So you’ve hooked the fish. Not A fish. THE fish. The fish that keeps you and I awake at
night. The fish that makes your entire fishing year. A unicorn. A tank. A pig. A two-foot
brown. A five pound smallie. A 50-inch musky. Whatever it may be, it’s a moment that
we fly fishers live for. The excitement in that moment is overwhelming, but hooking
these oversized and wily critters is only half the battle. Big fish didn’t get big by accident.
They’re usually the strongest, craftiest, grittiest fish in their respective environments, and they have a penchant for breaking anglers’ hearts. Fighting big fish requires nerves of steel and the wherewithal to think strategically while your heart is beating out of your chest. Here are some tips for the next time you hook a pig.
Tip 1: Stay Calm
Take a deep breath and focus. Once you’re past the initial few seconds of the fight, where
most things are left to instinct and chance, try to stay as calm as possible. This, of course,
is easier said than done, but this more than anything else will increase your odds of
landing the fish. Over-excitement generally comes at the expense of smart, deliberate
thinking. If you aren’t calm and collected, these other tips probably won’t help you a lot.
Tip 2: Assess Your Surroundings
Look around and identify potential obstructions. Oftentimes, a hooked fish’s first instinct
is to head to the nearest cover, be it a logjam, a boulder field, or heavy current. For you as angler, these spell disaster and exponentially increase the odds that you lose the fish. By identifying these potential hazards when you hook the fish, you can plan accordingly by attempting to steer the fight away from them. Also look for places to land the fish like
eddies, current breaks, and shallow water. If you’re strategic, you can often maneuver the fight into areas that are more conducive to fighting and landing the fish.
Tip 3: Use Side Pressure and Rod Angles to Your Advantage
Fish can only swim in the direction their head is facing, so by manipulating the rod angle, you can move a fish’s head in the direction you want it to swim. For example, if I wanted to move a fight away from a longjam on my right, I’ll use low rod pressure to my left to attempt to position a fish’s head away from the obstruction. A second advantage preached to me by my friend and mentor Gordon Vanderpool (@turningstonesflyfishing), is that, on balance, side pressure puts more pressure on a fish than a high rod. With a firm wrist, side pressure also more efficiently distributes pressure through the bend of the rod, allowing the rod to act as a cushion for light tippets. With that being said, don’t, in Gordon’s words, “sword fight” with the rod. Changing rod angles too quickly and repeatedly can introduce slack or induce a sudden tension shock, causing a breakoff. Like most other things in fly-fishing, being smooth, confident, and deliberate is key. By being smart about your rod angles, you can give yourself more control of the direction the fish is swimming, apply more pressure, and decrease the likelihood of a breakoff.
Tip 4: Be Patient and Wait for a Window to Land the Fish
Succumbing to impatience and forcing the issue is one of the worst things you can do
when fighting a big fish. Trying to horse a fish in before it’s tired or haphazardly stabbing a net at a thrashing fish are sure-fire ways to lose the fish. These errors are entirely preventable if the angler stays patient and waits for the right time to land the fish. Eventually, the fish will become tired and be forced to rest, creating a window for the angler to land it with relative ease. Once you sense a fish is tired, attempt to ease its head above the water and slowly pull it across the surface and into the net. Remember, a fish can only swim in the direction its head is facing, so a fish with its head above the water cannot swim away. This approach usually results in an easily netted fish.
Tip 5: Sometimes, You’re Going to Lose
Sometimes, you lose the fish even if you do everything right. You’re hooked to a big,
powerful animal that thinks it’s fighting for its life. Inevitably, it’s going to find a way to
get away some of the time. Breakoffs will happen. Sometimes they’ll throw the hook on a
headshake. Sometimes the hook pulls out for reasons you can’t explain. It’s going to
happen, and the feeling of defeat totally sucks. But it’s part of what makes fishing
challenging and exciting. Plus, it makes those big fish you do manage to land all the more
special. With that being said, if you take some of these lessons to heart, you can tip the
balance in your favor and maximize the chances that you land that rare fish of your
dreams. Go hook a pig!
Tommy Archibald is a contributor on the Content Team here at Flylords! Tommy is a former competitive fly angler on the US Youth Fly Fishing Team and has competed all over the world. Be sure to check him out on Instagram @tommyarchibald_fly_fishes!