Fly Fishing Tailwaters - Part 7- Playing the Fish










Rod tips are what protect the light tippet from breaking and light wire hooks from straightening. When the fish pulls, the rod tip gives. It's up to you to let the rod do what it is designed to do. This is accomplished by initially keeping the rod tip high and allowing slack to slide through your trigger finger when the fish pulls, or stripping slack line in if the fish charges toward you. Too much tension and the fish will break off, too little and they will throw the fly. The biggest mistake is to employ the Vulcan Death Grip. This is when you drive the fly line about a half an inch into the cork of your rod and refuse to give any slack when the fish is heading away from you like a Sidewinder missile. A variation is when you point the rod at the fish and then employ the Vulcan Death Grip. It won't have a happy ending because you've not only lost your flies, but you've also tagged the fish with some pierced body art that he will have to dislodge.

Do this exercise: after your rod is strung, have someone hold your rod with the Vulcan Death Grip as you pull on the line. Have them raise the rod tip high and after a few pulls to get the feel of it, have them point the rod tip at you. It's an eye opener. After you hook up a fish, especially if there is heavy current, fly fishing gets paradoxical. The harder you hang on, the less you have. A two-pound trout planing sideways in heavy current weighs as much as a Chevy big-block engine. If you muscle the fish, you will lose. The first thing to do is guide the fish out of the current. This is accomplished by moving the rod tip so that the fly line is perpendicular to the current. This turns the fish's head and the current will push, or plane, the fish toward you. Some fish may require your patience for a moment or two before they swing toward you and out of the current. The amount of pressure to give the fish will depend on the size of the fish, the strength of the current, the size of your fly, tippet size, and other factors. When applying pressure think of it as "encouragement” to the fish to leave the current rather than "insistence.”


Top – If you had a piece of plywood facing upstream in a current, you'd feel the planing when you rotated it in the current. The more surface you showed the current, the harder it would push or pull.

Two - Fish are not shaped exactly like plywood, but they aren't symmetrical spheres either. When pointed upstream they are most neutral in the current. But here the fish turns his head away from the angler and the current will plane him toward the far bank. That's because the angler has his rod tip high and upstream.

Three – When the angler changes his rod tip angle it will turn the fish's head and now the current will tend to plane the fish toward a position downstream of the angler. The current is now helping the angler instead of working against him.

Four – Here the angler leads the fish out of the heavy current and into the softer water near shore.

Playing the fish off the reel means that you've either wound the slack line back onto the reel or the fish has pulled the slack out as it ran away from you, or some of both. This is when a good drag is important. If your drag is set correctly, you can now release your finger from the trigger and let the reel do the work. When the fish pulls, the reel will allow line to come off the spool and, when the fish comes toward you, the slack line is then stripped if the fish is coming fast, or wound on the reel while you keep your rod tip in the proper position. There are ways to "play the line” with one hand when the fish is on the reel, but it requires some demonstration and practice. The same is true for "palming” the reel. You can control the tension on the fish by creating friction with your fingers to add to the drag of the reel.

The actions a fly fisher takes after the fish is hooked will determine whether the fish will likely die or live. The Catch and Release chapter of this book has detailed information about how to minimize your impact on the resource, but a few quick tips are shown in the "Catch and Release” sidebar on page 82.

All photos and text © Trapper Badovinac. Any use without written permission from the author is illegal.
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