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.

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.