Getting Them On, Then In

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Losing Fish Fly Fishing

On the left is a nymph tangled in its tippet. Next to it, going right: a fly hook with its point broken off, another with its point bent out (look closely), and the last with its bend opened partway—all three types of damaged hooks (and the flies that would normally be tied on them) are throwaways.

Question: “I have been missing a lot of fish lately—presentation is good, fish takes the fly, I set the hook and either have the fish on for a second or two and then they’re gone or when I set the hook the fly pops out of the fish’s mouth. This seems to happen more with a dry than with a nymph, but still happens with both. So what are the techniques for setting the hook and keeping a fish on?”  — Jeffrey W

Answer: I’ve felt your pain. A few years ago I and a friend fished the Dillon area in Montana, and for each of ten days, if I hooked a brown trout, especially a big brown trout, it usually came off. My friend had no such problem; he seemed to land most of his browns, big, average, and small, with no trouble. So there’s a good tip already: Landing fish always involves a heavy dose of luck. Jeffrey, don’t take your lost fish too hard.

Just to make my point even stronger, I’ll tell you that during that trip I began tying at night and first thing each morning. I tied fly patterns I completely trusted on hooks I trusted every bit as much as the patterns. None of it seemed to help. It just wasn’t my ten days for landing browns. I did fine on average, though, with landing rainbows. Go figure.

Here’s a non-fishing losing-streak example that’s difficult to ignore. My wife, Carol, and I play cards, up to a few hands a week. Sometimes for as long as three months, she’s nearly unbeatable. Then, for the next one to three months, I’m nearly unbeatable. Then, perhaps, it’s about even for a while. Then she’s unbeatable, then maybe I’m un… you get the point. When we think back over one of our winning streaks, we’re both certain we played just as we always play.

Getting a hook well set into a fish and then holding onto that fish involves the same kind of luck as does our card games. So (for the last time) luck is one big factor in landing fish. But it also involves more than luck.

From here on, Jeffrey, I’m going to talk only about trout because your mention of dry fly and nymph make it clear to me that trout are what you had in mind when you wrote your question. Much of what follows, however, applies to smallmouth and largemouth bass and the pan-fishes too, and I say that with a lot of warm-water fishing experience to back it up.

If not a garden-variety run of poor luck, your problem could be your hook setting—too soon on the floating fly (see “Hooking Dry-Fly Trout” on MidCurrent) or too late on a nymph. Bottom line: you need to pause after a trout takes your floating fly before setting the hook or you’ll miss a lot of fish, but your set must be as close to immediate as possible with a nymph below a strike indicator—or you’ll miss even more fish than you ever could on a dry fly. There are exceptions on the dry-fly set, none on the nymph (none, at least, I’m aware of).

Another potential problem: hooks and the flies tied on them. If you tie your own flies, you could be causing your own problems. First, hooks. I’ve found that any given manufacturer’s fly-hook models vary considerably in how well they hook and hold fish. You really need to ask around, investigate, hunt down what anglers feel are best hook models, and then experiment with those hooks to see if they really are the best.

Since you mentioned nymphs and dries, Jeffrey, here are the hooks on which I tie most of my dry flies, and that I trust: Daiichi 1190 (standard dry fly, light wire, barbless), Tiemco 900BL (standard dry fly, barbless, standard wire for large trout), Daiichi 1130 (humped shank, light wire, for floating emergers), and the Daiichi 1260 (long shank, standard wire) for big dries. For nymphs: Daiichi 1560, Daiichi 1120 (heavy wire, humped shank), and sometimes, the 1260 again (though I’d like a heavier wire for big trout).

All but one are Daiichi hooks so, confession time: I’m on the Daiichi pro-staff. (Note: I’m on the pro-staff because I think Daiichi makes excellent hooks.)

The second primary potential trout-landing problem if you tie your own flies is that you could be overstuffing them—bulging heads, thick bodies, or both can leave little room for the hook’s point to do its work. Little room between fly and hook-point means little chance of getting a good, solid hook-up in a fish. Sure, a metal bead or a flared-and-trimmed deer-hair head is always going to block some of the hook’s gap—it’s okay to fill some of it; you just need to leave enough of it exposed to do the job. That’s in part why we have different hook designs: some have wider gaps to accommodate fatter flies. Fly companies understand all this, so it’s rare to find their flies lacking insufficient bite. If you tie your own flies, you might be wise to compare yours with some from the factories, noting particularly the clear space, or lack of it, around the hook’s point.

If you’re not overstuffing the flies you tie, you could be making their components too long. A dry-fly hackle two sizes too big for its hook keeps a fly from looking like the insect it’s supposed to mimic, but perhaps worse, its stiff fibers sticking out so far protect the trout from the hook-point. You don’t want to protect the trout from the hook-point—you want the point to go right in. Over-long wings on a dry fly can cause the same problem. A too-long wing on a streamer can result in trout grabbing a mouthful of feathers without ever touching the hook. Bottom line: these are really flies too big for their hooks, such as a size 8 Woolly Bugger on a hook of size 12. So tie the next Bugger with the very same thickness of chenille you used on the last one, same hackle size, same tail length, but this time on a size 8 hook.

The next two fish-losing factors come as a set:

  1. failing to maintain constant pressure, and
  2. failing to maintain consistent pressure. Once you’ve got a trout hooked, you must keep the line tight—and not allow a heartbeat’s slack. Keeping the pressure on for 99% of the fight is meaningless if that 1%, a mere slice of a second when the line goes limp, lets the trout get off.

But constant pressure isn’t enough—you must keep that pressure steady, not lightening up, not tightening down. This needn’t be perfect, but it does need to stay within a fairly close range.

Exceptions: when a trout leaps, you do want to lighten up, and when he heads for peril you may have to press him to almost your tippet’s breaking point.

That covers what are probably the typical factors in hooking and landing or not hooking or landing a trout. Here are some others:

  1. With soft-hackled flies, swung across the current, you must let the trout tug the hook home. All you do is hold the line firmly (though not so firmly the trout can’t run if he needs to)—no setting the hook.
  2. Some anglers play trout with so much pressure the hook often pulls free or the tippet parts; others barely put a bend in their rod—too little pressure and too much pressure are each trout losers. You need to play a trout firmly, with an obvious arc in your rod, but don’t get impatient and try to rush the trout in before he’s ready for the net.
  3. Lowering the rod tip to the side seems to help keep a trout on when he starts thrashing, especially when he’s fairly close in. I don’t know why.
  4. If your trout are 12-inchers and your fly is on a long-shank size 8 hook, they may grab at it, even slash at it, but the fly may simply be too large for them to take in. You can’t hook a fish that can’t get the fly into his mouth. Try a smaller fly.
  5. Your fly may be tangled with your tippet or the hook may have bent so the point is angled outward, or the point of its hook may be bent, broken, or just dull. Check your fly to see it’s not tangled and drag it’s hook-point across a thumbnail to make sure it’s sharp (it should catch in the nail); if it’s not sharp, sharpen it or replace the fly (but test its point).  If its point is bent or broken, the fly’s shot. If the point is bent outward, the fly’s shot.
  6. This one’s not for you but for the trout: don’t overplay. A deeply exhausted trout may not survive. On the other hand, a mad rush to land a trout isn’t required—take the time you need, just don’t take more than you need. Then unhook the trout and get him back in the water efficiently and quickly. Our trout don’t love us, but we do love them and want to see them swim off healthy and unharmed.

I realize that’s a lot to think about, Jeffrey—probably too much to absorb in only the time it takes to read it. So work on this stuff gradually. Fish consciously, improve.

And a last reminder: sometimes luck is against you. But if it’s against you now, it’ll probably be with you again soon.