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When Fly-fishing For Big Wild Trout, Play Fish With The Line On The Reel!

Recently I have seen some spirited web-forum discussions on the merits of line-on-reel or line-to-hand when playing fish.

I am not going jump into that argument, except to advise if you are coming to NZ, or anywhere there are wild fish over 3 or 4 pounds, in a river, get the line on the reel when playing a fish – and here is why.

A good friend of mine in the USA gave me a call to ask a favour. He had an important business contact, Gareth, coming out to New Zealand, to the central North Island, and staying for a couple of days in Taupo. He wondered if I could take him fishing for a day.

I was going to be in the area at the same time, so, no problem said I, before enquiring about Gareth’s experience. Seems Gareth was an accomplished fisher who regularly fished famous waters, staying at the best Lodges, fishing with the best guides. Well monied it seemed; should have been my first warning signal.

If I picked up the warning lights I ignored them. Bit silly.

I picked up Gareth from the Huka Lodge, consistently rated in the top ten lodges in the world, where they have a freezer full of arms and legs collected from patrons, and we headed for the Tauranga-Taupo River (TT), 30 minutes away.

Gareth regaled me with stories of the fishing he had enjoyed - 30 to 40 fish in a day, a regular occurrence it seemed. I told him that we might get 5 or 6 fish but they should be good sized.

On arrival we suited up, and with 5wt rods, nymphs rigged fore-and-aft in the NZ way, a tiny indicator looped in, and headed up river. I spotted a reasonable fish lurking close to the far bank, keyed Gareth in on the fish, and let him loose.

He could cast OK, mostly accurately, but with the bad habit of pulling too much line off the reel leaving too much loose line lying about, near his feet.

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On the second drift the fish moved out and munched on one of the nymphs, felt the hook and bolted downstream. So far downstream it pulled all the line on the water tight and straight to the rod tip. Then it turned and headed upstream as quickly as it headed downstream, forming a big trailing ‘belly’ in the line, behind it. Gareth was frantically stripping in line by hand. Rod pointing high into the sky.

“Get the line on the reel,” I advised Gareth, “it is a good fish, maybe four pounds.”

Gareth told me in a manner that made it very clear he was used to getting his own way, he preferred playing a fish line-to-hand, he knew what he was doing, and he did not need me to tell him how to fish. I decided to bide my time.

Feverishly stripping in line as fast as he could, he got the line tight to the fish again. The fish turned and headed downhill again, at full speed. The line shot through under Gareth’s line finger, then stopped dead.

The fish did not stop; it may have paused for a moment, but only as the hook ripped out of its lip.

Gareth looked down to see loose fly-line wrapped around one boot.

A few deeply obscene oaths did nothing to alter the situation – never does I have observed. I bit my tongue which also did not alter the situation, and we proceeded upstream.

Not much later, Gareth hooked another fish, with a similar result to the one above. Although this time the line wrapped around an innocuous looking, but spring-steel like grass root sticking out from the bank. And later again, a too tight a grip on the line, released too late, snapped the tippet.

I asked Gareth what sized fish he was catching for 30 to 40 a day. Seems they were all quite small, a big fish being 14 inches.

So, now it was time for a full, frank and meaningful exchange of views.

I told Gareth that if he wanted to land a big fish by his usual standards, he had better do exactly as I told him on the next fish, or we would be off back to the lodge, as I did not like wasting my time. He bristled; his money usually spoke louder than anyone elses, but agreed. No option really, I was not being paid for the days ‘guiding’, and it was an easy all downhill, downstream, amble back to the car.

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First thing I did was check the drag setting on his reel; it was set way too light, but soon fixed. Second thing was a quick run-through of only pulling enough line off the reel to reach the target. Then we proceeded upriver again.

Sometime later we spotted another good fish. Gareth pulled line off the reel but only enough, cast, got a good drift and hooked the fish, slightly downstream.

This fish immediately raced upstream, a big line-belly trailing behind. I told Gareth to point the rod tip, low to the water, in the direction the line was coming out of the rod tip, downstream in this case.

“But the fish is upstream,” bleated Gareth.

If he was bleating then he became almost hysterical when I told him to let all the slack line pull out from the rod tip till the line was tight to the reel.

That achieved I told Gareth to start reeling in some line and reduce the belly, but always keeping the rod tip pointing in the direction the line was leaving the rod-tip, not at the fish.

He also needed to control his winding so the belly in the line did not ‘skip’ out of the water. This would produce a stop-and-go jerking that could pop a tippet or pull a hook.

The fish turned and headed downstream and now that it was on the reel Gareth had no issues maintaining contact, but he had to sprint a fair distance to catch up to the fish when it shot down a small rapid.

I think the wisdom of having the line on the reel and not flailing about trying to catch feet, boulders, sticks and assorted vegetation was made very clear. Gareth had never needed to ‘chase’ a fish before.

Eventually, by allowing the reel’s drag to tire the fish, it got close. A few last-minute short mad-dashes were easily dealt with and a beautiful rainbow hen close to 5 pounds gleamed silver-bright in the net.

Gareth was simply ecstatic. After a few quick grip and grins, the fish swam away.

During the after-game-analysis he rather sheepishly admitted he had been out with a guide the day before and ignored the guide’s advice to ‘get it on the reel’ and lost several fish - actually every fish he hooked. He became so annoyed with the guide’s pleading to get it on the reel, he cut the fishing short.

We fished out the day, with a few more trout, and that night enjoyed a simply delicious meal at the lodge. (Best news - I got out with both arms and legs still attached.)

So what are the lessons?

Big wild fish in rivers are almost always hard to handle. Getting these fish onto the reel is always the best tactic!

Viva wet fly

Article written by Tony Bishop (Bish)

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