Fighting Big Fish — The Last Ten Feet

by | Jul 14, 2021 | 31 comments

Rarely do trout fights result in epic battles. Instead, they are short, down and dirty struggles between fish and fishermen. We don’t chase trout for their fight. It’s their selectivity. But yet, the bigger fish might surprise us with their super strength. Combine that with a trout’s knowledge of its local river beat, and a good angler must make quick moves and wise decisions, hoping to gain enough of an edge to land the biggest fish of his life. It’s more about those decisions — the angle choices, the arm, body and rod positions — than strength.

Making quick work of a great trout is an art form that leaves the fish with plenty of reserve energy to carry on. It also leaves the angler satisfied by the completion of a catch — success from cast to release.

What I’m about to write and recommend must come with a good side order of sometimes, maybe and hopefully. Surely, you will land trout at all angles. You’ll take a crazy net-stab below the water because you know the trout is about to bolt, and it isn’t hooked well. Your buddy will net a fish as it swims a figure eight around his legs, the hook will pop free and he’ll somehow pull off the miracle and bag it anyway. Yes, all of this and more odd things will happen.

But we aim for a consistent baseline. Our mark is something repeatable. And by following these best practices, we land fish routinely, even when trout do extraordinary things.

In this fighting fish series I’ve covered many of the key elements, from setting the hook downstream to fighting fish fast and low, pulling hard, knowing your tools and using side pressure. And if you do all of that right, you stand a very good chance of netting the prize.

Pop quiz: When and where are most trout lost? Top two answers, please.

Survey says . . .

In the first few seconds and in the last few feet.

I think we all can agree with that.

Getting past the initial surge and excitement from both you and the trout is a challenge solved by keeping trout lower in the water column and doing everything possible to fight a good fish upstream and across from you. And if you’ve done all that, then the last ten feet should be easy.

READ: Troutbitten | Category | Fighting Big Fish

— — — — — —

My son, Joey, joined me this morning for a few hours on one of our favorite pieces of water. The fish came fast right after dawn, then tapered off as the sun came up. And just as the best fish of the day hit, Joey was a little off balance, wading between sizable rocks and struggling with his footing on a shifting riverbed. The trout zigged and zagged a few times, but Joey kept the rod tight. And when I approached with the net, I saw a nice mid-teens wild brown trout under the surface. Unfortunately, the trout was downstream and Joey was pulling upstream.

“I can’t get him,” I told my son. “Switch places with him.”

“Oh yeah,” Joey agreed, and he remembered what we’d been through a few times before. He swept the rod low and to the side, encouraging the trout to swim back upstream. Joey also stepped downstream. Then, with the trout ahead of him, Joey waited a moment for the fish to turn. When it did, he lifted the rod, turned the fish off balance and brought its head to the surface.

“Up, up, up,” I reminded as I reached with the net.

Joey kept the trout’s head up, and the big fish easily slid downstream into my waiting net.

Good times.

Joey could have done the same thing if I wasn’t there. And he could have done it with a trout of another ten inches in length, given the excellent fish fighting principles, especially in the last ten feet.

Here’s a breakdown of those principles:

Get the Trout Upstream

I’d prefer having the entire fight take place with the trout upstream and across from me. So I do everything necessary to force this positioning between me and the fish.

With the trout upstream of the angler, the currents work in our favor and not against us. Also with the fish upstream, we pull the hook back into the trout and not directly out of its mouth. Everything’s better with the trout upstream, and this is especially critical in the last ten feet.

One of the biggest errors in fly fishing is trying to net a good trout against the current. When facing downstream, the current adds to the weight of the fish. And we’re exerting maximum pressure with the trout at the top of the water, against the current, with the hook being pulled away from its mouth as it is led to the net. That’s a recipe for disaster, which is the end result all too often.

Instead, do the opposite. Position yourself and the trout so the current works in your favor. With the fish upstream, lift it to the surface, and have the river push the trout into the hoop. This requires less force and tension but just a little more art.

Lift on a Direction Change

Some of that art is in reading the trout and seizing your opportunities. Even the strongest trout are most vulnerable to the bend in your rod at the moment they change directions.

Get the trout off balance. Trout shift their swimming directions all the time, but they aren’t used to being attached to the end of your rod tip. And like a good martial artist, the expert angler uses the opponent’s momentum against it.

Within the last ten feet, and with the trout upstream, watch for the fish to change directions. (Often you can encourage this direction change yourself). Go with that momentum for a moment, and then lift up, taking the trout off balance and unexpectedly to the surface. It’s a good move.

Keep the Head Up

Trout have to follow their head, right? A fish can only swim in the direction of its nose. So if its head is out of the water, then it can’t swim back underneath.

Once the trout’s head is up, keep it up and get the net under it.

Two more things:

First, stories about trout diving back under the water and taking another run are more truthfully told by acknowledging that the angler let the head back down in the first place. This is how the error begins. So, once the head is up, keep it up. That’s your responsibility.

Second, old-school wisdom says to play the fish until it tires. Then it will roll or falter on top of the water, ready for your net job.

But you do not need to do this!

A more modern take on the trout fight is to play the fish with skill — enough skill that the trout is landed in tens of seconds, not minutes, and enough art that the trout is released with a good measure of reserve energy, not spent to exhaustion.

Following the tenets above and throughout this fighting fish series will lead any angler to quick fights and great releases. We don’t need to tire a trout to land it.

Spread Your Wings

The final step of these last ten feet seems to be the hardest, if for no other reason than we don’t get to practice it enough. And it takes countless tries before this next step intuitively makes sense.

Trap the line against the rod so the reel’s drag is no longer in play, with about a rod’s length of line to the fish. Now as the trout slides across the surface toward the net, do this . . .

Reach forward with the net hand, and reach all the way back with the rod hand. (Look at the cover photo above.)

I call it spreading your wings. It’s a very similar stance that I teach to young Little League kids ready to throw a baseball. The arms are far apart, and the back hand is cocked up a bit. The rod hand elbow is no longer at your side. Instead it reaches back. The rod remains flexed. It probably flexes more than it has for the whole fight. But, done this way, the rod doesn’t double over either.

By reaching back and spreading your wings, the distance from you to the fish closes. The current helps, and the fish of a lifetime slides into your net. Enjoy that moment.

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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31 Comments

  1. Great article especially part about head up and grip line which is a rod length at the finale part of fight.As I think of fish I’ve lost it was probably error on both those points I think very important point is closeness of fish because once you commit to net you can’t reel any closer . You know you should write a book. Thanks

    Reply
      • I call that last maneuver Fish Yoga & here’s another plug for your tightline formula- in deep holes where you have a lot of line under an indy to get down, it’s just impossible to get that lunker you’ve hooked in any further than your indy’s stop against the rod tip. I lost one of the biggest browns I ever hooked on the Middle Provo in Utah a few years back because of just that problem. I had no net man there to assist & just couldn’t close the distance with that much line out under the rod tip. I don’t even carry indicators anymore and I’m very reluctant to throw on a dry dropper unless I’m positive the fish are feeding higher in the water column & therefore won’t need a ridiculously long dropper length. I think I’d rather get skunked than lose another lunker because I wasn’t able to do fish yoga that last ten feet!

        Reply
  2. Solid general advice on netting that applies to relatively strong tippet material. Steering fish into calm and shallow bank water helps me. When trapping the line just prior to netting I like to have a few feet of slack in the event of a final surge. Also keep those legs closed as trout will instinctively try to run in between them.

    Reply
    • “When trapping the line just prior to netting I like to have a few feet of slack in the event of a final surge.”

      Great point.

      Dom

      Reply
  3. It is fun to watch your kids grow. You will have a father’s dream for the rest of your life. Enjoy it while you can. It ain’t all about fish!

    Reply
  4. Great article! Best strategy with a double on the line?

    Reply
  5. I believe that by trapping the line and spreading your wings on the final 10’ would have put more fish in my net. I’ve had problems losing fish in that last 10’. Thanks for a great tip Dom. Seems like I never quit learning.

    Reply
  6. Like most things in life netting a fish gets easier with experience, the best tips I got as a boy was relax and let the rod do the work, bring the fish to the net and don’t chase it with the net. You will still lose fish but that is all part of the fun.

    Tight lines.

    Kelli

    Reply
  7. Hello!

    Any advice when you are purposefully fishing downstream (wets, streamers, even dries) and you hook a fish that is possibly 20 or 30 feet away and you have no option of moving yourself downstream (obstructions, depth, etc.)? Now you must get that fish upstream to you, possible in some strong current. Just start crankin’??? : – )

    Thanks!

    JC

    Reply
    • Hi Jeff,

      Good question.

      First off, this one another reason that I rarely fish downstream as you describe. I make my streamer cast up and across, most often. And I hardly ever fish dries downstream. It simply makes no sense to me to walk into the trout. You have to fish a long distance for trout not to be spooked, and I prefer being closer. I do it, but it’s rare that I must fish downstream. Most often, it’s when I swing wets at night. So I’ve had good practice at hooking and landing big fish at that angle.

      I would not say to just start cranking. Instead, work with a trout and not against it. Keep the rod very low, get the trout low in the column, and guide it upstream.

      https://troutbitten.com/2019/03/31/fighting-big-fish-work-with-a-trout-and-not-against-it/

      Lastly, I will mention that there are very, very few places where we cannot get bankside or do what is necessary to move downstream of the trout. And that’s your best bet. But if you have one of those places, then do as above.

      Make sense?

      Dom

      Reply
      • Makes sense..thanks!

        Reply
        • At what age did you start your son on a fly rod, and did he start on fly line or mono rig? I want to start my grandsons on fly fishing.

          Reply
          • Hi Allen. About four or five years, for both my sons. And right from the beginning, there were fishing a little of everything, spin and fly fishing.

            Find the Fishing for Kids series up the menu.

            Cheers.

            Dom

  8. Enjoyed your articles and I love the way you include your sons in your passion for fly-fishing, I have the same pleasure with my grandson. On some of our larger and fast flowing rivers here in New Zealand the quicker you can get the trout’s head up the better chance you have of landing the fish, but there are times when they are hard to hold and you need to start running and hope for the best.

    Reply
  9. Suggestions for a big Brown that hunkers down and basically doesn’t move?

    Reply
    • Well, in that case it sounds like he’s not hungry. I think big browns exist like that a lot. I think their fill and then just hang out for days on end, digesting. Lots of times, then, there’s nothing you can really do to get a trout like that to eat. You can try to get him to get predatory or defensive about his territory, but if that probably won’t work either. Sometimes, you just have to come back later.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  10. Good article on fighting the fish. I learned it from Joe Humphrey’s videos. I’m always surprised when I see normally good anglers nearly kill big trout with their extended, niggling “fights,” that often enable the trout to escape.

    Reply
  11. Clear, well-written and very useful, as usual, Dom. Thanks.

    Reply
  12. Thanks for another great series. I want to chime in with an observation. In fisheries where a 14-inch trout is a medium or even a medium-small one, I never really have any problems bringing them in, and quickly. Bite, splash, and skip across the water into the net. However, in the creek that I know best a 14-inch trout is the catch of the week. I’m much more likely to lose a 14-incher there. Such a trout on that creek is at the top of the trout hierarchy, much wiser than a 14-incher that’s potentially on its way to becoming a 20-something incher. It’s interesting how trout size and their associated fighting instincts (or learned behavior?) are relative in that sense.

    Reply
    • JP
      A very interesting observation. However, I wonder if it is really better escape instincts on the part of the older(?), 14″ alpha trout? . . . or could it be differences in, trout species? water type? surroundings? water conditions? (flows” temps?), terminal tackle (tippet? flies?), rod/reel? and/or, your fighting tactics/attitude/effort? Interested in your thoughts here as I find the idea of superior escape/fighting instincts from 14″ alpha (older?) trout in one stream to be a really hard thing to compare without holding all other variables constant. Not doubting your observations, but if true (i.e. all other variables being equal), quite fascinating.

      Reply
  13. Yes, all wild rainbows. Same tippet and flies, rod and reel. I’ve fished in both places from summer heat to driving snow, high water to low. But the 14-inchers in my home stream definitely get off more frequently.
    It might be that the ones in the bigger fisheries are closer to juvenile age, having grown much faster, and might still have that eagerness. The 14-inchers in my home stream are likely older, and might have passed a certain stage of growth that just isn’t survived by less cautious fish, or fish with less well-developed predator-escape resources.
    Looked at in that light the difference makes perfect sense, at least to me. I could bring in 10 14-inchers in a row on the bigger streams and not be surprised. Pleased, but not surprised. On the smaller stream it would take many days for me to hook 10 of that size, and I’d be very surprised if I got them all in.

    Reply
  14. A few years ago, I started keeping a log of all of the trout that I lost. Along with the usual date location, fly. etc., I included the reason and the fix. In my case, the vast majority of lost fish have been pull-outs caused by inferior hook sets and/or slack line. Best thing I ever did to improve my landing rate as it isolated the weakness in my fish fighting techniques and tactics.

    Reply
  15. Getting below the fish is a great tactic to keep a fish on, especially when streamer fishing and always in New Zealand. Our trout head for the horizon when hooked and can fight very hard so sound different to yours. We do need to tire fish prior to netting; they come in, get close and then usually bolt on at least several hard runs before they are near enough to net.

    Reply
    • So we have plenty of fish that jump once hooked too. We have wild rainbows that do that a lot and some browns. Truth is, I think they tire themselves out quite a bit when they do that. On the largest fish, sure, I think we all need to tire the trout a bit, but not to the point where it’s rolling over on its side. And in my opinion, brown trout are brown trout, regardless of where they are foung, NZ,PA,CA,MT or otherwise. I don’t think we need a different set of fish fighting skills to catch land NZ trout. In fact, I think the skills in this series apply to most if not all fish species. Cheers.
      Dom

      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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