Fighting Big Fish — Keep ‘Em Down

by | Jun 30, 2019 | 17 comments

Six years. From ‘03 to ‘09, I was in a rhythm. Rise early, fish into the afternoon, have dinner with my wife back home and then make money playing music. (I held steady gigs at many venues across the region.) I fished only weekdays and skipped the weekends. When I found a couple days off from the gigging routine, I traveled across Pennsylvania with a sleeping bag, a DeLorme atlas and a list of wild trout streams that I hadn’t yet hiked with a fly rod.

My Border Collie was a constant companion, and I needed nothing else. I lived out a dream I’d had since childhood — to fish for wild trout, day after day. And in those six years I put together the techniques for catching trout anywhere. I refined my skills and filled the gaps in my game. I learned these waters from bottom to top. And I experienced the challenges of trout fishing in a way that few anglers ever have, with unlimited time on the water.

In ‘03, my dry fly game was already strong. I’d spent the majority of my fishing life on small streams in western and central Pennsylvania, casting to trout in the mountain waters. And in the backcountry, you either learn to fish long loops in tight quarters, or you go home frustrated.

So I spent many of the next six years focused on nymphing tactics. And in ‘08, I fished streamers exclusively — nothing but the long flies for about twelve months. Five days a week, in every season, the calendar unfolded as I lived a life that any trout bum would agree with.

But after all those seasons, and after twenty-five years of chasing trout, I still struggled to land big fish. It took the Cicada event of ‘09 to give me the experience necessary. And I finally gained confidence in my fish fighting skills.

For six weeks during and after the seventeen-year Cicada emergence — just before my first son was born and my whole life changed — I had the best fishing of my life. With big dries on the surface and one large trout after another, it was like nothing else I’ve ever seen. I caught hundreds of apex trout in those few weeks. So many, in fact, that I learned to control a full steam locomotive in the river without thinking much about it.

I love these ugly bastards.

A top-tier river trout is a beast. The inherent nature of a river, with the endless obstacles, rocks, tree parts, current breaks, high gradient runs and undercut banks challenges the angler at every bend. So when you finally hook up with a Whiskey, a new game begins. It’s a match between trout and fisherman. Who will win that fight?

Bringing a trout to the net requires a series of accurate calculations, thoughtful moves and a good dose of luck. But with a few guiding principles and a bit of experience, you can minimize the luck required and get a good handle on the outcome. One of the best of those principles, is to keep ’em down . . .

**  “Fighting Fish” is a full and continuing series on Troutbitten. You can find all of these articles in  the main menu above, by following: Menu > Articles > Series> Fighting Fish. Or jump directly to the archives at the link below. Cheers. **

READ: Troutbitten |Category | Fighting Fish

Keep ‘Em Down

Your fly lands in a perfect shadowy seam, and you watch the current against the line. You’re half in control and half hoping for the perfect drift. A gold flash swirls underneath, and you set the hook. The momentum of that set brings the trout to the surface — and if the take is on a dry fly, the trout is already there.

Among the many following moves to get just right, perhaps the most important is to get the trout back under the water. Do it within the first few seconds. Trout don’t want to fight near the surface, but if you keep pulling, that’s where they’ll stay.

Allow the trout to dive. Try to fight it in the middle or lower third off the water column. Keep your rod tip low and use side pressure wherever possible. A high rod angle pulls the fish up, while a low rod angle keeps trout fighting in the current.


Fighting a trout on the river bottom is no good either. Wily fish wrap the line around tree roots, tall rocks and other things. At the bottom or the top, too many bad things can happen. So aim for the middle or a bit lower. It’s safer there.

A trout near the surface strains to re-position itself. And it’s hard to get a handle on the unpredictable body position. The currents push with more force on a sideways trout, and very quickly our heavy fish is uncontrollably sent downstream, off into the river below and peeling line.

A trout near the surface jumps too often. And while acrobatic trout make for wonderful video footage, good anglers aim to prevent those jumps. Too many fish come unbuttoned in the air. They spit the hook or land on the leader. We all have beautiful memories of huge, jumping trout at the end of our line, but about half of those memories end in heartbreak.

Keep trout under the water, down in the column, and you have a much greater chance of controlling them.

READ: Troutbitten | Fighting Big Fish — Work with a trout and not against it

The Agreement

I’ve written before about working with a trout to land it. If you pull within ounces of the tippet’s breaking strength for the whole fight, the trout never settles down. This is fine for smaller trout, but with the big boys, there should be a give-and-take during the match up.

I fight fish fast — real fast — but I do so strategically. I pull hard when I’m in the best position, with the trout upstream and across from me. And I pull with side pressure while the trout is under the water and mid-column. But I don’t pull hard when it’s downstream and near the surface. Instead, I use low rod angles. I walk (or run) to get below the fish where I can fight it harder.

At the surface, trout are in panic mode. But once allowed to dive a little deeper, they often try to swim right back to where they came from. And if the trout’s course puts him back upstream of my position, that’s perfect. All the while, I maintain side pressure and tire the fish out quickly.

Keep trout down. Then you can get to work with all the other big fish fighting principles. But none of that is worth anything with the trout at the surface.


In fishing, nothing much goes as planned.

But with good strategy and thoughtful technique, you can fight the next Namer in a minute or two. Sometimes less. And when the trout has tired enough, it can finally be pulled to the surface, where it easily glides into your waiting and open net.

Fish hard, friends.


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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. Great read and particularly important as the water temps climb during the peak of summer.

  2. Interesting to consider the benefit of catching multiple large fish during a major event. No substitute for experience and a big part of the battle is psychological. Practice technique on small fish, even when it’s not needed.

    • That’s the truth. No substitute for experience. It’s always about time on the water.


  3. Getem on the real + side pressure + Troutbitten = big trout in the net

  4. Watched a TV bass fisherman stick his rod tip in water to keep a lunker from jumping while cranking them to the boat. I have use similar tactic when a big trout takes the fly and immediately heads downstream. Use the side pressure and stick rod tip in water. When fish settles down, start reeling with tip in water. Most of them tend to follow the pressure upstream to a point you can do your normal fighting. Have done this successfully several times on the Beaverhead River.

  5. The illustration of tying backing to leader confuses me. I’m accustomed to having a flyline between my leader and my backing.

    • Hi Dick. I think you might be referring to another article. Email me, and I can help with your question. Cheers.


      • This is in reference to a box blurb that displayed after your article. A knot similar to a nail knot used to tie backing to a leader.

    • I’m lucky that on Truckee in Nevada at least 50% of fish caught over 18,biggest 24″, and even after dozens it’s still a minor catastrophe with each fight. We have big boulders that these fish instinctively dive under,and with multiple flys invariably one gets snagged,fish gone!! So definitely helps me to know location of all big rocks,and keep them away!!

  6. Thanks for breaking down the different columns. Keeping fish from jumping was my first hard lesson.

  7. Great learn, lost a monster today and yesterday to the same mistake.(high stick) but the 3-4min fight was worth it.

  8. Great advice all around. The really big ones, 20+ inches, tend to make 2 or 3 runs and if you allow it, they will turn back into the current. If you survive the big runs and get it turned into the current, then a good sideways pressure into a slack water area, wins almost every time. I brought a 25″ old male to hand on the West Branch of the Delaware a few years ago. I have found that the bigger they are the sooner they give up.

  9. Dom,

    I don’t hook up with the big ones often, but each year it happens once or twice and it is an amazing thing, most times when I least expect it. The power at the other end of the line is unreal. Definitely a different ballgame when one is on. I haven’t brought one of the outliers where I fish to net yet, but if it never happens I am good with that. Just hooking one is a thrill.

    Best, Sam


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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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