I learn something new every time I go fishing. And I’ve been fishing a lot, so I’ve learned plenty.
There is one skill I’ve never really studied, though: how to properly fight a fish once hooked.
This was something I took for granted. I focused on getting the fish hooked, but never really worried about properly fighting the fish once it was. I had always kept the tip up to apply steady pressure to the fish. I’m not sure whether I was taught this technique or just fell into it.
Apparently that technique is incorrect, at least when applied to fighting redfish. No one had ever corrected me in all my years of fishing, until my most recent trip to Port Aransas.
Each fly fishing scenario is specialized. Sure, they each require a fly rod, tippet, flies, casting skills, and patience—but permutations of those are infinite, and very specific combinations are called for in each situation. For example, consider the different procedures for setting the hook with a trout set and a strip set.
When trout fishing, the common hook setting technique is a simple lift of the rod straight up to apply pressure on the fish. The size of the fly is likely very small when trout fishing, which demands the tippet or leader portion of the line also be extremely fine.
This makes presenting the fly, setting the hook, and fighting the fish a delicate procedure. It often takes just a simple lift of the the rod to set the hook. With too much pressure, though, the fish will break off the line.
In contrast, salt water fishing demands a stiffer rod in order to throw larger flies. This means the leader and fly line are much thicker as well. The fly is generally presented right on top of the nose of the fish at a cast distance of 40–100 ft with a 1–2 foot stripping-motion retrieve.
When saltwater fishing, some facsimile of shrimp or crab is usually at the end of the leader. These prey swim in bursts, and they swim faster when their lives are in danger—stripping the line in one or two foot increments mimics them well. Saltwater fish also have different mouths, so it’s not possible to simply lift the rod and set the hook.
To strip set a hook, you must strip the line in with the rod tip down until you feel the hit. Then, with one last pop of the stripping hand, the fish should be on the hook. The hard work is done, and now the fun begins.
But do you really know how to fight the fish?
First, of course, you scream “fish on!” But then what?
I keep tension on the line with my right hand and quickly reel in the slack line with my left. This gets the fish on the reel as soon as possible and lets the drag take over. From this point I generally stick the butt of the rod in my stomach, hold that rod tip high, and listen to the sound of the reel as the line rips off into the backing.
I had to rethink my approach on my last trip to Port Aransas.
The trip was a performance disaster. The wind was high, and I was unprepared. My distances were off. I couldn’t see the fish, and hooked several flies into my clothing with weak back casts into the wind.
It was not a great day, and my guide Billy Trimble let me know it.
He was not happy with my performance, and neither was I. But I finally did hook a redfish.
Thank God, I thought to myself. At least I’m not skunked.
I went through my routine. I yelled “Fish on!” I reeled in the slack, put the butt of the rod in my belly, pulled the tip up high, and put a smile on my face. Then the advice came.
“I don’t want to see the rod in that position,” Trimble said. “You’re not putting any pressure on the fish. He doesn’t even know he’s hooked.”
What the hell are you talking about? I thought. I’ve got this.
“I want to see the rod tip down and you reeling,” he said. “Let’s get that fish in. You need to fight him from the butt of the rod, not the tip.”
We caught the fish, but I was bummed. I’d finally found a part of the trip to enjoy, only to learn I’d been doing it wrong. I wanted to call BS on this new information—no one had ever told me that I was fighting the fish incorrectly.
After some research, of course, I learned that I was wrong. Fellow Giant Eric Jackson and I went out to test the actual poundage exerted on fish, just like in the Orvis video below:
Our results mirrored those in the video. With the tip straight in the air and the butt of the rod in the stomach, we found the rod exerts barely a pound of pressure on the fish.
Conversely, lowering the tip of the rod transferred tension down toward the butt. This allowed the stiffer section of the rod to exert more force on the fish, and increased the pressure to five or six pounds.
Why is this important? It’s important because to land a large saltwater fish, exerting one pound or less on the fish will result in very little progress on either side. The fish will not tire out, and you won’t be able to control it. You’ll wind up locked in a long struggle and will lose opportunities in the process.
A 20lb Flourocarbon leader won’t snap off. So it behooves everyone involved, including the fish, to get the fish in quickly and move on to the next.
At Shoulders of Giants, we love to get into the details and prove or debunk rumors, myths and legends. In this case, I was wrong, and have been wrong a lot apparently when it comes to properly fighting the fish. So thanks to Billy Trimble for this important fly fishing tip. Next time we will be more prepared and redfish in Port Aransas, Texas, will know they’ve been hooked.