Fighting Big Fish: A Primer

March 10, 2011 By: Marshall Cutchin

Fly fishing for tarpon

Fitz Coker applies sideways pressure to a big tarpon, using his body position and the boat to make applying the pressure a little easier.

EARLY FLORIDA KEYS GUIDES  George Hommell, Jack Brothers and Jimmy Albright pioneered many of the big-fish fighting techniques that are used today to subdue fish that to the average onlooker are far too big to be landed with a fly rod. Stu Apte and Lefty Kreh popularized and perfected their techniques. They did it pursuing tarpon with fiberglass fly rods whose design emphasized durability and stiffness over ease of casting, and later with improved tackle on blue water species like sailfish.

By removing the question of gear endurance from the equation — and by bringing leader systems up to par with the size of their quarry — these pioneers were able to bring technique into focus. The methods they popularized had to do with applying the most amount of pressure, most consistently, to the fish. It laid the foundation for thoughts about keeping a fish off-balance, and for the psychological wager an angler could place by using each piece of his equipment to the limits of its ability. Stu Apte carried both to the extreme and was the first to develop the “down and dirty” method to reduce a fish’s will to fight. It made fly fishing a more physical challenge as well, and if you look at some of the early pictures of Lefty and Stu at the time they were setting the tarpon world records, you see Jack LaLanne look-alikes, albeit in sun-worn khaki.

Fighting big fish on fly rods

George Anderson uses the classic “Down and Dirty” technique to decrease the angle at which the pressure is applied to the fish. Notice that George also is using his body to help get leverage on the fish and not just using his arms.

Folks had been testing their gear for as long as anyone had fly fished, of course. But it wasn’t until the arrival of plastics and fiberglass on the outdoors scene after World War II that castable gear had the physical strength to apply what was necessary to land a large fish using something other than attrition as the tactic of choice. Coincidentally — or as a result — saltwater fly fishing emerged as popular sport then. Now much of what is known about landing large fish in general has been applied to more traditional fly fishing arenas and gear (witness the “reverse engineering” of saltwater drag systems to trout reels). Interestingly, the challenges overcome in saltwater have also made their way into improved methods of light-tippet fishing, where fish landing is often a question of an angler’s ability to address the same dynamics.

A Word About Tackle and Gear

It’s almost impossible to put too much emphasis on knot tying when talking about the elements of success in fighting big fish. That’s because today the available gear is so good that unless you’re talking about manufacturer defects — or just having the wrong rod and reel for the job — most fish are lost because of bad knots. Probably the second most common type of problem occurs with the hook — either because it is sharpened poorly or because it’s not enough hook for the job (the search for a very strong, thin-wire hook that takes and holds a good point is never-ending). The last common type of “gear failure” is broken rods, but in almost all cases rods fail because they are used incorrectly.

So if you want to learn big-fish tactics, the thing you want to spend your time on is understanding and tying good knots, knowing when a leader needs to be retied, testing your connections, and understanding what amount of stress your leader system can handle. (And by the way, your “leader system” includes the backing-to-flyline knot.) Almost no one without experience can accurately estimate how much pressure they are putting on a fish with a fly rod. I’ve proved this to hundreds of anglers, and unless you can consistently put 7-8 pounds of pressure on a large fish, especially tarpon or bluewater fish like tuna, you’ll end up losing more fish than you catch — and you’ll cause the fight to last longer than it needs to, which unduly stresses the fish. One way to learn how much pressure you can put on a fish is to have a buddy hold a scale attached to the end of your leader and pull on the scale with the line stopped (hold the spool of a direct-drive reel or dual-mode reel); most people can’t put more than 5 or 6 pounds of pressure on the scale until they’ve learned that they must crank down toward the scale and pull while keeping the rod below a 45-degree angle from horizontal. This straightens the front half of the rod while putting the bend in the butt half — right where you need it when fighting a big fish.

Fly fishing for tarpon

A “stopped” fish will often twist and shake his head to try to dislodge the hook; the angler needs to be especially alert to this with larger fish when they are near the boat.

The other way to learn how to pressure a big fish is to use the same tactics I’ve described above on some big fish and try (yes, I said ‘try’) to break the fish off. With a 16-lb. or heavier tippet and well-tied knots, you won’t even get close to breaking the fish off unless you get the rod bent into the bottom half near the grip, and even then the fish may need to help you a bit by shaking his head or surging off. With 20-lb. tippet you can pull most fish over 100 pounds backwards in the water by pointing your rod straight at the fish and stepping backwards in the boat.

No Need to Break Rods

Any discussion of hooks and hook sharpening for big fish is endless and involves a great deal of subjectivity, so I won’t address it here. Suffice to say that stronger, thinner-wire, and well-sharpened hooks catch more fish, and that no amount of skill can overcome the deficit that a rolled point or bad hook choice leaves you with.

That leaves the other type of common and avoidable equipment failure: broken rods.

Most rods are broken on big fish (and little fish) near the boat. There are three reasons. First, the closer the fish is to the angler, the greater the chance of getting the bend of the rod back up into the tip, the weakest part of the rod. Second, the smaller the amount of line and leader that is out of the rod tip, the less stretch there is available in the line and leader to absorb shock. Third, by the time a large fish gets to the boat, even the most physically fit anglers are usually a bit tired and it’s natural to become careless.

All that being said, I’ve never seen a rod break — without evidence of a defect or damage — unless it was bent back beyond 70 or 80 degrees from a fish. Of the rods that snapped, 95% broke long after I thought the rod should break, with the rod bent back (or up) in a severe U-shape, or with the rod pointed straight up in the air with all the bend close to the tip. So the goal is to keep any of those things from happening, while still applying maximum pressure on the fish and keeping enough bend in the rod to provided shock absorption.

Since most big fish are landed from boats, all this is especially hard to do when a fish gets close. However there are two things you can do to avoid rod breakage near the boat. First, reel down onto the leader, even to the point of having most of your leader inside the tip top; this will keep the bend of the rod away from the tip. Second, be ready at any moment to shove your rod straight down into the water if the fish runs under the boat. If successful, you can bring your rod around the bow and back up to fight the fish. (If you don’t do it, you may suddenly hear the sound of graphite fibers snapping as the rod bends around the gunwale.) Both these tactics work best, of course, if you stay near the bow when fighting the fish. Some anglers lighten their drag and palm the spool as the fish gets near the boat to avoid the rod hitting the boat, but you definitely do not want to decrease pressure on the fish at boat side.

The Fight

The quickest way to characterize the technique for landing big fish with a fly rod is to say this: the fight starts with take and doesn’t end until the fish is released. It’s surely the reason why catch-and-release tarpon fishing is so much fun. You want to land the fish as quickly as possible, get the hook out, and set him on his way before he even knows what happened. Veteran tarpon anglers will know it never quite happens that way, but that is the correct intent. It’s also easier on the fish and the angler (if not the guide, who always secretly hopes that the fish will be just a little bit less green when he grabs hold).

So How to Get There?

Lefty Kreh went into great detail in the classic book Fly Fishing in Salt Water on how to respond to each event in course of a fight with a big tarpon, and his suggestions can be applied to large fish of all species. Not much has changed since he codified the tactics, with these exceptions: reel drags have gotten smoother, eliminating with most reels the issue of “start-up inertia” in drag settings, and the endgame is now considerably more complicated with the growing preference for not gaffing fish. Otherwise the same general techniques still apply to all large fish. I’ve summarized and in some cases expanded a bit here:

  1. Start with sufficient drag. Depending somewhat on personal preference and fish playing style, reels should have a drag setting of about 15% of tippet strength. Any less and the fish will not work hard enough on their initial run; any more, and you may not have enough shock absorption in the rod and line to handle the head shakes and jumps of a fast, heavy fish.
  2. Apply additional pressure immediately when a fish stops running. In a tarpon, this will often cause a jump, so be prepared by keeping some bend in the rod, especially if the fish is a long way out. The point is that even early in the battle, you do not want the fish to rest.
  3. With tarpon, always be ready to bow. This means keeping the rod at at least a 45-degree angle while the fish is running and immediately bringing the rod back up after a jump.
  4. Once you’ve stopped the fish, use short pumping strokes to pull on the fish without getting too much bend in the rod. You’re working just as hard with the rod at 90 degrees as you are with the rod at 30 degrees, but you’re applying less than half the pressure. Pull up (or sideways) 30 degrees at a time and quickly reel up line.
  5. As the fish begins to tire, concentrate on bending the rod away from the direction the fish is swimming and pulling directly backwards on the fish if possible. Pulling sideways keeps the angle of resistance as close as possible to the fish’s direction. Pulling down on a fish will sometimes improve the angle even more. Remember that if the fish is within 50 feet of the boat, pulling up on the fish at all is reducing the pressure they feel, since their body weight alone is enough to add 4 or 5 pounds of accumulated resistance. This is why a large fish sounding or getting into a deep channel can present such a difficult challenge.
  6. With the fish near the boat, reel down and keep the angles tight. Many large fish will recover during what should be the last stages of a fight because the angler becomes tentative or worried that the fish might be lost. Stay focused on pulling directly backward on the fish and keeping it off-balance. It may require stepping back in the boat, but remember the possibility that the fish will run under the boat and be ready to shove several feet of rod down into the water.
  7. A good tarpon guide will grab the fish by the lower jaw and won’t let go. But occasionally even the strongest guides will lose their grip before they can get the hook out. If this happens, immediately reel down and put pressure back on the fish.

If it all goes well the fish will not have to be revived except for a few short moments before it kicks off. And you will have landed a fish in 15 minutes instead of the hour or two of misery that an inexperienced angler endures because of doing just a few things wrong.


Above all, learning to land big fish involves practice. It’s easy to lose touch with the required balance between putting enough pressure on a fish and positioning yourself and your gear to absorb or release pressure at the right moments. But practice makes more things go your way (see our piece on “Luck“). The next best thing to doing it yourself is watching someone good at fighting fish do it; you’ll pick up nuances of timing that are hard to describe in words. I’ve seen average tarpon anglers turn themselves into experts overnight by spending the day in the boat with a more accomplished angler.