At Alaska West and BC West we see a lot of big fish fought by our guests – we’re talking steelhead and king salmon here. Sometimes our anglers do a great job fighting the big ones. Other times…not so much.
Fight hard, fight smart, and get it over fast!
Top 5 Mistakes Made Fighting Big Fish
- Rod bent at the tip. The tip of your rod doesn’t have a lot of power. If your rod angle is high (i.e. you’re acting like you’re in a bass boat), you’re bending the tip of your rod. The power in your rod is in the butt section. Keep your rod lower and pull back, not up, on the handle – that will bend the butt of your rod and apply much more pressure to the fish.
- Slow stroll downriver. Lots of times big fish get way below you on the river. We get that. But if you’re strolling downriver and casually reeling up slack as you go, you’re probably losing more ground than you’re gaining. Some expert anglers like to ‘stand their ground’ and literally not move, keeping maximum pressure on the fish. Others want to pull more sideways on the fish so they move quickly downriver to get a better angle. That’s fine, but if you’re going to make a move downriver, do it quickly and reel aggressively as you go – otherwise you’re guaranteed to lose ground.
- Pulling like a pansy. Big fish are strong. If you’re not pulling hard, they’re resting, and you’re just increasing the length of the fight, allowing more time for something to go wrong. You need to be working hard when you’re fighting a big fish – you should be breathing hard and your arms should get tired! The gear we use for big fish is strong – you probably can’t break 15 pound Maxima with your bare hands – so pull hard and get it done.
- Sudden movements. Often during a fight with a big fish you need to change your rod angle to pull from the other side. Do it smoothly! Particularly with two-handed rods, this movement is really pulling the fly from side to side, and you don’t want slack or sudden jerks in the process. That’s a recipe for working the fly loose.
- Rod tip too high. We like the ‘down and dirty’ method with big fish – in most situations right up to the end of the fight, your rod tip should be in the water. Yes, sometimes you need to raise your rod to avoid an obstacle – that’s fine. But otherwise, keep your rod low for maximum fish fighting mojo.
Seen some other mistakes made fighting big fish? Leave us a comment and let the world know.
Mark Orlicky says
I like this one. One point, item #5 is frequently a mantra with some guides, “hold your rod tip high!”. You guys have the experience, so clarify in more detail your rationale.
My addeds are little ones. I would tell the client to prepare ahead of time, believe that the next cast will produce that monster they’ve waited for all of their lives. There’s the confidence factor first. You’ve got to believe. Second, as a guide I would emphasize over and over “check your tackle”. Hooks sharp, no nicks in the leader, and good knots. Finally, one thing that I always do on the river is I look around me. If I have a biggie hit, I want to know where to go, what to do. No fumbling around.
Great comments Mark – checking your tackle and having a look around when you hook up are both super important.
The height of the rod tip is definitely a topic where different people have different approaches. We had big anadromous fish in moving water in mind with this post; most of the time they’re going to be downriver from you, and in that case we feel like side pressure is pretty important in tiring out the fish. Having the rod tip low and to one side or the other, with a solid bend in the butt section, is how we feel you’re going to apply the most side pressure.
Jean Sylvestre says
I mainly fish Atlantic salmon in Quebec province. Sometimes big ones will pull behind a submerge bolder and curl their bodies in the current to rest . It seems as if they had their nose flat against the rock and if you pulled you would have to dislodge the rock before the fish. I was taught by an Indian guide to tap abruptly the but of the the rod. Seems to send a vibrating wave along the line that sends the salmon running for an other river marathon. I have used this method a lot of times and can testify of it’s efficiency in these particular situations. Il have the occasion of trying it (hopefully) on the N.Y. Salmon river this autumn. Might work on steelheads also.
Great idea Jean – definitely will give that a try!
i always fight fish with my side ways, its where the power is. if using a floating line(like said above) i stick my rod in the water, let the fish fight my line. like i tell the fly rookies put the wood to them
Bill Taylor says
Great fish fighting advice! What I like to tell my customers (which is right in line with what you are proposing) is to obtain a good camber to the rod while holding it on side angle. The idea is to think about getting flex out of the bottom third of the rod. This, coupled with a well set drag (that might need periodic adjusting during the tussle) will wear down even the most unruly and “hellbent to go the other way” salmonids.
Juan Dumas says
Thanks Andrew for the good advice. I agree with all of it. I would only add that one should be specially careful when the fish is close to shore. One should step back and always have line out of the rod and not just have the leader out. Anxiety to get it done with in the last stage of the fight I think is responsible for many fish lost.
Agreed, Juan – great point!
One thing I see fishing saltwater is that inexperienced anglers (who expect to hook big fish) will set their drags WAY too tight initially. Better to go with light drag at first until you’ve set the hook and cleared your slack line, then tighten down the drag. If your startup inertia is too high it can pull the hook or even break the leader.
Nic Jepson says
Hi Andrew, As usually great post with lots of good advice.
Since fishing in the US and Canada extensively over the last 5-6 years I have certainly noticed the difference between the traditional European and North American techniques of fighting and tiring a fish quickly. We generally do hold our rods higher very often and there are a number of reasons…I think.
1) We often have rocky bottoms and rocks as obstacles in many European rivers (Norway, Scotland, Russia, etc). Therefore we are often concerned about have too much fly line “under the water” as in the “down and dirty methodology, because we need to ensure the fish ?leader / line are not going behind, under or around rocks.
2) Alaska West and many similar rivers generally only have sunken trees and branches (snags) as a problem, due to the sandy, small pebbled bottom, so fear of 1) is minimal.
3) In the USA and Canada one is fortunate to be able to normally fish 15 or 20 lb leader, which as you point out is VERY strong and therefore one can apply huge pressure on your leader. In Europe there are times when we have to fish thinner leaders, especially in low water summer conditions. This adds a complication. If one was to employ the down and dirty with a double handed spey rod on lighter than 15 lbs leader the actually pressure on the hook, leader is dramatically increased when a number of meters of fly line are submerged, especially in fast current when the fish is moving upstream quickly. In these situations I often use LESS pressure to ensure that I don’t reach the technical limit.
4) Down and dirty or Rod high techniques applied in the “wrong direction” do NOT make fish tired quickly. How many times have you seen a fellow fisherman with his rod fully bent into the fish but in a direction directly downstream. Big fish just sit there using the current and can often not be moved. It is essential to get side strain on the fish as often as possible, whatever rod angle you employ.
Bottom line. I have changed my “fighting angle ” when fishing for Kings in Alaska and Steelies in BC, but I very rarely fish down and dirty for Atlantics. So I suggest that it is horses for courses based on a number of the variables I have mentioned above. IMHO.
Dave Nelson says
Made my 1st Angler Error of 2014 yesterday while shad fishing in the Delaware River near “beautiful” Trenton, NJ. Fishing a warm water discharge from a coal fired power plant. A 22″ striped bass took my Jersey Devil shad fly. Will surprises never cease? My 6# tippit, leaving me way understrengthed for such a battle, snapped while the fish ran. So in that reflective moment that we go thru in times such as these I deduced that I was fishing appropriate gear for shad but not for a 10 pound striper. The problem is that I wouldn’t have caught the four shad had I been using heavier gear. My mistake? No mistake! Sometimes flukes happen. It’s ok. It’s what makes fishing exciting. So don’t let things which occur which are out of your control ruin your day!
Matthew Perkins says
I have no shame in admitting this: I have lost many big fish, and it seems like it is always to the same trick, I have come to recognize and call it the “rise and roll” technique. How in the hell is it that so many fish know this trick, and have it their tool box to employ against us?! Extremely frustrating, I’m convinced they must learn this in school (pun intended) and the one’s who remember and employ this tactic are the one’s who survive and grow up to be the monsters they are. Haha!
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hooked into a big fish that quickly, and adeptly pulled this maneuver on me to their great success. Ugh… It always upsets me, and I haven’t been able to come up with a good counter attack to it yet, perhaps you can help me…?
Essentially, here is what happens: (note that nearly every time this has happened the fish has been hooked up downstream from me except for a few instances when the fish was across stream) immediately upon getting hooked up, the fish rises to the surface, and does a roll while turning down stream, and voilá, fish off.
My theory is that in a quick split second while you’re still realizing you’ve hooked up, the fish is able to create just enough slack in the line to back itself out of or spit out the hook.
Has anybody else witnessed this trick of theirs? How would you recommend countering it?
Especially when it happens so quickly, almost before you’re able to act upon it.
I try to be ready for it, It doesn’t happen or work ALL THE TIME, but it has worked on me often enough that it is simply maddening.
My reason for keeping my rod low and parallel to the water surface is for three reasons. 1, keep the fish from jumping. As beautiful and exciting as a jumping steelhead is, the more it jumps the bigger the hole that hook is making and the more the chance the hook will come out. Your bent rod is spring loaded so you’re aiding the fish to jump if you’re holding your tip high. The more it jumps the less chance you have of landing it. When ever it does jump I reset the hook with quick strip set. 2, turn the fish. When the fish is making a powerful run, keeping your rod parallel and low is now putting that spring loaded pressure sideways causing it to turn. Think of a horse and bit. 3, more bend in the rod. The more bend in the rod, the less pressure on the tippet. This part I won’t recommend but it works for me every time. I have on many occasions pointed my rod butt at the fish, so the rod is in a complete u shape. Haven’t broken a rod yet so I’m confident in doing it. I do this when I’m under rodded or fighting a particularly strong fish. Wouldn’t do it with a super fast action rod though.
Dana eddings says
Not on this subject but pros cons of fluorescent orange tip section on bonefish fly lines. Sure help angler know where end of line is but have had guide not like it’s visibility.
Jim Ray says
“Rod tip too high. We like the ‘down and dirty’ method with big fish – in most situations right up to the end of the fight, your rod tip should be in the water. Yes, sometimes you need to raise your rod to avoid an obstacle – that’s fine. But otherwise, keep your rod low for maximum fish fighting mojo.”
I learned this from a guide on the Delaware many years ago, and have used it effectively many, many times. I have found that when you do this, it is generally possible to pull, or guide, the fish into softer water where it will practically swim to you with just a small amount of rod pressure. I believe this is because the line is parallel to the river-bottom, and while the fish does not recognize what is happening, it does not feel the need to fight whatever it feels is trying to pull it out of the water when the rod tip is kept high. I have found that I can land fish very quickly using this method – as long as the bottom doesn’t have big boulders to snag my flyline! The downside is that the fish is often pretty feisty once it is landed.