When to Get Sideways with Your Fly Rod

sideways with your fly rod

It’s never a good idea to get sideways with people (or your fly fishing partner). But sometimes it’s okay to get sideways with your fly rod.

Most photos of fly fishers casting or fighting fish show the fly rod pointed up—vertical, perpendicular to the ground. But there are three times when it makes sense to get sideways with your rod:

1. The sideways cast

Dave, my pod-cast partner, and I like to fish a little trout stream in the Timber Coulee area of Wisconsin. One of the better stretches has three runs which are covered by low-hanging tree branches. If you look closely, you can see a couple strike indicators hanging from the branches.

One of them may or may not be ours.

But we’ve been able to fish this stretch successfully by using a side-arm cast.

It’s not that difficult. The main challenge is your back cast. If you have tall grass or low-to-the ground obstructions, it won’t work. But if you’re close enough to the run for low-handing branches to interfered, you probably won’t need a long back cast.

2. The sideways hook set

We use a sideways hook set for nymphing under two conditions:

First, the strike is right in front of us — not downstream. Second, the strike is just a few feet in front of us. I’ll explain why in a moment.

The rationale for a sideways hook set is simple. Rather than pull the nymph up and possibly out of the fish’s mouth, we pull it to the side so that it goes into the fish’s mouth. Fish face the current. That is, they look upstream. So when we set the hook, we pull to the side in a downstream direction.

However, this technique does not work well when the strike is downstream from you or twenty feet or more in front of you. In both cases, you have a lot of fly line on the surface. The surface tension will slow down your hook set. It will feel like trying to run fast in a muddy field. You’ll simply get bogged down.

So, it’s best to keep your fly rod vertical in these instances.

You’ll be surprised how a quick straight-up lift of your rod will get the line off of the surface before you can say “Trout!” Try this sometime when you don’t have a fish on the other end. Your line will lift off the surface so quickly that your strike indicator will come shooting at you. It shows how effective this technique really is.

3. The sideways fight

Holding your fly rod high and pointing it to the sky makes for a great photo when fighting a fish. But when you’re trying to land a fish as quickly as possible (for the sake of its health), pulling it from side to side works best. This forces a fish to use its lateral muscles, and it tires it out in much less time.

Perpendicular may look right. But sometimes, getting your fly rod sideways is the most effective way to cast, hook, and fight fish.

Setting the Hook for Nymph Fishing

What is the best way to set the hook when fly fishing nymphs? I have been an advocate of the “side pull” approach. A Montana fly fishing guide first suggested it to me. He pointed out that lifting my fly rod — pulling it straight up — could yank the nymph out of the trout’s mouth. Better to do a “side pull” in the direction of the current.

Since trout are facing the current, pulling the rod to the side in a downstream direction take the nymph into the trout’s mouth. He was right. Some of the time.

Surface Tension

The “side pull” approach makes perfect sense. But it has one big problem: surface tension.

Suppose you get a nice long drift so that your strike indicator bobs when it is twenty feet downstream. Try yanking your rod to the downstream side. Since your fly line will be floating on the surface, pulling it to the side requires it to fight through surface tension. If you’ve ever tried running through three feet of water, you can appreciate what your fly line faces as it skims through the surface or even the film.

There is too much resistance for a quick, effective hook set.

The Quick Lift

The solution is to go with “the quick lift.” Simply lift your rod tip. That is, go with your instincts and pull up on your rod.

When you do this, it’s remarkable how quickly the rod will lift your line off of the surface of the water. Try this sometime when you don’t have a fish trying to ingest your nymph, and you will be amazed at what you see. As soon as your fly line lifts off of the water and the surface tension is gone, your strike indicator will lurch towards you. That gives you an indication what happens when a trout has taken your fly.

You will get a solid hook-set.

I suppose you still might run the risk of pulling the fly out of the trout’s mouth. But the “side pull” method is so slow that your hook set will probably be useless. If the trout has hooked itself, you’re fine. But if not, it can spit out the fly before the gets pulled into the side of the trout’s mouth. Even then, the hook set will lack in force because of the resistance you’re facing from the surface tension. Alright, enough with the physics lesson.

I think you get the idea.

Madison River Monsters

My pod-cast partner, Dave, and I used the “quick lift” technique effectively on a day we recently spent on the Madison River right outside Yellowstone National Park. We were fishing for the big “runners” which come out of Hebgen Lake for fall spawning. Without exception, every trout we hooked was 15-25 feet below us. Rather than fighting the surface tension with a “side pull,” we used a quick lift. I do not have lightning-quick reflexes at age 55, but most strikes resulted in hooking fish.

The Exception for Setting the Hook

There is a situation when I still use the “side pull” approach when fly fishing nymphs. It works under two conditions:

First, the strike has to take place above me (upstream) or right in front of me.

Second, the run I’m fishing has to be less than twelve feet in front of me. This enables me to keep little or no line on the surface as long as I keep my rod tip high. Without any resistance, a pull to the side in a downstream direction works quite well.

Once your indicator gets past you, though, forget the sideways pull when you get a strike. It’s too awkward, and there will be too much drag. Instead, go for the quick lift.

You’ll be pleased with the results.