Philip does his best to land that exceptional trout.
A mate mentioned Jim Crow Creek the other day – a central highlands stream that can provide half-decent trout fishing after a few wet years but which, like most other streams in the area, can fade to almost nothing during dry periods. Anyway, maybe it was my mood during a particularly incessant run of cold, grey weather, but upon hearing the creek’s name, my mind raced back 30 years. Not to a day of successes (though the Jim Crow has occasionally produced those) but to an experience that, despite the distance of time, still brought an involuntary grimace.
To cut the story back to its essentials, it was late autumn and I hooked a 3 pound brown on a nymph in a shallow run. The fish was a real trophy for the creek, and perhaps it was this fact, coupled with the commotion the trout immediately created in the ankle-deep water, which caused my companion, John, to explode out the blocks uninvited, and start trying to swipe up the fish in his net. As the big ‘green’ brown was 5 metres away and running upstream, I could see John’s wild efforts were doomed. Yet my pleas to back-off were ignored and after a few seconds, my Jim Crow trout-of-the-year was gone.
I can’t remember whether the loss was a result of the line or leader tangling in John’s feet, the net handle slicing the tippet, or the hook getting snagged on the outside of the mesh (a surprisingly common consequence of panicked netting attempts). What I do know is, that was last time I went fishing with John.
I like to think that age has mellowed my bad attitude to losing big trout, and that today, I would have given John a second chance. Or maybe not… The point is, while I’m okay with the loss of a regular trout (mine or my companion’s) I really dislike the loss of an exceptional fish, and really really dislike it when a post-mortem reveals that doing something(s) differently could have seen the trout safely landed.
By the way, to me, an exceptional trout is just that – one that’s unusually large/ rare for the water in question. On a small creek, that may be a two pounder, while on some New Zealand rivers, the fish might have to be over 8 pounds before I get seriously upset about losing it.
In any case, I like to see every one of these fish which are hooked, end up safely in the net. Consequently, I’ve worked hard both as a guide and as an angler, to identify and reduce the things that can go wrong.
The element of surprise
It’s depressing fact (to me anyway) that 90% of anglers prepare for a given water based on the size of the typical trout they expect to encounter. But to state the bleeding obvious, exceptional trout aren’t typical. These may be trout you only encounter once or twice a year; possibly even less often than that. But if you’re anything like me (and if you’re not, save your time and stop reading now) these fish are also the ones you most want to land.
Because outsized trout are rare, they usually take us by surprise and this fact alone is the reason so many of these fish are lost. Yet at least part of the ‘surprise’ issue can be offset with basic preparation. First, there’s tippet, and the simple rule is: rig up with strongest tippet you can get away with. More about tippet later, but my question is always, how heavy (read thick) can I get away with? If I’m on, say, the Steavenson or Yarrangobilly and using a size 12-14 fly, 4X is probably fine. In high quality tippet (and I assume you don’t use anything else), that equates to 7lb breaking strain at least. More than you need for the little 10-12 inchers you’re most likely to catch? Well, yes, but if you hook that freakish 2-3 pounder, you’re in with a very good chance of landing it; unlike the angler fishing 3lb 6X because, ‘That’s all I need for these little trout.’
The same with landing nets. On any given water, your net needs to have capacity for the biggest trout there’s any chance of encountering. An ornamental ‘tea-strainer’ won’t do. A net needs to be wide enough and deep enough to comfortably hold the largest trout of the year – maybe even the largest of your life? Yep, you don’t need a decent net… until you really need a decent net.
Backing is the third corner of the ‘be prepared’ rectangle. Again, you often won’t need it trout fishing, but occasionally you desperately do need it. It’s cheap, and it fits on the reel out of the way and out of sight until there’s an emergency. Why wouldn’t you have backing?
Finally, get a reel with a half-decent adjustable drag. By now, you know what I’m going to say. If anyone ever tells you, ‘you don’t need a drag for trout, mate,’ that’s because they haven’t yet hooked a big enough trout.
Now you’re properly equipped, we can discuss how to play a big trout. Most exceptional trout are lost in the first few seconds or the last few seconds of the fight. In other words, survive either end, and there’s a very good chance you’ll get your monster.
The first few seconds after hook-up are high risk because you’re likely to be in state of mild shock, or at the very least, over-excited. Neither is helpful for sensible decision-making. If you do nothing else, please keep the rod tip at a decent angle to the line. This creates a spring to cushion the heavy lunges a big trout will make. The challenge is maintaining this angle without so much as a blip – it takes concentration and willpower to prevent the rod tip being dragged towards and pointing at the trout – even for an instant. If I witness this unhappy sight, I’ll bet a break-off is moments away. Let’s be clear: it’s too late to correct the rod angle after it has been pulled down – the trout only needs the rod pointed at it for a second to be able to apply maximum shock to the tippet and snap it. (You can test this for yourself by tying the tippet to a fixed object and yanking hard with a bent rod, then applying the same force with the rod pointed at the object.)
If you get through the first few seconds, the chances are much improved that you’ll bring your exceptional trout within netting range. Your nerves will be beginning to settle (relatively speaking!) and your capacity to make sensible decisions will be better. Perhaps you’ll use sideways pressure (with a bent rod of course) to slowly ease the fish out from beneath an undercut, boulder or weed-bed.
Every big trout is different – some slug it out at close range, some run for 80 metres, some leap and some stay deep. Therefore, there’s no simple formula for the middle part of the fight, but I will offer a few generalisations:
- Where possible, shorten the physical distance between you and the fish (e.g. if a trout heads off up or down the river or along the lake shore, try to follow it.)
- Whenever possible, apply pressure at an acute angle to the trout’s head (in other words, against the direction it’s swimming).
- If in doubt, err on the side of taking your time – most big trout are lost because the angler tried to land them too quickly. While it’s very tempting to try to rush a big one, this often leads to mistakes and too much pressure on the tippet.
Beaching is sometimes an option, even a good option. But mostly, netting your exceptional trout with your great big landing net is the most risk-free strategy; and often best for trout welfare too.
The rule here (and I admit it’s easier to apply from the comfort of my desk than in real life) is to wait until the trout is ready to be netted. This is the high risk ‘last few seconds’ period I flagged above. After all you’ve just been through, the urgency to get that trout safely netted can be overpowering. However, if the trout isn’t ready, try to be patient.
At the very least, ‘ready’ usually means getting the trout’s head up. If the fish is angled down with its tail still pumping away, it’s not ready. As John discovered all those decades ago, a ‘fresh’ trout – even one attached to a line – is faster than the most athletic angler’s net. As another way of looking at it, the trout should be sufficiently tired to be brought to the partly submerged and waiting net, rather than the net brought to the trout.
The tippet dilemma
I was fishing the Madison River in Montana with my friend Andrew during a heavy hatch of size 14 mayfly and our guide, seated on the bank, insisted in his Rocky Mountains drawl, “You gotta use 6X to catch these fish.” Well, I had 4X on and so did Andrew. We politely nodded agreement to our guide, but like naughty schoolchildren, we secretly attached our size 14 Adams flies to the tippet we were already using. Of course (and assuming a decent presentation in the first place) the fish took our flies without hesitation and we had a ball. After the rise faded away, we walked contentedly to the bank and our guide said, “Yes sir, that 6X is the deal.”
Now before I get too dogmatic about my stronger-the-better tippet principle, I need to add some riders. The first is, this principle relies on high quality tippet, whether that be fluorocarbon or nylon. I won’t name brands, but I’ve come to trust a mere handful of tippet materials that live up to their claimed high breaking strain/ low diameter in real life.
This is the key point. When you’re fighting a once-a-year beauty, you don’t want to rely on tippet that’s only passed a few lab tests. Once on the water, how does your tippet cope with abrasion, or basic wear & tear (including UV exposure) over several hours fishing, or shock versus a steady pull? What about knot strength? Extremes of hot and cold? You pay for good tippet, but compared to other flyfishing costs, it’s about the cheapest bit of gear you’ll carry, yet it’s one of the most valuable.
Even with good tippet, from time to time there are sound reasons why I’m forced to use tippet that’s finer/ weaker than I like. The most common is when using small flies. For all sorts of sound reasons, there are periods when the trout simply won’t eat large flies, and small flies on thick tippet won’t work. To go back a step, tippet diameter is all about proportion: you’ll have no trouble fishing a size 8 Woolly Bugger on 2X tippet, but doing the same with a size 18 midge pupa will make it look like it’s stuck on the end of a hemp rope!
It’s all about association and fly behaviour. Trout are capable of ‘seeing’ tippet, no matter how fine it is. However, they generally won’t associate tippet with the fly if it’s proportionally fine enough not to detract from the fly’s appearance – we don’t want them thinking, ‘Why has that mayfly got a pole sticking out of its head?’ Also, the fly needs to behave more or less as if it’s not attached to anything. A size 18 buzzer on 2X will behave about as naturally as grasshopper stuck to length of fencing wire.
Another good reason for fine tippet, is sink rate. If you want to get your fly down deep as quickly as possible, for example when deep nymphing in fast currents, fine tippet will help.
So even for a heavy tippet zealot like me, the circumstances sometimes mean I end up using tippet that’s lighter/ finer than I’d like. Still, my tippet question always remains: how heavy can I get away with?
Bits & pieces
A couple more random points. A sound piece of advice once offered to me by an experienced New Zealand guide was: if possible, don’t panic the fish. The thinking is, if you hook a top-of-the-food-chain monster – a trout that’s used to being trouble rather than in trouble – it can take a little while after hook-up for it to acknowledge that something is seriously wrong. With such a fish, use that time to begin to steadily tire it, rather than immediately pulling as hard as you can and alarming the fish into desperate lunges.
I’ve heard this strategy described as similar to walking a big and mildly enthusiastic dog. It’s worked for me three times, and failed me once – so I’ll keep using it.
Another tip: if you’re recently back from a saltwater trip, try not to play trout as if you’re still at Weipa or Exmouth. You’re back to relatively light tippets now, and ‘fighting ’em with the butt’ plus an almost locked drag, will usually end badly.
Finally, if you have the dubious luxury of sighting your monster before you cast to it, try to form a plan about how you might land it. What are the immediate obstacles to avoid? What’s the best physical position to take up once the trout is hooked? How far up or down from you can you let the fish run before it gets into dangerous territory (e.g. an impassable gorge, log jam, etc.)
If you don’t care…
One of my close fishing friends mostly uses tippet so fine, I don’t even own the equivalent. He usually doesn’t carry a net either. Occasionally, this friend will beef up his armoury if I point out it’s likely we’ll encounter a biggun in a particular spot. However, I now suspect he does this more for my benefit than his.
I never claim to know what’s going on in someone else’s head – especially when it comes to something as important as fishing. But if I were to guess, I’d say that, while I think my friend likes to land big fish, he’s not that troubled if he loses one. Could I even go a step further and speculate that he appreciates the fairness of giving a good trout a decent chance to escape?
Anyway, reasons aside, I’ve come to accept that none of this article really applies to my friend, because he’s one of a handful of anglers I’ve met who genuinely don’t care if the big one gets away.
For the rest, I hope the above helps get your next exceptional trout into the net.