I think I first heard the term side pressure from Joe Humphreys. And I’m sure I didn’t understand what it meant back then. I ran across the concept a few more times in my formative years, but I never had a true grasp of the technique until I was challenged by bigger trout. Once my fishing skills and knowledge of rivers led me into larger fish, I finally learned (the hard way) how important fish fighting principles are.
I realized that the opposite of side pressure is upward pressure — pulling the trout toward the top of the water column. And that’s exactly where I did not want to fight a trout. So finally, decades after my introduction to the fish fighting concept of side pressure, I had a full understanding of the matter at hand.
Luckily, if my words are effective in the next few paragraphs, then your own learning curve might be about twenty-five years shorter than mine.
Sideways or Up?
Drift, drift, drift . . . and a good trout takes the fly! Set with a swift rod tip motion, and the hook is locked in. Excellent.
First question: Where’s the fish?
Of course, the answer here isn’t easy, because there are so many factors to consider. But it’s fair to say that after most hook sets, the momentum of the trout is coming up. Since trout rest near the bottom, they often move upward through the water to take our fly. Surface takes on a dry fly have the trout right near the top, and streamer eats might have the fish rising to mid column or higher to eat the fly. Add in that our hook set is upward and to the side (usually downstream and in the direction of the next backcast), and all the momentum in this picture is going upward.
Second question: Where’s the worst place to fight a trout?
To me, the answer is undeniable. The top of the water column is the worst place. Don’t fight fish up top. Instead, allow them to get back to the middle or the lower third. Trout at the top seem to panic. They’re unsettled. They struggle a lot, and faster currents push them downstream — which is exactly where you do not want to play a fish.
Think back to all the trout you’ve lost through the years . . .
Alright, that’s enough. We don’t have time to think about all of them.
Most trout are lost near the top. Sure, some trout break us off around rocks and roots on the bottom. But the majority of losses occur when a fish jumps or thrashes near the surface. The trout spits the hook, and you’re left with a slackline, feeling defeated and a little pissed.
With all that in mind, why would you hold the rod skyward after hooking a trout?
Upward pressure, with a raised rod, moves the trout higher in the water column, while side pressure, with the rod low and close to the water, allows us to fight a fish in the middle or lower third of the column.
Let’s dig in a little more . . .
The Orvis Pose
Look at the old-school Orvis logo, with the fly rod tip high above the angler’s head.
Now look at the fly line. Follow that to the fish, and it’s probably near the top of the water. If not, it’s being pulled in that direction.
Something like the Orvis pose is a good way to finish the fight. Once the fish is ready, then getting its head up is the best way to slide it into the net. But during the fight, the classic Orvis pose is exactly the wrong thing to do in most cases.
Instead, lower the rod and use — that’s right — side pressure.
What Is It?
A low rod angle that pulls a trout to the side and doesn’t pull it up very much — that’s side pressure. These angles keep a trout lower in the column. And that’s your advantage. But there are other benefits that I’ll address below in brief.
First, understand that side pressure starts with a low rod angle, close to the water. It can be done on either side, of course, and you might start by pulling to your right before flipping the rod and pulling to the left.
Also understand that side pressure is best when it pulls the trout, well, sideways — across seams and toward the bank. Here’s more about that . . .
Trout must face the current. That’s the only way their gills work. So a fighting trout keeps struggling to face upstream, into the flow. Knowing that and working against the trout’s instinct is how we gain an advantage and play a fish successfully.
Side pressure pulls the trout from its lane. While the fish faces the current and tries to hold a seam, side pressure moves that trout from its comfort zone and forces it to work against the force of our bent fly rod. And while we never want to play a trout to exhaustion, the art of a good trout fight is in taking them to the point where we have more control over their body than they do. (Even on large trout, this can often be accomplished in a minute or less, by using good side pressure and fish fighting skills.)
So then, side pressure accomplishes two fundamental things:
First, it keeps the trout in the middle or lower third of the water column. And second, it pulls the trout sideways rather than upward.
What About the Rod Flex?
One of the confusing talking points about side pressure has to do with rod flex. And I find anglers and authors repeating this over and over. They mistakenly claim that pulling sideways flexes the rod into the butt section more than pulling upward.
But I disagree. And this oft repeated wisdom is perhaps why side pressure is so commonly misunderstood.
Think about this. While pulling hard, bankside, with good side pressure on my right hand side, imagine a rod that is flexed well into the butt section. Now, I can sweep that rod up and over 180 degrees, until I’m pulling on my left hand side, with the same full flex into the rod butt. That’s great. But as I sweep back over to the right hand side, I can stop somewhere near the top as well. Correct? And I can maintain that same rod flex all the way from left to right, no matter how high the rod tip is. The only difference is in what direction I’m pulling the fish’s head — left, right or upward.
So, side pressure is not just about putting the rod under a full flex and using the butt. Yes, we want to do that! But we can do the same thing with the fly rod at all angles. And we want side pressure because of all the other benefits — not because of any unique way in which side pressure bends the rod.
So why do so many anglers have the habit of fighting a trout with the rod tip up after the hookset?
I think it’s just a natural instinct. Suddenly, we’re attached to a fish under the water that we want to get out of the water, and it’s our instinct to pull it up. Hand a kid a fishing rod of any kind, and they’ll pull upward after hooking a fish. That’s just the way it is. And it takes some kind of training to do otherwise.
Also, for stillwater and saltwater anglers, pulling a fish up makes a lot of sense. It’s only when we must deal with the currents in a river when things get more complicated.
Side Pressure, For the Win
Drift, drift, drift . . . and a good trout takes the fly! Set with a swift rod tip motion, and the hook is set. Excellent.
Now this time, quickly lower the rod tip while keeping tension. Pull the fish with side pressure. Pull bankside. Change the angles if you must, but keep the rod low and pull to your right or left side. During an extended fight, you might lead the fish at multiple angles — upstream, downstream and across. But aim for side pressure that keeps the rod low, keeping the trout underwater.
Then, whenever possible, use that side pressure to pull the fish across currents and backward, until it can easily be slid into your waiting net. There it is.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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