Habits: Keep It On the Reel

by | Jul 15, 2020 | 10 comments

After guiding nearly four hundred fly fishers in the last few years, I’ve noticed a few trends. Surprisingly, some very good anglers have the same bad habits. Many of my guests arrive with a wealth of fishing skill and experience, but they come here to take things to the next level. I also guide plenty of newcomers to the fly rod, and I notice the same bad habits in both groups.

Some of these habits don’t matter much, they are mere tendencies or preferences for doing things. We all have our own ways. But other habits cause major issues and loss of opportunity — they cost us fish.

Bad habits start easily enough, but they’re ingrained when an angler chooses not to make a change — staying with what is comfortable and convenient. We all do this at times. Instead of learning a better way, we do what is easier. In fishing, that happens a lot.

So, I’ll touch on these bad habits over the span of a few articles. Again, I’m only highlighting the ones that unquestionably cause problems — the things that keep us from catching trout.

Here’s the first one:

All line and leader not being used should be on the reel. Always. Yes, always, as in ALL the time.

Here’s how, why and what problems arise from doing it any other way.

Keep it on the Reel

As you walk upstream, moving from a flat and into broken water, you probably fish closer. Because mixed water pushes around the line and leader from more angles, causing more drag, we stay close in fast water. And as we change that distance, the extra line should be reeled up tight on the spool.

So many of my angling habits were developed early on that I never gave much thought to them until I saw bad habits from otherwise excellent anglers. And it still surprises me how often I see fishermen walking around with ten feet of line between their trigger finger and the reel. Unless you’re about to shoot that ten feet on the next cast, reel it up!

READ: Troutbitten | Let’s Talk About Your Trigger Finger

Photo by Bill Dell

Likewise, if you’re stripping in line during the drift and a trout hits, the first thing to do, after the hookset, is get the extra line on the spool. Sometimes that happens by giving line to the trout, letting it slip through your trigger finger under tension. Other times, it happens by locking down the trigger finger and reeling in the extra line while keeping tight to the trout. Either way, the last thing you want while fighting a trout is any extra line tangling or causing problems. Get it on the reel!

Why’s That?

If you’re relatively new to this game, then you may not have encountered these disasters yet. So allow me to reference my own sad past in hopes that you learn from my mistakes instead of learning the hard way.

I was wading upstream through heavy water and had just swapped over from streamers to nymphs. With the streamers, I’d been working with about forty feet of line, shooting it out, stripping in the flies and shooting again on the next cast. Now with the nymphs, my fishing range was cut in half, as I chose tight targets and a focused approach in the prime seams.

Three casts into nymphing, something heavy hit my fly. I set the hook, and the biggest trout I’d seen in many years broke the water in front of me. With a trout that size, my automatic reaction was to move downstream, in hopes of keeping the trout upstream. As I stepped back, I stumbled. And in my awkward flailing, some of the extra twenty-feet of line wrapped around my arm. When the trout pulled hard on an upstream surge, I realized my mistake. I struggled to free the line from around my jacket but realized I’d also stepped through a loop of line on the water. And when I understood that I was tangled at two points, with a massive wild trout at the end of the line, I sensed the impending tug and snap to come. I hurried to free the loops, but yeah, it happened. Pop! And the best trout I’d seen in years was gone.

Here’s another quick story to learn from:

When I first picked up the fly rod in my late teens, I had no mentors — only a couple books and a handful of magazine articles. Using the line hand was a foreign concept to me, as I was used to reeling in with a spinning reel. So for the first few months, I set the hook on trout and played them with the rod tip, leaving whatever extra line I’d stripped in to now lay at my feet in the water or tangle with something nearby.

The line did just that. It tangled in streamside branches, around my boots, on the tools hanging from my vest, around the rod butt and around the reel itself. I was a mess. Eventually, I learned to get the line on the reel quickly after a trout hit, no matter how big or small the fish.

Photo by Bill Dell

The Ones that Got Away

It seems that most of our the stories about these bad habits revolve around the biggest fish. Why is that?

My friend, Rich Alsippi always said the best trout test the limits of our skills and the ends of our tackle. So of course most of us lose the biggest trout of our life.

I lost an upper-twenties fish in Montana — one of the biggest trout I’ve had on the line, no doubt. I was young and inexperienced. And I had no idea how to fight a fish of that size. If I was lucky, the trout would have made it easy on me, staying low and upstream. I wasn’t lucky. And I didn’t land it. I’ve since improved my big-fish-fighting skills and have been looking for the next trout of such size ever since.

READ: Troutbitten | Category | Fighting Fish

Develop excellent habits. That’s the key. Make keeping the line on the spool a natural routine — something you don’t even think about when you get your shot at a legendary fish. Otherwise, you’ll be relying on pure luck. And we all know how that goes.

Fish hard, friends.


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. Yup. Agree, get it on the reel asap. You have a drag use it, is my thought.

    • Been there with a landlocked salmon on the west branch of the Penobscot River. Learned my lesson then.

  2. Yep with these new reels that you can turn with one finger there is no excuse for not reeling up line not being cast . Its easier to control a large fish if the line is on the reel and the drag is being used .

  3. A tip for getting line on the reel, after hooking up, from Gary Borger: reeling up loose, un-tensioned line can become problematic, instead try placing the stripped in fly line between your pinky and ring finger of your rod hand allowing you to apply tension as you reel it in. Its a little tricky at first but once you get the hang of it it becomes a habit that just might save that namer one day.

    This is great advice Don, one exception, if you will.

    At the end of a fight, the rod angle is almost always close to vertical which seriously hampers drag start up. When fighting a good size fish with light tippet I strip in the last several feet of line and leader/tippet instead of keeping it on the reel. Much easier to control an in-close surge and very helpful in getting line/leader knots through the tip top if it happens.

    • One other exception: When a trout makes a high speed run right at you – stripping is really the only way to try and keep up. Most trout reels cannot possibly take up line fast enough.

  4. Why is it the best fish seem to get all the breaks? no pun intended. Yes it’s one of the first things my father taught me. There does seem to be some very experienced fisherpersons who do not follow this rule though. They are more concerned with angle and tension and often do not use the reel. Me, anytime there is excess line on the water or ground I am stepping all over it and wrapped up in it immediately. I like Rick’s comment about keeping the leader knots out of the tip top. Best bonefish I never caught took the tip top right off my rod when the nail knot stuck in close.

  5. Luckily in old days all the books preached getting line on reel ASAP with big fish so for 50 years was second nature,but do admit I’m that guy dragging 20 feet of line as I move,just cause to lazy to reel in,then strip out again!!

  6. Unless I’m using 6 or 7x tippet, I never put a trout on the reel. Keep stripping and adjusting the angles to make it difficult. I see too many people overplaying these fish, and it’s no wonder the mortality rates of c&r is so high. If this costs me a fish or two, I’m okay with that.

    • I respectfully disagree, Daniel. Not about your style, that’s cool, but about you connecting the practice of getting the fish on the reel and overplaying the fish. While overplaying fish is bad, I think it’s unrelated to getting it on the reel.

  7. Could not agree more, you learn from mistakes. I made this mistake a few weeks ago, not on a trout but a catfish… tried to use the line hand and not the reel, lost it. Won’t make the mistake again.

    Nice article.


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