When a good fish eats your fly and the electricity runs up the leader, through the fly line, down your rod and hits the raw nerve endings in your hand while gripping the cork, what happens to you? How do you react?
Do you raise the rod tip firmly to set the hook on a freshwater trout? Do you calmly and strategically strip-set the hook in salt water while looking around for any possible line tangles or complications? Do you already know where any possible snags, rocks, mangroves or other potentially problematic obstructions are in relation to the fighting fish? (Doubtful.) How about where you are standing: Do you have a firm footing, or might you be somewhat precariously perched?
An adrenaline rush is an amazing thing. It can throw you into a super clear mode of reacting and thinking where everything slows down and you can get ahead of the game … or it can allow panic, terror and chaos to have a free rein, and everything you have learned in the past is momentarily but completely lost. Have you ever been there? Be honest — of course you have!
The reactions and decisions that you make in those first few seconds after the fish takes your fly often determine whether you or the fish will win the fight. There are many ways to lose a fish, and sometimes you won’t have any control over it at all. But there are things you can do to tip your odds toward winning.
Let’s say that you’re in a trout stream balanced (more or less) on a slippery rock. When a big brown hits, you do everything right by lifting that rod tip firmly to hook him. He rolls over and for a brief moment pauses. It seems like they actually make a decision on how they are going to fight you and what their best plan to escape might be. He decides to scream off downstream through the fast water and rocks.
Probably the worst thing that you could possibly do is decide to stay on your perch as you fight the fish. There is a point in time in moving water where the distance separating you and the fish becomes too great and you have no leverage whatsoever on the fish or control of your line.
What should you do? Well, I hope you have a way to slide off that rock safely, because you need to move your butt and follow the fish. And getting that rod tip in the air will keep you connected to the fish and create an angle that will keep your line out of the rocks and logs that the fish is swimming by, under and around. It will also allow the rod to bend easier acting as a shock absorber to protect those lighter tippets against head shakes and continued lunges by the fish.
Then, you walk on water if possible to catch up. If you are merely mortal, at least get yourself into position to be able to regain leverage on the fish. After a trout makes a long run like that, it won’t have a lot of energy left (and you may not either). It may make a couple of short runs, but the hardest part of the fight is over. Be patient, stay tight and oppose the fish until it comes to hand or the net.
If you have been out fishing around here lately and have been able to stay out of spotty red tide, then you have probably found what I have found: Snook and reds that are willing to eat. Let’s say a nice redfish eats a shrimpy/crabby thing you have tied on your leader and you are on the bow of the boat — alone.
First, you strip-set the fish — calmly and strategically, but firmly. Then your problems begin. At this point in time, you will have to control the fish as well as the boat. Whether it’s a red or a snook, it’s going to charge off. With a snook there will probably be a jump or two involved; with a red it will just freight-train away.
Where will it run? More than likely to the mangroves. As you are clearing the line begrudgingly, you may find yourself being pulled toward the trees, which gives you less time to turn the fish and less leverage to turn the fish with.
Your rod should be low and pointed more toward the fish (not the high rod tip style like the river trout.) With this technique, you will be able to put as much side pressure as possible to try to turn the fish’s head away from the mangroves. Heavier leaders and gear allow us to get away with this “down and dirty” move.
I know a lot of fly fishers won’t put a trolling motor on the boat, and I understand why. But I find it an invaluable tool, especially when I’m by myself. I’ll point the trolling motor away from the mangroves and continue fighting and towing the fish until it’s clear of the roots and sticks. If I’m on the poling platform with a client or a buddy on the rod, then of course I’m using the push pole to back us up and move us to the most advantageous position to land the fish.
Now there are a couple schools of thought for the rest of the fight. One is to lighten up on the force you are applying and just barely stay slack-free as you slowly but steadily reel or strip in the fish. The second technique is to maintain max force until you bring the fish alongside the boat. I use both techniques, because I find the fish will dictate that choice. By the way, your fish will more than likely head to the mangroves more than once, so be ready.
Remember the decisions that you make in those first few seconds of a hookup could well determine if you land that fish or not. So keep your head, have a plan, be cool and of course stay fly.
Capt. Rex Gudgel is a fly fishing guide in the Boca Grande area and an International Federation of Fly Fishers Master Certified casting instructor. If you’d like to get casting lessons, book a trip or just need more fly fishing info, contact him at 706-254-3504 or visit BocaGrandeSlamFlyFishing.com or CastWithRex.com.