Small Difference Makers for Landing Large Trout

landing large trout

My son, Luke, keeps sending me hurtful text messages. These texts contain reports and photos of landing large trout on the South Platte River in Colorado. He has caught several 19- and 20-inchers in the last two weeks. I’m hurt since I’m not there to join in on the fun.

But a comment in one of his text messages struck me. Luke talked about something that made all the difference in landing these big fish. His comment got me thinking about the “difference makers” that lead to success in landing big fish. Here are four that have worked well for me when I have large trout on the other end of the line.

1. Fishing with a heavier tippet.

Go as heavy as you can. I used to think that I always needed a 6x tippet (roughly 3.5 pound test) with a size #18 fly whether a nymph or a dry.

Anything larger risks looking like a rope.

But I’ve had success with a 5x (about 4.75 pound test) and sometimes even a 4x (about 6 pound test) tippet. You can get away with a heavier size if the water is a bit off-color or the current is faster. Choppy current is your friend, too, if you’re fishing dry flies. The trout don’t get as good a look at the tippet.

2. Fighting the brute from the side.

If you’re striking a classic pose for a photo, then I suppose pointing your rod tip to the sky and trying to pull the fish directly towards you makes sense. But if you want to land that brute, you need to try something different.

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.

So, for example, if you’ve pulled the trout to the left for thirty seconds or so, switch and pull it to your right. Go back and forth and you’ll tire it more quickly than you might expect.

3. Setting the drag properly on your reel.

Your fly reel has an adjustable drag — a lever or a dial which determines how much pressure a fish must exert to pull the line out of the reel.

The basic rule is to set the drag’s tension on the light side. However, if it’s too tight, a sudden surge by the fish will snap the tippet. But if it’s too light, the fish will invariably run for cover and snag or snap your line on a submerged branch or other obstruction. I often adjust my drag even as I’m retrieving a fish.

With a larger fish, I will typically tighten my drag as the fish tires and is less prone to make a sudden run downriver. I want to get it in as quickly as possible.

4. Using a long-handled net.

For years I’ve used a small hand-made net by Brodin.

A couple years ago, generous friends gave me a Fishpond Nomad Emerger. I can still clip it to my fly fishing vest, and it doesn’t feel as bulky as it might look. But it has a larger basket as well as a longer handle.

This has been a difference maker when I’m fishing alone. I don’t have to pull in a big trout as close to my body — where bad things tend to happen — with a long-handled net.

This was the difference maker for my son, Luke.

I told him to go buy the same net I’ve been using since he was running into some big fish. He did, and he reported that he would have had a hard time landing those twenty-inch rainbows with his shorter net.

Protecting Your Fly Fishing Reel

Let’s keep it reel. Now that my feeble attempt at humor is out of the way, I want to offer you a few tips for protecting your fly fishing reel. Typically, fly reels are not high maintenance. But there are a few steps you can take to protect them:

1. Read the instructions that came with the fly fishing reel

Yeah right, you’re thinking. But you might pick up a surprising insight.

For example, Lamson reels do not need lubricant. Most Ross reels don’t either, yet the Ross Colorado LT does. Its instruction manual calls for applying a small dab of waterproof grease in between the interface of the clicker and the spring. Similarly, the Orvis Vortex requires the application of Penn Reel Lube once or twice a year.

So read your instruction manual. If you can’t locate it, you should be able to find it online.

2. Be careful where you place it on the ground

I set my fly rod on the ground dozens (I suppose) of times a day. I do this when I eat lunch, cross a fence, take off or put on a jacket, tie on new tippet or fly, or take a photo. The key is to take a moment to check the ground. Try to avoid sand, fine gravel, and dirt. Also, give your reel a soft landing when you set it on a rock.

3. Take off the spool to check for grit

Do this at least a couple times a year.

Once every fishing trip is preferable — especially if you haven’t been thoughtful about where you have set your rod. Some fly fishers carry a toothbrush for this purpose. But I prefer to keep it simple and use my fingers and the tail of my shirt (despite the danger of grease stains!).

4. Let your reel air dry

There is nothing wrong with getting your reel wet. Mine has even slipped into the river occasionally.

Make sure, though, that you let your reel air dry before putting it away for the day. If your reel has been submerged, definitely take off the spool. You might even want to pull out some of the line (even to the backing) so that moisture isn’t trapped in the line coiled around your spool. But you don’t need to do anything heroic like blow-drying it. Simply set it on a counter or on top of your duffel bag.

5. Use the protective case

This should be obvious. But I get lazy sometimes and toss my reel into my duffel bag. Or I simply place it in the pile of stuff in the back of my SUV. So let the protective case do its job — which is, well, protection!

6. Back off the drag during the off-season

I’ll confess that I haven’t done this in the past. It makes perfect sense, but it didn’t occur to me until I read suggestions from both Sage and Orvis to set the drag to minimum when you store your reel for the off-season. Lessening the tension will add more life to the mechanism (spring) that creates tension.

7. Carry an extra spool

Last fall, I slipped and dropped my rod—reel first—on a rock on the Yellowstone River. I bent the spool on my Lamson reel and had to bend it with some needle-nosed pliers to make it work.

When I returned from the trip, I ordered another spool. It’s good to keep a spare spool in your duffel bag—especially if you’re fishing a stretch of river in a more remote place (that is, miles from a fly shop).

The Reel Truth about Fighting Trout

A little mistake cost me a big fish. I was fishing Montana’s Madison River several years ago when I hooked into a large trout. It began running down the river, and I could not get it to stop. So I started running after it — well, as much as one can run in knee-deep water.

About one-hundred yards downriver, the trout circled around a large boulder near the river’s edge. Suddenly, the line went limp. I felt disgusted. I had seen how big the trout was when it leaped out of the water before it started its escape route. I had made a few mistakes trying to land the trout. But one costly little mistake was failing to set the drag properly on my reel.

How many fish are lost as the result of reel-related mistakes?

It’s hard to say, but I suspect it is more than we think. A reel is not simply an apparatus for line storage. It is an integral tool for fighting fish. If you are new to fly fishing, here are four ideas to help you use your reel more effectively so that you land fish rather than losing them.

1. Retrieve the slack line so the fish is pulling against your reel.

The first tip has to do with that awkward moment right after the trout takes your fly. The thrill of setting the hook is replaced by the realization that you have a wad of line at your feet — or on the surface of the water. The loops of line you need to retrieve may add up to as much as twenty feet! So you have to retrieve it so that fish is pulling against your reel.

It sounds simple. But it is not. How do you multi-task and retrieve the line while fighting the fish? Very carefully.

While reeling in the slack line, use the index finger of the hand holding your rod to keep the right tension on the line. You can tighten the tension as the line runs through the groove in your index finger by pressing the line against your rod handle or by simply tightening the crease in your finger. Too little pressure means the fish can throw the hook or run into a place you don’t want it to go (usually there is brush involved). Too much pressure means the fish can snap your tippet when it surges.

I have even figured out how to use the little finger on my rod hand to guide the slack line and create the right amount of tension as it is being retrieved. Yes, I can do that even as my index finger on the same hand is controlling the section of line against which the fish is fighting.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and the slack is gone.

2. Adjust the drag as needed.

Once the slack is gone and the fish is pulling line from your reel, it’s time to think about the drag. This is the amount of pressure a fish must exert to pull the line out of the reel. Your fly reel has an adjustable drag—a lever or a dial which will adjust the tension.

The basic rule is to set the drag on the light side. If it’s too tight, a sudden surge by the fish will snap the tippet. But if it’s too light, the fish will invariably run for cover and snag or snap your line on a submerged branch or other obstruction.

You may even need to tighten and lighten your drag as you retrieve your fish. With a larger fish, I will typically tighten my drag as the fish tires.

3. Alternate between reeling in your line and letting the trout take it out.

There is a lot of give and take when you fight a trout. You want to land it as quickly as possible to enable the fish to survive. So retrieve the line when the trout takes a break. But when it wants to run, let it do so within reason.

Some fly fishers like to fight trout by palming the reel. That is, they press their cupped hand into the side of spool where the little handle is spinning around. This stops or slows down the spool from releasing line. It looks fun, and it can work with smaller fish. But expect a bruised palm if you try to do it with larger fish.

4. Develop the feel for your reel.

Some experts will give you formulas for how many pounds of tension to use when setting your drag. Newer fly lines even change in color to help you gauge how many feet of line you have in the water. But I still think you have to get a feel for this rather than relying on a particular formula or guideline.

S2:E13 Fly Fishing Gear We Use

fly fishing guides

Fly fishing gear is like candy. Or better than candy. There’s no joy like the permission one gives himself or herself to buy a new fly rod or reel, or purchase a new pair of waders. Click now to listen to “Fly Fishing Gear We Use.” In this episode, we discuss our fly rods, waders, vests, and nets.

Listen to our episode “Fly Fishing Gear We Use” now

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