Fifty Tips Tips/Tactics

Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #46 — Fight Big Fish Upstream

June 17, 2018

Midday. High sun and an overpowering heat. I stalked the banks of a large Montana river with my Border Collie at my side. I mirrored his Shepard’s crouch: low, with my head forward, almost crawling through the dry sage brush.

We paused strategically under each thick Douglas Fir, not only for a break from the unrelenting sun, but for a real chance at deception. The large wild trout, it seemed, were at the moment, predictable — laying close to the banks (sometimes within inches), and waiting for the next overhead meal from a hapless hopper or any other random terrestrial occurrence. The evergreen limbs provided the shade for true cover — our only opportunity for real stealth.

I’d already landed a few Whiskeys on this trip, but I was on the prowl for a truly world-class trout, one that would need a name. And somewhere around 2:00 in the afternoon, my luck took a turn. I spotted the rising trout from fifty yards. And as I slid into position downstream, I saw him rise again, in the blanket shade of another enormous, half-dead Douglas Fir.

Mr. Trout was right where he was supposed to be. And on the first cast, he ate my #10 Humpy.

Fifteen seconds, one-hundred yards and a heart wrenching pop later, my connection to the trout of a lifetime was severed.

The mistake was all mine, and I knew it immediately. Any honest assessment would reveal the truth — that I let the huge brown trout get downstream of me far too easily, and I never recovered. For that matter, I never even attempted it. I stood there flat footed after the hook set, holding on in awe as my trout broke the surface with tarpon-like acrobatics, not once but twice. With the trout still far upstream of my own position in the river, that was my moment for action, but I didn’t move. Instead, the big wild brown, well over two feet, reentered the water like an olympic diver with its head down — streamlined. It shot through the surface with full momentum, dove to the bottom and set a course far downstream, into the middle of the wide, wide river.

And even then, I didn’t move. My inexperience got the best of me. I’d never had anything so powerful connected to a fishing line. I held the rod high, hoping the trout would change his mind, praying that he would turn and come back to me.

Eventually, fifteen seconds after the hook set, I watched the end of my fly line pull the white dacron backing through my rod guides. And after a few nervous moments, I finally tried to put on the breaks. Palming the spool of my click-and-pawl reel felt hopeless, but I tried it anyway. Against the force of the trout and the full length of my fly line in heavy current, with it all tied together at the end of 4X nylon, there was truly no chance. I held the rod high, tried to muscle the trout to the surface, and felt an incredible force break into nothingness.

— — — — — —

I can fairly say that I’ve never made the same mistake again. Oh sure, I’ve lost many other large trout in countless other ways, but never again have I let a trout get downstream of my position — not without fighting against it, anyway.

I realized that the biggest key to playing and landing large fish is to keep them upstream.

So when I hook a fish that I surely want to net, I do everything I can to stay downstream of the trout. That afternoon in Montana, I should have jumped up on the bank and run downstream with the trout. I certainly had the open bank space.

At the upstream angle, and with low side pressure on the rod, a trout is fighting both the current and the force of the flexed fly rod. Fish tire quickly this way. With the fish up and across stream, the angler can more easily pull the fish off balance, so the angler has greater control over where the fish will go next.

Where does it go? Right into my net. I keep the fish above my position and get within netting distance. Then I lift the trout close to the surface and slide the net underneath.

It’s much easier to net a fish by letting the current push and drift the trout back into your waiting net than to try to pull it back upstream, against the current. Stay downstream of the fish.

Remember, the worst of all possible worlds is having a large trout directly downstream of your rod tip, because the fish isn’t fighting your rod at all. Instead, you’re just fighting the weight of the fish in the current. Worse yet, the pressure on the fly is directly upstream and out of the trout’s mouth. It’s a heartbreak waiting to happen. Trust me.

Photo by Chris Kehres

Photo by Chris Kehres

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky




Read All of the Fifty Tips Series

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This is one you can carve into stone. If you can position yourself directly below the fish, they will usually run upstream instead of down, fighting you and the current. There is no worse feeling (in fishing) than knowing you have little to no chance of landing the trophy you just hooked. Let em run downstream and that voice in your head will almost always be right.

Terry H

Awesome tip Domenick. I have lost a couple big Whiskeys myself in the last couple weeks and have been searching for tips/advice. Great sight and helpful info! Keep posting it. Thanks.
Terry H

I’ll be keeping this tip in the back pocket the next time I hit the stream in Yosemite later this year.

Nothing is worse than letting a few fish get away…now I know to keep directly below the fish and let them fight me upstream.


Two Saturday’s in-a-row I’ve lost big fish that ran upstream! I panicked even though it was the best of the two scenarios of up or downstream. Both fish took off like freight trains. My first move was to hold the rod high. Then I tried to crank up the drag pressure, but kept missing the drag. that is when both fish unhooked themselves. Let’s face it, my drag is set quite loose since I don’t encounter big fish too often. What steps should I have taken to try and land the fish? Please enlighten me?
The Best,

Domenick Swentosky

Hi. I'm a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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