After watching people fight thousands of fish over my guiding career, I have an idea of why some folks land them—and why some don’t. A guide can’t do much to prepare people for fighting big fish; perhaps tie an old boot on and throw it into moving water to illustrate the mechanics of fighting fish, but that still doesn’t address the main problem.
And that problem is that anglers lose their cool. Often an angler doesn’t have any cool to begin with and breaks off his prize when the fish’s instantaneous run triggers the fisherman’s not-as-instantaneous response. At this critical point, the fisherman might freeze and clamp down on the line, heave, trip over his own feet, fall, flounder, scream, and, sadly in extreme cases of great-sized trout, get hauled in and drown. The dimensions of the fish that causes such a state of insanity varies from one angler to the next. The beginning fly fisher may come apart with any size fish, but it may take a trophy of dangerous proportions to unnerve a seasoned angler. Rest assured that no matter how cool the customer, there’s a fish out there that will rattle him. It’s why we fish, isn’t it?
Delightfully, the best way to learn how to overcome this affliction is by getting into the ring and duking it out with the lunkers. A bruiser at the other end of the line gets a lot more attention than an old boot, and the learning curve is steep when the stakes are high. Just one day with a good guide on a river like New Mexico’s San Juan will teach you a great deal about fighting big trout.
Prepare for the Big Fish You can do a few simple things to prepare for hooking and fighting Mr. or Mrs. Big.
First off–whenever in large trout territory, always use fluorocarbon tippet, check leaders for abrasions, and never, never leave wind knots because they decrease the strength of your leader by half. If you check for knots often, you may be able to undo them before they become too tight to untie. After they become that tight, the leader is compromised, and you should cut off and replace the tippet.
Check to make sure that hooks are sharp and not bent. If a hook is out of shape, don’t try to bend it back. Discard and replace the fly.
Before fishing a likely spot, examine the proposed battleground in case you should hook “the Big.” Be aware of snags, routes downstream, and places to beach a monster.
Don’t fish with excess line hanging out of your reel. Use just the amount you need so you won’t have a lot of slack to deal with if you hook a big. Loose line has a habit of wandering around rod butts, reel handles, and other appendages.
Use Your Drag
Oddly, there are people who have “opinions” about the drag on a fly reel, and I was once asked if it is legal to use the drag. And someone else told me that when he was a boy his father would forbid him to fish for the rest of the day if the father saw the son using the drag!
Barring moral objections to using the reel’s drag, after the fish is on, it is important to get it onto your quality reel’s drag system. This is a critical point in the fight. If you loop the line between the middle and fourth fingers, you can keep tension on each end while reeling in. Doing this gives you a loop that can be watched and maneuvered as line is reeled in. This process does, however, require dexterity with the fingers and is a tough operation for the inexperienced fly fisher to perform. Often a fish will be accommodating by running off with all the slack. You can augment this if by backing up. If you start at midstream, back up onto the bank and in a position where you can follow the fish downstream. If you reach the shore with the fish on the reel, you’ve won half the battle. From the bank you will have greater mobility as well as a height advantage. If one side of the stream has obstructions that the fish might tangle in, get onto the other side so you can steer the fish away from the trouble.
And beware that fish break off when screaming reel handles come into contact with clothes and hands, so keep the reel out away from your body. If your reel has a good drag, don’t even touch it until it’s time to wind line in.
And when a big fish takes off, keep the rod tip high. This position keeps the angle of the line as vertical as possible, and that angle keeps fish or flies from fouling on a rock.
When a good fish is hooked, anglers are often too cavalier. Focus on the fight. Stay on top of the fish and keep your arms way up in the air. Doing this is more important than people realize because it keeps the angle of the line as vertical as possible so there is less chance of getting fouled on the bottom.
When a fish heads for a snag, you may have to apply real muscle to turn it.
Anglers give too much credit to a fish by thinking it heads for a snag so that it can wrap the leader around it. The creature is merely scared to death and looking for a hiding place. For mathematical reasons beyond my understanding, a fly rod has much more power held sideways than overhead. To steer a fish, turn the rod in the direction opposite that in which the fish is swimming. If the fish is going right, the rod should be horizontal and on your left side.
In the late Jack Samson’s (he was a Santa Fean) wonderful biography, Lee Wulff, Lee talks about landing large fish quickly. “If you can convince them that they don’t have a chance they will give up a lot sooner.” You do this by getting the jump on ’em and using maximum pressure from the start. But only experience teaches you how much that is. Furthermore, although guides go nuts to see fish fought forever, beginners should go easy if conditions allow. I have seen a multitude of fish lost because the fisher had no idea how much heat to apply. You can put a lot of steady pressure on monofilament. The sudden stresses are what “pop” the line.
A fly may pull out or break off if a heavy fish gets into the current, so be sure and follow it downriver fast enough. Try to stay abreast of it in a strong current so that you are not fighting it and the current, too. The fish’s weight is greatly increased by the added force of the current.
Concluding the Fight
After the quarry has grown tired, you need to get its head above water and keep it there. This is when you finally have control, so don’t ease up. Keep the fish coming at you and try not to let it get its head back under the surface. With its head above water, it can either be beached or netted.
Beaching a large fish works well if gravel bars or gently sloping shores are nearby. If the banks are steep or if you are in the middle of a large river, a net will save you many a prized catch.
(excerpted from Instinctive Fly Fishing by Taylor Streit)