Tips for Hooking and Playing Big Fish on a Fly Rod

21 inch provo river brown troutAs a fly fishing guide, I have the opportunity to teach new fly fishing techniques or more commonly, to correct bad technique.

Many folks seem to think they do everything wrong. Not true; They just don’t do everything right – nobody does.

One thing that instantly becomes obvious with most fly fishers, is that they do not know how to hook or to play big trout or whitefish on the fly rod.

Like everything else, as soon as I make that statement there will be arguments about the proper techniques and why each technique is better than the next.

This is my 2 cents worth, so take from it what you can.

Mistakes When Hooking and Playing Big Fish on Fly Rod

  • Set hook too hard
  • Set hook in wrong direction
  • Do not have reel drag set properly
  • Do not hold rod tip high enough
  • Do not pressure fish in right direction
  • Do not put fish on the reel
  • Pinch line or hold reel handle while playing fish
  • Put too much pressure on the fish
  • Pull head too far out of the water when landing
  • Snag additional hook with net

Do you hook a fair number of fish, but lose quite a few? Everyone does, including me. We have even guided folks with 30+ years of fly fishing experience that admit they never learned some of the techniques we suggest.

The first three mistakes are so important, I will cover each one separately. The remaining items I will cover together as common mistakes made while playing big fish.

Don’t Set The Hook Too Hard

How often have you set the hook, felt the fish for a split second, then nothing. Fish On! Awwww shucks… Never Mind… He got off.

Maybe you set the hook too hard. This is not bass fishing. We are not using 12 lb test line and big treble hooks.

Most of the time when we fly fish for trout and whitefish,  we are usually using 4X – 5X tippet with breaking strength between 4 and 5 pounds depending on the size, material and brand.

And we usually use small flies between size 12 and size 18, and many times tiny flies sized 20 – 24, because we are trying to use finesse to entice the fish to strike. This is very light equipment.

brown trout caught on very small nymph (size 22)What do you think happens when a 4 lb trout needs one inch of slack, shakes it’s head and doesn’t get that slack?

Yes, he’s gone. Maybe the line breaks or maybe the hook pulls out of the fish, but he’s gone.

You know a large fish can put enough pressure on your line to break it, especially at one of the knots. Yes, a 5 lb test line may break at less than 5 lbs because of the sheer forces on the line in a knot.

Don’t believe it? Test your own line and see if it doesn’t break at a knot most of the time. And who fishes without tying at least one knot?

Also imagine how little force it takes to pull out a tiny hook that only has a 1 or 2 mm bite of skin.

Setting the Hook

So the hook set needs to be quick and firm, but not too hard. In most cases, we just need to take up the slack and the hook will catch.

Set the hook with a quick movement of the arm. Do not try to turn your entire body.

If you have lots of slack line, it also helps to take up lack with your free hand in one direction and set the hook in the opposite direction with the hand holding the rod.

This will leave you with lots of line to get onto the reel, but it is the best way I know to take up lots of slack line quickly.

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Don’t Set the Hook in the Wrong Direction

What do you mean the wrong direction? The fish is down in the water and we want to pull him up out of the water, so we set the hook straight up. Right?

That is what most people do, even when we tell them not to because it is a muscle memory habit. But it misses fish and it wastes time, tippet and flies.

First, when fly fishing on a stream, what happens if you set the hook by pulling the rod straight up and miss? Most of the time, you will be hooked in the trees or bushes. So let’s stop doing that.

Second, which way are most fish facing in a stream? They are facing into the current.

So which way do you have the best chance of pulling a hook into their mouths? Downstream.

So get in the habit of setting downstream and keep the rod tip close to the water. That means a backhand set on one side of the stream and a forehand set on the other. Some folks have trouble with this, but start doing it and it will pay off.

Also, what happens if we miss a fish if we set the hook downstream (if we kept the rod low to the water)? Not much. When nymphing, just mend and keep fishing or roll cast, mend and you’re instantly fishing again. If fishing dry flies, at least you won’t end up in the trees.

Setting the Hook Straight up in the Air is a Hard Habit to Break

This is a hard habit to break. Even Jim and I catch ourselves setting straight up in the air.

Jim got so excited while we were skittering one evening that he pulled the hook straight out of a monster’s mouth.

We were talking about it later and Jim chastised himself “Here he comes… Big ole bucket mouth and what do I do? Pulled it straight out of his mouth”…

It’s OK. If we didn’t get excited, we would stop fishing and do something else.

Note: I once read some complicated instruction for setting the hook in any direction the line curves in the water. I understand what they were getting at because any line still in the water after the initial hook set will continue to follow and be pulled along that same arc.

So that would indicate it is possible for a downstream set to pull the hook upstream and away from the fish with a weak hook set.

I still say just keep it simple and set downstream and remember to keep the rod tip low. In most cases, we are really pulling the hook into the side of the fish’s mouth and we only have to know which direction is downstream.

Set the Drag on Your Fly Reel

Another common mistake is having the drag on your reel set too firm or too soft. Ideally you want the drag to be at about 2 thirds the breaking strength of your weakest link (which should be the lightest section of tippet).

With practice, you will be able to tell by feel, but until then, have a friend act like a fish and pull on the line. Set the drag so you have as much pressure as possible without the tippet breaking. If your friend can take line without breaking tippet, so can a fish.

No fishing buddy? Hook a solid limb or fence and pull against it like it was a fish.

But remember to pull with the same high angle (see below) with the rod as you will when playing a fish. The drag will be firmer or loser depending if the rod is heavily bent vs barely bent.

Common Mistakes When Playing Big Fish on Fly Rod

Now that we have our drags set properly and we know which direction to set the hook and also know to avoid setting the hook too hard, what else could possibly cause us to lose fish?


Some folks consider a fish played for a short time as good as a fish in the net; the proverbial “professional release”.

A big fish on light tippet and a small hook is a long way from that hero pic. You must do everything right, or you will have a story to tell, but no picture to go along with it.

The first thing after a fish is hooked, is to control the line and put the fish on the reel as soon as possible.

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Why pay good money for a reel with a good drag system, just to strip line in by hand? We see lots of folks doing this, but I bet most of them loose lots of their biggest fish.

You may have to strip line at first to take up the slack, but usually, the trick is to hold the rod away from the fish and trap the line against the rod with your finger. But don’t squeeze too hard or the line can not be let out if that big fish needs to “take an inch”.

As soon as the slack is taken up on the reel, take your hand off the reel and hold the rod so it bends in a big arc. How big of an arc?

The rod should be held much more than 90° from the fish, but less than 180°.

angle to hold fly rod when playing fish

We want the fish to bend the entire rod, but not put too much pressure on the tip. Hold the rod at at least 135° from the fish.

The photo shows the actual fly rod being held at about 154° from the fish. This makes the fish bend the entire rod. The drawn arcs and lines show estimates for 90° and 135° angles for visual comparison.

After the fish is on the reel, if the fish will allow, reel some line in. If the fish fights or shakes it’s head violently, Hand off the reel!

So reel in line when you can and wait when you can’t.

Think about it. How is the drag going to work if you are holding the line or the reel handle?

Hands off the Reel!

We had a family from Texas fish with us last Summer.

They were experienced bass fishermen (and we could tell) because they set the hook way too hard and furiously cranked the reel when they had fish on.

They lost several nice fish before I made a rule that the boys were not allowed to touch the reel until I gave them permission.

They gave me a funny look at first, but did as I asked.

provo river brown trout utah june 2018

They had to trust that fish don’t automatically get off if you don’t reel and they had to learn to take in line only when the fish was not fighting.

When the fish started thrashing again, they had to take their hands back off the reel.

They learned fast and both boys hooked and played several 18+ inch fish on their own (we helped net the fish).

So we have to play the fish from the time of the hook up to the time the fish is landed without ever putting too much pressure on the line or allowing the fish to have any slack.

Use Side Pressure to Play Fish

Another thing that needs to be covered to successfully land more big fish is to pressure them in the right direction.

When playing a big fish in fast water, if he is upstream, you are basically fighting the fish. If he down stream, you are fighting the fish and the current. You will not be able to play a bif fish downstream in fast water for very long.

You will have to run towards the fish and take in line at the same time, let the fish run out line and get far downstream or you will have to pressure the fish out of the fast water before he gets down stream.

Obviously, this is not always possible. Some fish are so big there is little we can do to control them with the light tackle we are using.

But in most cases, both fast and slower lanes of water or backwater is close by. Most of these big fish want to get back in the fast water and get away from you. Try to put side pressure on them to get them out of the fast water and into calmer water.

Side pressure seems to tire fish faster than pulling straight up or down stream on them.

Also, don’t let fish rest too much. If you are too careful, big fish will lean into the water and take a break. If the fish is resting put pressure on the to make them fight. When they fight, let the pressure off again.

I don’t know if this is a good analogy or not, but imagine pulling a heavy load on a rope. You would prefer to get it over your shoulder and lean into it as you pull straight ahead. If someone pulled you sideways, it would be very awkward and tiring.

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Landing Fish in a Net

In many cases, the fish is hooked well and played correctly, only to be lost at the net. This is most common when you are netting the fish by yourself.

Part of the problem is the “steep” angle needed to pull the fish close enough to scoop it with the net.

Note: For catch and release, rubber nets are best; protects slime layer and doesn’t snag fish or hooks so release is faster. And barbless hooks are better for fish and helps with fast release. Our beginners prove they don’t need barbs to catch fish.

The other problem is that during the process of pulling the fish’s head up in order to guide the fish head first into the net, the head is raised too far out of the water. That can put too much strain on the tippet and the tiny hook as well as strain on the rod tip.

We’ve all done it, and I’ve even done it on video (but happy we haven’t used that footage (yet!)

Check out our videos on our YouTube Channel

If possible, have your fishing buddy help net your big fish. You will land more, and it will be easier on the fish.

Many times, folks have to resort to “beaching” large fish to land them. This is hard on fish in rocky and deep muddy areas, but can be OK in soft sandy areas for fish that are to be released.

By the end of most of our guided fishing trips, clients have a better understanding of hooking and playing big fish as well as more practice with various techniques used that day.

Fly fishing is a doing thing, but I hope the information here will help you land more big trout next time you get out and do.

Video of our Clients that Landed Big Trout

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  1. Your explanation of playing a fish off the reel is the best. In bold ‘don’t touch the reel until you can take slack’ is key! Also setting drag is super important. My skills have improved and I am fighting bigger fish these days on 5x – there is no room for idiocy! Thx-Scott from Mammoth

    • It’s a practice thing. Nobody learns until they fail. Hard to lean how much is enough pressure (especially with barbless hooks) and how much is too much with 3 lb tippet.
      My biggest challenge when instructing.
      Things happen fast, adjustments have to be fast and there is never enough time to calmly explain what needs to be done. I have learned that failure to communicate does not need to turn into a shouting match.

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