Trans-Angler: Old habits

Trouble getting stuck
largemouth bass on fly
Photo: Cameron Rhodes

In the journey to refinement of my piscatorial pursuits, I’ve fundamentally changed everything I knew regarding, rods, reels, casting, lures, and giving life to lures. Casting was the first hurdle and, though there are still acres of room for improvement, laying a fly in the water is not the voodoo art I once thought it was. Even the dreaded Clousers are becoming more responsive. And I’ve started to experiment with different casts. Roll casts aren’t too tough as long as line is in the water, providing just the right amount of drag. I’ve even given the double haul a try or two with mixed (mostly bad) results.

Since that first cast in the water, I’ve never had a problem with imparting action to the fly by stripping line. This seems odd since twitching a rod tip is the only way I’ve known of enticing fish with lure since any time in memory. Even chuck-and-wind bass tactics with spinnerbaits and crankbaits got a shake or two on the retrieve. It was so second nature that I could rarely roast a hot dog over the campfire without involuntarily jiggling the hickory stick. But imparting dramatic darts and subtle shimmies by manipulating the line alone hasn’t been a problem.

The problem is that while my fly rod can make a popper dance like a showgirl, it hasn’t figured out how to set a hook.

A vertical lift of the rod tip, with varying degrees of ferocity, is how I know to set a hook. It’s engrained to the level of instinct — you feel a tug or see the line move, you take up slack and raise the rod tip. It always seemed cut and dried. The velocity and power with which you raise the rod are the variables, and it all depended on what you were fishing for. Bluegill and crappie require just a gentle yet sharp lift. Any more than that and the hook would often tear the thin mouth membranes (one nickname for crappie is “papermouth”). Bass and catfish require a bit more muscle. Setting the hook on one of those tough-mouthed brawlers involved a style best suited to pool-cue rods and 25-pound test line. When you do it right, your buddy says that you “crossed his eyes.” Your buddy is referring to the fish.

Crossing a fish’s eyes implies that you are using roughly three times the amount of force used to pull your old chainsaw to a sputtering start. It’s serious. This hook setting technique is also known as the “Bill Dance hookset.” Even trout guys know who Bill Dance is, right? Watching hours of Mr. Dance was a substantial chunk of my misspent, bass-crazy youth. I’ve performed hooksets with baitcasting tackle that have snapped line, rod tips and even seat pedestals in the boat. Hand to god, I’ve accidentally killed small bass with a hookset. But this is not a good tactic with a fly rod. It’s a worse tactic when you drop the line and grab the rod with both hands for a mighty heave. Like I said, it’s damn near instinctual.

A hard hookset isn’t in itself a bad thing on the fly rod. But the term “hard” is relative. It can’t be too hard nor too soft, and I’m having a hell of a time finding the sweet spot. Two of the bigger fly bass to date, both an estimated three pounds or better, quickly shook free, so too soft. I’ve had three leader breaks on hooksets, so too hard. And then, in what would seem a paradoxical impossibility, I realized I both set too hard and too soft on the same fish as my blue popper floated to the surface after I broke the leader on what was surely a five-pound bass.

It is worth noting that no angler has ever lost a bass under three pounds and most were substantially larger. Three pounds, multiple studies have revealed, is the minimum weight required for a bass to shake free or bust line.

Poppers are the worst. My hooking ratio with poppers is somewhere south of 30 percent. A big bass rolling up on that foam and feather covered hook is unnerving, and in those adrenaline-fueled situations is where I revert to primal impulses. Big bass have always done that to me. It’s the fight or flight mechanism in action, and it transforms me into a bumbling mess while in the presence of most any finned, feathered or furred critter.

I’m discovering that with every aspect involved in catching fish on a six-weight fly rod, brute force is never the answer. Thoughtful finesse is the key. I think the answer in this situation is a swift strip with the left hand and a sweeping yet firm rod lift with the right. I have read that some fly anglers prefer a vertical rod lift for bass or that it all depends on the type of fly in use, but it’s still a sweeping as opposed to jarring maneuver.

There are times when I get it right. Though, it often seems more like an accident, like the bass hooked themselves (there may well be hints of a solution in this thought). But consistent success with staying stuck to a fish eludes me.

It’s apparent that I need to explore suggested tactics and my own theories a bit more. So as the sun slowly slips behind post oaks and pines this afternoon, I’ll be slipping off to the pond for more research.


If you are just fishing bass you could just run straight 15+ lb test as your leader. That might help with the break offs and hook sets. Make sure your hooks are sharp too.

Great article. Just landed my first bass on the fly yesterday and I'm sure that the hook set and subsequent fight to land was the most adrenaline packed few moments of the catch. Thanks for the tip in strip and lift - I'm pretty sure I understood the sweeping hook set, but adding a line stripping move will increase the chance of a successful catch.

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