How to Play, Land and Net Trout on a Fly Rod
Floating down the Colorado River the other day while finishing up a guided float trip we stopped the drift boat to enjoy a little red wine and some snacks. An old client of mine happened to be across the Colorado nymphing up some fish but unfortunately he was not landing most of the trout being hooked. My friend’s challenge clearly involved fish fighting and landing skills.
After witnessing several fish shake off the line and enjoying a couple cheese and crackers my client asked, “Why is he losing so many fish?”
The answer had to do with a combination of factors. The same factors I see play out most days as a fly fishing guide on the river. It was surprising to see that a pretty good angler did not know how to play and land these fish. Most likely none of his friends who showed him how to get the trout to bite demonstrated the subtleties of playing, landing and netting their quarry.
One of our goals when landing trout are to keep your rod bent at all times. The tip of the fly rod will act as a shock absorber if bent, However, when the rod is pulled down and straightened by a running fish it is rendered useless resulting in a hook pulling free or fly line breaking. Guides are heard saying “Tip up!”.
After you have mastered keeping your rod tip up or in a bent position while fighting fish, always make sure to lead or swim the fish through the water never pull the fish directly towards you. Swim the fish in large ovals and as the trout yields smaller ovals. It is a give and take scenario and is best to use the trout’s momentum to lead them towards your net. Never go completely relaxed with a fish on the end of your line.
When catching giant Bluefin with my grandpa as a child he would demonstrate how turning the fish back from the direction it was heading in towards the other direction not only tired the giant tuna but would eventually break its spirit to fight. He would regularly play fish in less than half the time it took most anglers. Timing was critical for tuna to prevent lactic acid build up in the flesh and to keep sharks off the fish while still on the line.
You must acquire the skill to actively lead fish away from hazards, currents and the bank in some instances. This will require you to let the trout take fly line incrementally from your line hand or allowing the drag on the reel to work while maintaining a bent fly rod. The number one reason we lose trout when fighting them is that anglers fail to let the fish run. Fly fisherman are human and sometimes when a big trout runs we lock up physically as well as mentally. This causes our line to break under the stress of weight. When guiding I like to describe playing the fish as a give and take situation. When the fish pulls we give, when he stops then we pull.
Another important goal is to not let the fish go to the bottom of the river. It is heading for the bottom to dislodge the hook from its mouth on a rock or log. Try to keep the trout in the middle of the water column, not on the bottom and not on the top.
The surface is a bad place for the fish until it is ready for the net. Typically in rivers you will find the current at the water surface five times what it may be near the bottom. Also trout tend to get their head out of the water and shake aggressively, freeing the hook.
Should the trout jump, immediately lower the rod tip. We call this bowing or honoring the fish but what this allows for is some slack so that the shaking head of the fish will not snap your tippet or pull the fly lose. You can drop the fish in the current by not pulling on it so hard or by keeping your rod bent but extending the tip down into the water.
Do not grab above the cork handle. Fly rods are designed to bend and when you grab above the handle you effectively shorten your rod. This allows for less resilience and is a great way to break your rod.
Another popular way to unbuckle fish is while reeling in the line. Anglers tend to jiggle their reel hand causing the rod tip to jiggle the fly lose from the fishes mouth. You need to be able to work both hands independently when fighting a trout in order to smoothly bring him to net.
If you use the methods for playing fish outlined above your fish will be ready for the net shortly. Always net fish head first to prevent them from swimming away from your net. Wait for the fish to slide to the surface before extending the net into the water. I hope these tips help you land more and larger trout the next time you go fly fishing.
Bill Perry, Guide and Content Writer