Nick Taransky helps get that trout from hook-up to hand.
For most of us at least, the aim of trout fishing is to catch a trout! I’m a little bemused by those who say, ‘catching trout is just a bonus.’ If that were the case, I’d be happier leaving my rod at home and taking a camera instead. True, I love the environments trout live in, the wildlife, escaping the daily grind, the associated road trips, relaxing at the end of a long day – everything about trout fishing. But when I’m fishing, I do my absolute best to catch fish. It doesn’t have to be every fish, or every moment of the day. However, testing my skills and the rewards of success (not to mention lessons from failure!) are some of the reasons I love flyfishing.
I was thinking recently about how much I’ve seen written about locations, flies, casting, and all manner of things associated with getting a trout on your line. However, I’ve read precious little about landing fish once hooked. This has been highlighted lately as I’ve fished with less experienced anglers. One thing that really struck me was how much trouble they had when they finally got a fish on, which possibly means it’s time for a closer look at playing and landing fish.
For this article, I’m going to assume the angler is a right-handed caster. For lefties, just reverse everything. I’m also going to base my descriptions on using a left-hand-wind (handle on the left) reel. Again, for right-handed casters who use a right-hand-wind reel, just take that into account.
I’m also going to refer to the left hand as the line hand: the hand that pulls or releases the line when you’re casting and fishing in general; and the right hand as the rod hand: the hand that holds the rod when you’re casting and fishing.
Before we even discuss playing a trout, it’s worth talking a little about general line management. Because fly line is repeatedly retrieved by hand without winding it on to the reel, flyfishers usually have an amount of slack line to manage between the stripping guide and reel. To be able to control the line on the water, or retrieve the fly, we need to manage the interface between this slack, and the line going out through the rod. This is done by transferring the line from our line hand to our rod hand (under the finger(s) against the rod) as soon as the cast is completed. Any line retrieved will be pulled through this finger with the line hand, trapping the slack on the reel side of this finger. For beginners, it’s crucial they get into this habit as soon as possible, as this control of the line with the rod hand is an essential component of flyfishing.
If we jump forward to some trout-playing basics, probably the most important thing is to control the fish. To do this, we need to be in contact with it, so the line needs to be tight: under some tension or pressure. Therefore, we need the rod to BEND; and for the rod to bend, we need it at an angle to the line – not pointing straight down it. Usually, the rod should be angled upwards, creating some angle between the cork and the straight line leading to the trout. The angle can vary, but somewhere between 45 degrees and vertical is a good starting point. While the bend in the rod will create tension on the line, it also provides a cushion to protect the tippet from breaking.
However, go past a vertical/perpendicular rod angle so most of the rod is behind you, and the angles start to work against you, diminishing control. In extreme cases, this is a good way to break a rod, because all the load is placed on the relatively fragile tip.
Generally though, as well as cushioning the tippet, a high rod will have further benefits. This position will help keep the line out of snags in the water, minimise water pressure on the thick fly line, create more direct connection and leverage against the trout, and have a lifting effect, taking the fish away from snags or rocks on the bottom. There will be exceptions when we don’t want the rod high, but more on that later.
Another fundamental to me is to minimise (within reason) the distance between angler and trout as much as possible. More often than not, this involves you physically following the fish. The closer you are to your hooked trout, the more direct control you have. You can also change the angle of pressure much more quickly to steer fish away from danger.
Stiffer rods (whether higher line weight or fast action, or both) are harder to bend, so you need to take more care in maintaining a rod angle of closer to 90 degrees to get as much flex out of it as you can. For softer action, full bending rods, you can flex the rod with a lower rod angle. With the bamboo rods I frequently use, my starting point is around 45 degrees, and often even lower.
There are several features of fly reels that we need to discuss. Starting with the reel drag, trout reels generally have either a disc drag, or a simpler click drag. Most are adjustable. Some smaller, simpler models can be preset with a spring, but can’t be adjusted in the middle of playing a fish. I’ve found any of these drag systems sufficient. In all my years of trout fishing, there have only been a handful of times where I’ve adjusted a trout reel drag while playing a fish (and that was only because I didn’t have it set correctly to start with). What’s important is that the drag is smooth, without grabs or jerks that can cause sudden lockup and line breakage. It needs to be set firmly enough that the spool won’t over-run and tangle, but light enough that a sudden surge or powerful run from the fish won’t break the line. My preference is for a setting at the lighter end of the scale, using other methods to add resistance when needed.
I used to be an advocate for rim control reels. This changed when I started fishing a few classic reels that didn’t have this feature. Now I just hook the pinky finger of my rod hand around the flyline, just in front of the reel. I can feather the line, or clamp it, with any amount of pressure I like. Even better, I use it lightly pinched around the line, as a ‘level winder’ to manage the line evenly back and forth across the spool. This technique has the advantage that it’s the same on any reel you use. Now that I’ve adapted, rim control has become completely redundant. I can highly recommend giving it a try – once you get comfortable with it, there is no turning back.
This is probably the place to bring up the somewhat controversial subject of whether to use a left or right-hand wind reel. I learnt from the outset to cast with my right hand and wind with my left, and I do think it’s the more logical method, as you don’t have to change over from casting and fishing to playing the fish. But there are as many (or more) leading anglers who cast right and wind right. So obviously either will do the job.
Leader to Line Connection
If your leader to line connection doesn’t run smoothly though the guides, it can cause all sorts of problems when the fish is close. I’ve seen some horrifying joins over the years, including some sold commercially as ‘solutions’. For me, it’s a knotless superglue connection, or a neat nail knot. I’ve seen some acceptable loop-to-loop connections, but for floating line and leader setups, I don’t think the knotless line to leader connection can be beaten.
To have the best chance of landing a fish, and the least chance of tiring it to death, you want to use the strongest tippet that you can in a given situation. This will be tempered by factors like the size of the fly, the ability to offer a natural presentation and the wariness of the fish. Talk to your fly shop or experienced anglers about tippet brands – there are enormous differences in overall quality and ‘practical’ strength for diameter.
There is a lot of debate about using barbless hooks to minimise fish harm. Slack line in general, even with barbed hooks, can lead to the hook falling out. If you maintain constant pressure on the fish, a hook is less likely to come out, but I must admit I’ve had my struggles with some barbless hooks. Many hook patterns these days have small barbs, and a good compromise can be to use a barbed hook, but crimp it down with forceps to leave a small ‘notch’ barb. I’ve had far fewer mishaps using this method.
Another thing to look out for, is some light wire hooks will spring open to the extent that the fish gets off, and then spring back to shape. It’s happened to me in the past. If you are losing a lot of fish, particularly when applying a fair amount of pressure, this is something to watch out for. Throw all those flies and unused hooks in the bin, or even better, give them to someone you don’t like!
A net can certainly make the final landing of a fish easier, although if misused, nets can lead to losing fish too! I often don’t use a net myself, preferring to grasp the leader with my left hand once the fish is at my feet, put the rod down (or transfer it to my left hand with the leader) and land the fish with my right hand. But I do use a net occasionally.
As a confessed non-expert, the main thing I’d say about nets, is make sure they are big enough to hold the fish, the mesh is knotless and fish-friendly, and if you are ‘scooping’ you want a hoop and mesh that has low water resistance so you can get it through the water quickly.
Pre Hook-up Planning
Before you even start casting, it can really pay to do a bit of planning about how you might land a fish if you hook one. This is especially true when sight-fishing to a good trout in tricky water, but it applies to blind fishing too. A survey of your surroundings for potential hazards, while also identifying possible areas to play and land the fish, can make a big difference. It might mean crossing the river for a trout on station, or choosing a location to intercept a fish on a beat. While things may subsequently not go quite to plan, you’ll be better off than if you have to plan entirely on the run, so to speak. And if your reconnaissance still doesn’t reveal how on earth it will be possible to land a particular trout, have a go anyway. As the late David Scholes said, “The worst that can happen is you’ll lose a fly.”
I’ve covered some basics already, like keeping the rod up/ bent and reducing the distance between angler and trout as much as possible. However, there are a few more points to cover.
On the reel, or off?
Small fish can usually be stripped in, or played quickly, off the reel; that is, simply played with the line hand pulling in line trapped under the rod hand index finger. (If you don’t keep that line trapped, you may suffer the humiliation of becoming a line-biter: an angler who suddenly realises they’ve pulled as far as they can with their line hand, and need to use their teeth to lock the line they’ve gained!)
For larger fish, which are more likely to take line under pressure, it’s a good idea to get them ‘on the reel’. Often this happens automatically as they quickly take all the slack through your rod finger. But if not, you may choose to keep the rod up and bent while winding the remaining slack line onto the reel. From there you can use the drag and other capabilities of the reel, which tend to be less error-prone than fingers. Be careful though to let go of the handle when the fish makes a run. If you don’t let go, something has to give, and it’s usually the tippet.
High rod exceptions
Having explained why a high rod is good, there are times when you want the rod low. You still want the rod bent and loaded, but in a horizontal or diagonal plane. An example of this is to apply side-strain to steer a trout away from snags or unbalance it. Another reason for a low rod angle can be to apply pressure to pull a fish out from an undercut bank. A combination of this, and getting close to the trout (level or even upstream from it in the current) will usually help budge it.
A different low rod situation may be needed for the dreaded weeded fish, where a trout has buried itself in weed and you can’t move it. This is an occasion when two usually forbidden tactics can help. The first is pointing the rod straight at the fish. This will help you determine if the trout is gone and your fly is in the weeds, or if you can feel some living movement as you increase and decrease the pressure. If you decide the trout is still on but stuck hard, you can invoke the second ‘no-no’ and back the pressure right off to completely slack, then firmly pull on the line on and off again. This can sometimes stimulate movement in the fish and persuade it to swim out. You can even leave the line totally slack for a while and see if the fish comes out on its own. The last resort, if you’re really keen, and it’s safe to do so, is to put the rod down, strip off, and follow the line into the weeds! (In the interests of full and frank disclosure, I can personally attest that this can often lead to being wet, cold, muddy – and still fishless! Ed.)
I should make mention of fish care after landing your trout. Even after a short battle, the fish will be fatigued to some degree and definitely stressed. So minimise the trout’s time out of the water, keep your hands wet, and be ready with the camera if you are going to take a quick photo.
Obviously, it’s difficult to get better at anything without experience. But how can you practice playing trout when they’re so infrequently hooked in the first place, especially when you’re starting out? I really feel for newcomers to flyfishing. There’s so much to learn about casting and presentation before you even think about what to do once you get a trout on the line. Of course, you will get better the more you fish. But there are also ways to practice playing techniques even when you don’t have immediate access to trout.
Saltwater fish, like mullet and other ‘trout-sized’ estuary species, can be berleyed with bread, and caught on a bread fly. You don’t even need a fly. You can use baited bread on a hook, on your fly rod, with a strike indicator as a mini float if you bring the fish close with berley and cast carefully. This will help you get the feel of playing fish on a fly rod. Most fly gear these days is relatively saltwater friendly, although it’s always a good idea to give your rod and reel a good rinse in freshwater after use in the salt, and air dry it afterwards.
For freshwater fish-playing experience, common species like redfin can be caught on a nymph or other wet fly. When I was a kid growing up in Adelaide, my access to trout was pretty limited, but there were plenty of carp in the Adelaide waterways to keep me busy. I used to target them in the snaggy, reedy fringes of the Torrens River, on both flies and bread, and they really put me to the test in confined quarters. A word of caution if you do go after carp: they are very, very powerful, especially the big ones, so it might be worth investing in a cheap, expendable outfit to tackle them! In some cases, you can sight-fish to them, so you can choose (or avoid) fish based on their size! Suffice to say, if you can land large carp on fly, you’ll be well prepared for pretty much any trout you might hope to catch.
Hopefully these tips will help you land an extra fish or three, but maybe the single most important piece of fish-playing advice is left until last: DON’T PANIC!