If you find yourself thinking about hooksets or how to fight and land fish, then you’ve already done something right, because fooling a trout is the hardest thing out there. Burying the hook and bringing the fish to hand is another skill set entirely, and it’s a little easier.
I’ve published a lot on Troutbitten about fighting fish. And a good fight starts with a solid hookset. We want it fast, sharp and — here’s the key — downstream.
Of course, it’s not always possible to set the hook perfectly downstream. An angler who is working flies upstream to get a good dead drift on dry flies or nymphs has the significant advantage of being behind the trout.
Fish eats. Hook set downstream. Fish on.
But other angles that we fish limit the perfect hookset. Swinging flies downstream, for example, puts us in the toughest situation for a good downstream set. So we do the next best thing.
Fish eats. Swing the rod to the side. Fish on — maybe.
Let’s break this down a bit more, thinking about why downstream hooksets matter and how to get them in a variety of river setups.
Why Downstream Hooksets Work
Trout face the current. They “breathe” and acquire oxygen by taking water through their mouth, passing it over-and-out through the gills. So, aside from the occasional back current or pocket water swirl, trout face upstream while holding or feeding. And when they take our fly, we know what direction the trout is facing — its head is upstream, into the current.
There is no doubt that we get the best hookset by pulling the fly into the fish and not away from it. Hooksets are best with the direction of the set back — into the weight and mass of the fish. Remember, we fish with relatively small hooks, with artificial, barbless flies. So as soon as a trout eats our fly, it tries to eject it. It pushes water out of its mouth and “spits” the fly. This often happens in a microsecond.
Trout know they’ve eaten something they don’t want to swallow, and they try to get rid of it. That’s why pulling the fly into the trout, setting downstream, results in many more hookups. If we pull the fly away from the fish (upstream) we are helping the trout eject the fly. Surely, we’re all lucky enough that a trout can’t get rid of the fly, or it hangs on the corner of its jaw plenty of times. But downstream hooksets result in more solid hookups. And that leads to a successful fight, ending with another trout in the net.
Most anglers lift for a hookset, straight up to the sky. I see this all the time. They lift and try to get everything vertical. For stillwater fishing, or for very deep sections of a river, this is often a good idea. But for the vast majority of river scenarios, setting downstream is the better bet.
Downstream! And yes, somewhat upward. I often tell anglers to set toward the horizon, and around here, with mountains in the distance, that’s a good angle. Your terrain may vary, but you get the picture. For me, as soon as the fly hits the water, I’m ready to set the hook, and I almost always end up setting at the same angle as my backcast.
Setting this way keeps the trout lower in the water. And although everyone seems to love a jumping fish, most losses happen when a trout breaks the surface. Setting the hook downstream helps keep a fish in the water, with the fisherman in control. This angle also puts the fisherman in great position to get side pressure immediately, putting maximum leverage on the trout and tiring it quickly.
I grew into fly fishing by using the same approach as I always had with a gear rod. I worked small waters by wading upstream, staying behind the trout, spooking fewer fish, getting good drifts with bait and setting downstream, into the fish when they ate it. All of these hook setting habits came naturally, because the angle I was fishing set me up for it.
But I remember trying my hand at swinging wet flies and sometimes streamers. As a young man with a fly rod, if I wasn’t fishing dries, my first subsurface presentations were based on swinging, and that happened downstream. I cast across or down and across, then let the flies swing, under tension, and I would manipulate the course and animation of the fly with mends, strips or twitches. Right away I missed a lot of fish. And I’ve come to understand there were two reasons for this. First, a swung fly rarely looks natural. It can be an attractive presentation that makes trout curious, but they don’t often commit to the fly and rather tap it or mouth it with curiosity. Second, hooksets on a swung fly cannot be downstream. And as described above, we can’t pull the fly into the trout.
When swinging flies, or anytime the fly is downstream of us, our best bet is to sweep the rod toward the nearside riverbank. Always set the hook downstream as much as possible, and for swung flies, that is bankside. When fishing nymphs under an indy, if I let the rig drift past my position, I do the same thing — I sweep the rod downstream and toward the bank. This pulls the fly sideways into the trout’s mouth.
Lifting upstream to the sky is the worst hookset when a fish is downstream of our position. This setting angle takes the fly away from the fish, pulling it out of the trout’s mouth. It also puts maximum tension on the tippet at the moment of contact and pulls the fish to the surface.
Because trout face into the current, and because a river is fairly predictable in its flow, we know which way trout are facing. We use this knowledge to great advantage, both in our approach and especially at the point of the hookset.
Set downstream, as much as possible, always.
Fish hard, friends.
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