Missed trout are most often the result of a bad hook set. Slow sets, bad angles and failing to set the hook are the reasons we say, “Ah . . . missed him again.”
We call it missing a trout when we fail to convert a trout-eat into a hook in the jaw. The trout takes the fly, but we’re late or lazy on the set, so the hook slips out or never takes hold. Bump, buh-bump. We feel the weight of the fish for an instant and see the flash of its reflective sides. Then the trout is gone.
Losing a fish is another way that we don’t convert. A lost fish describes a trout that is on for at least a couple seconds, but it slips the hook. Lost trout can be the result of fish fighting mistakes. But just as often, the unbuttoning probably started at the hook set. Who knows, really, when so much of the game is underwater.
Up top, on a dry fly, the eats are most obvious. We see the rise, watch the fly disappear and set the hook. And that set too should be super swift (usually.)
But as soon as we send flies underneath, our visual contact is lost. Sure, we sometimes maintain sight with the streamer or even a bright nymph in the right water type. But for the most part, flies underneath are flies unseen, and we rely on some kind indication that a trout has taken the fly. So we must learn to first read those indications, until we develop an instinct for what is a take. And then, finally, we learn to trust ourselves.
Here’s What I See From Most Anglers . . .
Too much guessing. Too much assuming that it’s not a trout rather than assuming that it is. So don’t guess. Set the hook. And set it hard.
Streamer takes are easier to both feel and see, through some indication on the line or leader. Because we are most often in touch with the long fly, because we’re manipulating its motion with tension, we’re connected to the streamer. And knowing when a fish hits can be easier. (But connecting with those trout on a streamer is not easier.)
So the hardest takes to detect are on nymphs. I think that’s fair. And once you fish nymphing tactics with a tight line advantage (either straight, contact nymphing or tight line to the indicator) you start to realize just how many trout are eating and testing your fly — and how many trout you’ve been missing all these years.
Trout rarely grab the nymph — they simply intercept its progress. It’s a relatively small food form, so they don’t move far. And because we are dead drifting the fly, detecting strikes is supremely difficult, especially when we’re also trying to be close to the bottom. The whole process can be maddening, and that’s why many anglers are frustrated by nymphing — because they don’t have the right plan or the right approach.
If you’re trying to get long drifts, change that.
If you’re trying to guess what’s a rock and what’s a trout, change that.
If you’re trying to lift the nymph off a rock, and then you realize it was fish — bump buh-bump and gone — change that.
I suggest a fundamental shift in your approach. Don’t aim for long drifts with nymphs. Aim for short but effective drifts. Remember, the true dead drift portion of a nymphing drift is rarely longer than ten or twenty feet. So cast upstream only as far as you can control, and then over one rod length. That’s your best tight line angle, and you can push the across stream length a bit under an indy. Either way, accept the fact that repeated short drifts are usually better than one long drift.
With this mindset, now you can stop guessing about what’s a trout and what’s the bottom. Just set on everything for a while. That hook set goes right into your backcast and then into the next cast. If you’re set up at the best angles, then the set, backcast and forward cast takes the fly out of the water for just one second, if that. So the fly is almost always drifting and fishing, not casting.
Find a Reason to Set
From the time the fly goes in the water, expect to set the hook at any moment. Find a reason to set the hook, and don’t look for reasons not to set the hook. You want a reason to set. Yes, most of those hook sets go right into your backcast, and then directly back into the same lane that you just fished. But now you know a little something more about that lane, because you touched something that wasn’t a trout. Use that knowledge to better fish that lane each time.
Even If It Is a Rock . . .
Sometimes, I do what I call a check set, where I set the hook short and swift, to see if the pause or tick on the line was a rock or a trout. After that set, I let the fly fall back into a drifting position. But the check set is not a tactic that I use too often. Because it requires a longer drift, with fast water and an overweighted rig to make anything out of it.
In truth, it’s very hard to move your fly out of the dead drift and then reestablish that drift. And fish often reject it anyway. In most situations, the check set hurts more than it helps.
Many anglers think, “Oh that’s probably a rock, so I’ll just lift my fly off that rock and keep drifting.” Then bump, buh-bump and the trout is gone.
So, once again, I suggest a fundamental shift in approach. Get back to setting on almost anything. Even if you’re pretty sure the pause or unusual tick is a rock, set on it anyway. Quickly setting the hook allows the fly to touch only the top of the rock, as the fly doesn’t have a chance to get embedded down into the cracks and gaps of the rock as much.
Yes, set quickly, even if you’re sure it’s a rock. That hook set goes into the backcast, forward cast, and the fly is back into the water, fishing clean again.
Don’t Be a Coward — Set Hard
Last point here: hook sets should be short and sharp. Stop worrying that you’ll break the tippet. With tight line tactics, aim for a ten-inch hook set, just as swift and hard as you can. If your tippet breaks on that kind of set, something else is wrong with your gear.
Ten inches. That’s all. And then, without pause, the hook set goes right into the backcast if it’s not a fish.
Fly fishing carries the perception of a calm, flowing and peaceful sport. Sure it is. But real grace in fly fishing comes through speed. Everything out there should be crisp and fast.
The casts and the hooksets are best performed with speed.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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