Fly Fishing’s Critical Moment

Fly fishing has its share of critical moments. But one is especially important when it comes to landing the trout you’ve just hooked. It’s the moment right after the hook-set.

Tricky situation

The good news is that you have a fish on the other end of the line. The bad news is that you may have several yards of fly line at your feet or in the water. This line needs to be retrieved so that the fish is fighting against your reel as well as your rod.

Sure, some fly fishers prefer to fight fish without the aid of their reel. Yet a good fly reel is designed to manage the tension while the fish is fighting on the other end of the line. When its drag is properly set, the reel provides some resistance to the trout that is trying to escape. It also prevents a fish from snapping the line when it suddenly darts or lurches.

The reel lets out line before the weakest part of your line — the tippet or the knot you’ve tied—reaches a breaking point.

Maintaining tension

While you retrieve the excess line with one hand, you need to maintain tension with the other. So, if you’re right-handed, you’ll need to maintain tension on your fly line with your right index finger. Sounds easy, right? If you’ve ever done this, you know that it’s easy to clamp down too hard on the line with your index finger. Then, when the trout makes a sudden move, the line can snap because there is no “give” in it.

However, if you don’t clamp down a bit on the line, there’s no tension. The hook can slide out of the fish’s mouth. Or, the trout can more readily “shake off” the hook. This is especially the case with larger fish.

Retrieving excess line

Getting the proper amount of tension with your right index finger is only half the battle. Your left hand must simultaneously pull in the excess line. This is what a reel handle is for, right? Perhaps. But if you pay attention to the way fly reels are designed, you’ll notice that the spool is exposed. This allows you to “palm” spool—that is, to spin it quickly with the palm of your hand.

Don’t worry about making a neat, tidy retrieve of your line. Just get it in as quickly as you can. Later, after you’ve landed, admired, and released your fish, you can strip out the line and rewind it in a more even manner.

Adjusting the drag

As soon as you have retrieved the excess line, remember to adjust the drag. I usually keep my tension light so it’s easy for me to strip out more line as I’m casting. So when I have a fish in the other end, I invariably need to “tighten” the drag a bit. It’s easy enough to do. The size of the fish and the amount of fight it has determines exactly how much adjustment I make.

It’s a relief to get through this critical moment!

Now I’m playing the fish against my reel. I can reel in line as needed and let the fish run a bit (but only a bit!). I’ve lost my share of trout because I was clumsily trying to retrieve excess line. Don’t make the same mistake. If you can retrieve your excess fly line while keeping sufficient pressure on the line, you have a much better chance of keeping the fish on your life.

This is a case where your right hand needs to know what your left hand is doing. Keep them working together!

2 Replies to “Fly Fishing’s Critical Moment”

  1. You’re right! More of my fish have been broken off between the set and getting the the line on the reel than at other times. The fish is at its hottest and it’s not worth it to try to get an average trout on the reel. Focus on proper tension with the line hand for a few minutes before messing around getting the fish on the reel if you must. The danger really increases with fast or big game like bonefish and tarpon. The line whips around and can wrap around your reel or body parts to utter devastation. I tell my beginning friends to look at the reel and line rather than the fish to make sure you’re clear of snags. Spreading your line and rod hands apart is helpful here. There’s plenty of time to look at the fish tear through the water later. I suppose this counts for steelhead and salmon too.

    1. Wow, that’s a great point, Eric! The bigger the fish, the more dangerous it can be–or at least challenge increases. That’s a good tip about spreading your line and rod hands apart.

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