It all tends to happen fast. Anticipation is replaced by exhilaration when a trout takes your fly. Immediately, there is a moment of holding your breath, hoping the hook set will stick, and then it is right down to the business of landing the fish — but wait! Don’t lose a nice trout speeding to get him on the reel.
After you set the hook on a fish, you will inevitably have fly line out that you stripped in while your fly drifted downstream. If you want to fight this fish on the reel, you need to get all that line back on the spool.
It is important to maintain the right amount of tension while you reel in excess line, so the fish does not spit the hook or break off.
But what is the right amount?
Hook Set and Assess
Instead of rushing to get the fish on the reel when a trout takes your fly, take a moment to figure out where this fish is taking the fight. It only takes a second, but it could prevent losing a beauty.
A trout that just realized he has a hook in his mouth is probably going to take the fight one of three ways as he tries to break free: toward you, away from you, or he may just stay put.
If the fish takes the fight towards you and you hold your line and start reeling in slack line in an attempt to get the fish on the reel, there is a good chance you are not reeling faster than the fish is swimming. This will result in losing tension and the chance of him spitting the hook. You need to forget about the reel for now and strip line as required, so you can keep a tight line.
If the fish takes the fight away from you, he is going to have to take line with him. If you hold that line to reel in slack while he makes his move, you could risk breaking the tippet. As you hold the line and the rod bends to take more of the load imparted from the fish, you need to recognize when it is time to let a little line go.
If the fish is fairly static after the take, you can fight him without having to let line go or take line in and keep the line tight. This is the time to hold the line and reel in slack until all the fly line is on the reel again.
You may go back and forth between stripping line and letting some out. No problem. Do what you have to do to keep a tight line while using the appropriate opportunities to get him on the reel. Once the fish is on the reel, you may still have to strip line if he makes a big run at you but letting line out will be much easier.
The fish may or may not jump in the three scenarios above. Whether or not the fish jumps does not change my overall strategy. I am more concerned with the direction he is going relative my position and maintaining the correct amount of tension on the line.
It may be subtle, or it might be a massive run. You must react to the fish and apply the techniques at the appropriate rate. This means you may have to strip like a madman or give him all the line he wants depending on how aggressive and how big this fish is.
What About Smaller Fish?
Having the fish on the reel is more important with bigger fish, but I still execute this way with smaller fish. Why? Because I believe in the power of habit patterns!
Hook set and assess is a good habit to get into, because it allows you to practice the mechanics and the feel of how to play the line while you transition to the reel. Then, when it is truly a monster trout, and you must get him on the reel to have a chance, you have been practicing.
Getting the fish on the reel is an excellent way to fight trout, but you can miss your shot at a big guy if you don’t respect the fish and keep a tight line in the transition. Hook set and assess. Wadeoutthere.