CATCHING LARGER FISH is why we go fishing. No matter what water we may be casting into, from the tiniest brook trout stream to the ocean blue, we all want to hook and land whatever constitutes a trophy in that particular fishery. The problem is, big fish are rare; that’s what makes them a trophy.
Many anglers, especially trout fishermen, will go years between tangles with a true whopper. When you only have a chance to fight a big fish every now and then, it’s pretty hard to develop the skills you need to fight and land big fish. And even if you have those skills, it’s easy to let them get rusty. This installment of our ongoing Ten Tips Series is about honing those skills and giving you some maxims to live by, increasing your chances of actually netting that trophy catch.
#1 Set the Hook, then Do it Again
Fish mouths typically grow tougher with age. This is especially true of trout; as a trout ages and becomes primarily a piscivorous or fish-eating animal, its mouth hardens and grows increasingly serious teeth. This means hook sets become more and more important. Big fish are also more likely to eat streamers than anything else, as a general rule, and streamer fishing changes the game somewhat when it comes to setting a hook, since the fish isn’t necessarily inhaling a small bug deep into the soft part of its gullet.
A great rule of thumb in setting a hook is to do it twice, like a double-tap. When the fish initially takes the fly and you feel the tension on the line, tug sharply before letting the line slip through your fingers as the fish runs. If you have the opportunity during the fight, do it again. Be careful not to exceed the break strength of your tippet, but make the effort. Especially with large streamer flies and heavier tippet (8 lb test and up), more fish are lost because they shake the hook loose than are lost because the line breaks or gets snagged on something.
#2 Use the Fish’s Momentum Against It
Fish run in predictable ways. A large brown trout in current will almost always try to run deeper, and if deep water is not available, he will run to the fastest part of the current and try to use it to increase his speed and get away from you. Few large trout try to fight upriver unless you happen to be standing directly downstream of them and they have no choice. You can anticipate this tactic and use it against the fish. The largest brown I ever caught was a thirty-two inch Cumberland River hen which we fought over 300 yards of river on 6X tippet. The endgame of that fight came when she attempted to move into current to shoot downriver yet again, and I simply maintained steady sideways pressure on her, forcing her to “waterski” herself right up onto a gravel bank. Especially with truly big fish on light tippet, this tactic of minimizing the water column they can use by “swinging” them on their own momentum into shallows is key.
The refrain for this tactic is similar to that of Oliver Stone’s JFK: “Back and to the left. Back and to the left.” Nothing tires a fish faster than being forced to turn the opposite direction from where it wants to go. Consider that fish are a lot like airplanes: they are just hydrodynamic instead of aerodynamic. As a fish runs away from you it will splay its fins and apply power from the tail. If you exert pressure that lifts the fish’s head while pulling it back against its own momentum, the energy the fish is imparting with its tail will swing upwards, causing the fish to rise. This is kind of like the deep-water version of #2 above, except instead of forcing the fish to waterski itself sideways into the shallows, you are forcing it to climb in the column. At the end of that climb the fish will have no choice but to flip around and head back the other way, and it is this sudden change in direction which is most disorienting and most tiresome to a fish.
#4 Pump the Fish Properly
Tarpon anglers understand that pumping a big fish is a sine qua non — an essential element of the successful fight. They do this in a very specific way, however. Each time the fish stops its run and pauses to rest, they lift the rod, then they reel down to capture the slack. They do not attempt to reel with the rod held high in the air, nor with the rod low and pointed at the fish. They lift, creating an angle of slack between the tip top of the rod and the horizontal direction of the fish, then they recover that line by reeling back to the horizontal. A fly rod is a lever, which gives you leverage in recovering line. A reel cannot exert anything like as much force as a nine-foot lever. The reel is there for recovering line; the rod is there for recovering distance to the fish.
Tarpon anglers also do something else which is critical: they fight low. Fly rods have very very soft tips, necessary for casting and to some extent for protecting light tippet as a shock absorber. Those tips do nothing to impart force on a fish, however. The best example of this is in Andy Mill’s excellent movie Chasing Silver. Mill, a world-class tarpon angler, screws a metal eyelet into the underside of a table, then runs a fly line through it. The line is tied to a heavy weight underneath the table. He then lifts the fly rod, which in turn lifts the weight into the air. The remarkable thing is what happens when the fly rod crosses the 45 degree line and begins to be “high sticked” into the air: the weight actually drops. This is because once the fly rod crosses the 45 degree angle, the load is being carried not by the sturdy butt of the rod but instead by the flimsy tip. As soon as the load transfers into the tip, the amount of pressure put on the weight decreases and the weight thus drops.
High-sticking is an appropriate tactic for light trout on dry flies or very fine tippet. It is totally counterproductive and inappropriate for larger fish, including larger trout, because you simply are not putting pressure on the fish. The pumping tactic described in #4 above parallels properly fighting low: the angler should lift the rod but only to 45 degrees, then reel down to horizontal. Lift to 45, reel down. Lift to 45, reel down. Back and to the left. Over and over until the endgame approaches. If the fish runs, let him run, then start the process over. You are wearing out the fish this way.
#6 Practice Makes Perfect
Big trout are rare, but that doesn’t mean big fish aren’t available in your area. Fighting and landing a large fish is just as much of a skill as matching a hatch and fooling a wary trout. The good news is, these skills can be merged, and you don’t necessarily have to catch a trophy to learn these tactics. Consider carp for example; widely available, still unexploited in many areas and thus easy to fool; carp are the perfect “flight trainer” for the skill of fighting larger fish. Sometimes you just need to get some practice in, and if you are there to practice, in my mind the normal rules do not apply. Provided it is legal in your area, carp can easily be chummed up with a box of cereal and a matching, foam color fly. Just be sure to fish with barbless hooks and release your trainers after you’re done.
#7 Remain Mobile
Big fish run. That’s part of it. If you remain prepared to move with them you can greatly shorten the fight. First of all, you put less pressure on a fish at sixty feet than at twenty. Secondly, fish with lots of line out have a lot more ways to find something to tangle you up on than fish close to your feet. If you are in a boat, be prepared to have your co-angler or guide move. This often means keeping a clear space around you so you are equipped to keep fighting while the boat is in motion. If you are on the shore, try to have an escape plan at all times. Ask yourself frequently, if the fish I hope to catch actually bites this fly, where can I fight him? Where should I land him? Having a plan in advance will increase your odds when you eventually do hook up with that lifetime fish.
#8 The Net Run
Every fish makes a net run, but big fish do it with authority. I like to get this out of the way early by intentionally provoking it. I will stick my net in the water or have my landing buddy do so, show the fish the net, and immediately withdraw it while I fight the net run. It’s just easier to control this yourself rather than letting the fish do so.
#9 The Buddy System
Speaking of buddies, most large fish angling ends up being a two man game. The best thing a buddy can do for you is act like a well-trained dog, remaining at heel and mobile, like yourself. Do not attempt to guide a fish to a buddy who is stationary out in front of you. You won’t be able to see the fish well and the angles are poor anyway for netting a big fish with the angler fifteen feet away. Instead, keep the net man at your side, and only when the fish is tired out should he advance. Ideally the net will not take any kind of stabbing motion whatsoever; the fish should be tired enough to be guided into the net (I prefer facefirst since you control his momentum best in a forward direction). Most importantly, if your net buddy breaks the fish off for you, keep your cool. No fish is worth a relationship with a friend, and karma’s a bitch. The next time someone fouls up a landing it might be you.
Everyone wants to photograph fish these days, and keep ’em wet has become the predominant philosophy. I take my cues from biologists. They lift fish, handle them in the air, then quickly return them to the water. Done properly there’s nothing wrong with that.
Most anglers do not realize what causes a fish to flop; it’s not the air, per se (they will jump into the air willingly, after all). It’s the orientation. Fish flop when you lay them over on their sides or suspend them from their mouths. How would you like being dangled from one arm and one leg? To greatly reduce fish flopping and thus fish mortality after being landed, keep the fish oriented like it was in the stream, with its dorsal fin always pointing up. Cradle the fish from below for photography and splay the pectoral fins out with your fingers to give the fish the sense that it has lateral support and thus control. If you pinch the tail with one hand (try not to wrap it as it looks smaller in the photos), and support the “chest” between the pectoral fins with the other, splaying each fin out between your fingers and keeping the fish oriented properly, it will rarely if ever flop.
Finally, continue to use your (preferably large) net during the endgame. Get set, get low, get your wet hands positioned and the fish oriented all while it is safely recovering in the net bag. You can lay the handle across your lap to keep the hoop of the net elevated. Then simply lift the fish, have your friend snapping away as you do so, and immediately return it to the water. The best fish pictures are the ones with water running off your trophy and your hands anyway. If he stays wet, he will live to eat another day.