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A few summers ago, I had the good fortune to be in Glenwood Springs, Colorado fishing the local rivers for the first time. I started the day fishing the Frying Pan, then moved to the Roaring Fork. As I was on the way back to the hotel, I decided to cast a line into the fast moving current of the Colorado River. I tied on a large streamer, hoping to hook a trophy trout with a few final casts as my trip was coming to an end the next morning. As good fortune would have it, I felt the tug of a large trout and the battle began. The trout leaped from the water, and my heart began to race. What a fish! I was following all the rules: rod tip up, pressure on, no slack. In my anxiousness to land this magnificent fish however, I forgot the main points that I teach my students on a regular basis.
Knowing the rules of playing and landing a fish is one thing, knowing when to modify the rules makes all the difference in your success rate. The fly line was singing as it left the reel and the trout, carried by the swift current, was making its way downstream, and I was into the backing in an instant. I was running along the bank, up and over boulders as quickly as my, just turned 50, legs would carry me. I was trying to catch up to the fish so I could get him on the reel, but it was too late. The swift current and the 90 feet of line already down stream being lead by a trout going full steam ahead was too much for the tippet and before I knew it, the fish was gone. Still shaking with excitement and topped off with disappointment I began to think of what I had done wrong. It only took a minute before I thought to myself, “you must practice what you preach.”
As beginners, we learn some basic rules related to what we do after hooking the fish. But as I learned from my friend and mentor Floyd Franke, the successful fisherman goes on to learn when the rules need to be modified or even broken.
Rule 1- Keep the Rod Tip Up
By keeping the rod tip up, you are able to use the rod to absorb the shock of the fish as you are playing it. The most efficient position is when the handle of the rod is held at a right angle to the fish. But keeping the rod tip up isn’t always the best idea. If a strong fish is diving deep, keeping rod up and pulling the fish to the surface will result in a fish thrashing violently. He hasn’t tired out, and the last place he wants to be is out of the water, so he will most likely break the line. However, the rod can still be used as a shock absorber by keeping the 90 degree angle and simply changing the plane. In other words, move the rod side to side. This serves to turn the head of the fish, disorient them and throw them off balance. Another example of when the rod tip should be lowered is when the fish jumps from the water. It’s best to lower the rod tip, or bow to the fish. This reduces the pressure on the line so, if the fish lands on the line, it won’t break it.
Rule 2- Keep the Pressure On
In general, keeping a certain amount of pressure on the fish is the right approach. However, pressure needs to be applied smoothly. A common error is not releasing the pressure as the fish begins to run. Holding tight will most likely break the fish off the line. How much pressure you will apply depends on the situation. At the beginning of the fight, the fish should be played gently. Too much pressure can weaken knots or cause the fish’s mouth to stretch where he has been hooked. So, let the fish move. The angler has the advantage when the fish is swimming upstream. The fish is fighting the current as well as the angler and so he will tire more quickly. When the fish is swimming downstream, just enough pressure should be put on the fish so you can move quickly below him. Once you are downstream of the fish, then you can apply additional pressure to turn his head and move him out of the current. But what happens if the fish is running downstream and you can’t move fast enough to get below him? This brings us to the modification of Rule 3 and where I made my mistake.
Rule 3- Don’t Give any Slack
The rationale behind this is that slack will cause the fly to lose its hold and fall out of the fish’s mouth. There is a chance this could happen, but it’s unlikely. The time to modify this rule is in a situation such as mine on the Colorado River. If I had been thinking clearly, I would have stripped off line from the reel quickly and thrown a roll cast below the fish. This would have caused the belly of the line to be caught by the current downstream of the fish, giving the sensation that I was standing downstream of him. The fish would have stopped and moved upstream towards me. This would have given me the chance to actually work myself below him as he was moving in my direction. I’ve played this over and over in my mind so many times, knowing the outcome would have been much different.
So, as you progress in your knowledge of fly fishing, work to expand beyond simply following the three rules of playing the fish. Understanding and practicing when to apply these rules and when they should be modified will increase your success rate and enable you to land that trophy trout. I can tell you from experience, actually doing it will result in a much better outcome.