Get Set: Plan the Outcome
Hook sets are often a foregone conclusion—something anglers really don’t think about ahead of time. Perhaps we just figure we’ll react reflexively when the time comes by lifting the rod, and when we miss fish, we assume we were either too late or it was just dumb luck. But we can minimize dumb luck, or turn bad luck into good luck, by planning ahead. While timing is important, there’s a lot more that goes into a proper and effective hookset. Planning how you’re going to set the hook is just as important as detecting the strike.
When your position is below (downstream) of a fish and you are casting upstream to it, a firm lift of the rod is usually an effective hook set. Because the fish is also facing upstream, this maneuver drives the hook into its hard upper mouth. Even if you’re nymphing upstream with modern tight-line techniques, setting the hook by lifting the rod tip works just fine.
But when you are upstream of a fish and fishing downstream to it, hook sets are more difficult. An upstream, lifting hook set tends to pull the fly out of a fish’s mouth. To prevent that from happening, adjust the direction of the hook set and pull more across the stream to one side or another, rather than directly away from the trout (upstream).
For example, imagine you’re nymph fishing from the river’s edge and facing a current that is flowing from right to left. When a strike occurs in the last third of the drift, the angle between the fish and you might be at 45 degrees. An upstream hook set (to your right) leads to more missed hookups, but an across-stream hook set (sidearm to the angler’s left) is more effective because at that angle, there’s a greater chance for the hook point to pierce the corner of the fish’s mouth.
Many nymph-fishing strikes occur at the end of the nymph drift, as the leader tightens to the fly and causes it to turn headfirst into the current and rise like an emerging insect. Jim Leisenring was one of the first writers to describe this tactic, and it has since been dubbed the Leisenring’s lift. Once again, be prepared to sweep the rod across the current during the hook set, driving the hook into the outer or upper part of the fish’s mouth rather than tugging the fly out of its mouth. In every case, you need to figure out the best direction of your hook set before the first cast so you’ll avoid the natural inclination to simply lift the rod.
For downstream dry flies, a quick trigger in that situation actually works against you. In fact, you need to build in a delay to your motions before making those types of hook sets. Let the trout grab the fly and turn away, either toward the bottom or to the side, as it returns to its lie. Reciting a phrase like “God Save the Queen,” before you set the hook is an option, but if you’re ambivalent about Her Royal Highness, you can make up your own American alternative. Or you count two seconds before setting on the two. Whatever your mental device for slowing things down, it will take some discipline and practice to get it right, but if you consciously make this decision ahead of time, review it a few times in your head, and envision the delayed hook set, it’s easier to execute at the moment of truth.
Wet flies fished on a downstream swing are a much different ball game because fish often set the hook themselves (if you let them) as they turn for cover. Simply avoid making the firm lift that pulls the fly away from their mouths. You’ll still need to drive the hook point home, but a short strip set, just as you’d make if fishing streamers, is sometimes the best maneuver. As an alternative, make a sidearm sweep-set across stream like that described earlier.
Recently, I was talking about hook sets with noted angler Ed Engle, and he recommended pushing the rod at the fish, or lowering the rod tip just long enough to let the fish turn and swim back to its feeding lie, then firmly striping the line, which sets the hook in the process. Once again, getting your mind and muscles to do what they should do versus what they want to do takes a little discipline, so rehearse your motions mentally beforehand, and you won’t be so likely to rip the hook out of the fish’s mouth.
One more question needs an answer before the first cast— where are you going to play and land your fish? You’ll want to get it out of fast current and into slow water as soon as possible so you’re not fighting the stream flow as well as the fish. Look around to identify likely cover such as rock piles, deep water, and logjams, where a hooked fish may likely bolt. Those are bad places to lose a fish during the fight, so use side pressure to steer it away from fish-losing trouble spots by holding the bent rod horizontally, rather than directly above, your head. Lead the trout into calmer water to regain the advantage. If you’re generally working in an upstream manner, pick a calm water outlet below you that’s out of the fast current to corral your fish. If you’re working in a downstream manner as you fish, lead the fish to the river’s edge as soon as possible to avoid a downstream run that might blow up the water you plan to fish next.
You can land small fish almost anywhere, but if you don’t plan ahead, you might lose your best fish of the day. However, sometimes the best place to land a fish is the area you’re playing it because you’ve essentially already disturbed that water, and having an easy-to-access net always puts more odds in your favor. I prefer landing a fish with a net instead of handling it or pulling it into the shallows, where sharp rocks can cause injury. Additionally, by using a long-handled net, you don’t have to play out the fish as much as you do without one. A good net can also improve a fish’s chances of survival after release. (See “Dip & Scoop” in the May/June 2016 issue of American Angler.) I prefer a soft, fish-friendly, rubber-basket net to mesh nets because the webbing is not so hard on the fish.
GO! Execute Your Plan
After you’ve thought out the preceding factors, you’re ready to make that first cast and present the fly. During the presentation, trap the fly line to the cork handle with your index or middle finger—it’s a great “ready” position, equivalent to keeping your finger on the trigger of a gun. Moreover, this position will help you with line management and control, and it sets up the hook set— when the strike happens, you won’t be fumbling with line.
With a plan in place that allows you to anticipate all manner of strikes, and a place scoped out to play and land your fish, the execution is the easy (and fun) part—it’ll seem as though you’ve already rehearsed it. In the theater world, that’s why play directors schedule so many practices and rehearsals—so opening night goes off without a hitch. If you bring the same mentality to your fly fishing, your opening drift will also go just as smoothly.
Jason Randall is a frequent contributor to American Angler and the author of the Fly Fisher’s Guide trilogy. His latest book, Nymph Masters: Fly Fishing Secrets from Expert Anglers, was released by Stackpole/Headwaters Books in March 2017.