Hook set

When trout fishing, one should ignore the 'no trout sets' mentality
idaho small stream
Photo: Mike Sepelak

The point was sharp as a tack. That wasn’t the problem. The foam hopper floated just fine, its hook angled properly, and my light hangover was just a dull buzz in the background and had no appreciable effect on my reflexes. So why was I missing fish after fish, hookset after hookset?

It had to be the rod, the wiggly little nuthin’ of fiberglass I was waving. A light breeze, it seemed, might double it over. It felt like a toy. I’d spent the previous seven months with broomstick-stiff 9wts in my hand, throwing eighty-foot sight shots, and repeating the phrase “No Trout Sets” like a mantra. Louisiana winter reds. Spring stripers and waterwolf musky. Michigan summertime carp. This small stream autumn trout fishing with a noodly 3wt was a completely different proposition. I felt, emasculated.

I think it’s fair, at this point, that I should admit that I’m not much of a trout fisherman. I lean more towards plying big waters for big fish with big guns. I recently gave a presentation to a nearby FFF chapter entitled “Fly Fishing Does NOT Mean Trout Fishing” (the reception was understandably mixed) and I practice what I preach. I hadn’t chased the dainty species in over a year.

But the opportunity to spend a week with a good buddy, backcountry camping in Idaho cutthroat territory, was too good to pass up, even if it meant fishing for salmonids. At least it was hopper season and we wouldn’t be nymphing (I’d rather go to the dentist for a couple of root canals than dredge a stonefly all day) and it did give me a legitimate excuse to get another new fly rod. I acquired a cute little cream-colored retro-stick, a 7-foot 3wt so slow that it made me giggle when I strung it up the first time. It seemed to bounce in my hand on its own accord. This, I decided, would take some getting used to.

And it did. Dropping a hopper twenty feet away is a quantum leap from bombing out casts and my natural inclination towards tight loops and double-hauls took some serious suppression. I looked like the shadow caster from A River Runs Through It, without the control. But the missed hooksets… They were the worst.

It occurred to me, eventually, that when trout fishing one should probably ignore the “No Trout Sets” mentality. Genius. My strip striking on upstream presentations was doing little more than tightening unmended slack (another concept foreign to my world) and my short sidearm hookset did nothing but wiggle the noodle a little. It’s no wonder that fish weren’t staying buttoned. Well-honed reactions are hard to break. I’ve watched enough trout fisherman struggle in the salt to know that. Now the boot was on the other foot.

So I relaxed. A crisp Fall day in the Idaho highlands can be as peaceful as a warm Spring one on a Bahamian marl, just different. Different like Coors and Kalik, bare feet and well-worn waders, lightning rods and wiggly sticks. I stopped fixating on my failures, opened my senses (and my loops), and let my wrist and forearm do the work instead of my shoulder. I used my right brain instead of my left and the fiberglass responded.

I pictured my hooksets as sending thank yous to the heavens, straight and high, rather than ramming the point home and it elevated my success rate and, more importantly, my mood. I still missed a few too many fish but I didn’t care quite so much. Most surprisingly, we came to terms, the noodle and I, despite all our differences.

More than that, I was reminded of what brought me to this sport. The tight Appalachian trickles of my past resurfaced and the delicate presentations and stealth required to fool the mountain stream’s jewels began to come back to me. The fiberglass returned me to good times, like running into an old girlfriend, and I spent a delightful week getting reacquainted with my fly fishing past. At the end of it all, I had to admit it. Trout fishing really isn’t all that bad.

Don’t tell my musky buddies.

Author’s Note: The “old girlfriend” was a new Redington Butter Stick and I had an absolute blast with it. Smooth as its namesake and as light as an angel’s kiss. Watch for a more complete review (by a real trout fisherman) here soon.