Following on from his summer column, Peter continues with ideas for improving dry fly hook-up rates.
In my last column, I raised the subject of missed dry fly takes, and some ways to improve, including tips for actually noticing every time a trout takes, and some notes about the physics of striking. Continuing this theme of improving the ratio of dry fly takes vs trout in the net, here are few more factors to consider.
Timing the strike
This is a complex subject and it is often debated long into the night around the shack dinner tables in Miena.
The conventional wisdom here in the highlands is to wait 3 seconds before setting the hook. Some say, ‘God save the Queen’, while one long-time regular and well-known angler from Melbourne, says “Paul Keating’s a *****”!
I think ‘it depends’, but generally, these bigger highland lake brown trout tend to take the fly more slowly than a smaller rainbow in a river might, and it’s fair to say a delayed strike is more effective than one that’s too quick. However, having said that, there were three occasions recently when the clients I was guiding on the lakes should have struck instantly.
This is how I see it. Every time a fish takes a client’s fly, I ask them later to describe how the take occurred. Was the trout moving from left to right? Or right to left? Was it coming toward you or going away? Unfortunately, most have no idea and yet I seem to see it unfold in slow motion. One thing which often gives the game away is of course where the fish was when you cast to it. If you cast to the right side of where you last saw it rise, the greatest chance is that it took coming from left to right. This means there’s a good chance of the hook being in the right-hand corner of its mouth. If the trout is coming towards you, the fly will likely be deeper in his throat and in the soft roof of his mouth. A going away take could see the hook imbedded in front of the top jaw or in the corners.
How about this for an idea? If a trout is coming towards me when it takes, it moves onto slack tippet and it’s better to wait longer – and to go for a lower angle rod strike. I think the fly is more likely to wash deeper into the mouth. I would sometimes be happy to wait 5 or 6 seconds in this situation.
However, if a trout takes going away from you, and your fly has been in a tethered position, it’s likely the fish will instantly feel resistance and will do its utmost to expel your offering immediately. If you don’t strike straight away in this situation, you’ll miss far too many takes. Recently, I watched a ‘going away’ take, and observed the greased leader pull a couple of inches then stop before the strike happened. I’m certain the fish feel the tension or the tippet against their head and spit.
If the fly does somehow stick in this situation, the trout often panics immediately and bolts away just as the angler is raising the rod (often too aggressively because they’ve felt the pull and react by pulling back just as hard). A breakoff is inevitable.
Depth of the water can influence timing of the strike too. Just the other day, a trout was caught while it was tailing in literally inches of water. It looked like a shark with its dorsal fin out, grubbing around looking for food. I think in shallow water, a dry fly take can be struck sooner rather than later most times. When the fish are coming up from the depths and taking the fly slowly, then a delayed strike should be used. I once watched a client from Sydney in this situation. He counted to 12 before striking and the fish was still hooked!
Abundance of food
One calm and balmy morning early last summer, we fished to numerous trout feeding on caenids in shallow, clear water. It was unbelievably exciting; what flyfishing dreams are made of. The trout worked beats and sipped the tiny mayfly from the surface every foot or so with such confidence. I remember commenting that a particular fish had probably been doing this for the couple of hours since daybreak – it was like a rocking horse that had done 5000 head ups/downs. There were lots of opportunities at switched-on, predictable risers, which meant many nice fish were caught and just a couple of going away takes were missed.
When surface food is more scattered and the rises are sparse and unpredictable, managing the correct strike is much more challenging.
Force of the strike or lift
I say to people, ‘Just treat your strike as a back cast and if you miss, be sure to immediately make the forward cast an accurate delivery to the same spot.’ Four out of ten trout will eat the fly again the second it lands.
In keeping with the back cast analogy, this means when the fly is close to you, you don’t make as fast and powerful a strike as you would if the fly was at 60 feet. For this reason, I really don’t like the term ‘lift’ to describe a long distance hook set. I think the fly needs to be very quickly impacted into the trout’s mouth. Bigger flies with heavy gauge hooks such as a Cubits Mudeye or size 6 Chernobyl Ant require heavier tippets and aggressive hook sets to get the barb to penetrate. A gentle ‘lift’ strike in this situation often results in the fish getting off part way through the fight.
I see many anglers strike so slowly and without conviction, that the fly almost rattles gently across the teeth of the trout without a chance of sticking. So, pause for the intended time, then strike with the speed of a cobra – but make sure you check this movement the moment the job is done. Don’t follow through with such force that you break off.
Barbless is best
Consider using barbless dry flies. I think they penetrate much better than barbed flies, especially in the harder parts of the mouth, and they don’t seem to lose us any more fish than normal. These hooks are obviously better for releasing fish too.
A deep sunken leader
My advice in all dry fly fishing is to use some sort of product like Loon Payette Paste to float the thick butt and midsection of your leader. I see many good takes missed because the strike hardly moves the deep sunken leader, which is failing to respond to the rod movement.
Check the hook
I have a principle that says I need to inspect the fly every time a fish has been missed on the strike. The number of times I find a problem is surprising. Besides broken, bent or blunted hooks, occasionally the tippet has half-hitched on the body of the fly and the hook can only be pulled sideways. Even worse and somewhat more common, is the tippet has tangled around the bend of the hook and the strike is with a backwards-facing hook! Sometimes, when trout are missed or lost during a fight, the hook has a small scale pinned on it. If the next fish takes the fly in this condition, it’s nearly impossible to set the hook.
To recap parts one and two…
- Don’t stare at your fly but instead glance at it every couple of seconds in between scanning the nearby water.
- Float most of your leader and regularly check your hooks.
- Approach fish with more stealth and care so that you can get closer to them, enabling you to cast shorter. A short line on the water has less drag issues and is more likely to result in a good, confident take.
- Be on top of any situation that results in too much slack line. Be vigilant about slack, especially if the line is on the water for a long period before the take.
- Try to give some thought to how you imagine the take to occur, as this may affect the best timing for your strike.
- Always strike like Norm Gallagher! Wait the appropriate time, then strike forcefully and confidently like a cobra; with a check in the movement as soon as you feel the full weight – not a full-blown follow through that will break the tippet.
- On lakes, never tolerate a fly line and leader that won’t lie straight on the water.
(For further flyfishing and casting tips from Peter, please register your name and email on his website.)