One of the most difficult things to teach a new angler is how to properly play and land a fish. It is doubly hard because an angler can only practice such a task as often as he can hook a fish. There is no substitute for experience with landing fish, however there are several rules of thumb that can be followed.
Let’s look at the three ways by which a fish can be lost:
1. The hook can come loose.
This is by far the most common of the three scenarios where landing a fish is not successful. It happens because of the angler not keeping enough tension on the fish. Insufficient tension allows slack to form in the leader and line. When this happens the fish can simply shake its head and shake the fly loose. Anglers often are too hesitant to keep the fish under as much tension as possible. They are afraid of breaking the tippet, or of tearing the hook out.
This second scenario is extremely rare. In fact, depending on the size of tippet you’re fishing, a hook tear-out is even less likely than the tippet breaking. The knot between your tippet and fly is almost always going to be the weaker link when compared with the connection between the fish’s mouth and your fly. This mouth-to-fly connection actually becomes stronger as you add more tension to the system. Bottom line: It is much more likely to have insufficient tension on the fish and lose it to a hook pop-out, than to have too much tension and cause a break-off. More on break-offs later in this piece.
2. The hook can bend open.
This is probably the rarest of the three scenarios. I would say that it only applies when the angler is hooking large fish relative to the hook size. For example, if, trying to land a 14-inch fish on a size 26 fly, or a 24-inch fish on a size 16 fly, additional finesse should be employed. Another solution applicable across the board is to tie your flies on the heaviest possible hook. Certainly there is no reason not to, at least with nymph patterns size 18 and larger. Note: with smaller patterns, light wire hooks are often necessary to match the slim profile of these insects.
3. The tippet can break.
Tippet breakages are caused by a sudden increase in force on the rig. This is usually caused when the fish makes a sudden move and the angler does not compensate for it. This compensation can happen a few ways. One, letting the fish take line off the reel. The other is absorbing the sudden movement with the cushion of your arm and wrist, and following the fish’s movement with your rod. A rig with fresh tippet material and properly tied (read: lubricated) knots can withstand a great deal of sustained tension. There is a simple test that will demonstrate just how easy it is to protect light tippets from breakage.
Test the Tippet
Take a leader that is tapered down to 5X or 6X (you can add some additional tippet with a surgeon’s or blood knot if you wish). Tie the end of the leader to the leg of a sturdy table, with a clinch knot, just as you would do to attach a fly. Grasp the leader in your hand several feet away from the end that is secured, gradually start to pull. You will be surprised how much force you can put on the system. In fact you may not even be able to break it. Now go from zero tension immediately to a hard sharp tug, and of course the knot will break very easily.
The trick is to prevent the fish from suddenly increasing the force exerted on the leader. If the fish wants to run, the angler can allow the fish to make a short run simply by following the fish’s movement with the rod tip. The angler does not have to allow the fish to take line of the reel in order to run.
Taken together, these points present a strong case for playing fish hard, and landing fish as quickly as possible. Far too many anglers have a tendency to baby the fish and play it for far longer than is necessary. Of course there are scenarios that call for more delicacy and finesse. For example when landing larger trout (around 16”+) or when a trout is hooked downstream of the angle. Even if the fish is hooked at a long distance (say 45’ and beyond). However with the day-to-day fishing on medium sized rivers, there’s no strong case against quick fights.
Personally, when a trout is hooked within 30’ of where I’m standing, I try to have it in the net within 15 seconds. Such practices are better for ensuring fish survival. The fish build up less lactic acid, and are less exhausted when they are released. Over time, as an angler learns to play their fish more quickly, it will result in more fish to the net and a more enjoyable fishing experience.
Ed Mulhern began fly fishing in middle school and is entering his fourth year on the U.S. competitive circuit. He received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Colorado School of Mines in 2014. Ed currently works for a software company in Denver.