Don’t Guess — Set the Hook and Set Hard

by | Nov 7, 2021 | 20 comments

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.)

READ: Troutbitten | Streamer Fishing Myth vs Truth — Lost Trout Are Your Fault

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.

READ: Troutbitten | Forget the Bottom — Glide Nymphs Through the Strike Zone
READ: Troutbitten | The Tap and the Take — Was That a Fish?

Do This

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.

READ: Troutbitten | Get Short But Effective Drifts on the Fly
READ: Troutbitten | Face Upstream — Fish Upstream

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.

READ: Troutbitten | Set the Hook at the End of Every Drift

Photo by Austin Dando

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.

READ: Troutbitten | Use the Fly as A Probe

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.

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line Nymphing — The Check Set

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.
Domenick Swentosky


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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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  1. Many unsuccessful (weak) hook sets are caused by line control problems. Fix those loose line problems and it is much easier to hammer it home. Giving up that 7X and 6X tippet will help too; 4X not only allows for strong hook sets but more control in fighting and landing . Adding a secondary hook set after the initial set can really help sink it the bony jaws of larger fish. I kept a log this season of missed eats and lost fish; it was more enlightening than my log for caught fish. Almost every trout I lost was due to line control or improper rod angle and resulting weak hook sets. Nothing is more problematic than the downstream surface eat where fast hook sets are sure to pull the fly away from the closing mouth. The bigger the trout the longer it takes to close its jaw but waiting on the eat is much easier said than done.

    • I do the secondary hook set all the time. I learned it from fishing saltwater and trying to keep fish with bony jaws buttoned on heavy jigs with thick hooks.

      • I often get a strike at the end of a drift and the nymph is just down stream from me. It seems like my resulting (upstream) hook set pulls the hook from the fishes mouth more often than not. What do I need to do to avoid this?

        • Hi Joe,

          Couple things here …

          First, NEVER set the hook upstream. Always set downstream.

          Couple reasons, really, but think about the way most hooksets become backcasts — so we should set in the direction of our backcast — not upstream. Also, setting upstream pulls the fly out of their mouth, like you said,

          Last point — this is another reason why I do not let the fly go past my position much. Face upstream and fish upstream, then over just one rod length.


    • Thank you for this article Dom. For me, it could not have come at a better time. Last week I lost 3 in a row. I’ll admit, one of my major faults is if I see my sighter twitch, I lift my rod tip, like I’m in slow motion. I was out on the river today and performed a fast sharp hook set at the end of each drift, then going right into the back cast. Refreshing this into my muscle memory paid off for me today, breaking my losing streak from the time before. Thanks again for an interesting and educating article.

  2. Great article. Thank you.

    Most of us have had a trout on when picking up our line at the end of drift. At times like that, I often think about how many trout I’ve missed along the way. If I recall correctly, Joe Humphreys advocated striking when your flies are where there should be eaten, even if you got no signal that they had been taken. Something to think about. But, basically, I agree with you, Dom. Most fishermen strike far too infrequently. And they (I) need to change our assumptions about what is a rock and what is a fish.

  3. “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.” – There is no truer statement than this.

  4. The mindset espoused in this blog is so important. I’m well into my 60’s now and decades ago my buddies and I began saying, “A good day is when you think every rock is a fish and a bad day was when you thought every fish was a rock.” Sure, it’s partly to do with whether the fish are hitting well that day, but it’s at least 50% a self-fulfilling prophesy. A lot of this comes down to keeping a positive, confident frame of mind. The next drift could always result in the “best fish ever.”

  5. Set the hook,set the hook, set the hook!!!!!!!!!!

  6. Forget where I heard the phrase, “ hooksets are free “

  7. Consider: with a downstream hit, don’t strike-wait to feel the weight of the fish and then come tight to the side (then you could add an insurance strike or two). This from traditional salmon lore.
    Treating every change of movement or feel in the drift as a fish will eventually allow you to tell the difference between a hit and a snag-sometimes.

    • Hi there.

      I understand where you’re coming from, but that really won’t work for trout on a nymph. If you wait to feel the weight of the fish, you’ll only catch the trout that couldn’t eject the fly and it got stuck– that’s a very small percentage. I grew up fishing minnows for trout, and we did what you are saying with salmon — we waited until we felt the trout ON the line. But that worked because trout wanted to swallow the minnow — because it was real. These trout feel the nymph and IMMEDIATELY eject it. They give you no grace. They eject that nymph in a fraction of a second. So we can’t wait to feel the trout or we’ll miss many, many trout.

      Make sense?


  8. Dom,
    Can you help me understand “So cast upstream only as far as you can control, and then over one rod length.” not understanding over one rod length, Are you saying cast upstream and let the nymphs drift downstream one rod length? Or cast upstream and 9 or 10 ft in depending on rod length? I normally let the flies drift downstream towards the end of the swing before I set into a back cast.

    • Hello,

      Thanks for the question.

      Best thing is to read this article about angle and approach:

      That will really, really help. There are also links within that article to follow as well.

      Troutbitten reads more like a book than a blog. I think a big strength here is how the content you read in the article above is supported by so much more that came before it. That’s been my vision from the beginning. So I didn’t try to break down the angle thing and more than I did above. (Probably could have dropped a link in there, though.)

      Anyway, I recommend NOT allowing the flies to drift downstream before the backcast. You are probably spooking those fish if you are within a rods length away ( in most water.) And if you are more than a rods length away, then you are not getting a true drag free drift, because the flies ALWAYS are tracking toward toward the rod tip.

      The article I linked to breaks all that down in more detail.

      Make sense?


  9. Thanks for another great article, Dom. I was fishing yesterday, and for the first time in several outings, did not lose any fish to half-assed sets, or to assuming that a delay in the sighter was a rock. There were no “oh-crap-that’s-a-fish!” moments.

    I’ve often read elsewhere about the importance of “visualizing the hook set” whenever starting to cast in a new position, and I’ve incorporated that into my routine. But after reading these posts, I see that such advice is a little misleading, at least if by that you picture (as I did) a hook set with a fish on. Most hook sets are translated into back-casts, so it’s actually more helpful to “visualize the backcast,” which forces you to imagine your fly zooming backwards through the air, potentially into branches or brush. That in turn forces you to better prepare your backcast/set motion, if not your entire position. It’s a small point, but in my case I think it’s just the adjustment I needed.

    By only “visualizing the set,” I ended up with hook sets that were too careful (I don’t want to get my fly in that tree back there!), and therefore also with forward casts that lacked sufficient energy.

  10. Hey now!


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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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