The Art of the Missed Hookset.

The art of the missed hookset is nuanced and complex.  Like most art forms, grasping one aspect of the missed hookset does not translate into a full understanding and mastery of the overall process.  It takes a greater level of skill to miss the hookset on a trout after years of experience, but truly great fly fishermen and women do not succumb to complacency in the other aspects of the sport they love, so it follows that the art of missing hooksets is no different.

A Subject Matter Expert.

Wadeoutthere is a place where I strive to share stories and experiences that I have learned the hard way on my journey down the other path in fly fishing.  It is rare, but not completely impossible that I find a topic that I can discuss and share knowledge as a complete subject matter expert. 

The art of the missed hookset is one such topic and I would reckon myself a top performer among any angler, guide, or pro.  Although many have easier access to trout streams and more time on the river, I modestly profess that few fly fishing men or women can boast as much experience botching, blundering, misjudging, mis stepping, and flat out missing the hookset.

Other such topics of personal expertise are discussed in these blog posts:

READ: WADEOUTTHERE |The Most Controversial Skill Set on Any Trout Stream.  Part 1 of 2.

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | The Most Controversial Skill Set on Any Trout Stream.  Part 2 of 2. 

Four Techniques to Assist in Missing Hook Sets.

My stories of missed hook sets are too numerous to catalog and relay in the course of this humble blog post.  But from those elaborate experiences, I have learned these four techniques that when performed correctly, greatly increase your odds of a missed hookset and when combined virtually guarantee your flies will not end up in the fish’s mouth.  Practice them and you will ensure mastery over time.

1. Don’t Be Ready. 

One way to ensure a missed hookset begins before the fish even takes your fly.  Not watching the fly or strike indicator during the drift is the simplest and most basic approach to the missed hookset.  Murphy’s Law is a player in fly fishing, and we can use that law to our advantage. 

It is widely believed among fly fishing experts that not paying attention to your fly creates an environment in which trout are actually more likely to take your fly, as opposed to diligently following it downstream.  It is further understood by those experts that not being ready alone accounts for roughly half of all missed hooksets in North America. 1

There is more to not being ready than not seeing the fish take your fly, however.  If you are truly not ready to set the hook, this means that you have also mismanaged your slack line correctly.  The goal is to have slack in the line when the fish takes your fly so that even if you do see the take and attempt to set the hook, you will simply be pulling loose slack line in the water and in no way assisting your odds of setting the hook by allowing the tight line to lodge the hook in the trout’s mouth. 

Refusing to anticipate the take combined with not removing slack is a deadly combination for one who is looking to consistently miss hooksets.

One final thought on not being ready is to ignore the trigger finger.  By failing to keep your casting hand’s forefinger, index finger, or both around the fly line and the rod while stripping line, you can ensure you are never ready to grab the line and make it tight for the hookset. 

2. Don’t Make an Attempt. 

The dedicated pursuer of the missed hookset is intimately familiar with spending hours staring at their strike indicator and watching take after take without any attempt at a hookset.  They happily observe the strike indicator twitch, bob, delay, stall, or move without so much as moving their fly rod an inch.  Steadfast and focused, they are often heard uttering phrases like, “Was that a fish?” and “I keep getting bottom.”

This is generally more easily performed with nymphing than with dries, but for some experts in the art of the missed hookset, not setting the hook when a trout takes a dry fly is an example of next level expertise. 

READ: WADEOUTTHERE | Hook Sets Are Free. 

3. Ignore Timing. 

The timing of your hook set on dries is important if you are to accomplish a solidly gaffed hook set.  Trout can take a dry fly by gently slurping or aggressively smashing and everything in between.  But one thing holds true regardless of their soiree to the surface for a meal – they come up, eat, and go down.

Thus, I break the process of a trout taking a dry into three parts:  the approach, the rise, and the descent.

The Approach.

Here, the fish rises up from beneath the surface of the river in line with where the fly will be.  The approach includes anything a fish does up to the point it actually breaks the surface of the water.

If possible, during the approach, try to allow yourself to get so excited and worked up that you pull the fly off the water before the trout even breaks the surface.

The Rise. 

This is the sweet spot.  The grey area.  The true finesse of the art.  When the fish breaks the surface with his mouth open, it can be fast, slow, aggressive, or soft.  The main point and goal is to immediately set the hook at the exact moment the fish rises.   

Timing is of the utmost importance at this moment, as the fish has risen, taken the fly in his mouth but not fully closed it, and certainly not descended.  If you can manage to hook set immediately when you see the fish break the surface, you can successfully pull it directly out of its mouth.

Your odds of successfully missing the hook set are exponentially increased if you are able to aggressively “rip” or “snatch” the rod tip in an upward motion.

The Descent.

During the descent, the fish dips back below the surface with his mouth closed around the fly.  Try to avoid setting the hook on trout in the descent if you want to miss the hook set. Typically, at this point the fly is solidly in the fish’s mouth.

Of course, if you are unsuccessful in the first two phases, a failed hook set can still be salvaged in the third stage by simply delaying the hook set altogether until the fish has hopefully spit the fly out.

For some great videos showing the process of trout taking dry flies close up, check out Green River Fly Fisher on Facebook or Instagram @greenriverflyfisher.  His close up videos are amazingly detailed.  (Seriously.  He is outstanding.)

However you time it, if you want to miss the hook set every time, never patiently and methodically lift the rod tip in a cadence appropriate to the speed at which the trout takes your fly, while simultaneously achieving a tight line with your trigger finger on the fly line.

4. Ignore Physics.

Your fly is traveling downstream with the current.  The trout is swimming with his nugget facing upstream.  As his food source travels downstream towards him, he moves about and grabs food with a mouth opened upstream.  He may rise up or down or move side to side in the water column, but he is always facing upstream. 

If you can hook set upstream when a trout takes a stab at one of your flies, you can then successfully pull the fly out of its mouth versus pulling it into his mouth in a downstream set.

For this reason, when missing hooksets, I always strive to hook set upstream and never downstream at a roughly forty five degree angle.    

There are times when despite your best efforts to miss a hookset, persistent trout will still end up taking your fly.  Do not be discouraged!  It takes time and practice to consistently miss the hookset.  Especially, when the fishing is hot.  If you strive to be distracted, ignore obvious and subtle takes, and commit to early aggressive hook sets in the wrong direction, you will be well on your way to mastering this difficult art form. 

Not so tight lines!  Wadeoutthere.

Note 1.  Studies from missed hook sets on other continents performed by Trout Unlimited in the fall of 2009 lacked statistical relevance as control groups were often less likely to report and as such less likely to report accurately.


Jason Shemchuk

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