Featured Photo: Native Colors

Featured Photo: Native Colors

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

How To Fight Big Trout On a Fly Rod

Fighting big fish is the eventual goal for most fly anglers unless you've already passed this stage in your fishing career. Some fights last longer than others. I've personally had countless big trout break off on the hook set over the years and probably even more guiding. If you are going to pursue large trout, it comes with the territory. This is particularly true if you choose to target large selective trout on light tackle. Small flies, light tippets, and to a much lesser extent, if you are streamer fishing. I've seen some truly large fish break off on some heavy tippet.

Before we get too far along into this piece, I need to clear one thing up. I'm far from the best person to be telling you how to fight fish. There are plenty of anglers out there who have caught more and larger trout than I have. However, between my own personal fishing and also my guiding, I have learned a few things over the years. I've lost enough big trout to at least be able to tell you what not to do. Some special trout have come along that I've also been fortunate enough to land, and each one of those taught me something as well.

How to Fight Big Trout on a Fly Rod: Rigging

This is an often overlooked part of catching large trout. If your knots don't hold or your tippet is old and brittle, you can have the best fish fighting skills in the world, and you'll still lose most of them. Early in my fly fishing career, I lost a lot of big fish on the hook set. This was due to one or the other of those problems. When tippet snaps, either a knot was bad, the tippet is old, or a combination of both. 

One sneaky problem that is often overlooked in this category is knots combining two types of materials. I routinely use monofilament leaders and add a fluorocarbon tippet. Part of this has to do with me being cheap. However, much more importantly, fluorocarbon has a tendency towards sinking while monofilament has a tendency towards floating. I generally prefer to have most of my leader up on the surface, at least to my dry fly or strike indicator.  Unfortunately, fluorocarbon is much harder than monofilament and often cuts the mono when you attach them together with a knot. 

The first tip here is to use slightly heavier monofilament before tying on the fluorocarbon. For example, if I'm using 6x fluorocarbon for my tippet, I'll generally use 4x monofilament for the leader to the point I tie on the tippet. These can be store bought or hand tied leaders. When you tie the two together, be extremely cautious when seating the knot. Slide the two pieces ever so slowly apart as you pull to tighten the knot. If you are careful, it should be fine. An often better solution here is a tippet ring which eliminates this issue of trying to tie two different materials directly together. However, the tippet ring will want to sink just a bit since it is metal. Thus, it isn't the best approach when you really need to keep that leader on the surface. A bit of mucilin or other paste style floatant can help here.

Another tip on rigging is to use the heaviest line you think you can get away with. Often, if I know I'm targeting large trout, I'll go up to something in the 1x through 4x size range on tippet. Obviously, you probably won't be fishing a #18 midge on 1x, but you might try 5x before going down to 6x. Every little bit of holding power helps. 

Finally, be confident in your knots. I exclusively use a blood knot for tying tippet to leader. That is because I personally tie this knot much better than some of the alternatives and have had the other knots break on me. I rarely tie a bad blood knot and when I do, I was probably joining two different types of materials. Same thing for your tippet to fly knot of course. Always give a little tug after tying a fly one to make sure the knot is good. 

How to Fight Big Trout on a Fly Rod: Gear

Closely related to rigging is making sure you have the right gear. This means reels with a smooth drag (unless you just want to make it harder on yourself) and rods with the right amount of flex. If you are fishing streamers or other applications that allow for larger flies and heavier tippets, then you can get away with a fairly fast (stiff) rod. For light line presentations like smaller dry flies, small nymphs, and midges, then consider something with a bit more flex. 

Protecting light tippets starts with a rod with a tip that isn't too stiff. Big fish break off for a lot of reasons, but usually it comes down to something during the hook set or fight. If you set too hard on a big trout while using 6x and a tiny midge, you better not have a broom stick in your hands.

How to Fight Big Trout on a Fly Rod: The Hook Set

The hooks is another overlooked part of catching big trout. When guiding, I often spend some time literally just practicing the hook set. I'll hold the butt section of the leader or the fly line and have the angler practice setting until I feel like they have the right amount of pressure. Don't have someone around to hold your line? Then tie on a 6x leader to your line, tie the 6x to a dumbbell or something else heavy, and practice setting the hook. The goal is to come tight (that includes putting a bend in your rod) without breaking the small tippet.

I have noticed an interesting problem on the hook set with a lot of anglers. They lift the butt of the rod instead of coming back with the tip. Remember, the whole point here is to come tight to the fish. That means you have to move the rod tip, not the butt of the rod. A good hook set looks a lot like a backcast. The key is knowing when to stop going back. You want to go until your tight to the fish, no more and no less. 

Of course, this only applies to smaller flies or any other application that requires light tippets. If you are streamer fishing, you'll probably have heavy tippet on. In this scenario, we use a strip set. A hard pull or strip with your line hand helps drive the hook home. If you happen to miss the fish, the fly is still in the water and the fish may come back.

A lot of hook sets break off the fish because the angler comes back too far and too hard. This leads us to our next big point. 

Sometimes You Just Have to Lose Some Big Fish

This one is a tough pill to swallow, but the best way to become proficient at hooking and landing big trout is to do it and learn from your mistakes. I routinely tell people that they just need to lose some big fish to get a feel for fighting them. Each fish will teach you something that you can use on the next one. If you lose it on the hook set, then next time you'll know to not set quite as hard. If you lose it during the fight, then you'll learn what not to do there. Of course, sometimes there is nothing you can do if a fish finds the right piece of structure. You'll learn that you sometimes have to put maximum pressure, knowing full well that the fish will either break off or turn before getting in the structure. If the fish gets in the structure, then you will almost certainly lose it. 

Once you have fought a few fish, then you'll begin to have a fairly good idea of where the breaking point is on 4x tippet, 5x tippet, 6x tippet, and so on and so forth. The ability to push a fish right up to the breaking point without crossing that line is what enables you to successfully fight and land large fish without overplaying them. When a client recently landed a monster brown trout, he asked at least a couple of times if he needed to put more pressure on the fish. This ethical dilemma is something that good fish fighting skills will make an easier choice. I've watched people fight a 12 inch trout to exhaustion unnecessarily. I've also watched people land huge trout on light tippet over the course of 10 or 15 minutes and successfully release the trout at the end. Knowing the water conditions (temperature and dissolved oxygen) helps to make this decision, but in the end, good fish fighting skills are necessary to get the fish in the net as quickly as possible.

How To Land Big Trout On a Fly Rod: The Fight

Once you have a successful hook set and that big fish is dancing on the end of your line, then what? As a guide, I always tell people to keep their rod straight up. This is actually not 100% accurate nor always the best strategy, but for people just getting their feet wet in the world of fighting large trout, it is a really good place to start. That is because it is something easy to focus on in the heat of the moment and accomplishes most of what you want to do. However, it would be more accurate to say that you need to keep the rod bent at the appropriate angle, but where is the appropriate angle? 

While holding your fly rod without being hooked up to a fish, the rod is straight. Once you hook that big trout, imagine the rod is still straight and that you want to keep approximately a 90 degree angle between the tip of the rod and the fly line coming from the tip. This allows the rod to flex deeply but appropriately. If you get the rod tip too far behind you and pointing away from the fish, you'll likely end up breaking the rod. If you point the rod at the fish, then the rod can't flex and the fish will either through the fly or break you off.

People often point the rod at the fish because they've seen or heard the advice to bow to fish when they jump. This is great advice, but much better advice, at least for fighting large trout, is to keep low side pressure. Keeping the rod tip low encourages the trout to not jump as much. Low side pressure will generally whip a large fish much faster than the rod overhead technique I often have people use. This is particularly true for large brown trout and much less so for big rainbows in my experience. In fact, if I know I have a big brown trout on, I'll use as much side pressure as possible. With big rainbows, I'll use a lot more overhead pressure.

Whether you point your rod up or to the side, keep the rod at that 90 degree angle to your fly line. This of course doesn't count for the flex of the rod, so the imaginary direct line extending from the handle of the bent rod is the one that should stay at a 90 degree angle to the fish. Whatever you do, don't get the rod pointed anywhere towards the fish. 

As you get tired during the fight, your tendency will be to give the fish room to run by swinging the tip of the rod towards the fish. This is almost always the point where people lose big fish. Once the rod is pointed at the fish, it can no longer bend/flex and absorb the runs and head shakes of the hooked trout. 

When fighting other large fish, this advice is definitely not as accurate. When I fight big striped bass, for example, I fight them with the butt of the rod and keep the rod angled lower towards the fish. When using heavy tippets for larger trout, the same principle applies. You are using the drag on your reel as much as the rod to fight large hot fish. 

How to Fight Big Trout On a Fly Rod: Landing the Fish

If you have done everything right up until this point, there is one more danger point in catching a large trout. More large fish have been lost at the net over the years than anywhere else I'm guessing. A burst of energy always seems to come from nowhere when you go to scoop a big fish. The key is to corral the head first of all. Even if the tail tries to paddle, it will be propelling the fish into the net at that point. 

Don't try to scoop a big fish unless the head is up and under control. Lots of big fish are lost because the fish still has the head down and is ready to run. The introduction of the net at this point will almost certainly cause another big run right when the angler has let his or her guard down expecting things to be over. When in doubt, wait for the next time around. With a big fish, you'll probably only get one shot, so do it right the first time. If you scoop and miss, the chances of bumping the tippet just enough to pop the fly out is really high. 

A long handled landing net is really helpful as is a net with a deep bag. A buddy or even guide is also a big help here but you can do it yourself if necessary. If for some reason you are without a net, then beaching the fish is the next best way to land it. If you choose this approach, make absolutely certain that you choose a spot with plenty of water over the rocks or sand. This is not the time to roll a big fish on dry land. Treat the trout as carefully and gently as possible and grab the meaty part of the tail to subdue the fish quickly.

How To Fight Big Trout On a Fly Rod: The Release

Once you land the fish, keep it in the water as much as possible. That means the head and gills in particular. I've seen a lot of people thinking they are keeping a fish wet, but the part that most desperately needs oxygen is out of the water. Fish should only be out of the water for 5-10 seconds OR LESS for pictures and measurements. So, carry a good net that is big enough for the largest fish you may encounter. There are more tips for handling a trout for catch and release HERE.

The actual release should be taken with care on a big fish. You have just given the fish a major workout and they need time to recover. Hold the fish cradled upright in cold water with some current (but not a rapid). The colder the water, the quicker this process will play out. I will hold the fish carefully for longer than probably necessary until I can barely contain the fish. The trout will definitely let you know when it is ready to go. 

The best part about releasing that trophy catch is the chance to again hook it some day. Our tailwaters here in Tennessee can grow some absolutely enormous trout, but the fish have to be left in the river to grow. People often lament the size of the trout they catch compared to the good old days, all while loading up a stringer with 7 inch stocked trout. The only way those 7 inch stocked trout are going to turn into big fish is if you leave them in the river. While many people choose to harvest and enjoy eating their catch, consider practicing more catch and release if you would like to enjoy better fishing. Imagine a river full of 18-25 inch trout. Most if not all of our tailwaters here in Tennessee could offer that kind of fishing. Until management strategies adjust to make this the goal (not likely unfortunately), then it is up to us as anglers to do the right thing and release our catch. 


  1. David
    Really enjoyed this post----thanks for sharing

    1. Thanks for reading as always Bill!