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.  


Part I- The Hook Set Continued

Last time we talked about setting the hook when casting upstream with a dry fly or a nymph pattern in a wading situation.  In this section we will talk about several other scenarios where you will need to use a different hook set.  

Dry Fly Downstream Drift

At times, and often, it is necessary to cast downstream to a rising fish.  The water may be too slick for an upstream presentation.  Wading in from below may not be possible due to the location of the fish. Or, you just happened to notice a rise downstream of you and want to make a quick catch before heading upstream.

When casting downstream to a rising trout we must keep a few things in mind.  Just as when casting upstream to a rising trout we must allow the fish to take the fly before setting the hook.  When we are nymph fishing we want to set as quickly a possible as the fish is already deep and due to the amount of slack that we can not see below the surface, we are technically already late by the time we notice that a fish has taken our fly.

When fishing dry flies we must see the take and pause for just a moment to allow the fish to turn downward with the fly before we pull in the opposite direction.  If we set when we see the fish take he is still facing upward and we will remove the fly from his mouth.  In the scenario of a downstream presentation we must not only wait but also lower the rod to the fish as we see him eat.  In most cases we are very near the end of our drift when we get a take.  This happens because of our tendency to cast short of the fish in order not to spook him.  If we fail to lower our rod to the fish as he takes the fly the line will come taught just as or before he eats, resulting in either a refusal or a the fish being unable to suck the fly into its mouth at all.  After lowering the rod as the rise begins to occur we must the set in a manner that will place the hook in the corner of the mouth, even though we are upstream of the fish.  This can be accomplished by either an authoritative lift of the rod toward the bank of the downstream shoulder, (i.e. if your right shoulder is your downstream shoulder then set toward the right bank) or if the current is sufficiently strong then sweep the rod to the downstream bank allowing a belly to form in the line and thereby pulling the fly into the corner of the fish's mouth. 

Im sure while reading, this may be a difficult scenario to imagine, but if you find your self in this position while on the water it will begin to become more clear.  

Wet Fly Downstream Swing

This is a method that we should all seek to study and perfect.  It was once the preferred and most common method of fishing for trout before the popularity of nymph fishing and even dry fly fishing.  At one time swung wets were the majority of the patterns tied and fished.  To see someone properly fishing a wet fly is a rare occurrence on the water these days.  For some reason this method has fallen out of favor with most fly anglers and that can be a benefit to you as the fish, even on highly pressured systems, are not seeing this presentation very often.  This is also a highly effective method during a caddis hatch or even a hatch of midge pupae.

Caddis and Midges both have a complete lifecycle meaning that they have a pupal stage much like a moth or a butter fly.  When it is time leave the stream bottom, many species of both orders will create a gas bubble inside the pupa skin or shuck and then quickly ascend to the surface.  A properly fished wet fly can imitate this behavior quite well.  I will quickly discuss the method of fishing a wet but will go into detail later on in another series. 

Wet flies, in most cases, should be cast across or quartering down and across stream.  A quick mend upstream allows them to sink to or near the bottom, followed by a well timed downstream mend to allow the flies to swing back up toward the surface in the area of holding fish.  This method can be fished blindly and with out intense precision in an effort to simply cover water and pick up what ever fish might decide to key on your flies.  Or, it can be done with the same precision as fishing with a dry fly if you have selected one fish that is actively feeding on pupae.  Have you ever seen a fish jump clear out of the water to grab a fly that was flying to low?  Well, you may have.  But the more likely case is that you saw a fish propel himself from the water as he caught a caddis pupae just before it reached the surface.  This may be a fish you want to chase.  You can swing through the run as in the previous method mentioned or you can target the fish by mending downstream directly at him and placing your line exactly the distance upstream of the fish as the length of your leader.  This will cause your fly to make a rapid acceleration toward the surface right in front of the fish that is actively taking flies that are making rapid accelerations toward the surface.  

Now to set the hook…

In most cases you won’t need to.  And if you do you are likely to break the line.  Today’s modern tip action/fast action, power fishing, high line speed, wind fighting, high modulus, x-woven, double scrim, blah blah blah blah type fly rods are really not suited to this type of fishing.  They are made to throw heavily weighted  rigs and take up slack quickly.  A softer rod works best for this kind of fishing as the trout has for the most part already set the hook on himself.  Being that your rod is stiff and fast and that you will want to react when you feel the take, the most likely thing to happen is that you will set hard straight up and either remove the fly from the fishes mouth placing it in a nearby tree, or the shock on the line from an eager fish and an overly eager fisherman will break the tippet.

So what to do?

Again we want the hook placed into the corner of the fishes mouth.  Since we are again upstream of the fish when it takes, this is a difficult thing to do.  And again, we must start by preparing ourselves for the hook set.  When we initially made our cast the first thing we should have done is placed a small loop of line under our finger on our rod hand.  This loop should hang loosely between the finger and the reel, and we should have a loose hold on the loop so that when the fish eats he pulls the loop out.  Our rod should be down with the tip on or just in the water.  The loose loop of line being pulled from our hand by the fish will both cushion the initial blow and allow the fish to turn his head down toward the bottom and downstream, as he returns to from whence he came.  This will pull the fly into the corner of the jaw.  As the loop is released a slow lift of the rod over your downstream shoulder should add a bit more tippet protection and you now have a fish on hot, and a reel that is singing. 


Remember those fast action rods I was just bemoaning.  This is when you want them.  When we are streamer fishing we are chucking big hunks of rabbit fur, lead, and feathers at the water hoping for a big take from a big fish.  Most streamers nowadays are either bait fish imitations or just something to piss a big fish off. Large trout are territorial, and tend to be nocturnal in their activity.  Day time streamer fishing is not so much looking for a hungry fish but invading the space of a fish that is “taking a nap” and will react violently when suddenly disturbed.  For this reason (and a good bit of youthful testosterone)  a lot of modern streamers are big, loud, nasty, and difficult to cast.  Combine that with sinking lines and shooting heads and those fast action power rods begin to make sense.  

Setting the hook with a streamer is the same as all the other sets in that it always comes back to rod position.  It is different in every other way.  For rod position this is very simple to say and for some reason very difficult to do.  Two things.  You want the tip of your rod DOWN and TOUCHING THE WATER, and you want the rod POINTED AT THE FLY.  The all caps are for emphasis, Im not shouting at you…yet.  If you want to hear me scream and shout let's go streamer fishing.  There is no anger or hard feelings involved, but it’s an intense game where you wear your thickest skin, forego any niceties or decorum and basically WRECK SHIT.  I get into this kind of fishing every now and then but its not my go-to method or state of being.  Im a lover not a fighter. 

The reason for keeping the rod tip on or in the water and pointed at the fly is two fold.  By keeping the rod down you are keeping your fly down, and remaining connected to the fly through tension in the line.  This allows you to both set the hook and control the placement and movement of your fly in the water.  The rod should be pointed at the fly at all times because the one thing you do not want involved in the hook set is the rod.  If you are fishing properly you should be either stripping and pausing or bumping with the rod (more on this later).  When you feel the fish take, and you will feel it,  CONTINUE TO STRIP.   Most often when a fish hits a streamer he is not eating it.  Most bait fish have a spiny dorsal fin.  If you have ever held one you know that if you stroke the dorsal in one direction it lays down across the back, and if you stroke it the other it stands up and may even have spines that can stab you.  If I’m a big fish eating a little fish I probably do not want to to eat it tail first and get that dorsal caught in my throat.  It's much easier to hit the smaller fish, stun it or break is back, then suck it in head first as if drifts downstream.  

If a big fish has just hit your streamer, with out the intent to eat, and you raise the rod to set the hook, chances are you have pulled the fly away from the fish and you will not get a second chance.  If however you continue to strip it appears to the fish that the streamer is wounded, and is still in the area. Chances are it will get hit again and perhaps this time the hook will find purchase.  If you are a Tantric Zen Master of control and you allow your fly to die and drift back by feeding line after a strike, chances are you will feel the weight of the fish as you begin to strip again.  

When you feel the weight of the fish on the line you raise the rod.  Until then you strip.  The line is heavy, the hook is big.  A rod lift will either remove the fly from the area of the fish or it will add too much cushion to the hook set and the big hook will not find purchase.  STRIP STRIP STRIP STRIP STRIP the fly when you feel the take.  Lift the rod when you feel the weight.  

From the Boat

It’s really simple.  Set up and to the opposite side of the boat.  You are above the fish now.  If you have cast to the left of the boat with a dry fly or nymph then set up and to the right, If you have cast to the right side of the boat with a dry fly or nymph then set up and to the left.  With streamers and wet flies the same principals as wading apply.  


Good luck and good fishing and as always feel free to email with further questions or suggestions,