Fighting Big Fish — Work with a trout and not against it

by | Mar 31, 2019 | 14 comments

Day six on the water. Given the timing (end of March, pleasant weather) and considering the tendencies of cabin fever fishermen, I knew I should think outside the box to find any solitude. So I managed a pre-dawn alarm and brewed strong black coffee to open my eyes, to kick-start some motivation at the chemical level. Meat on bread, water bottles filled, rods loaded, truck packed, garage door up and headlights burning into the dark morning, I set out on a Saturday adventure. Within forty minutes of the ringing alarm, I crested the second of three mountains. And on the other side, I saw the first sliver of sunrise from the east.

The river was wide. With high water that hadn’t really fallen since last October, the habits of anglers had forced them to avoid this river for the last six months. But the color was good. And clarity is what matters. It was running a foot above average, but how could anyone argue with the deep green of this limestone flow? The presence of Blue Winged Olives every day was agreeable as well. They’d been hatching for nearly a month, and I’d run into good action the last time I was in this steep valley, seven days ago.

The volume knob on this section always impresses me.  And I noted again the roar of heavy water against the silence of the adjoining evergreens, as I pushed through the last of the hemlock saplings. It’s a gorgeous contrast.

Sliding in against the backside of a large boulder, I settled into the cushion and enjoyed some relief from the heavy currents that I’d waded through to reach the middle of the river. Sure, trout are at the edges in high water like this, but last night I had just one spot in mind when I decided on this piece of river. And finally it was in front of me.

Twenty feet bank side, a large fallen oak lay broken in two. The upper half with the branches was carried downstream years ago, floating along somewhere to tangle among the roots of an outside bend, I suppose. But the lower half, an oak trunk the width of a whiskey barrel was partnered with a massive chunk of limestone, forming a shelter that has lasted for decades. As long as I’ve fished here, the trunk hole has persisted, and it will likely outlast my own time in this place.

So after a full week of reminiscing, and everything it took to get here, I was back at the trunk hole. I settled into the familiar spot like an easy conversation with an old friend. As I began to cast, the stiffness in my right arm relaxed into usefulness. My body strengthened and gained inspiration from the river. I consciously probed the watery depths with a tight line and a crossover-streamer approach, while my mind wandered into memories of the trunk hole. I cycled through the filmstrip of good fish and good times, both alone in the currents and with the friends and family of years past.

Then a new memory happened . . . .

I always expect larger trout from the trunk hole, but this one truly surprised me. I needed only the resistance against my hook set to know what I was into. The largest wild brown I’ve seen here for a handful of seasons dashed downstream against the sting of the hook point. He raced past, and I stripped hard to stay tight and provide him no slack. Then I followed.

Wading downstream in raging pocket water, I stayed in a narrow stall (the seam formed by the rock I’d been stationed behind). I hurried toward the wild trout across thirty feet of rocks and gravel. And as he surged against my flexing rod, I held the tip high to keep extra line off the water — just not so high as to force the trout to the top.

All these big-fish fighting lessons I’ve learned the hard way, and by now they’re ingrained enough to be natural reactions. By walking toward the big trout, I maintained some angle of side pressure. With extra line off the water I stayed in direct contact with him rather than fighting also the weight of a long fly line in the current. And by keeping him under the surface I allowed this large trout to have his first hard run as I retained some control, with at least a minor influence over his next decision.

After the initial surge and downstream run, my big trout turned. He was forty feet below me and angled to the far bank. I was in no position to wade much further without going for a swim, but I needed the trout above my position — upstream — so I could finish the fight and land him quickly. At the critical moment when he slowed, my trout and I worked out an agreement.

Instead of pulling hard against him, I allowed him to swim upstream. Keeping in contact, I coaxed him along, back through the pockets and under the whitewater, until he was near the trunk hole again. When permitted such a leash, trout often attempt a return to the same place where they were hooked. And when the big trout swam upstream of my position again, I was back in control of the fight. With side pressure and low rod angles, I worked him hard and fast, until I easily backed him downstream into the waiting net.

As the wide tail of my biggest wild brown trout this year slid from my fingers, I watched his long form swim back into the deepest greens of the trunk hole. I chuckled a little as I replayed the memories of some larger fish that were not so efficiently landed. Years ago, I didn’t understand fish fighting principles. I simply pulled and hoped for the best — all too often reaching an unhappy ending and chalking it up to bad luck.

These days I know better. And I landed that trout because I worked with him and not against him. More specifically, I kept his head down and allowed him to return upstream, where I could then fight him hard and fast.

Oftentimes, trout cooperate this way if given the chance. Other times the only thing you can do is hold on and hope, while chasing them down.

Fish hard, friends.


** Here are two more Troutbitten articles on fighting big fish. Eventually, Fighting Big Fish will become a series, and I’ll post it in the top menu for easy access. Cheers. **

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

READ: Troutbitten | Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #9 — Fight Fish Fast


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky



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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

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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  1. Very nice writing and the imparting some wisdom I am just beginning to understand when fighting (dancing with?) large trout. Kudos!

  2. Great advice. Also works with the wife.

  3. Damn, that’s one fine fish! And a great story and lesson too. Kudos!

  4. Some years back John Miller of the West Branch Angler showed me how to coax a big fish back upstream by dipping the rod tip under the water and easing it along. This has helped me a number of times with fish I could not chase. He suggested that by not forcing a fish’s head up toward the surface an angler could calm the fish and steer it to a better position. As Domenick notes, this kind of thing doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s a great help. I’ve only been presented with this advice twice–from John, and from Domenick, so it doesn’t seem to be commonly known, unless I’ve just not been paying attention often enough.

  5. Your tactic of working with a fish is the only way to survive an encounter with a crazed steelhead and big trout. Its sort of like dancing with your wife. You think your suppose to lead but sooner or later you realize she controls the floor. Treat every encounter as give and take or you will walk away empty handed. Patience !

    • I love it.

  6. Great writing and beautiful fish! I’d just add one tip that has worked for keeping good fish away from bad structure: instead of pulling harder on the rod to move a fish, try simply physically backing up while maintaining the same rod tension. It seems to coax the fish and gently glide him through the water without adding more head pressure and pissing him off.

    • Just look behind you before you walk backward! I’ve fallen this way a few times, ass over tee cups.

  7. I hook a good number of large wild brown trout within 10 to 15 feet of my casting position. Going toe to toe at close range on light tippet puts me on the losing end more often than I would like. Any advice would be appreciated.

    • Rick. I often fish very close to my casting position as well. But when I hook a decent fish I get him on the reel immediately and let him run a bit if he wants. Keep the trigger finger(rod hand) off the line, and let the fish take a little drag. No sense forcing him to stay close. It’s more fun when the big ones run a little anyway. As my boys love to shout: “HE’S PEELING DRAG!”


      • Thanks Dom. Advice taken; now I just have to fool one.


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