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Hooking Dry-Fly Trout

by Skip Morris
Fly Fishing with Dry Flies

A chunky, perfect cutbow, hooked and landed on a big dry fly thanks to the queen of England. Carol Ann Morris photo

Have a question you want answered? Email it to us at ask@midcurrent.com.

Question: How soon after a trout takes my dry fly should I set the hook?

—Anonymous

Answer: The answer to your question, Anonymous (“Anonymous” because I can’t recall who it was that asked me this recently), begins with a neat, straightforward rule which soon slips into messy caveats and variations. Such is fly fishing: more like a game of cards, with its luck and uncertainty and informed guesswork, than it is like a tidy math equation. So, here’s that rule, borrowed from our English fly-fishing kin: When a trout takes your dry fly, say “God save the queen,” and then set the hook. (The rule also applies to a floating emerger fly, which is a dry fly for our purposes here.) You could alter the words to something less monarchical if you like, but it would have to take just as long to say (“God help me cast”? “Go rake the leaves”?). But if you stick with the original, well, Britain is, after all, a longtime American ally, and Canada put Queen Elizabeth II on their money…

I came across that rule way back, and in general I’ve come to trust it. Now when I find myself tightening on dry-fly fish too soon I stop, and then take a long moment to remind myself to say the phrase before each hook-set.

I used to set on dry flies quickly—immediately, in fact—and it lost me fish. The problem was that I’d gotten too good at indicator nymph fishing. If you want success with that method, you tug the hook home as close to the very moment the indicator jiggles or dips as you possibly can, and no later—you simply have to. I really worked at training myself to watch the indicator with a suspicious stare and react in a flash when it gave even the slightest possible tell. I kneaded that response deep into my tissue. So I naturally set dry-fly takes the same way.

My childhood of creek fishing didn’t help—the dinky cutthroat trout of those creeks typically shoot for a dry fly like rockets and demand an immediate set. Little trout in general seem to require quicker hook-sets than trout of even ten inches.

I gradually came to realize that a 13- or 16-inch brown lazing down shuck-stuck spec-size midges on soft currents is a lousy candidate for a quick set. A tough habit to break, my all-purpose insta-hook-set, and made tougher by the need to take the habit up again whenever I fished an indicator and nymph.

Hey, fly fishing’s that way—life’s that way: you adjust. You have to. So I got good at adjusting.

And, if you haven’t already, so should you.

That leisurely feeding brown I mentioned, the hypothetical one, he’s worth a closer look. Notice that I described the hatching insects he was taking as both tiny (midges, always tiny in rivers) and helpless (impeded by the struggle to extract legs and bodies from shucks), and on quiet currents (where the insects come inching up)—there’s absolutely no reason for this trout to feed with even the slightest urgency and not enough meat in each bug to compensate for the fuel spent in a vigorous take. Trout survival depends on conserving energy: if the bugs are diminutive, helpless, or both, and especially if the water’s delivering them easily, expect a feeding trout’s jaws to work on those bugs in slow motion. Which means, of course, that a longer-than-normal pause before setting a floating fly will likely prove best. Perhaps a “God save the queen and king” or even “God save the queen and king and prince.” You get the idea.

But what about those creek trout I grew up harassing, what about hefty rainbows slamming down scurrying caddisfly adults—the fast fly takes? Then your pause might only be as long as “Save the queen,” or even just “The queen.”

I’ve been talking a lot about currents and trout streams, but the God-save-the-queen rule also applies to trout taking floating flies in lakes and ponds: standing water. Normally, just say the stock phrase and set, but caddis adults dart around on top of lakes, just as they do on rivers, to get rushed by trout, and there are also plenty of insects, mayfly spinners that lie dying on the water for example, that trout sip down at a snail’s pace. Again, adjust.

Even if you do everything right, by following the Brits’ rule faithfully while wisely adjusting your pauses when trout take floating insects with particular slowness or haste, you’ll get surprises. But then, I already sort of said that (remember my card-game-Vs-math analogy?). Which means, as I also said, you have to stay flexible, open-minded. If “God save the queen” misses three fish in a row, shorten the phrase, and if that doesn’t work, lengthen it. But, because you’re open-minded, you realize that three missed fish might indicate nothing more than the drawing of three consecutive unlucky cards—perhaps you’ll hook and land the next three with exactly the same hook-set pause that lost you the first three. So, just…experiment.

Personally, I’m glad that fly fishing is like cards. Each day, each river, each moment, each fish comes out of the deck a mystery. I guess I just like mystery.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Skip Morris ( www.skip-morris-fly-tying.com) has written 18 books on fly fishing and fly tying over the past 25 years (among them, Fly Tying Made Clear and Simple, Western River Hatches, Trout Flies for Rivers, and Morris & Chan on Fly Fishing Trout Lakes) along with over 300 magazine articles. He s served among the hosts of a national fly-fishing television show and on several instructional DVDs. As a speaker, Skip's performed in California and Arizona, Michigan, Iowa, Texas, and Alabama, and a bunch of other states, three Canadian provinces, and overseas. The spring 2014 issue of Fly Tyer magazine announced Skip as a winner of the magazine's lifetime achievement award. Skip's wife Carol provides much of the photography in Skip's work and all the illustrations. They live, currently, with one willful cats on Washington's lush Olympic Peninsula with its myriad opportunities for both fresh and saltwater fly fishing.
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  • struck2soon

    Nice one skip…a timely reminder indeed as I am just about to head to NZ where in the past I have virtually made a habit of setting the hook too soon.
    If you enjoy watching others more guilty than yourself of quick strikes, check out my ‘Dry Fly Delights’ clips on youtube….my youtube channel name? Why, ‘struck2soon’ of course!

    • Skip Morris

      “Struck2soon” sounds like a good fit for you and, too often, for me. Have a great trip to New Zealand.

  • Troutbum

    A slight modification on the “God save the queen” phrase is the more local Kiwi phrase – “Bloody hell, I have a fish!”. And I think, having lived & fished in New Zealand for many, many years that this is indeed a requirement if you actually hope or want to hook a trout. But not so much in the UK or Spain (where I am living at the moment) as the trout in each of these countries are very quick takes on the fly. When I moved from NZ to the UK it took me a wee while & some time with a guide to quicken my strike to make a regular hook up. I will be interested to see how long it takes to get my New Zealand ‘legs’ back…

    • Skip Morris

      Lots of local color in that phrase–works for me. Your comment about trout hitting quicker or slower in different countries sounds about right: fish will always keep us guessing and will always disregard our logic.

  • Melzini

    One more thing to consider, slack. If you have a lot of slack line on the water set sooner in order to allow for the time it takes to tighten on the fish. This is why some times a quick set seems to work and other times not.

    • Skip Morris

      Agreed. Fred sort of mentioned that too.

  • Salmopsycho

    ” Don’t tread on me ” Is more appropriate.

    • Skip Morris

      Seems a little aggressive for trout fishing, but…sure.

  • Fred Rickson

    But, all of my buddies who fish lakes using a bobber, just about become airborne at the first twitch. Of course, they do have 50 feet of line to take up, don’t they? Merry Christmas to all.

    • Skip Morris

      Hi, Fred,
      Funny comment–and my first reaction is to about
      become airborne myself. Good point about the line: the more of it that’s
      out and the more slack in it, the sooner you have to start the process
      of setting the hook.

  • RAB

    My trigger finger is way too quick and I have missed many a fish due to premature enthusiasm. I now use a preemptive tactic. Rather than waiting for the take, I repeat over and over, very slowly, as the fly approaches the fish, “Let em eat. let em eat, let em eat.. . .” By slowing the phrase down it tends to slow my reflexes and I now miss far fewer fish due to PE.

    • Skip Morris

      Hi, Rab,

      I’m for whatever works–if “Let ’em eat” works for you, great. Just shows how personal our grand sport really is.

  • Doug

    “begins with a neat, straightforward rule which soon slips into messy caveats and variations”
    No doubt a pause when fishing a dry fly is the standard. But here’s one of the latter for you. Fishing the cicada hatch below Flaming Gorge Dam. Pat “The Predator” Nichols said it three times before we got the boat in the water. ‘You have to set immediately on these fish. Even better, anticipate when the fish will take and set then.’ He bet me a beer I’d miss the first 10 because I’d be too slow on the strike. I won the beer but only after missing the first 6 fish. You’d think hooking big brown trout, eating a 2 inch long modified Chernobyl ant-thing would be a cake walk. It wasn’t. The fly would simply disappear – no splash, no ripples, no trout nose, nothing. The fly is there, then it isn’t. And if I didn’t strike at almost that same exact instant, all I got back was the fly. Weirdest dry fly fishing I’ve ever done. But it did improve my skills at reading where I thought a fish might eat.