** NOTE ** This is the eighth featured skill in the Troutbitten series, Nine Essential Skills for Tight Line and Euro Nymphing. You can find the overview, along with dedicated articles for each chapter and skill as they publish HERE.
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In this series of nine essential skills for tight line and euro nymphing, we are finally to the point where the flies are drifting naturally — dead drifting in the strike zone and showing trout what they eat most. We’re making them an offer they can’t refuse (sometimes).
In truth, all of the previous steps are more difficult. The casting and control of the leader to drift a fly naturally is the biggest challenge in the game. Our efforts to both guide a fly and let the river drift it naturally — to be in touch, but too much — are imperfect at best, and there is endless space for refinement. It’s hard. But thankfully, trout don’t need it perfect most days, either.
So, we’re at the eighth step — the strike. And there are two elements to understand here.
First, there’s the strike from a trout — the take, the hit, the gimme that I wanna eat it. We need to recognize and sense that strike.
Second, there’s our strike — the hook set, the swift rod tip motion that drives the hook point home and attaches us to our quarry. It helps to have a plan and give some thought to how that’s done too.
Remember, fooling them is the hard part. The rest of this — hooking and landing a fish, comes much easier.
But let’s start with the first part: sensing the strike.
Was That a Fish?
We’ve already acknowledged the difference between overweighting and underweighting the rig. And if you are leading with a little heavier fly or shot, then you may feel the fly tick the bottom. Likewise, you may feel the strike of a trout. But underweighting has the opposite effect. It tends to keep us slightly out of touch with the fly more often, letting the river do the work, as we simply track the fly’s progress downstream. And while tracking, strikes to the fly are rarely felt.
Either way, plan for strike detection to be visible. Because even if you feel the strike through the rod tip, you’ll also see the indication of a take on the sighter. In truth, seeing the strike is a few milliseconds faster than feeling it.
So, watch the sighter for anything unusual. Set on anything unexpected.
The often repeated mantra of “Set on anything!” is a mistake. Sure, setting on anything can be a great way to start. Be we’re past the beginner levels here. We’re out there refining the drift of the fly in one seam, learning the speed and depth of the water, understanding the contours of the riverbed, all by using the fly as a probe to teach us about the unseen. And then, just a few drifts in, we know what to expect. We’re ready for the fly to touch a tall rock before it needs to drop into the pothole downstream. So we don’t set on that tick of the rock — because we’ve already done that. It’s expected.
Set on anything unexpected or unusual. And if it’s not a trout, then learn something — understand what you just set on. Was it a rock, a back swirl, the strike zone or something else?
Yes, this is the level of refinement we’re striving for.
Strikes can be felt or seen. But expect to see them. Trout rarely grab a nymph and jerk the line. Rather, they simply intercept the fly’s progress. So be attentive. Be on edge, and be ready.
Last point about seeing the fish take — see beyond the sighter, and look to where the nymph is. Since you’ve already found contact, the sighter points directly to the fly. You know how long the tippet section is, so you know where the nymph is. Looking toward that place in the water not only helps you drift the fly more accurately, you may also see a flash, as the trout turns or tilts to take the fly. Set on it!
Always hook set into the back cast. Because, that’s what most hook sets turn into anyway.
Over and over, we strike at anything unusual. Good anglers quickly learn to stop guessing and just set the hook. But with all that hook setting, aren’t we casting more than fishing? Well, not if you hook set into the backcast.
Watch a skilled tight line angler, working upstream with a great tuck cast, under control of the leader — from the landing and all the way through the drift. At the next seam, our angler may only drift for five feet. Then she sets on something unusual. That hook set goes immediately into the backcast. The rod flexes at the stop behind her, and the fly is propelled forward again, entering at the same target, with a few adjustments made and new knowledge about what she just set the hook on.
Performed this way, the hook set and back cast have the fly out of the water for about one second. It’s an extremely efficient approach to covering water and catching trout. The fly is almost constantly in the water. It is upstream and gliding through the most productive part of the drift — the dead drift — all day long.
Hook sets should be short and sharp. Think about moving the rod tip ten inches, as swift as you can. While tight lining, it’s almost impossible to set too fast. The flex of even a stiffer rod, and the stretch of the leader will protect the tippet. So, set super fast.
It’s certainly possible to set too far. Sweeping the rod tip three feet as fast as you can will often break even stronger tippets.
So keep it short and sharp. Swiftly set the hook, and then go directly into the back cast.
If we observe our angler again, fishing upstream and setting on anything unusual, we likely will not notice two different motions — hook set and back cast. Instead, we see her cast, drift and backcast. But a slow motion video reveals the truth. She sets the hook sharply, with a swift and short motion. Then, sensing no fish on the line, she goes immediately into the backcast, without pause.
That’s the goal. And it takes some practice to put the two pieces together seamlessly. To get that practice, we should install another good habit — set the hook at the end of every drift. I do this every time.
The strike is the best part of fishing. It’s what we’re all out there waiting for, or rather, what we’re trying to make happen all day long. And the trout eats because we get so many things right.
We fool a fish, and we fulfill the wish of every angler.
When the fish strikes, we strike back. Short, swift and effective, the hook finds fish flesh. Then we try to keep the trout buttoned and get it to the net.
In the next article, this series concludes with the focus on putting it all together.
Fish hard, friends.
** Next up is the Ninth skill for tight line and euro nymphing — Putting it Together. **
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