Fighting and Landing Fish on a Fly Rod

Having the opportunity to take clients who are newer or even brand new to the amazing world of fly fishing I am always reminded how technique-sensitive this sport can be. I can spend half a day or sometimes all day working on fly casting which is great, but when clients start to get the hang of casting, the chances of hooking up and landing a fish are increased tenfold; then there is a whole new facet of fly fishing to learn–fighting fish on a fly rod.
Fighting fish on a fly rod is just like any other aspect of fly fishing, technique-sensitive. I have thrown together just a few thoughts and tips that I tell clients to help them land those trout that they worked so hard to hook up. This is by no means a vast guide, but I few quick tips I hope will help you land some dandies.

1. Set the hook and let the fish make the first move
I have heard many experienced anglers and casting instructors say that it doesn’t take much, maybe just a flip of your wrist or a slight lift of the rod to set the hook. I agree that on some strikes this is the case, but I would far rather give a nice strong lift up (as if you were peeling the line off the water to go into another cast) on the rod putting the tip straight in the air to make sure that hook is deep in the mouth of that trophy trout. Once the hook is set I tell clients to hold the pressure on the fish by putting the tip straight up, not increasing the pressure by yanking or running backwards like you’ve hooked a Marlin on a 100 wt rod (trust me I’ve seen it plenty of times) but letting that fish make the first move. The fish is going to go crazy since it just got a new piercing, so let it freak out for a bit before you make your move. This is where you can usually determine the size of the fish and what type of ride you are in for.

2. Rod tip up, Tension on the rod, not the line
Many new anglers have the inclination to just start reeling like their life is dependent on it and lose the fish before they even knew what hit them. Fly rods are not like spinner or other rods in that fly fishing tackle is far lighter and more sensitive. So think about where you would want the pressure of the fish . . . on light 5x (around 5lb test) leader and tippet with a small size 16-22 hook OR on the 9 foot graphite 5 weight rod? Keeping the rod tip up holds the fish on the rod, dropping the rod tip down puts all the pressure on your light leader/tippet, small hooks, and of course, those knots you may not be overly confident in.

3. Work the fish, Don’t muscle the fish
So you’ve set the hook, you’ve got the pressure on the rod and hopefully a big grin on your face. Now let’s tire that hog out. With you keeping the pressure on the fish and at times angling your rod tip up stream (angled with tip still in air) so the fish is fighting the current and you, this will tire him out in no time. If the fish wants to run let him run, this is why reels have a drag system, or if you are stripping the fly line by hand feed a little line for the fish to run. When the fish isn’t running be stripping or reeling in but not overpowering the fish. Remember, fly tackle is light. Once you have tired the fish out it’s time to get him in the net.
Note: Some fly anglers see the reel as an instrument for simply holding fly line and not much else, thus they use the strip, not reel, method and are their own drag systems per say. Others put more stock in a good fly reel, and while holding tension on the fish, reel in their excess fly line and put themselves in position to fight the fish with the help of the reel and drag system. I however am right in between. I say make the fish earn the reel and probably about 90% of the time I just use the strip method to land fish. But there is always that chance you get a toad on and you will be in to the reel before you know it. The one place we always put the fish on the reel is our private trophy trout lake.

4. Get that fish in the net
So just because you have the fish tired and you are bringing it your way doesn’t mean you have him beat just yet. The fish may see your net and get a burst of energy making another run so be ready at all times. Or, if you don’t get that net underneath him, he might end up running or even wrapping himself around your ankles or something breaking you off. You would think that there is nothing to netting a fish, but trust me, if you don’t keep the head of the fish up and get that net down in the water, all that work you put in can be lost, like down the river lost. So if you are netting the fish yourself this makes it just a little more difficult, but by keeping that rod tip up (sick of hearing that yet? must be important) and raising it even higher above you head and back while reaching down with the net in your other hand, that fish will be in the net in no time. It is important to note that you want to leave at least a couple of feet of fly line out of the tip of the rod because it is much stronger than your leader and there are no knots to get hung up on.

For someone who has had a fly rod in his hand for over 15 years and spends a lot of time on the water personally or with clients, there is still no feeling like getting the fish in the net. No matter what the size (don’t get me wrong bigger fish, bigger rush) it seems to put a smile on your face. I hope that these few tips help you out and put some nice fish in your hands. Remember to handle the fish correctly if you are practicing catch and release, and leave that fish for another time. I wish you tight lines and thanks for reading. If there are any questions you have or other topics you want to discuss then drop us a line!