Lessons Learned (Stories)

What to Do When a Big Fish Runs Downstream

“He’s comin’ to you Pop.”

My brother yelled it as he reeled in his line and I barreled towards him.  I was slipping, sliding, wading and floating my way downstream while I fought to keep the rod tip up, but out of the overhanging branches and tall grass along a high bank that hugged waist-high water on the Yakima River.  I had a big fish on and was moving downstream quick to keep it that way.

My brother leaned back against the grassy ledge and I moved past, barely in front of him.

Our father was further downstream in the anchored drift boat.  In seconds he had gone from fishing out of it, to a failed attempt to come upstream with the net, and finally staying put as I came to him. 

Thirty minutes earlier we had stopped and true to form, I immediately hopped out of the drift boat and began wading upstream to fish along the bank towards the trickiest spot I could find.  I knew there was a nice trout lurking in that dark water along the bank we had drifted by. 

It was warm summer fishing. Wading up my chest, and twice fought a tangled line in the trees, before I hooked up.  The fish took my nymph close to the bank, then immediately rushed out into the stronger current in the middle of the river and began taking my line downstream.  Time to get a move on…

The Trout Has a Vote

It can be an amazing and terrible feeling, all at the same time.  When you set the hook and feel the pull on the other end, and you know your worlds just connected.   That bend in the rod tells you the trout wants it all back, and if it is a sizable fish, he wants it all back — right now. 

Even if you do everything right: solid hook set, rod tip up, constant tight line while you get him on the reel, side pressure to keep him working and get him tired, and all the rest of it — all those things combined still do not mean you get to decide.  READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Hook Set and Assess. Don’t Rush the Reel.

The trout has a vote when it comes to what happens after he takes your fly.  The bigger the fish, the bigger the vote. 

If a nice fish decides to move out into fast water or start a big run downstream there is not much you can do to stop him.  Sure, work the drag or palm your reel to slow him, but try too hard to stop him, and the odds of breaking the fish off increase.  When a fish makes a run out into faster water, he takes quite a bit of line with him.  That line can become a real pain if he decides to take it down river.  If you can keep him abeam you and upstream, your odds of landing the fish increase.  Working a big fish back upstream through fast water is not optimum.

Why Fighting a Big Fish Downstream is Bad

When a big fish gets too far downstream he probably took a ton of line with him.  This gives you much less control of the fight.  It can make it harder to keep the line tight and apply side pressure while you fight the fish.

The biggest problem with a big fish downstream is that you are fighting the fish and the current.  If there is significant fast water between you, that is even more force that your rod and fly line need to overcome.  A big fish downstream just needs to set up, and even if he is static and resting, he is making you work and straining your line. 

Long story short, you are not going to just muscle that guy up through the current, let alone fast water.  Throw in some boulders or white water and your chances are approaching impossible.  It is only a matter of time before you line breaks, or you make a mistake and he spits the hook.

What About Thicker Tippet?

One thing that has changed my perspective in fighting bigger fish recently is being prepared for it with my rig. I grew up learning to fly fish mostly on tailwaters in Colorado. The standard was 5X, usually 6X fluorocarbon tippet. Often it what was need to fool picky trout. More influential though was probably the simple fact of that is how I learned. My fly fishing mentor fished that way and I did what he did. You probably would too if you saw how this guy fished.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | A Fly Fishing Mentor

Sometimes you get into a habit of doing something one way and it takes longer than you’d like to change the habit. Now, I fish mostly 4X or 5X. This helps me feel confident when fighting bigger fish that I will be able to turn its head when it counts and maybe prevent the run downstream. It all depends on the stream and the fish. Having a “bigger rope” helps but have confidence in your rod as well. Dig in and fight the fish with the meat of your rod. I’m always surprised how strong these rods are. You’ve got the perfect tool, don’t be afraid to use it!

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Dig in On a Big Trout

The Answer

The answer is to “get a move on”.  My father etched these words in my vocabulary through years of home remodels and deer hunting out west.  I assure you, in both scenarios you don’t sit and wait to see what happens. 

On the river get a move on means wading downstream to close the gap between you and the fish. It means moving your ass to reach a place where you can fight the fish and the current is working for you versus against.

How to Get Downstream of a Big Trout

The gotchas of moving downstream to keep a fish from breaking off are few, but worth noting: 

  • First, be aware of your surroundings.  If you are fishing next to fast water or you know that there is a section of strong current that a big fish could head for, then you can prepare and plan your route downstream if you hook up with a monster. 
  • Second, make the decision early.  If you wait to chase your lunker down the river until he is already well downstream of you, it may be too late.  Don’t let things get out of control. 
  • Third, don’t rush.  If you are running downstream and cannot control the rod tip as you go, or fall and hurt yourself, chances are you will lose the fish.  Try to be methodical and patient while you wade towards a better place to fight the fish.
  • Finally, don’t give up.  Keep fighting him the whole time as you move downstream. 

If you are fortunate to hook into a nice trout, you want to do everything you can to get him in hand.  If he is crafty — and they are all crafty — a solid fish will take your line and the fight downstream, but that does not mean he has to take your hope of landing him.  Get a move on, get after it, and you will get more big trout in the net.  Wadeoutthere.


Jason Shemchuk

You Might Also Like...

No Comments

    Leave a Reply