Eight Rules for Fighting Big Fish on Fly

This article could easily be named “How to avoid breaking a fishing rod and pissing off your guide”.  Most fishermen do not run into fish with that kind of power on a regular basis, unless they are fishing in Florida, or for blue water fish (pelagics like tuna and marlin).  The average bass or trout does not have that kind of raw power, and as a result, most people never learn (through trial and error) what does and does not work.

Here are eight rules to keep in mind when fighting those kind of fish, and after my recent trip in South Florida, I was reminded that following these will keep you from losing that fish of a lifetime, and maybe your favorite rod, too.

Rule #1:  Do not “trout set”.

If the fish lives in the brine, strip strike.  Jab it a few times.  Do not raise your rod sky high.  If you somehow get lucky enough to have set the hook (unlikely with a weak hookset), a fish with a motor will jerk your rod down, or potentially snap the rod tip on its first run.

Rule #2:  Use the reel.

If you insist on hand-lining in a strong fish, you are much more likely to break a rod, your line, or your knots.  The dexterity with which you can pay out and take in line this way is not sufficiently reactive with strong, fast fish.  Use the reel.  It’s why you spent so damn much for it.

Rule #3:  Put the rod in the water.

If the fish is near the boat, and deep, lower the rod tip into the water before pumping the fish up.  Everyone knows you pump the rod, then lower it and reel in the line.  When fish are deep, you must point the rod at the fish underwater, and then pump the rod.  This gives you the strongest angle to fight the fish.  If the fish is under the boat and runs toward the other side, do the same thing – even if it means putting four or five feet of your rod into the drink.

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Excellent rod angle after setting the hook.  Note that the rod tip does not extend above the angler’s head, and applies maximum leverage to the fish.

Rule #4:  Never raise the rod above your head. 

As in Rule #3, you need to think about the strongest angles to fight the fish at.  If you point the rod at the fish, and raise the rod 45 degrees, this constitutes the highest you should raise your rod at that point in the fight.  As the fish moves higher in the water column, or if you are fishing a flat, you can raise your rod a little bit higher.  That said, a good rule of thumb is to not raise the rod tip above your head.

Rule #5:  Clear the line, OK?

You know the hand signal for “OK”?  Take your thumb and pointer fingers and touch their tips together around the fly line.  When the fish runs, your line will fly off the floor of the boat/surface of the water and through that circle.  If overlapping loops of line wrap around each other and try to go through your rod’s guides, they may bind and shatter the rod.  The circle made with your fingers will encourage overlapping loops to separate, and feed evenly through the rod.

Rule #6:  Follow the fish NOW!

So you are fighting your first tuna, and he is working you around the back of the boat.  Getting your rod, and line, around those motors is going to be tricky, so don’t give the fish the advantage – beat him to the punch.  If he is first around the motors and to the other side of the boat, you are playing catch up, your line likely is angled against the motors’ propellers, and you may break the fish on the motors, or break your rod as the fish pulls it tight to those outboards.

Rule #7:  Watch where you step.

When that fish gets stuck, he is going to run.  And when he does, if you are standing on the line, one of two things will happen.  Option #1:  Your line or knots break, and the fish swims away.  Option #2:  Your line and knots do not break (good work there) but the force of the fish’s run pulls your rod tight to the boat gunwale, causing it to break.

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Tuna at the boat.  Note the slack line out on the water.  If the fish gets free from the leader-man, you’ll need that time to get back into position.

Rule #8:   Once leadered, strip out some line.

When your fish gets near the boat, and you or your buddy have “leadered” him (grabbed the fly line leader to control the fish), strip out 10-15 feet of line onto the deck.  If the leader-man has to let the line go (usually because the fish had some fight left), that 10 feet of line will give you enough play to get the rod back into a fighting position, with a low rod tip/strong angle.  If you don’t do this, it is extremely likely that a poor leader job will result in a broken rod.



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