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 yes, the bigger fish might surprise us with their super strength. Combine that with the trout’s knowledge of a local river beat, and a good angler must make quick moves and wise decisions 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 artform 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 they 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.
— — — — — —
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. And 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.
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’s 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 up to you.
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 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.
** Donate ** If you enjoy this article, please consider a donation. Your support is what keeps this Troutbitten project funded. Scroll below to find the Donate Button. And thank you.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N