an empty net and a bunch of should of, would have, or could have on the car ride home.

Ethics and Dip Nets

Handling fish properly is important to the future of our sport, it is the ethical thing to do. Using a net to land fish will increase survivability rates and make life easier for both fish and fly angler. Choose a net with a rubber ghost net basket. These are nets with clear plastic rubber baskets. There are several advantages to newer ghost baskets over the old woven nylon ones. Ghost nets do not rub a fish’s slim off their bodies. A fish’s slime helps to prevent diseases and protects the fish, so it is important for survival. Also, your hook won’t get caught in the net, which means you can spend more time fishing.

Landing nets also reduce the overplaying of fish. This is important in the heat of the summer when water temperatures start to climb into the 70’s. Fish are tired this time of year. Get them to the net as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the mortality rate of the fish increases with every minute that you overplay the fish. Using a net will help land the fish quickly, allow you to keep them in the water, and give you a place to revive fish.

Keep fish in the water at all times. Holding fish out of the water will destroy a fish’s lungs and is just generally hard on them. If you must take a picture, an underwater camera is best, and the picture is usually better than the classic sportsman’s pose. The old grip and grin photo op is past its prime. If you are going to take the fish out of the water only do so for a couple of seconds.

Before throwing the fish back, spend some time reviving the fish. To revive a fish, place them in the water with their head facing into the current. If you face them downstream, you are drowning them. Wait until you see them regain some energy and then gently let them go.

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Comments (2)

  • Dave Schlom

    What a FANTASTIC dispensing of obviously earned wisdom. I remember many of those mistakes from when I was a beginner. I make fewer now but losing big fish is never just an accident!

    February 20, 2024 at 9:43 pm
  • Bob

    Thanks very much, great article, good tips.

    February 21, 2024 at 9:16 pm

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