2 Beginner Fly Fisher Mistakes When Fighting a Fish

I am haunted by a trout that got away. It happened on a spring day on Montana’s Madison River.

I had recently purchased a new fly rod—my first high quality rod. On my third cast of the day, my strike indicator disappeared, and a battle began. For a few seconds, the trout darted back and forth in the current. Then, it decided to run down river. The screeching sound mesmerized me as the fleeing fish stripped line off the reel.

“This is cool,” I thought.

But it wasn’t cool. I simply couldn’t slow down the fleeing fish. I pulled back on my rod, but the fish didn’t slow down. So I began to chase it. I held my rod high and ran down the river—well, as fast as a fly fisher wearing chest waders can safely “run” in knee deep water.

Then it happened. Suddenly the trout darted around a big boulder near the river’s edge, and my fly rod stopped quivering. The fly line went limp. The trout was gone, and so was my adrenaline rush. When I saw that the last two feet of my leader were missing, I realized that it had snapped off on the boulder as the trout swam around it.

Normally, I don’t brood over fish I lose. But I haven’t been able to erase this one from my memory.

One reason is the fish’s size. I never saw it, but it felt like the 20-inch rainbows I caught in this same stretch in the following years. Also, it would have been the first large fish I landed using my new fly rod.

Yet the main reason I am still haunted by this trout that got away is due to the beginner fly fisher mistakes I made that day with my fly rod. To be sure, the drag on my reel wasn’t set properly. And I’m sure I made other mistakes. But the two that cost me a better chance at landing the trout were related to the way I handled my rod.

Both are common mistakes made by beginners when trying to land a fish.

Mistake #1 – Pointing the rod straight up

I know where I got the idea to point my rod tip to the sky, straight up in the air at a ninety degree angle to the water’s surface. I learned it from the artwork of fly fishers landing fish. In each print, the fly fishers had their fly rods pointing to the sky so they could get the fish close to their nets. They had sufficiently tired the fish, making it ready for landing.

However, this technique does not work for fighting a fish. In fact, it might result in a broken rod tip.

Holding a rod straight up in the air when fighting a fish puts the pressure on the tip section. You do this only if you want to ease up on the tension against which the fish is fighting or to get it close to your landing net. Otherwise, you lower your tip at about a 45-degree angle with the ground during the battle. This transfers the pressure to the middle of the rod. It makes the fish work harder and tire more quickly as it pulls against the rod’s strong mid-section.

But there was a second mistake I made that day.

Mistake #2 – Pulling the fish up instead of sideways

Along with making the fish fight against the mid-section of your fly rod, you want to use side pressure. That is, you want to pull the fish from side to side rather than directly towards you. It is the side to side pressure which works against a fish’s muscles and tires it out.

Now your tippet must be heavy enough, and your knots tied correctly. But if you meet both conditions, you can wrestle aggressively with the largest trout and tire it out quickly enough for the fish to remain healthy when released.

If I had avoided these two beginner fly fisher mistakes on the Madison River that day, I might have landed a big trout rather than trying to chase after it.

But there’s something cathartic about confession.

Now that I’ve detailed my blunder, maybe I can forget about my mistakes. It’s better to be haunted by waters (a la Norman Maclean) rather than by the one that got away.

8 Replies to “2 Beginner Fly Fisher Mistakes When Fighting a Fish”

  1. Great Stuff. I think that we have all been there. You make some great points about side pressure, keeping the rod around 45 degrees from the water surface. I would add that you try and keep your fish from heading into faster moving water by using that side pressure. Also, try walking back to shore when fighting larger fish. It will be easier to play your fish and keep them in shallow, slower moving water.

    1. Thanks, Glen. Those tips are both spot-on. I’m convinced that getting back to more shallow water has helped me land some fish that I otherwise would have lost.

  2. I once hooked a 16″ native from my drift boat, and he fought like a champ, and when I leaned over to pick up my net, I inadvertently STEPPED ON MY LINE! Rookie mistake, Mr. Big knew it, I guess and made a sudden swoosh down stream and broke the 5X tippet. 🙁

  3. The picture above is exactly what I wanted to address, and that was before I saw the picture. First I want to set the stage. You make your cast, but before that fly hits the water, you should have the flyline beneath the trigger finger. Your trigger finger (on your rod hand) is what holds and keeps you from forming a loop in front of your rod hand. The line hand has already fed enough line to reach your target. A loop is telling you that you do not have control. When the line ceases to slide through the guides, you should place the line under your trigger finger. From there, you never reach in front of your rod hand. You strip from behind that hand so that you control the line in front. The picture shows the fish has been hooked. What is the line in the left hand doing? It’s going to cause you a problem. How do you strip the line in when the line runs from the stripping guide to your line hand and not held by anything inbetween. You can’t strip. If you let go of the line to reach higher up, you just left a loop, giving slack to the fish and you have no control. You gained nothing and are sure to have a problem trying to net a fish that is twenty ft. off the end of your rod. See your target, cast enough line to reach it. Before the fly hits the water, your line hand should have placed the flyline under your rod hand’s trigger finger. This picture is not clear enough to see if the line goes from the stripping guide, then the line hand and then to the rod hand’s trigger finger. Do not reach in front of your rod hand. I have seen friends try to hold it in their teeth. Some have over 40 yrs. of flyfishing behind them and use guides all the time. What is the matter with the guides? I hope this reads well enough to understand. Teaching it is easier than writing it. If you have fished enough, you have experienced a trout taking the fly before it hits the water. If you tie your own flies well, you have had birds chasing it while still in the air. So boyscouts, always be prepared.

    1. Once again, we appreciate your wise insights, Michael. Yes, it would be easier to see this in person, but you’ve explained it clearly enough for us to get the gist of it.

  4. ? Very good info. But i need help with really lite gear.I fish a lot with a half and 2 weight rod ,how do i handle the big fish on that really lite gear.

    1. Very carefully! But seriously, it’s a great question. I’d suggest exaggerating the techniques discussed in the article. First, with a lighter rod, it helps to force the big ones to go sideways in one direction and then another–even more quickly than you would with a heavier rod. Also, you might lower the tip of your rod even more than normal so that the fish is fighting against the point between the mid-section butt-section of your rod.

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