Bust-offs: How to Avoid Them

One of the nice things about the guiding part of my life, is it regularly reminds me of some of the issues anglers might be struggling with. Lately, the reminder has been about busting off good trout so I thought a few simple pointers might be timely. It’s all very well to be philosophical about losing a big fish but I’d say at least 90% of the time it’s not necessary. Let’s face it, if we had a choice, most of us would prefer to actually land that biggun.  So, here are a few things to keep in mind.

The objective, a fantastic trout in the hand.

The objective: a fantastic trout in the hand.


  • Make sure your tippet is high quality, fresh and the heaviest you can get away with – always. Don’t think, ‘Oh this is mainly a small trout water so I’ll fish light tippet’ or ‘I’m only having a quick fish so I won’t bother checking my leader from last trip.’  It’s the large trout we don’t expect that cause some of the biggest dramas.
  • Ask yourself, ‘how heavy can I get away with?’ not ‘how light?’
  • Check your knots with a good pull before you start fishing.
  • While fishing, regularly check your tippet for abrasions, nicks and wind knots. Wind knots are death for landing big fish so if you keep getting them, work on your casting; particularly eliminating tailing loops.
  • Carry a big net (wide and deep) that you can deploy quickly and easily.
Mark shows how it's done. A big trout is a long way from beaten, but he keeps his rod up to cushion the tippet against a powerful lunge.

Mark shows how it’s done. A big trout is a long way from beaten, and he keeps his rod up to cushion the tippet against a powerful lunge.

Control Yourself

  • Recognise straight up that a big part of successfully playing and landing a large trout is self-control. Mostly, the natural reaction to hooking a beauty is shock – even if you saw it first. In this case shocked reactions are usually bad reactions.
  • From the first micro-second the trout takes your fly, your primitive brain will want to do precisely the opposite of what you should do, so you need to control or even suppress natural reactions.
Making a bit of progress.

Making a bit of progress.

Bend Zee Rod!

  • Immediately a good trout is hooked, the single best thing you can do is offer a bent rod; that is, a rod tip that’s at least at right angles to the line. If you’re from a saltwater fly or conventional tackle background, try to forget low rod angles, fighting fish with the rod butt and strip strikes. Trout have relatively soft mouths (so no need to really ram the hook in) and we use relatively light tippets (even when they’re the 7 to 12 lb tippets I recommend) which need the protective ‘cushion’ of a bending rod tip.
  • You only need to let the rod tip get dragged down for a moment, so the rod points at the fish, and the tippet will snap. Pleading ‘I only pointed the rod at the fish for a moment’ is a bit like saying ‘I only drove off the cliff for a moment.’ The damage is done.
The net is out, but the fish is too green for a good shot.

The net is out, but the fish is too green for a good shot. Fortunately Mark didn’t swipe at it.

Let it Run

  • At some point in the fight with all big trout (and for most of the fight with many) you’ll need to let the trout take line; often lots of it. People who tell you ‘you don’t need backing’ haven’t caught enough big trout. Yes, you must let the trout take line under some finger or drag pressure, but if you want to err, err on the side of too little pressure rather than too much.
  •  If I only had a dollar for every time I’ve yelled ‘Let it run!’ I’d be dictating this from my Aston Martin. And if I had a dollar for every time I was ignored, I’d at least have a Ferrari! We guides are not telling anglers to let a fish run for our own idle amusement; we’re telling them because we really want to see them land that monster.
  • Yet the urge NOT to let a big fish take line overwhelms many people. If you want to see the primitive brain at work, watch a grown man put a death grip on his line until 12 pound tippet snaps. He (men offend far more than women and kids) may have been told ten times what the consequence will be, but like an adult Bart Simpson they do it anyway.
  • It’s amazing how often people will continue to rationalise their brain fade after the event. ‘Oh, but I can pull fish up through the air on my jetty rod,’ was one intriguing and admittedly original excuse I heard recently. Never mind how strong the braid is on their surf rod or how hard the trout pulled (after all, that’s the trout’s job!), a preventable mistake has been made. Until the angler accepts that, they’re going to keep busting off big trout.


That's looking better; the trout's head is up and it looks beaten - Mark is still ready for a final lunge though.

That’s looking better; the trout’s head is up and it looks beaten – Mark is still ready for any final surprises though.

Take Your Time

  • The last thing anyone with a trophy trout on their line wants to do is take their time – we all want that puppy safely in the net as soon as possible.
  •  Unfortunately, while that might be our natural inclination, it’s usually the wrong one. If you mentally prepare yourself to take your time landing a big trout, you buy yourself all sorts of advantages. The biggest lake rainbow I’ve ever landed ran 80 metres straight after I set the hook. It was an excruciating metre-by-metre process to bring it back almost to my feet, where it found renewed energy and ran 80 metres again. Luckily I was mentally prepared for a second run (though not one that long) and I eventually netted a 14 pounder.
  • I can honestly say I see hardly any big trout lost because people play them too long, but I see plenty lost because the angler seems to have some sort of trout-landing deadline in their head.
  • A heck of a lot of trout are broken off in those final few metres when most of the hard work has been done. Don’t rush the net shot just because the fish is briefly within reach. Be patient and wait until you have a genuine clean chance. Wild net swipes at big trout never end well.
Patience wins - always bring the trout to the net, not the net to the trout.

Patience wins – always bring the trout to the net, not the net to the trout.

The Exceptions

Flyfishing is full of exceptions to the rule and it’s not hard to find a few exceptions to the advice above. In warm water, I’m inclined to try to hurry a big trout to the net simply in the interests of the welfare of the fish – I’d rather it break me off than kill it with a drawn-out fight. And yes, sometimes you might need to apply a dangerous amount of pressure to prevent a trout from burying you in snags, weed or taking off down an impassable rapid; you have nothing to lose.

Finally, a common fear during prolonged fights is that the hook will gradually wear through whatever it’s caught on, or the tippet will gradually be worn out by rubbing on obstructions or the trout’s mouth. I can’t promise this never happens, but it’s very rare – certainly the odds greatly favour the angler who plays their big trout for as long as it takes, versus the one who rushes it out of fear of something wearing through.