How to land a fish on a fly rod

Hooking, playing and landing a fish on a fly rod takes a bit of practice, but it's easy when you know how. Here are some tips to help you land more fish.

How to land a fish on a fly rod
© Fly and Lure
How to land a fish on a fly rod
Picture copyright © Fly and Lure
How to land a fish on a fly rod
Fly fishing tips Estimated reading time 16 - 26 minutes

Why do fish come off during the fight?

Fish usually come off during the fight either because they weren't correctly hooked due to a poor hook set or dull hook, or because slack line allowed them to free the hook by shaking their head during the fight. Using sharp, good quality hooks, setting the hook properly and minimising slack line during the fight is what helps ensure fish stay attached.

Sharp hooks, no slack and a good hook set means fish should stay attached.

How do I set the hook?

There are two main techniques, which are known as the trout strike and the strip set.

The trout strike is simply holding the line with your line hand (usually the left hand if you're right-handed) and quickly raising the rod with your left. This takes up any slack and pulls against the fish, causing the hook to stick in place.

The strip set is done by stripping or pulling the line sharply with your line hand, instead of raising the rod. It's harder to do because you'll instinctively want to raise the rod. However, it's worth learning as it's an effective technique, especially if you're fishing lures. Fish you miss will often return for another bite at the fly, which they tend to do less with the trout strike.

A good hook set - or strike - will secure the hook in the jaw.

Will barbless flies mean I land fewer fish?

We always fish with barbless flies and we catch plenty. However, it's fair to say that you will lose a few more if you fish barbless, especially if you don't have the right technique.

Whereas a barbed hook will stay in place if you let slack into the line during the fight, a barbless hook will usually fall out, so you need to ensure you keep the tension on the fish throughout the fight.

Barbless hooks are better for the welfare of the fish, and they're the rules on most fisheries, so you should use them when you can. Not only are they safer to cast, they do little harm to fish and minimise the need to handle fish, as they'll fall out when the fish is netted. Similarly, if you get snapped off, the fish can just shake its head to free the hook.

We always fish with barbless flies and catch plenty. There's really no reason to use barbed flies.

Why do fish sometimes snap the line?

Most new fly fishers often put it down to the massive size of the fish they've hooked, however, that's usually not the case. Poor quality tippet, dodgy knots that haven't been moistened, and knots in the leader caused by poor casting technique are the main culprits.

Use tippet and leader material which is strong enough for the fish at your fishery (a minimum of 6lb breaking strain is advisable for most stillwater trout fisheries in the UK), use a decent knot (such as a grinner or uni knot) and change your tippet if you've got casting knots present.

Use decent tippet and leader material and change your leader if it gets knots in it.

How do you reel in a fish on a fly rod?

Most stillwater fly fishers fight trout by hauling the fly line by hand, whereas most river fly fishers fight their fish on the reel. I'd always recommend using the hand technique rather than the reel on stillwaters. It's much easier to stay in contact with the fish, and they can move pretty quick on stillwaters.

If you're fishing stillwaters, you'll land more if you fight them by hand, not on the reel.

What should I do if the fish swims towards me?

You need to be quick thinking to keep up with the intentions of fighting trout and sometimes they catch you unaware. If they swim at you, you've basically only got two options.

You can try and strip the line back as fast as you can to keep the tension on the fish, or you can run backwards. I've lost tons of fish by trying to use the strip technique, so using your feet is well worth a try.

Be prepared to run backwards if the fish swims at you.

Is there much risk of the fly rod snapping?

Modern fly rods undergo bend tests and can take far more than you might imagine. However, I've seen quite a few people snap fly rods while fighting fish, so it's still possible to snap them if you use them wrong.

I've rarely been concerned about my rod snapping during a fight. However, there have been a few times when I've watched others (including my son George) fighting a fish and winced as the rod looked close to its snapping point.

You'd be amazed how much a fly rod can bend!

Why can fly rods snap when fighting fish?

Ordinarily, fly rods are resilient and shouldn't snap during the fight, but they can snap if used inappropriately. Fly rods are designed to cast fly lines and flies mainly with their tips and to fight fish with the power in the butt. There are two main things that work against these factors and cause fly rods to snap.

1. Highsticking
Highsticking is the name given to the process of keeping your rod tip very high at the point of netting the fish. That stops the butt of the rod being allowed to flex, and puts all the pressure on the much weaker tip section. The rod usually snaps when the angle becomes too extreme, often because the angler tips it back.

2. Supporting the butt
If your arm gets tired, try to resist the urge to put the other hand further up the blank and use both hands to pull. This prevents the butt section being allowed to support weight of the fish, presumably putting more pressure further up.

Good rods rarely snap, unless you do something silly.

What sort of net should I use?

The style of landing net you use for fly fishing depends on where you're fishing and the size of the fish you're likely to catch. If you're wading in a river or reservoir, you'll be more comfortable with a scoop net, as you'll be able to get closer to the fish.

If you're standing on the banks of a small stillwater, you'll want a net with a longer handle, as the fish will be harder to reach. If you're fishing somewhere where there's a chance of larger trout, you might want to invest in a more sturdy net.

A net with a longer handle is useful when fishing stillwaters.

What happens when the fish takes me to the backing?

This is a really rare occurence. It's only happened to me a few times in years of fly fishing. If a trout takes your fly at extreme distance and then runs away from you, it could take all of your available line, but this is generally short-lived.

You should try to keep the fish on the fly line and the fly line either in your line hand, or on the reel. Once your fly line is outside the rod tip, you'll find it harder to retrieve, you risk getting the backing knot stuck in the rings and you could even lose your fly line if your backing knot is weak. Reel in quickly and try to keep the backing inside the rod.

It's fairly unusual for trout to get you down to the backing.

What should I do if I get a double hook-up?

First, buy a lottery ticket, as you're obviously very lucky. A double hook-up occurs when you catch two fish on the same line - usually one on the point fly and one on the dropper. It's a fairly uncommon occurrence. It's not yet happened to me, but George has had at least three - he's even had one fish that took two flies...

Landing two trout at once can be rather difficult. The best technique is to net the fish on the top dropper first and try to keep the line tight on the lower fish, then scoop that into the net. If you fish with barbed hooks you might be lucky, but as we never fish with barbs the lower fish has always fallen off.

George's has had several double hooks ups, but hasn't yet landed both fish.

How do I turn pulls into hook-ups?

You'll often get little pulls and plucks while you're fly fishing, as well as solid pulls that amount to nothing.

This might be because the trout mouthed your fly and immediately spat it out before you had a chance to set the hook or strike. Or, you may have nicked the fish with the hook and had slack in your line which allowed the fish to throw the hook.

Try to keep slack out of your line, keep your rod tip low and pointing towards your fly, not at an angle to it, and add in little jerks and pauses to help entice those fish who aren't biting confidently.

Adding pauses to your retrieve can catch you extra fish.

How should I use the drag on my fly reel?

You don't want the drag set too hard. It's basically there to increase the resistance and cause the fish to tire faster by making it put more effort into swimming away with the line. If you set the drag too tightly for the size of the fish it won't spin and the line could snap. Too lightly and it will either overrun and the line will jam the reel, or it will not slow down the fish.

The best option is to set it fairly light and be ready to turn up the power a tad when you need it. Most drags are easy to adjust, so a little turn of the drag can slow the fish down if it decides to shoot off at speed.

It's easy to crank down the drag during the fight on most modern fly reels.

What happens if I have a click pawl reel with no drag?

Classic click pawl reels, like the Orvis Battenkill, don't have a drag. Instead, they use a little cog and a spring-loaded metal clicker which snaps against it as the spool rotates. This adds a little bit of resistance, which is enough for small fish, but inadequate for bigger ones.

If a fish runs quickly on a click pawl reel it can cause the spool to overrun and the line to jam on the reel. To prevent this you use a technique called palming. Here, you basically just press your palm against the spool when the fish runs. The extra resistance acts like a drag and stops the overrun.

On click pawl reels like the Orvis Battenkill you'll need to palm the spool.

Should I keep my rod up during the fight?

Yes, keep the rod up to make sure that you're bending it all the way through. The tip section of the rod doesn't have a lot of power, you don't want to fight it with that part. You want to try and achieve a smooth curve through the rod, so it's not too high and not too low.

If you make the mistake of pointing the rod at the fish, you'll lose its cushioning power and all of the strain will be placed upon the line. That generally causes the line to snap! With the right technique, whereby you use the rod to cushion the weight and lunges of the fish, you can actually catch a fish much heavier than your line's breaking strain without the line snapping.

I recently landed a 15 pound salmon on the River Dee using only four pound line on a really soft #4 fly rod. The bendy rod meant that it was really well cushioned. It bent all of the way to the butt, but never really felt undergunned. If I've pointed the rod at the fish, the line would quickly have gone ping.

Keep your rod up!

Why do some people turn the rod on its side?

This is actually quite a good technique for getting the fish to the net quicker. Basically, they're moving the rod to the opposite side to put side strain on the fish and turn its head each time it changes direction.

The side strain technique quickly tires the fish and allows you to get it over the net much faster. It also keeps the rod bent to the butt so you're less likely to snap the line and get the full benefits of the rod's bendiness and low-down power.

A bit of side strain helps get fish to the net quicker.

How do I actually land it?

You can tell when the fish is nearly ready to be landed, because you'll get its head out of the water. When you reach this stage, place your net in the water and try to draw the fish over the top. If you can't net it yourself, most anglers are only too pleased to help, so don't be frightened to call someone else to assist.

With the fish drawing over the net, raise your rod arm as high as you can to increase the distance and bring the fish within reach. When it's over the net quickly raise the net with your other arm and pull the net ashore. It's harder than it sounds and you'll be surprised how much effort it takes, but it gets easier with practice, and there's nothing more fun.

Keep your rod arm up, draw the fish over the net, then lift.

Do I always need to use a net?

No, it's better for the welfare of the fish if you don't use a net, so you only need to use one if required. Some trout, even up to a few pounds, can actually be brought to hand safely and effectively without a net. However, I still wouldn't fish without one. Not every trout you'll catch will be easy to subdue and you never know what you're going to catch.

A net is not required for small fish.

How should I unhook the trout?

Once netted, keep the fish in the net under the water. Don't lift the net out and let it flap around on the bank. This can damage the fish and is likely to stress it.

If you're using with barbless hooks (which I'd recommend), the lack of tension on the line will let the fish shake the hook out in the net, or it will usually fall out of its own accord. If so, you can simply dip the net under the water and let the fish swim away. There's no need to handle it.

Only handle trout if you really need to.

How do I unhook a trout?

If your hook hasn't simply fallen out in the net, try to keep the net in the water, wet your hands and gently pick up the fish around its belly. Don't squeeze it, as this can damage its internal organs.

If it struggles, gently turn it upside down in your hand. This will generally cause any writhing to stop, allowing you to grab the hook with your other hand, turn it and release the hook point.

It's fairly unusual for trout to deeply swallow a fly, but it can happen when they hit a lure fast and hard, or if you're fishing a small or bouyant fly, such as a booby or FAB. If this happens and you intend to return the fish, either carefully turn the hook using forceps or as a last resort snip the line close to the fly.

Whatever you do, don't pull the fly or try to rip it out. This will cause damage to the fish and it's likely to bleed and probably won't recover. If it's deeply hooked, you may want to consider despatching it and taking it home for tea instead.

George fighting a big stillwater salmon at Ellerdine Lakes.

How do I return the fish safely?

It's important to get the fish into the net as fast as you can, within reason. This prevents the fish from getting too tired from the fight, so it will quickly recover and swim off without an issue. Once you've unhooked it, gently support the fish upright in the water and allow it to get its breath back. After a few seconds it will usually swim off to recuperate.

If you find that the fish is a bit wobbly and unbalanced, then you can gently move the fish backwards and forwards in the water to get the water flowing over its gills. This will boost the fish's blood oxygen level and make it quicker for it to recover. If you're in a river, placing the fish in moving water does the same thing.

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