Q&A: Blind Striking

by | Mar 22, 2023 | 20 comments

One of the things I enjoy most about Troutbitten is the questions and ideas I receive from anglers. Fielding questions every day keeps me in touch with what makes fishermen curious. And hearing new ideas keeps me current. So I’m constantly adding to my backlog of things I’d like to try next.

Whether it’s through the comments section here on the website, through emails, through YouTube or on Instagram, I hope you’ll keep your questions and ideas coming. Some of them have made it to a podcast episode. And with this article, I’m starting a new Troutbitten series that I’ve been thinking about for a while now. The concept is simple: Ask a question, and I’ll provide some thoughts. (Notice I didn’t say “the answer.” Nothing is guaranteed, after all, because this is fishing.)

Here we go . . .

Question

Bryan Kim emailed me:

Hi Dom,

I was listening to some old podcasts recently and had a question about the “blind strike,” discussed briefly at the end of the Why Do We Miss/Lose Fish podcast (1:19:25).

PODCAST: Troutbitten | Why Do We Miss or Lose Fish on a Fly?

It reminded me of the video below, where Joe Humphreys catches a fish by what he calls “striking impulsively” (10:15-11:20). I’ve thought about this clip a lot since first watching it.

On the podcast, I think it’s Bill who describes it as setting the hook the first time through a good spot. You respond by saying you technically blind strike at the end of every drift, but do you ever set the hook early in your drift for no reason other than the fish are very active and you just know one will be holding in a certain spot?

Answer

Hey Bryan, your question came to me at the perfect time. I saw your email a few hours after I caught the best fish of my day on a blind strike. It was a fun moment, and one that happened because I did as you mentioned — I set the hook at the end of the drift. I do it all the time, regardless of whether I believe a fish is there. That hook set serves to get my tippet and fly out of the strike zone and activated. And it usually goes directly into my backcast. By the end of the day, I often catch a couple of extra trout with that end-of-the-drift hook set.

Here’s a Troutbitten article on the concept . . .

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

However, you also asked . . .

“. . . do you ever set the hook early in your drift for no reason other than the fish are very active and you just know one will be holding in a certain spot?”

I know that Bill said yes, but I will say no. I need a reason to set the hook. And the truth is, I can usually find that reason. While nymphing, I am on high alert. And rarely does a drift go by where I do not find a reason to set. In fact, in those prime, juicy spots, I’m even more on alert, and I’m looking for any reason to believe that a trout just ate my nymph.

But I might not get that reason. Certainly, in the best spots, I may see no hesitation of the line, no pause, no flash underneath, and I might feel nothing unusual through the line or rod. So I do not set.

Why not?

Because I think the blind strike, in the best part of that juicy pocket, can spook fish. Think about this . . .

One of the reasons we often catch more trout on the first few drifts rather than the tenth, is because the disturbance of our flies drifting next to a trout turns them off. Sometimes our tippet bumps them. Sometimes the fly bumps them. Sometimes they see a dragging, unnatural fly. All of that puts an edgy trout down — I have no doubt in this. And a fly that’s ripped out of a trout’s lane is even worse. Maybe he’s even about to eat it, but the blind strike not only takes away that opportunity for us — it puts the trout down for good.

I don’t guess, because I might ruin my best chance. I also do everything I can to be in contact or just slightly out of contact with the nymph, whether that’s on a tight line to my rod tip or under an indicator. And I trust my skills this way, more than I trust my instinct to set on nothing.

I believe in this so much that I don’t check set as much as I used to. I save it for faster water and more specialized situations.

READ: Troutbitten | The Check Set

So no, I don’t blind strike. And I hate to disagree with Humphreys on this, but I don’t do it.

However, there’s a lot to be said for angler’s intuition. And if you want to set the hook, and you think you should set the hook . . . then set the hook. Because hook sets are . . . (wait, no, they’re really not free.)

READ: Troutbitten | Hook Sets Are Not Free

So, even in the best of prime lies, I wait for a good reason to set the hook.

Last Call

Final point here . . .

Some people believe that the best nymphing anglers have a sixth sense for strike detection. But I don’t buy it. Instead I believe there is a reason they decide to set the hook. They saw, felt, heard, noticed something unusual, and they hooked a trout.

Fish hard, friends.

 

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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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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20 Comments

  1. Good morning Dom. I agree wholeheartedly with the way you said it. Something’s gotta trigger my “Spidey sense” to make me set mid-drift, and the fish here in CO are spooky enough as it is, so I don’t do it. As it is, I need to keep reminding myself to set at the end of the drift each time to set up my next cast.

    Reply
  2. I certainly second you on the “set” at the end of the drift. Like you, for me its as much to get the rig out of the water and going into the next cast… but it is pretty insane to me at the number of fish I stick at that very moment.

    Some days it can be a fairly frequent occurrence… enough so that I’ve wondered if it is a pattern that the fish are in, where they choose to trail the nymph to the end until it drags, and that first bit of motion in the nymph seals it.

    Reply
  3. Great question and good points. I agree with Dom that the risk of spooking fish and putting them down with a blind set in the beginning or middle of the drift makes it bad practice. I’ve certainly caught my share of fish “by accident”, but what I appreciate about the content here, especially the nine essential nymphing skills series, is the move away from nymphing being a mysterious guessing game, to a method/approach that we have more control over and are able to constantly improve on. While a fish in the net is a fish in the net, there is definitely something more satisfying/encouraging when you get that tuck cast just right, stick the landing, see that slight twitch/pause in the sighter, and drive the hook home.

    Reply
  4. If you have extra time for a really quick read, or audiobook, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell discusses the interesting skilled intuition that is just outside the zone of awareness, and the decisions that are not actually blind. It’s something that helped me sharpen and build trust in some instinctive responses.

    Reply
    • Eric, sounds intriguing so I just downloaded the book from my local library. Years ago I read one of his other books…Outliers…and it was great. Thanks for the recommendation, and maybe a way to hone my “Spidey sense” to give me any advantages over the trout near me! As a career pilot, I can attest to the fact that when my intuition speaks, it’s usually right 99% of the time.

      Reply
  5. Great points on why you don’t occasionally blind strike when your flies reach the sweet spot. I’ve tried it a few times just for laughs, but it just doesn’t feel right.

    However, I’m still intrigued by it and plan on experimenting with it more. I’m thinking on a day where I have everything else dialed in (weight, water type, fly, etc.) and have some cooperative fish.

    Thank you for always being so generous with your time and knowledge.

    Reply
  6. When I was newer to nymphing I would gravitate to faster water and blind strike while working upstream. The fast water, and moving upstream helped with my sloppiness. I caught a modest amount of fish that way while using a standard wf fly line and flouro leader. Now I have a variation of your mono rig that greatly helps with strike detection. Early on I don’t think I could have figured out the rig setup and the technique, but catching fish sure helped keep me happy and on the water.

    Reply
  7. I don’t like blind strikes, especially when they work. For one thing, it makes me think that I’m getting a bunch of eats that I’m not detecting, and that sucks. But mainly I don’t like blind strikes because it makes me feel out of control. I like to know why I’m striking. Enough of my life is subject to blind chance. Fly fishing is supposed to give me an illusory sense of agency.

    Reply
  8. “Blind Strike” and “Set” send imagery of a hard and fast pull…but what about lifts a la Leisenring Lift?…perhaps Joe was really talking about a “check set” or a lift of the rod at the juiciest part of the drift…not a move that would spook a fish but entice a fish/set the hook in sort of one move? I don’t exactly “set” at the end of my drift into the back cast but I “lift” the rig with gradually more and more power until the nymphs are near the surface when I am accelerating into the back cast. The slower lift in the beginning of that move often does the same thing as the Leisenring lift or rise of a swinging wet fly…it mimics emergence and at times of the year that can be an irresistible trigger for fish. I do after attempting a dead drift through a juicy spot often try again but lift the fly at that awesome spot…often there is a fish.

    Reply
    • ““Blind Strike” and “Set” send imagery of a hard and fast pull…but what about lifts a la Leisenring Lift?”

      They are very different things, so not addressed in this article.

      “perhaps Joe was really talking about a lift of the rod at the juiciest part of the drift.”

      Respectfully, he wasn’t. You can watch this in the video, and read it in his works.

      I hear you about allowing the fly to swing or lift under tension. Under the right circumstances, on the right day over the right fish, that can be a great way to trigger a take. I will say, those are rare times, overall, when factoring all days of the year. And the baseline of a dead drift is where good nymphing starts. There is no doubt to that. So I do NOT employ any lift or swing at the end of the my standard drift, as it just wastes dead drift time.

      Last point, though: I would not try to combine that swing/lift with a set. Meaning, any slow lift off a dead drift, just to see if a fish is there, will not hook trout very often. I see this happen with my clients on a slow hook set. Trout spit the artificial out in a split second, if they can. And slow setting, or a casual lift to check will end up being more frustrating than fruitful.

      Make sense?

      Dom

      Reply
      • I have thought about this for years due to the number of fish I have caught while lifting the fly from the water for the next cast. This is no different than the blind strike.
        My simple answer is that the fish is attracted to the movement of the fly, typically a nymph, upwards in the water column. Frank Sawyer and Oliver Kite were the first to describe this as the induced take. They were fishing to sighted fish but the fish response was the same.
        Leisenring was doing the same as his lift was to a known fish lie. The rise of the fly in the water column is what induced the strike.
        This all has to do with some innate behavior of the fish. No magical sixth sense.
        .

        Reply
      • Thanks Dom. Your thoughts make sense!

        Reply
  9. I totally agree that the best anglers don’t have a sixth sense for when to set the hook but rather are subconsciously picking up on minor cues.

    In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear gives other examples of this. For example, military analysts can discern which blips on a radar screen are an enemy missile and which are their own planes even when they are flying at the same speed, altitude, etc.

    Reply

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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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