When you make a living landing fish, a quality landing net is important, and this past season at Alaska West we had the privilege of trying out one of the more unique net designs we’ve seen – A net currently being produced by a fresh new company called GoDolly landing nets.
‘Tis the season for fighting fish! August in Alaska brings fast paced action for big feisty fish, and that means there’s no shortage of practice for fighting (and hopefully landing) fish.
During this part of our season we see hundreds (yes, hundreds) of fish fought each week, and with that we’re able to get a good idea of what works (and of course what doesn’t) to bring more fish, especially big fish, to hand.
One thing we’ve noticed from anglers not use to fighting big scrappy fish in moving water (think silver salmon, chum salmon, big trout, ect.) is that the majority of fish are lost during the small window of time between setting the hook and getting the fish on the reel.
Modern fly reels are extremely well engineered fish fighting tools. They fight fish far better than we do, so if given the opportunity, getting them on the reel is generally a good idea. However, we find there’s often confusion around getting the fish on the reel while still maintaining enough tension on the hook to keep it pinned. Slack is the enemy is just about every facet of fly fishing, and fighting fish is no exception.
Sure, if a fish takes off in a blistering run, getting them on the reel is simple – Let him take the whole kit and caboodle until he locks up to the reel. However, during the latter part of our Alaskan seasons, the majority of fish on our river systems (silvers, chums, pinks, trout, ect.) tend to fight in a more vertical nature (up and down) often begging the question, “okay, I’ve hooked a fish in close, now how do I get all this excess line back on the reel without losing him.” To answer that, we think long-time Deneki guest, Ross Beatty, said it best while fishing with us last week at Alaska West.. Make ‘Em Earn the Reel!
In other words, getting a fish onto the reel should not be your automatic response immediately after hooking a fish. Make him fight hard enough to get that far! Instead, after setting the hook, we like to think of the beginning of the fight (where most fish are lost) as three possible scenarios:
- The fish runs away from you. Perfect! Let that excess line slip through your fingers (with a little friction to keep it tight) all the way to the reel, and put the heat on (low and towards the bank, please).
- The fish stays in the same general area its hooked. We see this all the time in slower, sloughy, water. The fish is hooked, jumps straight up in the air, and bounces around in the same pocket (or close to it) where you stung him. Strip the line tight to maintain tension, pin the line against the cork, and hold it there while taking up the excess line with the reel. Just be wary to let up on the line should he decide head in the other direction (ahem, see number 1).
- The fish runs at you. Take up line by stripping, not by reeling! Stripping line is much faster than the pickup of even the largest arbor reels, and is the best way to maintain the required tension to keep the hook pinned. Keep stripping until tight, and only change if stops (see number 2), or starts to run away from you (number 3). If he doesn’t do either, keep putting the heat on with your line hand until he earns the reel.
More Fish Fighting Tips
Across the board, one of the most misunderstood aspects of fly fishing that we see at our lodges is how to effectively fight big fish. Rightfully so, there are all kinds of variables that can come into play when you’re hooked up to Hog Johnson – Far more than we could ever fit into a single article.
However, there are a few fundamentals that a simple understanding of will help get fish to hand in most situations. One of those fundamentals is avoiding angle changes of the rod as much as possible.
While fighting a fish (especially big fish), changing the angle of the rod back and forth throughout the fight is a good way to open up the hook hold that you worked so hard to get. Picking the correct side, standing your ground, and remaining there until you’re forced to do otherwise is the key to landing big strong fish.
But how do you know which side to fight from? We’ll tell you.
When fighting fish, always aim to put pressure to the side that creates the sharpest angle between the rod and the fly line. This puts maximum pressure on the hook for the strongest hold possible. In other words..
- If the fish is running from left to right – put pressure to the left.
- If the fish is running from right to left – put pressure to the right.
This way, resistance is applied in the opposite direction the fish wants to go. On the other hand, fighting fish by putting pressure in the same direction in which it is running (as if you were dragging a dog around on a leash) puts very little pressure to keep the hook pinned, often resulting in lost fish.
Put pressure to the correct side, and only switch if he changes direction or to avoid any obstacles. Otherwise, stand your ground and put the wood to him!
More on Fighting Fish
Stu’s back today with a great follow up on what to do when all goes to plan – you know, when the fish eats your fly.
Fighting King Salmon – From Start to Finish
Okay, so we’ve found out how to present our fly to give us a good chance of getting a king salmon interested. What do we do next? This is the addictive stuff!
Obviously king salmon can take the fly in different ways – from the smash and grabs to nothing more than the line “going heavy.”
Regardless, a few rules still apply.
As your fly swings across the current, your rod tip should be leading the fly into the bank. If you feel a fish take your fly, it’s important to wait until you feel the line get heavy. This could be after a few knocks or taps, but you will feel your rod get heavy as the fish turns with the fly in its mouth. At this point, set your hook swift and hard. Strike into the downstream bank, hard. If you don’t think you’ve set the hook hard enough, set the hook again.. Hard!
By setting the hook downstream you pull the hook across and into the corner of the fish’s mouth. If you strike upstream, or just straight upwards, you are likely pulling the fly out of it’s mouth.
Once the hook is set, let the fire works begin! Every fish is different. Most will run hard back towards the sea, while some will dash across the river doing a “hippo charge” and other tricks and treats. But, either way you need to keep your rod tip low and at about chest level, pointing into the downstream bank. Even if the fish is a hundred yards or so downstream of you, by holding the rod tip towards the downstream bank you will form a little downstream belly in the skagit head which will pull the hook backwards into the fishes mouth. Most fish usually have the habit of swimming away from the pressure applied on it’s hook hold, so this belly in the line will hopefully give the fish incentive to swim upstream.
After a while, big fish have the tendency to lie “doggo,” meaning lying on the bottom of the river bed, pulling a bit. You must not let the salmon get away with this.. Keep it moving at all costs!
Thats how you tire them out quicker. If it wants to lie doggo, just move your rod tip towards your fish and reel in at the same time. Then, lift your rod tip a few feet backwards towards the bank and reel down again. This is called “pumping” and keeps the fish on the move.
As the fish tires, you will be able to move backwards in order to find a comfortable depth to land your fish in, preferably in a slower flow of water. Usually the fish will make another couple of runs as it approaches the shallower water but just let it go under tension. This will help tire the fish quicker which is exactly what we want.
Soon, you will notice the fish start to go “unbalanced,” and begins to show it’s sides. This is a sign that the fish is becoming tired and is close to being netted.
The best way of netting a fish is to work as a team with your guide. Get the fish slightly upstream of you by moving the rod tip to the upstream side of you (avoid too many upstream/downstream angle changes as this can open up the hook hold), and the fish will follow like a dog on a leash. As you lift the fish’s head, try and lead it downstream towards your guide’s net and immediately walk backwards. If the fish startles, it will dart straight into the net. If it cooperates, simply lead it straight into the waiting net as it is unbalanced.
Congrats! You’ve just landed the fish of a life time! Most importantly, Be careful with your catch, and take a sensible photo with the fish in the water. Never hold the fish away from the river. These fish are far too precious to take chances with. Always treat them with the utmost respect.
Remember, don’t panic and listen to your guide. He knows best and he’ll enjoy the excitement as much (if not more) than you do! Big fish require team work!
More on Fighting Big Fish
As they say – Behind every great angler is a great net man.. Okay, maybe no one says that, but they should!
Landing big fish takes team work. Any body who has attempted to put the mesh on a hot fish in heavy current knows that there’s just as much skill required of the net man as there is of the guy doing the fighting.
However, as the angler, there’s a lot you can do to make the net man’s job a heck of a lot easier. Whether you’re fishing with a guide or another buddy, the following tips will help them out, and ultimately help you land more fish.
Help Out Your Net Man – 6 Tips
- Communicate. While fighting your fish, let the guy who’s going to be netting your fish know exactly what you’re going to do ahead of time. “I’m switching sides,” or “I’m going to get his head up..” Communication is key and many big fish are lost when the angler and the net man aren’t on the same page.
- Find Soft Water. When attempting the land big fish (we’re talking big king salmon, steelhead, and the like), maneuvering a net big enough to handle such species is extremely difficult in fast currents. The faster the water, the more difficult it is to be accurate with a large net during what could be a very quick window of opportunity. So, after hooking your fish, make your first priority finding good soft water to fight and land your fish from.
- Get the Fish Upstream. As the fight is winding down, work to get your fish slightly upstream of your net man. This puts the fish in good position to roll his head up and over towards the net (more on this bel0w). Attempting to land a fish that is downstream of the net man puts both the weight of the fish AND the strength of the current directly on the leader, which often doesn’t work out well. Plus from a downstream position, the fish is able to watch the net approach them, which they generally don’t seem to like.
- Big, Slow Lift. Now that you have coaxed the fish just upstream of the net man, the next step is to reel down until you have enough control to make a big slow lift of the rod, starting from the upstream side over to the downstream side. The goal of this is to lift their head up towards the surface of the water and then directly downstream where the net man will be waiting to make his shot. Remember, fish can only swim one direction, and up isn’t a direction that gives them much to work with, thus allowing the net man to make his move.
- Steer the Fish Towards the Net. While the fish’s head is being positioned up and over to the downstream side, this is the point when the net man will most likely try to make shot. Therefore as the fish’s head begins to point downstream, use your rod to keep pressure on the fish and ‘steer’ his head towards the net. A good net man will always net the head of the fish whenever possible, so give him a good look at it!
- Commit. When landing really, really big fish, often times there is only a split second for the net man to make his move. Therefore, its really important to be predictable for the net man to make his best decision when to strike. Once you start your lift, try to commit all the way through until he’s in the net. Otherwise, you might be pulling away, while they’re going in, risking a break off. Did we mention that communication was important?
More on Landing Big Fish
A while back we ran a post on the top 5 mistakes made fighting big fish, where we highlighted some of the most common mistakes we see at our lodges in Alaska and British Columbia when fighting big fish like steelhead and salmon.
However, fighting fish well does not always put the fish in the net. In fact, we see a huge percentage of big fish lost only a few rod length’s away, even after a well fought battle!
So, today we’re talking about those precious moments between tiring your fish and putting him in net with 6 tips for landing big fish.
6 Tips for Landing Big Fish
You stood your ground, put the heat on, and fought your fish like a champ. Now you can see your quarry and it’s time to start thinking about putting the mesh on him. Whether you’re fighting the fish or wielding the net, consider these tips in order to seal the deal.
- Keep your leader out of the guides. Whenever landing fish, it’s never a good idea to reel past your leader to fly line connection (or your sink tip to fly line if using a spey rig). A bulky connection can hang up in the rod guides on an unexpected run, potentially causing a break off.
- Find good landing water. After you hook up and are under control, look for soft water nearby to land your fish. Once you find good landing water, stand your ground! Try not to stroll down river unless you absolutely have to.
- Get the fish upstream. When working with a net man, the angler should work to get the fish upstream or in front of himself. The net man should be positioned downstream of the angler. This position gives the angler maximum control of the fish with minimal strain on the leader.
- Get his head up. Once the fish is in line to slightly upstream of you, make a big, slow lift of the rod, raising the fish’s head up. Continue the lift in an overhead arcing motion to direct the fish’s head towards the net man. Fish can’t swim backwards, and doing so allows the fish to move only in an upward direction while the net man makes his approach.
- Be patient. When netting fish, it’s important to wait for the right moment. Make sure the head is up and the fish is in a direction allowing you to net the head, not the tail. Jumping the gun often leads to a miss, or even worse, hitting the leader with the rim of the net.
- Don’t ‘Scoop’ the Net. A common mistake when netting big fish for the first time is attempting to net the fish by ‘scooping’ the basket through the water. Big fish have a lot of surface area, as do nets big enough to hold them. That means they move a lot in the current. Sticking a big net in the water and trying to ‘scoop’ up the fish by lifting it through the water column is a great way to miss completely. Instead, net your fish by quickly stabbing the basket underneath the fish, applying downward pressure on the net handle (to raise the front of the basket), and pulling the basket backwards, all in one swift motion.
More on Landing Fish
The ability to ‘tail’ a fish, that is, the ability to land fish safely and effectively without a net is a skill every angler should posses. After all, we’ve all been on a trip where the net didn’t make it into the back of the pickup. Regardless, the old adage reigns true; if you want to catch the biggest trout of your life, leave the net and camera at home.
Many steelhead and salmon anglers actually prefer to fish without a net. A net worthy of landing large anadramous species, particularly those that are few and far between, can be a bit cumbersome while wading and some would argue that they’re also worse on the fish.
Regardless of what you fish for, tailing fish is a worth while skill and the following tips will help you land more fish, safely release more fish, and protect your gear in the process.
- The Honorable Foot. The old days of ‘beaching’ fish are gone. If keeping fish is your prerogative, then playing fish into inches of water is surely a quick and effective method of landing them. However, if your goal is to release fish, beaching fish is a sure-fire way to increase the chance of mortality upon release. So, if you plan on releasing your fish, please please please land it in at least a foot of water. We call this the Honorable Foot, and it’s a pretty solid rule to fish by.
- Get the Fish Upstream. A common mistake made when tailing fish is grabbing at the leader with the fish directly below the angler. Doing so allows the current to put maximum strain on the leader and fly usually ending in an unexpected head shake causing the fly to slip, the hook to bend out, or the leader the break. Instead, try not to grab the leader until you have coaxed the fish to a position directly in front or upstream of you. This results in less strain on the leader and a better angle between your leader and fly as you make your approach.
- Let it Slip. Whether fishing a single hand or two handed rod, any 9 to 15 foot rod doesn’t make grabbing the leader particularly easy on a big fish. However, the easiest method for getting a hold of the leader before tailing a fish is as follows. Once you have tired out (not exhausted) your fish and have brought it to within a rod’s length away from you, pinch your line against the cork with your rod hand and use your line hand to strip excess line off the reel. Once you are comfortable with your position of the fish, raise your rod high and slightly behind you while allowing the excess line to slip through the guides. This will cause the line to fall close in front of you, allowing you to grab the fly line. Then simply hand over hand the line as you approach to tail your quarry. Many steelhead anglers utilize the minimal drag of classic click-pawl reels to create a similar effect by allowing the reel to ‘free-spool’ in order to grab the line as well.
- Keep Your Leader Out of the Guides. A simple but common mistake made when performing the tip above is reeling past the leader-fly line connection. Be cautious that the loop to loop or nail knot between your leader and fly line is not in the guides when performing ‘the slip,’ as the subtle catch of the the connection in the guides could cause just enough force for a break off.
- Make the Grab Count. In attempts to be gentle to a prized fish, some anglers attempt to grab the wrist of the caudal softly. We understand that there are good intentions here, but this usually results in a sudden burst of energy, causing the fish to slip free of the grasp and prolong the fight further. Time is the biggest threat to the well being of a fish, so make your grab count in order to send the fish on its way as quickly as possible. Still having trouble holding on? Consider a landing glove for a quicker, safer, and more effective ‘grip.’
- Lay Your Rod Downstream. Once you have control of the leader and/or the tail of the fish, make sure your rod is pointing downstream. Many many anglers, when caught up in the excitement of a well fought battle, drop their rod in the most convenient direction the moment they get their hands on their fish. However, laying the rod down pointed upstream often causes the fly line to wrap around the rod tip. Should the fish slip free with an unexpected burst of energy, this all too often results in a broken rod tip. Make sure your rod tip is pointed downstream and the current will aid in straightening out the fly line while you tend to your fish, greatly reducing the chance of a broken rod.