The Key to Big Fish
Fishing lore is filled with tales of “the one that got away.” Fishermen obsess over big fish -- both those captured and those lost – and while a good story is never a bad thing, far too many opportunities for big fish end in disappointment. While much of the post-mortem story-telling is apocryphal, it has a strong underpinning in an undeniable truth: Big fish do get away more often than small fry.
The reasons for this are many – and they have to do with both fish and fisherman.
On the fish’s end, the sheer number of years a bruiser must spend in his watery haunts to achieve his size certainly make him well attuned to the neighborhood – he knows every nook and cranny to run to, and many of these are deadly to tippets.
Also, his size means that every mistake made by the angler is magnified. Big fish test tackle, plain and simple.
Because big fish demand the most of the angler and his gear, it is important that we be able to pass muster at all times.
That is the first key. Treat every excursion as if you are going for a world record. If you treat a day on the water as just another trip, chances are you will not be ready when el Mundo comes calling.
The first order of business is to make sure that both rod and reel are in good condition. A visual check of the rod and guides will ensure that there are no obvious weak points. Similarly, be sure that the reel's spool turns without issue and that the drag mechanism is in good order. The line should be stripped off the spool and straightened before the day begins, and the leader inspected, modified/replaced (to meet the style of fishing to be done) and fresh tippet added.
Also, adjust the drag properly. Invariably, people set their drag way too tight. You have to remember that fly line in water adds an appreciable amount of resistance to the rig; it is important to look at the total equation of drag from the reel, plus line pulled through water to arrive at the actual amount of drag at the tippet/fly connection. Moral of the story is to set the drag lighter than you think is needed; it is probably a better bet.
In the fishing itself, several factors will combine to determine whether or not your dance with a big fish ends happily at net or in a whimsical what-might-have-been story at the local watering hole.
The first essential task is to attach the fly with a good knot. Whether you use a loop knot, a clinch knot, an improved clinch, a turle, or some other combination of loops and binds, the important point is that it be lubricated (all knots in mono should be) and that it is drawn smoothly and the finished product looks and feels right. In my years of experience guiding and fishing, I am certain that bad knots are the number one culprit in lost fish. Most anglers would be better suited to stick with a couple knots that they can master -- say the surgeon's knot for attaching tippet and an improved clinch for the fly -- than they are to try a variety of connections.
Now that our fly is properly attached, the next order of business is stream positioning. Recognizing where big fish will hold, and then positioning oneself to get a good presentation (combination of cast and drift/retrieve) is critical. Make certain that you can get the fly into the strike zone and work it properly (or drift it properly) to get the job done.
Also, think about the fight. Have a plan of action – where would you like to steer the battle? What areas do you need to avoid? How far can you chase a bruiser downstream if needed? Is there a good landing/beaching area that you can work to?
The battle will not always go the way you imagine, but having a plan of action helps, for sure.
When actually fighting a fish, there are many technique mistakes that can prolong the battle – which makes the fish more exhausted (which will likely kill it if it is released) and which gives it more opportunities to get away.
The first mistake is “keeping the tip up.” The only reason to keep the rod in a vertical stance during the battle is if things like sharp coral are likely to cut the line. In freshwater fishing, it is almost always better to keep your rod-hand wrist at a 45-degree angle to the fish, forcing the bend of the rod farther down the blank. Fighting them from the cork is a lot better than fighting them from the tip. The tip is the weakest portion of the rod, so your ability to add pressure and make the fish work is very limited if you don't modify the rod angle to push the bend deeper.
Of course, this places more pressure on the tippet, as well, so the angler must know the breaking point so as not to over-stress the connection. However, a threshold just short of that breaking point is the most efficient in terms of properly tiring the fish and ending the battle successfully.
Along with wrist angle, the rod orientation can be used to help direct the fight. If a fish is a real leaper, dropping the rod to a sidearm position (still maintaining the 45-degree angle to the fish) will discourage the jumping, whereas an upright rod position will encourage him to leap.
Switching the rod from side to side during the battle will force the fish to change his swimming action, and can confuse him – both of which lead to a quicker landing. However, this action also tends to make the hook-hole larger, so an unexpected leap and head-shake will make it easier for the fish to throw the fly.
If a fish gets into a logjam or a weed bed, it will almost always lead to too much force on the tippet.
Of course, the best tonic is to avoid the problem in the first place – but if the fish manages to get into the salad or the brush, back off the pressure completely. Many times, when the fish no longer feels the pressure, he will swim out of the obstruction.
In all situations, fighting the fish on the shortest line possible is the goal. The less line out, the fewer options the fish has. It is almost always easier to gain line if the fish is above you (upstream) or parallel to you. A good rule of thumb comes from John Bueter – a veteran of salmon fishing: if the fish is upstream, you win; if the fish is across from you, you win; if the fish is downstream, the fish wins.
A disproportionate number of fish are lost during the battle’s endgame. Poor netting practices account for almost as many lost fish as bad knots.
Many people try to net fish too quickly. While it is always good to end the battle as soon as possible, rushing that moment is generally a disaster.
A good rule of thumb is to wait until the angler can raise the fish’s head above the surface and hold him there for a three-count. At this point, the net can be brought from underneath and behind the fish.
The angler should bring the fish’s snout out of the water and position the net underneath. When the pressure is then released, the fish will naturally turn back down, right into the mesh.
Sometimes, even when the angler does everything right, the fish wins. And this, in the end, is what keeps us coming back. The lure of the one that got away will always loom large – my hope is just to help us also have a few more stories and photos of the ones that didn’t!