In the first of two parts, Peter discusses the extensive topic of setting the hook when dry fly fishing.

I recently had an interesting week of guiding here in Tasmania. It was a good but at times frustrating week of dry fly fishing. The frustration for all of us was the number of seemingly perfect takes we had without a hook-up.

My clients for that week have fished with me for upwards of 25 consecutive years, so in some ways they are seasoned anglers. On the other hand, they fish for just one or two weeks a season, so at the start of the week, they were about a year out of practice.

For most missed strikes, I think it’s the angler who’s at fault, so it’s probably a good time to discuss at length the subject of setting the hook.

The background for this discussion is mostly my decades of guiding in Tasmania, where I’ve witnessed countless dry fly takes. Thousands of trout have been hooked in that time (our clients catch about 1500 fish a year at last count) but many thousands more have been missed on the strike. Of course, we can’t hook every fish that rises to our fly. However, many of these missed strikes were lost opportunities that could have been converted to trout in the net with a little care and understanding.

What we want but don’t always get – a good brown firmly hooked on the dry.

Years ago, David, one of my guides, had two knitting needle counters on his lanyard – red and green. For several seasons, every time a trout rose to a client’s fly, he added a number to the red counter. When a fish was netted, he added a number to the green counter. Believe it or not, David’s needles showed that on average, 5 trout rose to the dry fly for each one landed!

So, back to the recent week with my clients. One day on a lake, it was bright and still, but if you worked hard, you could find super-spooky trout feeding reasonably well. We presented to a couple of dozen fish that day and had just three eat the fly. These trout were all 3 to 4 pounders and whilst the fishing was in some ways terrific, the catching was a non-event and the guys were disappointed. On another day river fishing, perhaps 15 trout rose to the fly for 5 to hand. This matches what David’s stats told us years ago. I could go on about the rest of the week but I’m sure you get the drift.

Here are some generalisations to consider. Firstly, I wonder if when you are fishing without a guide, are you more or less likely to be successful setting the hook? Partly I suspect that you might actually be paying more attention to the situation without a guide ‘back-up’, but partly I think you may have more slack on the water, or be looking away more often, and so on.

Not seeing the take

Early in my guiding career, a regular client, John, was always calling me Norm. I told him my name was Peter, and asked why he always called me Norm? He said he called me Norm after the famous union boss Norm Gallagher, who was always imploring the workers to, ‘STRIKE! STRIKE!’

To this day, I still have to call ‘STRIKE!’ on too many occasions; sometimes 6 or 7 times a day. I need to call out because the clients haven’t noticed that their fly has been taken. I’m often told, ‘That’s the first time today I’ve taken my eyes off the fly Peter.’ Really?

There’s no chance the angler will miss the take in this case, but can you focus too hard for too long?

I believe there are two major reasons and one lesser reason that anglers fail to see their fly taken. The first is, they actually stare at their fly too long and hard. Their eyes get tired, they get bored and they look away. As an alternative, try glancing at your fly, then look around for no more than a second or two before glancing back. This way, you’ll never miss a take by more than a moment (which might be perfect timing for the strike anyway). As a bonus, you may happen to notice another fish nearby that you can quickly cast to.

The second issue is people casting too far. Obviously, it’s easier to see the fly if it is closer. You may even see the trout coming up to the fly and have advanced notice of the take. If you’re prepared, you’ll have a better chance of setting the hook with the correct timing and force. Additionally, with a shorter line, you can drive the hook in more effectively, and fewer fish will be lost during the fight.

As a bonus, it’s much easier to cover the next rise if your line isn’t too long. I’ve seen so many easy opportunities lost because someone has cast 60 feet, and a fish rises at 40 feet. If their fly had been sitting at 30 feet, they would have been perfectly positioned to pick up and quickly, quietly and accurately deliver to the fish at 40 feet. It’s a no brainer.

To the third and perhaps less important but still significant issue: so many people tangle the fly-line around the reel, rod butt or their feet when they make the delivery cast. Then, to sort out the tangle, they immediately look away just as the fly lands. Yet this is so often exactly when a trout takes the fly. I checked, and on my last outing prior to writing this, 5 of our 16 rises came within 4 seconds of the fly landing. In March and April when we fish with hoppers on rivers, I would bet my house that 90% of trout take the fly within two seconds of it landing – you just can’t afford to look away during this time.

Most hopper feeders take within two seconds of the fly landing, so be ready!

Strike Physics

Even allowing for all the above going well, the following factors can impact the physical effectiveness of a dry fly strike.

Line on the water

With a lot of line on the water, it’s sometimes difficult to get a solid hook set. Much of the rod’s hook-setting energy goes into lifting the line from the surface rather than pulling the hook into the hard mouth of the trout. Instead, after a long cast, get ready for a low, side-on hook set if a trout eats your dry. Leave the line on the water rather than using the rod to lift it: that sideways strike will keep the line sliding along the water’s surface rather than trying to lift it against the water tension. And give some thought to your line hand – in a long line or slack line situation, if you strike with the rod at the same time as you pull with your line hand, you’ll add to the effectiveness of the strike.

Rod action

While ‘it depends’ on many factors, in general I think we should all be using softer-action rods than manufacturer’s advertisements would have us favour. However, there is no doubt that a soft rod and a long distance hook set are not a great combination. Be sure to try and fish shorter if you have a softer-action rod.

Rod length

Recently, I’ve spent a fair bot of time with clients who’ve made their own cane rods. These have all been 7’6” in length and in the 4 to 5 weight range. Once again, if you cast too far, a short and soft lever is not a very effective hook-setting tool. There just isn’t the same leverage or tip speed that a modern 9’ graphite rod offers. Keep it in mind if this applies to you. Part of the answer again is to slide the line rather than lift it.

Sitting vs standing

For fishing Tasmanian lakes from a boat, I would generally argue that, although ‘it depends’, there are many good reasons it’s best to sit down in my small drift boat, rather than do what nearly all other anglers do and stand on the bow of their massive runabouts. However, although sitting does offer many more close encounters with trout and far fewer spooked fish, setting the hook is much harder from a seated position than from a standing position.

Standing is better for hooking, but sitting is better for takes. A dilemma!

Slack line on the water

A pet hate of mine is to see a dry fly cast downwind so it’s tethered tight to the rod tip with no downwind drift. (This is typical in boat loch-style fishing and typical when anglers are not good casters.) However, although you do need some slack in your line to create natural drift, it must be a controlled amount of slack so that your strike can be effective. If your boat is drifting toward the fly, then be sure to take up the slack as you come onto it. If you’re stationary (anchored boat or wading angler) then you need to dab mend some slack into the line – but do it as required and not a foot more than is necessary. Too much slack line on the water is right up there as one of the prime reasons dry fly takes are missed.

Rod angle pre strike

There is a lot to be said for considering what rod angle you are striking from. I personally like to fish short lines and use a high rod angle (maybe 10 o’clock) rather than an angle where the rod tip is near water level. I know I break off less fish on hard and fast strikes and rarely break off a trout that’s moving away from me when it takes. The high angle also allows much better movement for my dry fly if I feel it’s needed.

‘Telephone cord’ lines and leaders

Some fly lines drive me crazy. Once you cast, they retract towards you like an old-style telephone cord. If your line is like this, I suggest you pull it really tight between a couple of trees for an hour or so before you go fishing. Rub some good quality line dressing into it and then fish with it. If it still coils towards you, then give it one more chance before you toss it in the bin and buy a new and more reputable brand of line. Life is too short to fish with a line like this. While you are at it, ALWAYS run your leader firmly through your fingers to remove any coils. Your leader and tippet should be arrow-straight before you start fishing. If you can’t straighten a leader, then it’s time to bin it as well.

More tips to come in my next column.

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