Fighting Big Fish With Side Pressure — What It Is, How To Use It

by | May 23, 2021 | 34 comments

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.

Photo by Bill Dell

Most trout are lost near the top. Sure, some trout break 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 slack line, 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 . . .

READ: Troutbitten | Fighting Big Fish — Work With a Trout and Not Against It

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.

One more point on that Orvis pose — the angler isn’t using a trigger finger on his rod hand. That’s bad form, and if the fish runs toward the angler, he has no way to strip line in.

READ: Troutbitten | Fighting Big Fish — The Last Ten Feet

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.

Here’s Bill Dell, with an excellent example of side pressure. The rod is low, pulling back and across stream with the rod bending into the butt section.

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 . . .

Advantages

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 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.

READ: Troutbitten | Fighting Big Fish — Keep ’em Down

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. We want side pressure because of the other benefits — not because of any unique way in which side pressure bends the rod.

Photo by Bill Dell

The Habit

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 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 tendancy 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.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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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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34 Comments

  1. Hi Dom, great read as always!! Assume you are wading and the river is running from your left to your right. You hook the fish in front of you. Are you applying side pressure with your rod off to your left or right? So, are you trying to bring the fish up river or downriver? Best!

    Reply
    • Hi Chet,

      It’ll often be a little of both. But I likely start out with the rod to my right. Once the fish gets past me, then I might swing it over to the left to keep the fish from running downstream. It’s all really, really variable.

      Dom

      Reply
  2. There are some advantages for a classic, tip up rod angle: it reduces pressure protecting lighter tippets especially when a fish reacts violently at the very start of a fight or when a fish makes a strong run; it also clears line from the water reducing the chances it may catch on weeds or debris. It does nothing to help tire a fish or direct its movements, nor can it exert enough force to lift a big fish with light tippets, they go where they want.

    A trout can only swim in the direction it’s head is facing; turning their head is impossible with a vertical, tip up rod angle. Side pressure allows the angler to steer and fold fish over; it forces them to swim where you want them to go, it tires them out quickly, and puts you in command instead of the fish. As Gary Borger puts it it’s the difference between “playing” and actually fighting a big fish. Dave Jensen has absolutely revolutionized fighting tactics for large, trophy trout in NZ and AB and watching him use rod angles is a master class as there is none better.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Rick. Of course we want to keep the rod elevated enough to keep this trout from finding the weeds. But even when a trout reacts violently, as you say, or takes a strong run, I choose pressure with a side angle. I find no value in pulling a trout near the surface in those times. Keep it under and it will settle. In fact, I believe most thrashing and excessive runs are encouraged by the angler who mistakenly fights the fish near the surface.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
      • Aka me last Monday on FC haha never again :/

        Reply
    • Could not agree more with your assessment of Dave Jensen,have started using his technique.My wife and i call it the Jensen parry, after another angler commented on youtube that it looked like Dave was fencing while playing a big fish.I can tell you it is very good in tight spaces or open.

      Reply
    • Dom
      Thanks for this article. I’ve put it in practice since the article came out.
      Recently I was tested by a very strong fish that resisted and fought like I’ve never felt before. With a few side pressure angles and reverse I was able to successfully land it. It wasn’t my biggest fish but most memorable for the strength of his fight. It was a respectable size brown. Thanks Dom!

      Reply
  3. You fight big fish, tarpon, peacock bass, etc the same way – side pressure – assuming the Orvis Position is the worst – In spite of knowing that sometimes when I get real excited I forget and the loose the fish – set the hook downstream and then move the rod low to the water upstream –

    Reply
  4. Thank you, Dom! Your writings on this, along with Devin’s, have really helped me with bigger fish over the past year. Previously, I had no strategy at all. Too much slack and not enough pressure.

    The vast majority of anglers I see go into the Orvis pose. They hold it, admiring the sight of the line and fish, or perhaps enjoying the “tight lines” moment. The most common response to the “Any luck?” query at my local fishery is, without a doubt, “Ah, I had a good one, but he broke me off.”

    I now go into immediate commando mode, pulling in line and getting as much tension and as big of a bend in my rod as my tippet will allow. I’m not sure if this is overdoing it. How much is too much, Dom? Is there such a thing?

    A steady change of angles seems to help, too. If I lose the initiative and get into a stalemate situation, even for a couple seconds, those big, educated fish always seem to win.

    By the way, I think a link to your tippet-testing article should be included here. The single biggest confidence builder for me was learning just how far I could bend the rod, and how to manage its flex and rotation when it’s close to being maxed out.

    Reply
    • Attach your tippet to a digital fish weighing scale, have a friend (fish) hold it as you pull at a variety of rod angles. Have your friend call out the force readings. The angle that has the biggest effect is the one that moves the rod down/toward or up/away from the fish.
      And remember, big fish pull too, so have your friend do some pulling, tugging, surging. You can also measure the impact forces of hook sets. The fly rod is a 3rd class lever which decreases force but multiplies speed and movement. Lowering the rod angle effectively shortens the lever, increase force. Its a great exercise, good luck!

      Reply
  5. Years ago I took a casting clinic from Tony Weaver while stationed in Alaska. As a demo, he had a student stand 40′ away, wrap the tippet around his wrist, and asked him tell us what he felt when Tony lifted the rod tip straight up. Then Tony asked him how it felt when Tony applied side pressure. The look on the guy’s face said it all.

    Reply
  6. Great article! I do have a question for you – what do you do when you hookup with a big fish in a REALLY tight space where you can’t apply side pressure? I fished two really small rivers/streams this weekend, and was in a situation where the hole I was fishing was probably no more than 5’x5’ with boulders and trees on all sides (think small mountain streams holding big fish). The best I could do is hold the fish the best I could with limited side pressure, but the minute I raised the tip the fish threw the hook (I only fish barbless)

    Reply
    • Hi Rob. No good answer there. Just do what you can do.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  7. Pete Tat. Uncanny how your articles coincide with real life situations. Yesterday I hooked the biggest trout of my 40+ years of fishing. It was so strong it took a while before it came into view , a few minutes. I got it to the upside of me three times only for it to make another run
    Mind ,this was on my two weight rod with 4 x Tippett .Finally got it to my feet and put my net down to discover it wouldn’t fit in my net. At that the whisky swam through my legs and I couldn’t give slack,my tippet broke that fast it was gone into the deep that it had come from.At best guess it was at least 25 inches.Can I still name it,something like Damu….Pete

    Reply
    • Well timed piece for me too, Dom. Hooked into a couple of chunkers yesterday in the midst of the Deschutes salmon fly hatch. I had finished this piece over coffee and cookies before hitting the river and your voice popped into my head the moment I realized what I was dealing with. Thanks again!

      Reply
  8. Oh and his middle initial and last name is B. Asturd…,pete

    Reply
  9. P.s. Have you gone back and actually caught a trout that you did epic battle with and how long should a guy wait to try…

    pete

    Reply
  10. Great read, i also first learned of this as a young boy in the mid 80s reading trout tactics also,it saves alot of time on bigger fish..especially when they hold deep in faster runs.. thats one of the first things i point out to new anglers or even seasoned anglers it just flat out works, showed many a steelhead angler this trick over the years.. and they couldnt believe they didnt discover this earlier.

    Reply
  11. Fortunately for me, I had a guide sell me on the advantages of side pressure. I lose a lot fewer fish now. Especially rainbows that like to get airborne. Anyway, a great article on the subject. I’m sure it will help a lot of folks.

    Reply
  12. Hi Dom,

    What are your thoughts on walking larger fish back towards shallower water and upstream while applying side pressure if in a deeper run? I watched a gentleman on a popular Catskills creek last week fight a very good fish for about 5-10 minutes (seemed like an eternity) with rod up. Every time it would rise to the surface it would shake. He asked me to come over and photograph it and it broke off when he tried netting it. It was a fish you’d give a name to.

    I felt like he was overworking the fish, and a better result on this wide stretch would have been to apply side pressure at an upstream angle while moving backwards into shallower water. Right approach?

    Reply
  13. I am a self taught Flyfisher, when I was learning guides and instructors were few and too expensive for me. Anyway with 20/20 hindsight if I was starting again there are two essential skills I would endeavour to learn from an instructor. One is casting and the second how to efficiently and effectively fight a fish.

    Thanks for a Great article and commentary on the later …..

    Reply
  14. Dom, as always, great article and great advice. I started using side pressure when I took up euro-stlye nymphing with longer lighter rods and immediately understood that I had been fighting fish wrong for years. Ever since then I’ve tried to communicate the benefits to my fishing buddies, reminding them “side pressure” when I see they have a fish on. But many of them can’t seem to get the hang of it, and when the fish breaks off or spits the fly I get a seriously dirty look.

    So one day I stopped fishing and just watched them and saw almost immediately what the problem was (I mean the OTHER problem, besides them just being used to having the vertical rod as a fighting position for so many years). Whenever they set the hook, it was in an upward motion. And as soon as the line goes taught, they have a tendency to bring the reel up to the chest, right under their chin and lean back. It’s actually perfectly natural and makes sense. We learn very quickly that fighting the fish with just the top half of the rod leads to broken tippet, spit flies, and lost fish. And we learn that getting that bend down into the butt of the rod gives us more power over the fish and better protects the tippet. But with the rod vertical, the only way to get that bend is to tilt the grip back. We don’t want that bouncing rod smashing us in the face, so we hold the grip/reel at chest level and lean back to make room (or, alternatively, hold the grip/reel above our head).

    And this was why my buddies couldn’t get the hang of side pressure. The grip/reel needs to be only a couple of feet above the surface of the river in order to work – mostly about waist high unless you’ve waded really deep. Holding the grip/reel at chest level and trying to get the tip of the rod just above the surface just leaves us with an inverted version of the vertical rod – and it’s tremendously awkward and leaves us with no control over the fish at all.

    Once I realized what they were doing and eventually got them to break the habit of immediately bringing the reel up under their chin, they began to use side pressure to great effect.

    Reply

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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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