Major Solutions to Minor Problems Part 1

Major Solutions to Minor Problems

A Series

Many times in our angling anguish when we are feeling most dis-heartened, and are at the height of our frustration with our performance, we finally throw our hands up in despair and curse the fishing gods, our gear, ourselves, our dumb awful luck or occasionally and at times justifiably…our guide.  We are subject to looking for Major Solutions to Minor Problems, but many times it is something very small that we can easily correct that will turn our day around.  You the reader may not have this issue but I have seen it happen in many a client, fishing parter, and myself.  I've blamed, and seen blamed, everything from the angler just upstream, to the very alignment of the moon and the stars.  While on the rare occasion these may in fact be the culprit, most days the universe is not conspiring against us and what is really wrong is a minor movement, misunderstanding, or misplacement that when corrected can turn a slow day into a salvageable one, if not a phenomenal one.  In this series I'll be covering some of the many minor fly fishing related problems that I see everyday in both other anglers and myself.  I will be mentioning some of you (though certainly not by name) but many times reflecting on my own fishing when I had those days of it all finally clicking and the scales falling from my eyes to reveal what I had been doing wrong for so long. 

Everyone fishes correctly different.

Everyone fishes wrong the same.  


I'm starting here' because of all the mistakes one can make, this is the most common and the most costly.  It seems a simple task to stab an animal in the face with a sharp point, but obviously it's not the case. Failure to set the hook, or set the hook properly, is probably the greatest complaint any guide has about his clients.  It's also probably the greatest failure the guide has in his own fishing when he changes species or fisheries and has to fish for something outside of his comfort zone.  This failure is not one that is born of being a duffer or genetically deficient in the area of motor skills.  It's common to each and every one of us.  It is human.  It stems from two problem areas.  The first being that we are convinced that we already know how to do such a simple task, and that in the moment of excitement and adrenaline, we will possess the mental where-with-all to accomplish this task.  

Lets break this thing down fish by fish, and situation by situation.  I'm no saltwater tarpon guide who spends 300 days a year working in the keys, and for that reason I'll stick with what I know.  Im first and foremost a trout guide…a weenie.  So we will begin with wade fishing for trout.  This is the most ubiquitous form of fly fishing anyway. 

The most important and often overlooked part of setting the hook on a trout in most any given river wading scenario (with a few exceptions) is to set the hook the opposite way the fish is facing.  It is very difficult to place a hook into the corner of a fishes mouth when you set upstream.  Striking upstream is a good way to unhook the fish before he is even hooked.  This seems simple but a few of us continue to set the hook upstream no matter how many times the guide says to set downstream, no matter how many times we tell ourselves to set downstream. No matter what we do we cannot seem to set downstream.  Then we finally do it and we miss the fish.  The Minor Problem here is not that we are incompetent and inept. Its that our brain is working against us.  When we set the hook on a fish it happens fast.  It's a reaction.  It's a moment of sheer excitement that breaks the monotony, its a moment of violence that breaks the peaceful and tranquil scene we have been absorbed in for the past few minutes, moments, or hours.  

When we react our brain makes an automatic calculation in a split second.  We want the line tight and the hook set.  In doing so we are going to move the rod in the direction that will require shortest distance to tighten the line.  You don’t have to think about this, you can’t, because if you do its already too late. Your brain does this calculation for you.  If you have entered the wrong numbers into the equation you will get incorrect results from your split second calculation.  What am I beating around the bush about here?   

What is the minor problem?  Do I need to be faster? 


Do I need to set harder? 


Well then what am I doing wrong when I set the hook?  

Well…nothing.  You’re motion is fine.  Its just that its in the wrong direction.  

Why can’t I seem to set the hook downstream?  

Because your rod tip was upstream of the fly or indicator when the fish ate.  

The minor problem has nothing to do with how or when you set the hook.  It was what was happening before the fish ate.  When we place our fly on or in the water the first thing we must do afterward is get that rod tip downstream of the fly or indicator.  When we mend we should not bring the rod upstream of the indicator or fly, but that is an issue we will visit later. Obviously this pertains to wade fishing with dry flies or nymphs that we are casting upstream.  Streamers, downstream drifts, fishing from a boat, etc. are all different scenariosthat we will investigate later. For our most common form of fishing let’s focus on keeping that rod downstream of your fly, flies, indicator, or line at all times and you will be in the strike position,  and your brain will do as it knows to do and make that rod travel the shortest distance to achieve a tight line.  99.9% of the time this is all you will need to do to ensure that the hook finds its home,  firmly placed on the inside corner of the fish's mouth.  

Now what about the 0.1%?  Well there are a few other things we can look at to finely tune your hook set.  As you may have picked up on already setting the hook is not so much of an action but more of a philosophy.  Really all we want to do is confidently and authoritatively get the line tight.  Its quick but not hard.  That seems to be the kicker with most of us.  How do I do this quickly but not aggressively.  Again this is achieved by rod position.  Just as we discussed having the rod tip always downstream when we are casting upstream and wade fishing for trout, we must also have the rod straight or at least mostly parallel with the water.  Our wrist must not be bent or broken because it is this joint that we will use to set the hook.  Its not our arm, our shoulder, both hands, our hips or our entire body, mind, and soul that we use to set the hook.  It is a simple breaking of the wrist, in the downstream direction.  Our fly line must be under a finger on the rod hand (one finger only the index or middle its up to you), and our other hand must have hold of the line somewhere between our hip and the rod.  When the fish eats we give the line a solid but appropriate strip with our off hand pulling it through the finger on the rod hand and simultaneously breaking our wrist in the downstream direction causing the rod tip to travel in the downstream direction and away from the fish.  This movement quickly takes up any slack in the line and immediately places the hook into the nearside corner of the fishes mouth.  Think about this movement. Envision it in your mind before you drift off to sleep.  Think about the rod being downstream of the fly or indicator, imagine it being flat and parallel to the water with your wrist cocked and locked ready to strike. Imagine the eat and you stripping the line and breaking the wrist in one smooth quick motion, and the flex of the tip of the rod as the fly finds purchase in the corner of the fish's mouth.  Feel the weight of the fish on the end of the rod and his initial surge of power…..

Fighting…no strike that…playing the fish comes next and we will discuss this later on after we have covered all the hooks sets.

Thanks for reading and feel free to email if you have a specific issue or question you would want addressed in this series.