When I first took up fly fishing I quickly came to realise that one of the great differences between coarse fishing and game fishing is the tremendous energy with which a trout or salmon will fight compared to most other species of fish. Of course there are some coarse fish which will give a good account of themselves but there is no doubt that, pound for pound, nothing really compares to a game fish for its energetic and acrobatic attempts to escape the fisherman's hook. Even after years of catching roach, chub, barbel and assorted varieties of river fish I was stunned by the power of the desperate fight that my first trout gave me. And at the time I wasn't even fishing for trout.
I had been bouncing a worm along the bottom of a small swift flowing river in Canada, where I was living at the time. I was expecting to catch the Canadian equivalent of a barbel, unromantically called a sucker fish, which I knew lived in the river. Canadians in general don't fish for coarse fish, so my antics were viewed with some scepticism by the other fishermen. Instead of a sucker fish what I actually got was the fright of my life. Suddenly everything went solid and I thought my weight and hook had snagged behind a rock. I was mystified when my line started moving upstream against a strong current. "It shouldn't do that if the line is caught on a rock . . ." was my first thought. Suddenly the line changed direction and tore off downstream with me in pursuit. Wearing just Wellington boots I ended up wading through waist deep water while chasing my line. I still had no idea what was on my hook as it rushed back upstream and down again. All I could do was hold on.
I won't even try to pretend this was an exercise in expert management of a challenging situation - it was more a combination of heart stopping excitement and fear of the unknown. Eventually the fish tired and by then I was far from my landing net that had been lying on the shingle bank from where I had started this adventure. Soaked through, I clambered up the river bank and unceremoniously dragged the fish up behind me. I couldn't believe my eyes - a wild rainbow trout of about eight and a half pounds! I had never seen such a beautiful sight. Even the barbel of a similar weight that I used to catch on the River Severn had never put up a fight like that. I was hooked! I spent the next two years catching trout with a worm on that river. And at certain times of the year I had the added advantage of a salmon run to attack. My, those were tough times!
When I returned to live in the UK I put my rod away for a number of years. It wasn't until I saw those gentlemen fly fishing on a wonderful summer evening at a reservoir that I decided that I had to take up my rod and reel again. But this time it would be as a fly fisherman rather than as a coarse angler. Like most beginners I thrashed away at the water on several reservoirs with very little success. I now admit that I was spreading my visits over several venues to avoid the embarrassment of all those empty fish bags! But perseverance pays and I finally caught my first UK trout after about half a dozen attempts. It jumped like a well rehearsed acrobat, dived deeper than Red October, rushed under my boat, round my anchor rope and a host of other histrionic tactics to avoid me, but finally I got the better of it. I believe that it is the high from this adrenaline rush that makes the trout fisherman keep coming back for more.
Most of the other chapters in this Ebook are devoted to ways of catching your fish and what to catch it with. This one tells you how to make sure it ends up in the net rather than just as a tale of the one that got away.
An essential difference between fly fishing and coarse fishing is in the use of an artificial fly as opposed to a real bait. This has a fundamental effect on the way the fish will initially react. Whereas a normal bait will be what the fish expects and will attempt to swallow it, an artificial fly will have fooled the fish into taking it. But the fish will not be fooled for long once the fly is in its mouth. Normally, it will almost instantly try to spit it back out. This isn't too much of a problem when the fly is in motion, such as when retrieving a lure or streamer, because the act of retrieving the fly will effectively drive the hook home as the fish takes the fly into its mouth. However, it does present a challenge when the fly is static, such as when dry fly fishing.
The act of striking the hook home needs some examination. During retrieval the fly line comes through the last rod ring and should be hooked over the index finger of the rod hand. The line is then controlled and retrieved by the other hand but should always remain hooked over the rod hand's index finger. When a fish takes the fly the instinctive reaction is to clench the line against the rod with the index finger and simply lift the rod into the strike. This is what happens in coarse fishing. But in fly fishing this may not be enough action to set the hook, especially if static dry fly fishing, when there may be a curve in the floating line sitting on the water caused by the action of the wind or the current. I find the most effective way to strike is to haul down on the fly line with my retrieving hand at the same time as lifting the rod before cinching off the line with my index finger. This additional action pulls in any excess line and ensures a firm strike.
The time you take to strike the hook home when dry fly fishing must be just right. The temptation is to strike just as the fish makes its first splashy attack on the fly. But this is too soon and the fish will not have taken the fly completely into its mouth, resulting in the fly simply being pulled away from the fish. Strike too late and the fish will already have realised the error of its ways and spat the fly back out. The rule of thumb when dry fly fishing is to count to three before striking. That's a lot to ask when a fish swirls and finally takes your fly after what could have been hours of frustratingly little activity. That brief pause is what differentiates the successful fly fisherman with a bag full of fish from the empty handed angler with a mouthful of curses!
Once you have hooked your fish the fun really begins. It is probable that you will have a lot of fly line lying on the ground, in the bottom of the boat or in your line tray. This is the result of retrieving the line prior to hooking the fish. You must make a conscious decision whether you intend to play your fish by hand, in which case the excess line can stay where it is, or whether you choose to play your fish with the reel, in which case this excess line must be quickly wound back onto the reel. For the uninitiated, playing the fish by hand means avoiding the use of the reel completely and letting the line slide through your fingers when the fish runs and hauling the line back in when the fish tires or runs towards you. Again, the index finger of the rod hand is used to clamp the line against the rod handle while hauling the line in.
Whichever way you choose to fight your fish, this is a critical moment because the time taken to reel in this excess line is time you are not actually concentrating your full efforts on fighting the fish. Equally, if you choose to play the fish by hand then this excess line left lying around represents a hazard in that it can get stepped on or tangled and caught in the rod rings if the fish runs hard. Either way has its risks. Normally I choose to play the fish by hand, only using the reel if the fish is a very large one which has run and already taken out the excess line, in which case winding it onto the reel is then a part of playing the fish rather than a separate event. And using the reel to play a large fish has the added advantage of having the reel’s clutch available.
If you choose to play the fish with the aid of the reel the best way to get this extra line back onto the reel where it belongs is to trap the line going into the rod rings against the rod butt with your index finger as previously described and then thread the line hanging down from the reel between your little finger and ring finger of the same hand and squeeze these two fingers gently together so that the line has some tension on it as it is wound on to the reel. You may need to delay this activity while you give the fish some line as it tries to run. This really is a case of multi-tasking and you may have no choice but to play the fish by hand until you have some degree of control over it before you have the time to wind that excess line onto the reel.
Whichever way you choose to retrieve the line or play the fish the cardinal rule is to never, ever let the line go slack. You should always have a good bend in you rod to apply pressure to the fish. This pressure ensures that the hook stays embedded in the fish. The hook will only come out if there is slackness in the connection between you and the fish. Some fish are not as stupid as you might think. I have had some fish that make a concerted attempt to run straight towards me in an effort to create slack line because I could not retrieve the line as fast as they were running towards me. I will admit that a few of them got the better of me with this tactic. This is one reason why I prefer to play the fish by hand. There is no doubt that you can haul line in much faster than you can wind it onto a reel.
A fishing rod under pressure has a natural curve, which represents the optimum amount of force that can be applied through it. Any more pressure will not bend the rod any further but will be transmitted straight through the rod and into the line. You will quickly come to understand this tensioning of the rod and you should avoid trying to use more force than this natural curve. This is because that extra force places more and more strain directly onto the leader. The rod is a shock absorber and this extra strain will cancel this cushioning effect of the rod. Any extra kick from the fish will almost certainly result in a broken leader and a lost fish. Let the rod do the work for you. If you reach this point of maximum pressure then let the fish run The only time you should ignore this advice is when the fish is running towards a hazard such as a log, reed bed or similar line of escape, in which case applying excess pressure will probably be the only way you may catch the fish.
The object of the exercise is to get the fish to the net as quickly as possible, thereby minimising the stress placed on the fish. This is even more important if you intend to release the fish after it has been netted. As I mentioned above, use the rod to apply the maximum amount of pressure to the fish by keeping the rod bent to its optimum at all times and lifting the rod high into the air will mean there is less line actually in the water. Less pressure is placed on line that is in the air rather than in the water, so you have a more direct contact with the fish. If the fish swims off to one side drop the rod to the opposite side so that the rod is parallel to the surface of the water and a straight line between you and the fish is maintained. This is especially useful if the fish is trying to run towards a hazard such as a fish cage, buoy rope or underwater obstruction.
Moving the rod to the opposite side in this way places a great amount of side strain on the line which acts to turn the fish's head away from its direction of travel. Once you have the fish in open water then relax a little and let the fish do the work. Within reason it can run where it likes in open water. This will allow the fish to tire itself out without your assistance. After all, the fish isn't going anywhere now you've got it under control. Remember, big fish didn't get to be big fish by being stupid. They will know where every underwater hazard is and how to use your anchor rope as a rubbing strip to rid itself of your hook. Play the fish at the opposite end of the boat to the anchor rope if at all possible.
Most fish will give up and come to the surface when they've had enough. Get your landing net ready and submerge it in the water before the fish gets too close. Splashing around with a net with the fish in close proximity will scare the fish into another run, probably straight into the side of the net which will most likely snag the hook and pull it out of the fish. Keep the net buried in the water and gently draw the fish over it, lifting the net when the fish is in the correct position. Most inexperienced anglers want to then lift the whole net and fish straight out of the water. This puts a huge strain on the landing net handle and I really have seen one fold in half and break under this pressure. It is better to slide the net over the surface of the water towards you, which will have the effect of closing the top of the net as it moves. If you are using a long handled net then slide the handle up behind you so that you end up holding the frame of the net and use this to lift the net and the fish out of the water.
If you are returning the fish to the water then it is not necessary to remove the fish from the net. It can be unhooked while still in the landing net, which can then be simply returned to the water and turned inside out by rotating the handle. The fish is then free to swim away. If you are practising "catch and release", where the fish is returned to the water to fight another day, then you should ensure that all your flies are made with barbless hooks. This makes the task of unhooking the fish infinitely easier, ensures minimal damage to the fish itself and on some waters barbless hooks are mandatory. If you buy your flies and they come with barbed hooks you can use a small pair of pliers or your forceps to close the gap between the barb and the shank of the hook. Some say that you are more likely to lose a fish if you are using a barbless hook, but I believe that proper management of the fish while you are fighting it, ensuring that constant pressure is applied to the fish, will make it unlikely that the hook will fall out. Just remember to keep a bend in that rod!
If you need to weigh or photograph your catch then you will have to handle the fish. Make sure you have thoroughly wetted your hands before making contact with the fish. A dry hand will remove the natural slime from the fish and dislodge its scales. I often just hold the fish from outside of the landing net, using its wet mesh as a barrier between my hand and the fish. This gives a firmer hold on the fish as well as avoiding the need to remove it from the net. Use your forceps to remove the hook if this cannot be done easily by hand. Occasionally you will have a fish that has swallowed the fly completely. It is doubtful that this fish will survive and it should be dispatched as quickly as possible with a sharp blow to the head with your priest. Returning a fish to the water to fight another day is more than just unceremoniously dumping it back in the water. A little respect is due a creature that has given so much to you. Hold it in the water by supporting it under its belly and let it get its breath back (so to speak).
If it is having difficulty working its gills then gently draw it back and forth in the water, forcing the water through its gills. In running water this is just a case of holding the fish with its head pointing upstream so that the water naturally flows over its gills. Most fish will recover after a moment or two and kick out of your hands and away.
Always clean up immediately after you have caught a fish, so that everything is clean and ready to use when the next bite comes along. It's all about pride in what you do and how you do it. And about having lots of fun too!