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.