Last season some time, a friend of mine and I were headed back to our cars from one of our favorite holes on the Farmington River. We were walking riverside when we came upon a young man who was hooked into a very large brown trout. He was very quiet and intensely focused. He did not want to lose this fish. My friend and I each commented on how nice the fish was and, as we both started walking away, heard the kid groan and subsequently blame us for "jinxing" his ability to land a fish he had evidently been fighting for ten minutes. My friend and I felt bad for the kid. It was, without doubt, a very nice fish. I didn’t want to be the one to tell him that it was his technique, and not our compliments, that caused him to lose that fish.
Over the years and after much time spent on the water, I have come to a realization about how important it is to properly apply pressure when fighting a fish. I have also noticed just how many anglers haven't yet come to this same realization. I expect this is because most of us started out fighting fish the way I did. In fact, many anglers and even guides will happily provide this instruction. Fighting fish took place by keeping the rod high whether you were facing down stream or not. Sure, I landed my share of fish, but I would lose quite a few as well. I learned quickly just how important it is to apply pressure from the side when playing a fish. It will help keep more fish on and increase your fish-to-net ratio.
This brings me back to the young man. During his battle with the large brown, he was fighting the fish very tight and close into himself as he was facing downstream. With his rod bent over, almost in half, he was giving the fish all the advantage in the world and it was the fish, not he, who was controlling the fight. He was fighting the fish with the tip of the rod -- which is the weakest part of the rod -- instead of using the butt section -- which is the strongest part of the rod. I would venture to say that the majority of the time one does what this young man did, they are either going to snap the tippet or the hook is going pop out.
When I hook into a fish, I first keep the rod high and begin stripping in line. Within seconds, you are going to have an idea of what that fish is going to do (i.e. head up stream, head down stream, or just tussle in place). Here are a few likely scenarios. Scenario one: if I am standing in the river facing the far bank and the river is flowing downstream to my right, if the fish gets down below me, I immediately drop the rod on an angle to my left applying side pressure. Scenario two: same situation but the river is flowing downstream to my left, I drop the rod to my right on an angle applying side pressure. If, when the fish is downstream and you are applying side pressure to either the left or right, the fish decides to go the other way, simply drop your rod to the other side, continuing to apply side pressure. For example, if you are applying side pressure to the left and the fish decides to go to your right, drop your rod over to the right continuing the side pressure. Scenario three: if the fish decides to head upstream and stays upstream of you, whether upstream on the right or left, I still drop my rod on an angle to the right or left to apply side pressure. I am letting the butt section of the rod do the work not the tip of the rod and in all the scenarios, that is the key.
Another tactic you can use when applying side pressure is what I call ,“walking the dog.“ When applying the side pressure, slowly move your rod upstream. As you do this, the fish obviously is heading upstream as well. Sort of like, well, walking your dog. You are leading the fish where you want him to go, as this will help position the fish slightly above you. Once the fish is in position, lift the rod straight up and in doing so, the fish is lifted to the top and the current can easily lowered downstream where your net awaits.
Use the rod to your advantage and take control of the situation. Don’t let the fish manipulate you. Now, that doesn’t mean the fish isn’t going to take you for a ride by jumping out of the water, making big head shakes, long runs deep into your line and possibly backing, so on and so on. You want that. That’s the good stuff. However, staying in control of the fight instead of letting the fish take control will make the difference between landing that fish or losing him.
Jim Plante is a avid fly fisherman and guide on the Housatonic and Farmington Rivers in Connecticut. You can read Jim's guide bio here.