A pocket of dark green calls out like a beacon amongst the shallow, clear water of the stream. Large boulders frame the right side of the emerald pocket, with a large log leaning against the boulder, a reminder of the power of past storms. I make my way across the point bar to improve my position to make a cast into the deeper water. A deep breath helps me settle my nerves as I cast and the flies land into a seam that flows against the boulders.
The line is nearly tight as the drift approaches the boulder and log and the line stops. I lift the rod and feel the weight. It feels like I hooked the log. Sigh. I take one step upstream and move the rod tip upstream, until I feel the head shake.
Each time I’ve caught a big fish, my first thought after the hook set was that I was snagged, until I felt the head shake. Immediately my heart rate quickens, and I start the internal pep talk. “Side pressure, stay calm, side pressure.” The fish begins to follow my direction to the shallower water but then bolts toward the log and the line snaps. My sighter flings past my head and I can feel in the line that both the flies are gone.
My head tilts down and I stifle a scream. “Why do I lose so many big fish?” I’ve worked to improve my timing, emotions, and skill in landing large fish, but an angler only gets so many moments to practice. Watching videos and reading books can only help so much.
Over the next couple days and then following weeks, I’ve been fortunate enough to hook several large fish, but my landing rate has been below 30%. Many of the occurrences have been broken tippet; some are broken knots. So why is this happening?
I wanted to blame my tackle first. The tippet is the terminus of the fly line and often is the weakest part of the angler’s tackle. They are designed to be as thin as possible to reduce drag and visibility. Tippets typically last for 1-2 years but can last longer if stored in a cool, dry location. After my first day of losing about a dozen flies and breaking off several large fish, I replaced my tippet. Marking each tippet spool with the date of purchase can help remind you of when to replace them, as my friend Brian noted.
I continued to break off fish after buying new 5x and 4x tippets. Next came knots. I often use the clinch knot and double/triple surgeon’s knots. My friend Rob shared his recommendations, which he referred to as superstitions, to always do an even number of wraps for clinch knots (8 for fine tippet of 5x or 6x) and 6 for everything that was a larger diameter. He reminded me to always test knots and wet them. I wet knots but have been focusing more on securing them evenly.
Better knots still didn’t solve the issue. Eventually, I was going to have to start looking at my skills, or lack thereof. Am I setting the hook too rapidly? Is my drag too tight? The answer is yes and yes. Landon Mayer gave some excellent advice recently on the Wade Out There podcast. He described the trout hook set as lifting, often I yank it back with overexcitement. Lift don’t yank. Landon stated to keep firm pressure and direct the head of the fish where you want it to go. I can become impatient and pull too hard or get nervous and hold the line still allowing the fish to change direction without me leading it.
I haven’t been able to master the skill of fighting big fish, but I’m hooking them! Small victories. Investigating tackle conditions, checking knot strength, and improving your skills can help you gain confidence and catch more fish. Losing a big fish is incredibly disappointing, but learning to be prepared for the next one is a fun challenge.