Fly Fishing Strategies — Plan for the Hook Set

by | Sep 1, 2019 | 5 comments

A good angler is smooth on the river. Snags and line snarls happen, but how do you deal with them?

Inevitably, we all stick the dry fly in a tree during the spinner fall. Or a small trout takes our upper nymph and jumps like crazy. With quick spunky spurts, the point fly wraps around the mainline above the tag, jumbling our tippet and flies, forcing a retie.

These can be minor hiccups in your day, or they can be major events. It’s how you handle the small details of fishing that add up to a frustrating day or one that feels rewarding on the walkout.

READ: Troutbitten | Clip It | Unravel It | Re-Tie It

Much of life is like this, of course. But we get more practice with the daily stuff. We can work on handling conflicts at our job or ironing out mixed routines with the family, because we have more time with these daily tests. But how many people can really say they fish as much as they like?

There’s never enough time on the water. And I can attest to that. Before my sons were born, I fished five days a week for six years straight. (I worked at night.) And, no, it was never enough.

So, attention to detail is the most important thing on the river. Because this is how we maximize our time. Caring about the details is probably why you read Troutbitten — to engage your fishing brain, learn a few things, stash away some food for thought and get a little enjoyment along the way. And if you break down the tactics articles here, you’ll see that every one of them requires focus. Pay attention to your fishing, have a plan and get after it. Fish hard.

Plan for the Hookset

We spend an awful lot of time coaxing trout to eat our flies. And in that moment when they finally do, the right hookset is critical.

There’s a lot to be considered of a hookset: the set angle should be downstream. Power to pierce the trout’s jaw should vary with the size of the hook, and picking up any slack is part of the hookset. How much rod swing is required? And how about a strip set?

For a moment, though, let’s consider where the line goes when the fly doesn’t stick a trout . . .

You strike on the rise and miss the fish. Or, while nymphing, you set when the fly bumps a rock for the forty-fifth time. And the fly goes where?

In wide open meadows and valleys, who cares? With no trees to eat your fly, sloppy hooksets go unpunished. But the rivers I frequent harbor broken tree limbs as earnest gatekeepers. I like dark, shady corners because the trout do. And working around these obstacles forces me to be mindful — to know where every hookset finishes.

Keep ’em out of here.

I grew up loving small backcountry waters best, and I spent a lot of time in tight canyons after picking up the fly rod in my teens. So I learned my lessons quickly. Line management in these places was paramount — it was arguably the most important skill. Otherwise, I was back to rigging and fixing mistakes again. In tight quarters, I developed the spatial awareness necessary to work a mile or two of brookie water, from sunup to sundown, without hooking too many tree limbs. And that skill has served me well, no matter what river I’m fishing. It’s also been especially helpful while night fishing.

During every drift — all the way through — I know exactly where my hookset will go. I’m never surprised by a strike. More accurately, I execute a planned hookset. Anytime a fish eats on top or I find a reason to set underneath, I know where the setting motion will go. Most often that hookset doesn’t meet with a trout (a reality of fishing). So it turns into my backcast. Back, stop, forward, stop — and the fly is returned to the water.

Furthermore, when your hookset does make contact, what’s your next move? Where are the obstacles? Above the water, you’d better keep the rod low and under the limbs. Below the water, you’d be wise to keep trout away from any bank-side tangles of branches and logs.

This all sounds pretty simple. But from what I see of even my most experienced guests during guide season, the hookset is not something that a lot of fishermen are especially ready for.

Here’s a short aside to make my point before wrapping this up . . .

As a sixteen year old kid, I sat in the driver’s seat of our family Buick Skylark. I was learning to handle three-thousand pounds of glass and steel at sixty miles an hour. My Dad sat next to me as the passenger, and he was a patient teacher. I’m thankful for that, because I was not a very patient learner.

“Okay, Dom,” he said early on. “Always be looking for where you can steer the car in an emergency. Have an out. Know what you’ll do if that oncoming car veers into our lane or something happens. See everything around you, not just the road.”

“Alright, Dad.” I said.

It seemed odd to always expect the unexpected on the highway. But I came to understand that it was a wise approach. And it’s part of driving defensively. I daresay the principles Dad taught me from the beginning have saved my life a few times, while also keeping insurance rates low. I really do see the road ahead as more than a hard surface and a few painted lines. I see the hillside next to it. I notice the guardrail and the ditch. All of it factors in — more spacial awareness.

So with the rod in your hand, have no fear. Drift under the tree limbs, but expect the strike, and know where the hookset will go. Plan for the hookset before you ever make the cast. It’ll save flies and save time. Your boots will be in the water more. And that’s where we all want to be.

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 points; I refer to it as “situational awareness”.

    • Good reminders. Sounds like my Dad was a lot like yours. We’re both fortunate!

  2. Great article. Just love it. You’re bringing such good insights into things that I can practically apply next time I’m in the water. And I love the analogy to driving…my parents taught me the same!

  3. I’m in total agreement with Keith…it is called “situational awareness,” coined from my time flying fighters in the USAF. Besides the great info you’ve provided above, Dom, I also (humbly) add in the next step: “Where is this fight going to go after the hookset is successful?” I know I’ve read your take on this somewhere in the archives, but just the point being, I take in my surroundings and develop a plan at the outset. Then I maintain the flexibility to audible “on-the-fly” when the fish has other plans (which inevitably they do!).

    Really looking forward to having you guide me later this fall and filling up the toolbox of knowledge! See you soon. Greg


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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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