When a Tigerfish eats its prey, it goes as hard and fast as it gets. These fish don’t sidle up, snatch, or swallow their prey; they crash into it with their mouth open and teeth bared. They aim to inflict mortal wounds on their prey and then eat what they can. They are not shy of targeting fish up to 40% of their size, family members included. Their hard bony mouths, incredible speed on the eat, and out-of-the-water acrobatics make the tigerfish one of the most challenging fish to land.
Tigers provide some of the biggest adrenaline rushes in fly fishing. With all the odds stacked in the Tigerfish’s favor, there are a few critical elements the angler can control to help even the odds. Assuming you are fishing the correct tackle and with flies tied on the proper hooks, this is what you can do on the water:
1. Rod tip down
Fly rods are not built to drive a hook home into a 1-inch thick, bony jaw. So, when setting a hook when fly fishing for tigers, you aim for as little fly rod in the equation as possible. A straight line from the stripping hand to the fish’s mouth is what you are after. This allows maximum transfer of stripping force to reach the crucial point where hook point and fish meet, with no energy wasted on a bending fly rod. You have all seen the meme, don’t f****** trout set!
2. Underarm “Roly-Poly” strip
With your rod under your arm, learn to double-hand strip, better known as the Roly Poly. Although not employed all the time, it is used extensively when tiger fishing and has several benefits. One of the most significant advantages this offers is that you always have a hand actively stripping the fly in (no matter the speed or where you are in the retrieve/strip cycle).
There is no portion of the retrieve where you don’t have a stripping hand working the line. This means you can react immediately when you get a bite. Missed sets between strips when employing single-hand strips are common. By default, using an underarm Roly Poly strip means you can’t lift the rod when you get the eat. We like this.
3. Don’t try to get loose line on the fly reel
If the fish does not run you onto the reel in the initial surge, don’t try getting it on the reel. Instead, keep fighting it in hand. The first 10 – 30 seconds of a big tigerfish eat are akin to hand-to-hand combat (when you are not a fighter) – fast, brutal, and pretty blurry. You need to react quickly to what the fish is doing. You cannot do this when trying to reel in loose line off the deck. No matter how often you have done this on your local trout stream, I promise you are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.
4. Keep your rod angles consistent
Unless you are fortunate to have your fly penetrate the scissors (which is not common due to the way tigerfish eat) or lodged in the tough skin in the upper pallet, you are most likely going to be tentatively connected by the hook point holding onto the inside of the tigerfish’s stiff bony jaw.
Just like when you are snagged on hard timber or rock, your fly often pops free from what seems like the most stubborn snags as you get closer and change the angle. The same happens when your fish is near, and you are preparing to land it. During this time, changing your angle on the fish, unless necessary, must be avoided at all costs. Doing everything right, seeing your fish up close and about to be landed, and then watching your fly shoot out of the fish’s mouth and back at you is heartbreaking. You can mitigate this to some degree (pun intended).
5. Don’t lose your mojo
Even the most competent anglers will battle to convert 40% of big tigerfish eats to landed fish. That is the nature of the game. You will question your ability as a fly angler when you have a run of 5 or more for naught. Accept this and keep fishing.
We have seen countless experienced anglers broken down and reduced to shadows of their former fly-fishing selves by tigerfish. Just as the casino always wins, so do tigerfish in most cases. Enjoy the good runs, and accept the bad runs with humility. You are not more prominent than the game. Realizing this will go a long way to keeping the vibes on the boat positive, which always brings better results.