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How to Strike, Play and Land a Trout Correctly

It is one of the most important aspects of fly-fishing, yet it is one of the most often ignored in books, magazines, videos and the like - sadly, my books and articles included.

You can read and view plenty about flies, fly tying, knots, casting, presentation, finding fish, tackle selection, et al, but what about playing and landing the fish once you have inwardly digested all that stuff and actually find yourself attached to one of these fabled fishes?

Help is at hand.

O.K. so there you stand stripping the line in through you rod-hand forefinger - thinking about how much you would like to be back at work. Suddenly your reverie is broken by some damn-fool fish grabbing your fly. What happens next?

The first requirement is to ‘set’ the hook.

Setting the hook means embedding the hook securely in the fish. Achieve this by pulling down sharply on the line using your line hand, but always ensuring the line remains sliding through the forefinger of your rod-hand. But, just pulling down on the line is only of any use if the line is tight to the fish.

Just pulling on the line with the rod tip up, while there is any slack in the system, will only lift slack line off the water, and not move the hook at all.

So, many anglers pull on the line hand and lift the rod-tip up, sharply. While this looks spectacular, it is often ineffectual, unless you are close to the fish.

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But even then, there is trouble right there at river city.

If you manage to set the hook, you are now standing there with rod tip high in the air. If the trout moves towards you, you have the Devil’s own job to avoid introducing slack again - you cannot lower the rod because that will form more slack - at which point many anglers select the panic option.

A much better way is to fish with the rod tip low to the water, and when a fish hits, move the rod tip in the direction of any curve of line on the water.

Graphic of strike direction with rodThe red lines indicate the fly lines on the water. The arrow indicates the direction the rod tip should move to set the hook.

This means that if you have, for example, a ‘s’ curve of slack line on the water, move the rod tip in the direction of the section of the curve nearest to the rod tip.

Keep the rod tip just above the water and move it parallel to the water, while pulling down sharply with the line hand.

It is important to not take the rod tip behind you.

This method uses the 'grip' of the water itself, and the current if any, to 'anchor' the line, and transfer the power of the pull more directly to the hook. If the fish runs toward you can leave the line on the water and use the loop formed on the water by the current to maintain pressure on the hook.

I want to reiterate this point about leaving the line on the water. There is an almost overwhelming urge yelling in your mind to lift the rod tip up before removing all slack between the rod tip and the fish.

The water, the current, and the trout, all pulling at the line will hold the hook in a fish's mouth till you can get everything up tight - there is simply no need to lift the rod tip until you are sure all slack will be removed by doing so.

If the line is tight to the fish when it takes the fly, usually only a short line-pull is necessary to set the hook. It is worthwhile to remember a fly hook only needs to move about 2-3mm (1/4") to penetrate past the barb on even the biggest hooks used for freshwater fly-fishing.

Very often just the force exerted on slack-free line, when the fish turns away with the fly in its mouth, will set the hook without any interference from you.

Now with the fish firmly attached you can set about fighting the fish, and I need here to divide this bit into two sections - big trout and not-so-big.


If you are fishing where it is very unusual for trout to take your line out into the 'backing' (the thin line running from the fly-line onto the reel) and fish do not get much over 1.5 to 2kg (3 to 4lb) you can play the fish using the line only, without using the reel at all.

Hold the rod at an angle of about 45 degrees to you body, point the rod tip toward the line coming off the water (never at the fish, unless of course the line is tight to the fish) and use your rod-hand fore-finger to press the line against the rod handle.

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You should try and maintain a constant bend in the rod, by gripping the line to apply tension or allowing the line to slip through your line-hand fingers, and rod-hand fore-finger. If the rod tip ducks down let the line slip.

You should in general try to keep the rod at about the 45 degree angle, but if the fish really takes off lower the rod tip. The tip section is there to absorb the lunges of the trout, and to maintain constant pressure.

Your immediate job is to get the fish tight to the rod tip.

When you get an opportunity to retrieve some line, using your line hand, pull line in through your rod-hand forefinger - called 'stripping' the line. As you reach the end of a strip, grip the line with your rod-hand forefinger, and slide your line hand up to grip the line again.

Your immediate job is to get the line tight between the rod tip and the fish. Then by stripping and slipping line the fish will gradually tire to the point where you can think about landing it.

If you can get the line onto the reel, you should do so.

Having loose coils of line wafting around in the water or on the ground is inviting disaster. I could not even begin to estimate how many fish I have lost, and seen lost, from line tangling around legs, rocks and boulders, shore debris and undergrowth. Having the line going directly onto the reel will help when you come to land the fish.

Bigger Fish

If you are lucky enough to fish where trout regularly exceed 2kg (4lb) and often a great deal more (I will resist doing a commercial on New Zealand fishing), and backing is something you regularly see flying off the reel, your main aim is to get the fish onto the reel as soon as possible.

If the fish bolts downstream let the line slip through the forefinger of your line hand under light pressure, with no pressure from your rod hand, till the line comes tight onto the reel.

If the fish races upstream leave your rod tip down at water level and facing the direction of the line - not the fish

 Let any loose line you have, slip through your fingers till the line comes tight to the reel, even if there is a big bow of line between you and the fish. The bow of line will maintain pressure on the hook.

Then once the line is tight to the reel start winding at a frantic pace, following the line with the rod tip until you can lift the rod tip up to 45 degrees without introducing any slack.

Once the line is on the reel you can use the reel’s drag system to release line evenly. If you have no drag system use your line hand cupped lightly under the reel onto the spool rim.

Try not to get your fingers in the way of whirling reel-handles when a big fish runs, unless pain is your close and dear friend.

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If the fish jumps, 'bow to the fish'.

That is, lower your rod tip quickly to give the fish some slack. A jumping fish can put real strain on your leader, especially if it falls back onto taunt line.

You need to be very careful with a big fish that is racing downstream. You may need to lower the rod tip to reduce the strain on the line; this is especially true if there is a bow in the line from a fish changing direction to race downstream from upstream of you. This is another of those occasions when you must fight the urge to raise the rod.

The End Game

So you have done everything right and the fish is now tired and looks as though it might be possible to land it.

This is a critical time in this game.

Trying to net a fish on your own is often problematical. To get the net under the fish you need to lift the rod tip high to reduce the angle between the fish and the net. But lifting a rod tip high with the line running down close to the rod to the fish risks breaking the rod. It is called ‘point-loading’, and means that the weight of the fish is transmitted down the rod, not along it.

This puts to much pressure on the weak tip section of the rod. This is a very real problem with fish over 2.5kg (5lbs). The best solution I have found is to use a landing net with a collapsible or extendable handle.

Once you have the fish where you can net it, pull the fish head-first gently over the rim of the net, then flick up that rim and lift the net at the same time. If all goes well the fish will be at the bottom of your net.

If the fish ‘freaks’ at the sight of the net, do not ‘chase’ it with the net. Let it swim off, then carefully move the net back into position for another attempt.

If you are going to release the fish, keep as much of the fish in the water as possible still in the net, remove the hook, lower the net, hold the fish into the current and let it swim away when it is ready.

Of course having a fishing partner lurking about to net your fish makes life a whole lot easier.

Sometimes it is easier to ‘beach’ a fish. If it is possible to move back onto a bank, it can be easier to slide a fish gently into shallow water. This is often very true when trying to land fish over 3kg (6lb), and sometimes the only way to land fish 5kg (10lb) and over.

A beautiful fish landed correctly in a NZ river.

If you are planning to release the fish do not pull it up onto dry land – dry sand, rock or vegetation, all will wreak havoc with a trout’s slime covering which is used to repel bad stuff in the water.

Instead quickly remove the hook; gently turn the fish back towards deeper water and hold its head into the current till it moves off under its own steam. (Release 'Rules')

The key thing to remember when trying to land a trout (in fact any fish) is to try and keep things as smooth as possible.

Constant, unrelenting pressure against the fish’s attempts to escape is what tires it out. Jerking the rod about, not releasing line smoothly when the fish runs, all can lead to the hook pulling out or the leader breaking.

Smooth firmness is required when you come to the end game and try and net or beach your prize.

rainbow trout illustration

Article written by Tony Bishop (Bish)

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