Strike it right

Nick explains how to achieve a better hookup rate when using dry flies. 

From start to finish, the act of catching a trout involves a large number of steps. A necessary and obvious one of these is setting the hook or ‘striking’ when the fish has taken the fly. This pivotal moment is where all the effort up to that point will pay off… or end in disappointment. While I’m yet to meet an angler who has ‘never missed a fish’ (even in a sport renowned for selective application of the truth!), there are a range of factors which contribute to maximising the chances of a successful hook set. Having never missed a fish myself (!), I hope to share these with you. I’ll limit this article to dry flies, as there is more than enough to cover on this subject alone (and more than enough for a follow-up piece on wet flies).

Links in the chain to success

To catch a trout, the sequence goes something like this…

  1. Set up your rod, line, leader and tippet.
  2. Choose a fly and tie it on.
  3. Decide where to cast from and take your position.
  4. Cast the fly (either in front of a sighted fish, or blind to a likely spot).
  5. Manage the drift.
  6. Get the fish to eat the fly. (Talking to the fish won’t help but many anglers try!)
  7. Lift the rod to STRIKE and set the hook.
  8. Play and land the fish.

Sounds fairly simple? Well, unfortunately there is a little more to it. All of the steps leading up to the strike actually have an impact on the strike itself – and its ultimate success (or failure). They even influence the chance of landing the fish after a successful strike, when the hook has been set.

What we want… but how do we get there?

Before we drill down into these factors, it’s worth taking a step back and considering a few fundamental issues.

How a trout eats

It’s stating the obvious that just like us, to eat, a trout needs to open its mouth, get the food in there, and close its mouth before swallowing. Like us, the trout can’t see its own mouth. However, we have the advantage of hands and utensils to help to get the food in. But a trout needs to line up where the food is and assume it will stay on course for the last bit of the journey into its gob. (A bit like us throwing a lolly up in the air and catching it in our mouth.)

A trout also has the complicating issue of all this happening in water. So the water pressure it creates when it moves, has the effect of pushing the food away as it gets close. (Think of us bobbing for apples, but from underwater!)

Trout usually deal with this issue by sipping or sucking some water in with the food, then closing their mouth, and expelling the water from their gills. From there, they will usually have a bit of a chew or feel to check the food made it in okay, and that it is actually food, before swallowing it. If it doesn’t feel or taste right, it will spit it out… just as we would.

The fish inspects a CDC Parachute Dun – note the slack tippet trailing from a downstream position (upstream cast).

The fly is sipped in over the trout’s lip, with slack allowing the fish to suck it down with little resistance.

The mouth begins to close, but still no hint of the strike.

The perfect hook set?

Our goal in striking of course is to pin the hook in the trout’s mouth. The lift into the strike has to recover any slack from the system, catch the fish unawares, and provide enough tension and force to bury the hook… but not be so hard or violent that it breaks the tippet. For me, the feeling is an assertive, positive lift, with the speed to ‘pin’ the fish… while being ready to stop the rod almost pre-emptively as the pressure of the hook set is felt. As the rod is lifted, seeing the line becoming taught will help to aid this timing.

While the conclusion of the strike should result in a bend in the rod, it should be something well short of a violent ‘hacking’ motion; and certainly not a process where you only stop when the rod can’t go any further.

Timing-wise, the best chance we have to hookup is to strike after:

  • the fly goes into the trout’s mouth,
  • its mouth closes,
  • it turns downwards, clamping down to expel the water from its gills.

…but before the fish decides something is amiss and spits the fly out.

The trout’s mouth closes, and it turns down. Now is the time to strike.

Strike! The line comes up tight and the fish is on.

If you want confirmation that this is the right timing, imagine the following test. (Don’t really do it and hook yourself!) Tie a fly on some tippet, and lay the fly on your open (or even half closed) hand. Pull on the tippet. The fly may or may not catch your hand and hook you. Then imagine the same thing, but this time, firmly close your hand (say in a fist) around the fly before pulling. Not much chance of the fly making it out of there without hooking up.

How long does this take?

This brings us to the seemingly metaphysical question of exact timing. It’s a bit like that ‘how long is a piece of string’ (or tippet!) question. Look through books, magazine articles or the internet, and you’ll find quite a diverse range of views on how long to wait before striking when dry fly fishing. There’s almost universal agreement though that some pause is required.

I’m prepared to say quite confidently that more fish are lost from striking too soon than too late. Older English texts proposed saying ‘God Save the Queen/ King’ between the rise and the strike. This is probably a good starting point for mayfly feeders on English chalkstreams.

It’s fascinating to me how relative the perception of elapsed time can be between one angler and another. Maybe adrenalin has something to do with it, but when more than one person is present, time usually seems to go faster for the person casting to the fish. I know from watching videos of my own fishing, that what seemed like an excruciatingly long pause to me at the time, can be surprisingly brief when viewed later.

The fly goes down in a splash. What will you do and when?

The truth about the pause is that it has to relate back to the actions of the fish, and not the recital of some arbitrary mantra (especially if it is recited in thought at the speed of light rather than uttered syllable by syllable, out loud). Therefore, visible cues – watching both the fly and the fish – should be used whenever possible.

The general advice of matching the strike to the rise makes sense. A slow, languid rise, often exhibited by large fish in slow water, will usually require a longer wait. The problem here is that excitement brings an adrenalin rush, which in turn makes time go into fast forward mode. A quicker, slashy rise, often from smaller fish, or in fast water, can present a shorter window of opportunity to strike. A skittish, suspicious, or ‘unconfident’ fish, which, say, circles the fly and just nips at it, may be primed to spit the fly out more quickly than a trout which takes the fly with gusto and commitment.

The most extreme case of the former I’ve experienced was on the heavily-fished spring creeks in Pennsylvania. Here, the trout were seemingly ready to almost instantaneously spit out an artificial fly, having encountered many of them before. Such are the challenges we face!

Another point to note is that it can be quite difficult to change gears after a few days fishing to small, fast-rising rainbows on a mountain stream; then moving to large browns on slow or still water. Similarly, people who fish predominantly in one type of fishery can get very well practised at it, but find it hard to adapt to another. Suffice to say, if you are on new water with a local or guide, and things aren’t working doing it your way, take advantage of their advice!

With all this in mind, it’s time to go back to our pre strike list from the start of the article, and look at how these factors play into how and when we strike.

  1. Set up of your rod, line, leader and tippet (tackle issues)

Rod length and action needs to be taken into account when striking. With an equal amount of arm lift, longer rods move more line through their leverage than shorter rods. While this is neither a good or bad thing in itself, it needs to be factored in with all of the other variables.

In regard to rod action, a stiff rod will hit ‘harder’ than a soft action rod. This might be a positive for hook penetration, especially at long distance, but also presents a risk of breaking off fish, particularly at close range and/ or with lighter tippet. Experience and practice are needed to fine tune your striking to match your rod(s).

Rod length and action will impact the strike, so allow for variations in both.

A floating (greased) leader will have easier pickup and less resistance than a sunken leader. Long leaders and tippets are usually deployed to enhance natural drift (more on this later) through slack, so the taking up of this slack also has to be accounted for. Of course, when using fine tippets for small flies, or tippet-shy trout, care needs to be taken not to strike too hard regardless.

  1. Choose a fly and tie it on (fly and hook considerations)

There are quite a number of issues to raise here. A fly that is easy for the angler to see will make it easier to follow on the water, and help to know when the trout has eaten, so that is a plus. But if this visibility comes at the expense of being a good representation to fool the trout, it may lead to a suspicious fish, which is a negative. On that point, a fly that fools the trout to the point that it takes with confidence will result in a better eat.

Sparsely dressed flies, or flies tied with soft, fine material like CDC, will get sucked in by the trout with more ease than heavily dressed or large foam-bodied flies. Often with bulky flies, I think the fish are on to their mistake more quickly than with a softer textured fly.

When it comes to hooks, first and foremost is sharpness. Modern hooks, with ultra sharp points and small barbs (or barbless) grab and penetrate much better than old, dull-pointed hooks with large ‘ski jump’ barbs. Check your hook points from time to time, particularly before you cast to that fish of a lifetime! I do feel that fine gauge hooks penetrate easier than heavy gauge hooks, so a little less force is needed striking with them. The downside to very fine gauge hooks is, as well as being prone to bending open while playing larger fish, I’m certain they can ‘bounce’ open on the strike, especially a harder strike. Lately I’ve been using Japanese Maruto PTFE (Teflon)-coated hooks, and these have amazing hooking ability.

  1. Decide where to cast from

There are two elements to this – angle and distance. The best angle is from behind the fish to some degree… if possible. This will result in the strike pulling into the corner of the trout’s mouth (scissors), funneling the hook set into the corner of the V for the best chance of a hookup. Planning for this in a stream is relatively simple: just position yourself so you will be casting upstream.

On stillwater, it may be less straightforward, but if stalking a fish on a beat, you can still plan to lay the fly out so the trout won’t be coming head on towards you.

Distance from the take is significant. The further you are from the fish, the more slack, stretch and water tension/ friction you will have to overcome before creating tension to set the hook. This will take time, and the buildup of tension will be slower, meaning the strike will need to be more exaggerated at long range. Conversely, the closer you are to a trout, the more direct and immediate the result of your strike will be, so there’s less lift and force required. At very close range, you may feel like you need to do little more than just come up tight, or you will risk breaking off. You also need to be ready to concede a little line immediately after a close range strike, as you will have a green, panicked fish on a very short, tight connection.

  1. Cast the fly (either in front of a sighted fish, or blind to a likely spot)

Making a good cast is of course part of a good presentation, so it’s relevant to the overall plan of having the trout take the fly confidently.

The only other point I’d make is that when casting to a sighted fish (as opposed to fishing blind) try not to let anticipation lead to a premature strike!

Even on small streams, drag-free drift can be essential for a good ‘eat’ and subsequent hook set.

  1. Manage the drift

This is a really important factor in achieving a successful strike. If we go back to the discussion on how a trout eats, there are really important differences between natural food and our artificial fly. Aside from the quality of the fly as an imitation, the fly is tied to our tippet. Maintaining controlled slack is crucial to achieving a good drift, and setting up for a successful strike. Any drag we create, through tension or other poor drift management, is going to make the fly move unnaturally. This problem can occur both in flowing water, and on lakes through drag from wind. In both cases, it occurs from the tethering effect of tension in the line. If drag is severe, it may lead to a rejection or spook. Lesser ‘micro’ drag may have the same effect, or result in a tentative take with the associated difficulty in a achieving a successful strike…or…

  1. Get the fish to eat the fly

…Even if the trout isn’t put off by micro drag, the unnatural movement of the fly can lead to it ‘missing’ a fly that didn’t behave as expected during that last critical ‘suck down’ moment. The tension on the fly may also means the fly gets sucked underwater, but not fully into the trout’s mouth, resulting in a prick or clean miss. You will swear the fish ate your fly (and the fish did try to!) but drag corrupted the process.

  1. Lift the rod to STRIKE and set the hook

Wow, after all that, we’ve finally made it to the strike. The aim of detailing all of the preliminary inputs has been to inform, not confuse. It’s necessary to accept there is no magical strike that will suit every scenario, but if you do everything well in the leadup, you’ll be in the best position to make your effort successful.

To reiterate, there needs to be enough speed, length and force in the lift to bring the line tight, set the hook, and put a curve in the rod (but without overdoing it). I should also mention that the line, which should be under the index finger of the rod hand prior to the strike to manage the line, stays there during the strike. It keeps you in the best position to control the line from the outset while playing the fish. Rod in one hand and line in the other is a juggle and complication you don’t want.

The line stays under a finger of the rod hand during the strike to maintain immediate control.

  1. Play and land the fish

We’ll almost take this as read, as it’s a subject for another day. I will say however that the post-strike moments need special care in regard to playing a fish. The angler is full of adrenaline, and the fish has just had the shock of its life. Panic at either (or both) ends of the line is a distinct possibility. Maintaining too much pressure as a large fish shakes its head to rid itself from the unwanted meal, or as it bolts in fright, can end in an instant break-off.

Hookup! The next few seconds are critical on large fish… or any fish.

All I can say is be prepared, and try to relax your muscles, if not your mind. My own mantra to myself in all these self-imposed pressure situations is, “Fish like you don’t care!”

Yes, it might be a lie, but we anglers are renowned for it, and if you can believe it for just a few moments, it can get you through into the rest of the battle…