The bite had slowed, and we were back to the technical fishing required to fool wild trout here, day after day. Mike stood upstream and to my right as he threw tight line tuck casts, mostly up and a little across. With the sun over our left shoulders, his angle of approach was perfect. Everything about Mike’s fishing was excellent — except for the hook sets. There were just too many of them.
December has become my favorite month of the guide season. I get die hard anglers — usually singles, because their buddies who plan to come along bail out at the last minute. But for fishermen who understand the challenges, they often find some of the best fishing they’ll have all year long. Post spawn trout are predictable. They want a nymph, they want it low, and they love the egg.
Mike and I talked about the remarkable difference in activity. We were getting the same drifts in the same kind of water with the same flies, but the trout response was a fraction of what it had been just a half hour earlier. The exposed sun seemed to have marked the shift. With low and clear water, extra visibility seemed to put the trout on guard against predation and more selective about presentation. We’d fished through a good bite window, but now Mike and I talked about what to change on the other side of that window.
He set the hook again, just a few feet into the drift.
“Hey now,” I said. It did look like a trout hit, and I might have set the hook too.
But nothing appeared at the end of the line, so Mike fired the hook set into his back cast. Pause. Rod load. And the fly launched forward again. Mike was efficient, and I enjoyed watching him in rhythm. Water coverage, angle of approach, tuck cast, sighter contact: everything was in good shape — except that hook set.
On the next cast, Mike’s nymph dropped into the strike zone just a couple seconds after landing. With great contact to the sighter, we saw the orange line slow a bit . . . and Mike set the hook.
“Oh, I thought that was it,” he said, and Mike fired another cast into the same lane. His accuracy was spot on.
The fly dropped efficiently. And on another two-count, the sighter slowed, just as it had on the previous drift. Mike set the hook again with the same result.
On the following cast, with the same accuracy in the familiar spot, Mike let the fly travel just a little further, until he set the hook after a couple seconds of strike zone time.
“Ah, I thought that was one too,” Mike said, excitedly. “But hey, hook sets are free, right?”
Mike had landed on a common phrase that usually triggers a response from me. It’s one of the myths of fly fishing, and it carries too much consequence for me to let it go.
“Well . . .” I said, hesitantly. “Not really.”
Mike drifted short and set the hook again, almost out of habit now. There were two more quick drifts within the next ten seconds, before Mike stopped casting and turned to me, letting the nymph hang against the currents below. We both looked downstream at the sighter, following its angle to the tippet and staring through the water to find a nymph through a riffle. We were quiet.
Mike knew me well enough to know I had something to say, but I needed to be invited to say it.
“So hook sets aren’t free, huh?” Mike asked with a chuckle.
“No,” I replied. “They’re really not.”
I waded to the right to keep the sun out of Mike’s eyes as I began my take on hook sets and consequences.
“Everything has a cost, right Mike?” I asked. “There’s always a price to pay. And in this case, that price is costing you fish.”
Here’s what I told Mike . . .
The Starting Blocks
Before I start telling you to set the hook less, let me first acknowledge that most anglers set the hook too little. Even on streamers and dries, it’s a problem. But it’s an especially common bad habit among new nymph anglers. They guess instead of set. And they miss trout because they’re too conservative about setting the hook.
No doubt, that’s how this “hook sets are free” mantra caught on — because for the beginner, it’s good advice.
Setting the hook is the only way to learn when not to set the hook. As I’ve written previously, a nymphing angler should set on anything unusual — anything unexpected. But the only way to form those expectations is to fish a lot. Then set the hook on anything questionable. Soon enough, you develop a bank of knowledge, a set of expectations about what a sighter or an indy does in many different situations.
Then, after developing that experience, a good nymph angler must turn the corner. Take the next step, and stop setting on everything. Because no, hook sets are not free.
Here are the costs . . .
If you added up the time that your fly is not just in the water but fishing effectively it would likely be an embarrassingly low percentage of your fishing day. (That goes for all of us.)
We spend enough time locating trout, finding their preferred water type and dialing in the strike zone of the water column. We also waste time with snags and breakoffs, bad knots, wrong guesses and bad theories about fly selection. So when we finally get something going with with a pattern and the best water for the moment, we’d do well to get the fly there and keep it there as long as possible.
But setting the hook takes your fly out of the water. Sure, the efficient nymphing angler turns mistaken hooksets into a backcast. So the rod flexes into the forward cast, the nymph turns over and enters the water, dropping into the preferred zone without a few seconds. But those are wasted seconds, and they add up.
Learn to value the time with your nymph in the zone, above all else. Do everything you can to keep the drift there. And yes, once you develop a sense for strikes, based on a large set of expectations, then set less and ride the zone more. Trust your expectations. Err on the side of missing a trout once in a while. That’s okay. Because you’ll get a lot more strikes and opportunities with your fly in the right place for longer anyway.
Trout have expectations too. While we spend a small part of our life on the water, trout live in it every day. They know the water like you know the driver’s seat of your car. Trout know how real nymphs move and don’t move in the water. They understand the flows and the happenings of their home — the river.
A nymph and some 4X tippet ripping upward through the surface doesn’t look familiar to a trout. It’s not within the set of a trout’s expectations. And in the spookiest conditions, even one hookset can turn fish off.
I’ve seen it. In low, clear water, I’ve watched trout spook from a nearby hookset. Thankfully, they are more forgiving under average conditions and even more so in water with turbulence and color. But there’s no doubt that a hookset — a nymph cutting through the water — can spook trout.
This fact is widely acknowledged in the world of dry fly fishing, and anglers are cautious of lining a fish or causing surface disturbance when picking up the fly for their next cast. Nymph anglers should carry some of this caution under the water too, because hook sets are not free.
Don’t Take It Too Far
Fishing is one of those things where conflicting advice can be good from both sides. “Set on anything” might be the best strategy when the bite is strong and the fish are slashing underneath. That’s what got Mike into the habit of setting so frequently in the morning. Trout were eating on the drop and intercepting his flies on nearly every good drift for a while, so being on edge and on point, ready to set immediately, made sense.
But the next time you’re on the water, when the bite slows, it’s time to give trout a better chance to see it. When fish are holding more than feeding, their caution and skepticism returns too, and they are easily spooked by unexpected things.
Hook sets are not free. There’s a price to pay. Oftentimes that cost is built into our success. And other times, the costs of too frequently setting the hook pile up, stealing away our limited opportunities.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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