How do I hook and play a fish? Especially a good one? This ought to be simple, right?
OK, we’re making progress! You have now acquired your equipment, got it properly rigged and selected the fly or flies you intend to use to start the day. Then, on your fifth cast of the day, you get a strike. Now what? We’re going to talk a bit about what to do next. As with several other considerations it makes a difference whether you are fishing flowing or flat water. And if flowing water, how you are rigged up and fishing.
Let’s say you are bank fishing or wade fishing in the river. And you are drifting a nymph rig by casting more or less straight across the current and letting the current carry it downstream. You are then stripping the rig briskly upstream as you prepare for another cast. Typically, but not always [there are few “always” things in fly fishing] the fish will take your fly near the end of the swing, but fish don’t read the same books we do and sometimes they hit it as we’re stripping back in. This is the scenario where the hook set plays an important part. I’d be embarrassed to tell you the numbers of fish I’ve missed because somehow my instinct is to do the wrong thing on the hook set. What we should do is based on what the fish are likely doing. In flowing water, fish are going to be holding headed upstream. This is natural because their food comes drifting down to them. For some crazy reason I got started making my hook sets upstream – frequently pulling my hooks away from fish rather than hooking them securely. When fishing flowing water set the hook toward the bank or otherwise across the current. I almost said “always” because in most situations this will result in a good hookup. And if as I indicated above, you happen to get one of those crazy fish that is chasing your fly as you strip it upstream, it is very important to set the hook at an angle to the current so as to not pull it out of the fish’s grasp.
OK, you’ve successfully hooked a fish. Now what? Assuming you want to bring him to hand [or net], how do you accomplish this? I’m going to assume that you have obtained a reel that has a good drag built in. I’m going to also assume that you set the drag tight enough so that it takes you a fair amount of strength to pull line off the reel, but loose enough that the fish can take line. Another personal aside: When I got really into fishing around here, I would sometimes tell my friends who had fancy [expensive] reels that if it weren’t for embarrassing myself and them I’d just duct tape a Budweiser can to the handle of my rod and wrap the line on it. And that would actually work on small fish. But on the size fish we are likely to encounter, having a drag set to the proper amount of tension is super important. Isn’t Wyoming wonderful!
If you are with one of our guides, as soon as you get your fish on, you’ll hear him/her say, “Get him on the reel!” This gives you much more control, especially of that fish in excess of 14-15”. If you are unsure of the size of your fish [and this mostly comes only from experience], go ahead and get him on the reel. If you are pretty sure it isn’t a very big fish, don’t worry about the reel and just strip line in and let it fall at your feet. Hold your rod tip up or off to the side so that the flex in the rod does the work of keeping the fish under control. If you don’t keep tension on the fish that way, you will soon have a story about the one that got away. Under no circumstances hold the rod down so it is pointed at the fish; that’s a guaranteed way to lose a fish. If possible you want to get the fish out of the fast water. Do that by holding the rod to the side if you need to move the fish. As the fish gets tired it will allow you to keep taking line and eventually get him in. As soon as you are able to briefly hold his head out of the water, he is pretty much your fish. If you have a net, slide the net under the fish at this point. If you’re lucky you may have a fishing partner to handle the net. This is especially handy in a boat, or when you’re dealing with a good sized fish. Assuming you intend to release the fish, keep it in the water as much as possible as you remove the barbless hook and take a picture.
I just told someone that I try to keep these pieces at a single page. So: To be continued.
I’ve got to rig up a rod for our float trip tomorrow. Hope to see you on the water!