How do I hook them? – Dry Fly Fishing

How do I hook them (on the Dry) ? This was the question I faced the last time I had a raw beginner on the water. He had missed 4 strikes in a row. My Answer : “Easy, when the trout takes the fly, wait for the trout to close its mouth and turn down, and tighten the line with a smooth lift of the rod. Although in reality it is not that easy all the time. I have missed more than 4 in a row myself, and more recently than I might like to admit.

I like taking beginner’s fly-fishing; beginners ask fundamental questions, and in searching for a suitable explanation I am forced to think more deeply on topics I sometimes take for granted. Their questions often go to the core of understanding of fly-fishing.  Questions we probably should ask ourselves more often.

How do I hook them (on the Dry)  ? This was the question I faced the last time I had a beginner on the water. He had missed four strikes in a row.   My Answer: “Easy, when the trout takes the fly, wait for the trout to close its mouth and turn down, and tighten the line with a smooth lift of the rod.  Although in reality it is not that easy all the time.  I have missed more than four in a row myself, and more recently than I might like to admit.

This answer may seem to be an over simplification, but it is the essence of How To, and more importantly helps us understand why we aren’t hooking them as often as we might like. Whilst a missed strike is often attributed to factors beyond our control, it is mostly likely due to one or more mistakes, mistakes we all make to some degree.

Every trout take is different, and there are many things that can go wrong between a trout’s rise to the fly and a firmly hooked one.  Let us dissect my initial answer, examining all the things that can go wrong, and in so doing uncover what we can do to improve the odds. I will break into three:

  1. When the trout takes the fly,
  2. When the trout has closed its mouth and turned down
  3. Tighten the line with a smooth lift of the rod

When the trout takes the fly

Sometimes it does not.  It just looks like it did.  Watch the video below carefully, the first rise looks like a take but the fly was not taken.  I thought it was in real time and only on watching the video later, did I realise my mistake!

We expect a take, so to our brain, every rise or slash, is always a take, even when it is not.  Trout are not perfect, sometimes they just miss the fly, especially young trout.  When a fly drags at the last minute, the trout sometimes just misjudges the take.  Small trout, especially rainbows,  can not or do not take the fly in one go.  A high floating or large terrestrial can be too big for them to suck through the surface film.  Instead they can slash at it, porpoise on it, with the intention of drowning it, and then they come back and take it sub surface a few seconds later.

So what to do?

  • Watch carefully
  • Wait a little longer

Splashy rises are usually indicative of a small trout.  If I suspect small trout, I will wait a little longer before I lift.  If the clarity is good, and the angle of light favourable, sometimes you will see the miss.  Sometimes the fly bobs up almost immediately after a missed rise/slash, or sometimes you can see the fly has been submerged, and with luck, the trout will return and take it. Waiting  a little longer is a good strategy anyway, specially for big fish, (more on that later).

What about the second take?  Was it a miss, or a quick rejection? On waters where the trout see a lot of flies, and a lot of fisherman, and have been hooked before, they seem to be quick to reject a fly, and some days it can be seem almost impossible to hook them.

When the trout has closed its mouth and turned down

Typically, a trout sits just off the current, facing upstream, and watches for likely food drifting into view. When it sees an insect on the surface it rises up, still facing upstream, nose first, and drifts back and noses up under its prey.  Then mouth agape, it slurps down water and the fly, closes its mouth and swims back down.  If you tighten the line just as it has turned down, the hook should pull in to the corner of the trout’s mouth and find firm purchase.  If you wait too long, the trout will eject the fly, realising it is not food; on the other hand, if you tighten too quickly, the fly can be pulled from the trout’s open mouth.  When you have the luxury of seeing the trout rise and turn down, watch carefully and tighten as it does so, you will see its dorsal fin start to sink, or the tip of its tail break the surface.  Note: the bigger the trout, the slower this all happens, you really do have to relax and take your time.   I have missed too many of these bigger slow rises than I would like to admit; overcoming my impatience, is not easy.

However, in fast water, trout, especially rainbows, will smash, slash and grab.  They do not have much time to be fussy, or take the fly at leisure, so it all happens in a great hurry.  Setting the hook has to be a lot quicker in this situation, unless of course the take was not a take.

To make things more challenging, sometimes the trout has to swim across the current to take the fly; sometimes the trout swims downstream to follow the fly and then takes it facing downstream.  I have noticed that if the fly drags slightly there is a higher chance the trout will not take it straight away and is more likely to follow it down before taking if it, or refusing it instead. The more you can eliminate drag, the less this will happen. But  in the circumstances where you see the trout, take the fly sideways, watch to see where it turns, and strike in the opposite direction.  The downstream takes are one of the hardest to set the hook properly.  A fishing friend in New Zealand advises  trying to lift upwards as much as possible hoping to set the fly in the top lip: it works for him!

So what to do. The canonical teaching method for timing the strike to the rise is to wait for a count of three, or to say “god-save-the queen” and then tighten.  This is appropriate for a slow take of a brown on a quiet pool, but not for a feisty rainbow’s slashing take in fast water. My best advice is:

  • Cast accurately, if you can see the trout, it won’t have to move far
  • Eliminate drag, even micro drag, and you will get more upstream takes which are easy to time
  • Watch the take, try to time the lift, when the trout has turned away
  • Base the timing on the speed of the take :
    • slow water = slow takes = late lift,
    • fast water =  fast take = lift sooner
  • Base timing on size of trout
    • Big trout, wait longer, then lift
    • Small trout,  the take might be fast but it might be a miss, let your sub conscious decide -> slow or quick

Tighten the line

Beginners often do not realise a trout has taken their fly, or, if they do, it takes a moment or two to sink in.  So it is not unusual for them to not lift the rod at all, especially if they are waiting to ‘feel’ the bite.

Once past this initial surprise, the main reason anglers do not tighten the line correctly, is that there is too much slack between the fly and their rod.  Each little bit of slack line between the rod and the fly adds to the delay between the lift of the rod, and the line tightening to set the hook.  If the slack is poorly and inconsistently managed, it creates an unpredictable delay between lift and set, and probably one of the biggest sources of frustration with hook setting.

If there is too much slack, and the rod is lifted correctly, the line will never tighten enough to set the hook.  The usual response to this is to rip the rod up as fast as possible to get rid of this slack, which often rips the fly out of the trouts mouth, and can even lead to breaking the tippet, or even worse a rod (oh yes, I have done it !).

What to do?:

  • Manage the line at the same speed of the natural drift of the fly.

When you get it right, there will be a J curve in the line from the tip of the rod to the surface of the water. If it is too fast the fly will create a wake, if too slow, loops of line will  gather below the rod tip and drift down stream.  If the fly is drifting in a slow current, strip slowly, if in a fast current strip fast.  A quick check on the slack at the rod tip can help calibrate your speed.  I like to imagine that I am stripping the line at the same speed as the fly/water, this helps me watch the fly and not the slack at my rod tip.  If fishing at an angle across the current, point the rod at the fly and follow it down stream as you strip. When the take comes, the relaxed lift of the rod will move the fly a few inches, and the hook will set (most of the time). The following sequence demonstrates these principles.

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If you are having trouble setting the hook,  first and foremost get your line management under control and eliminate slack. Without this, timing the strike will just be a gamble, and more often a losing one.  Take careful note of the water speed; remember the lift matches the take, which matches the speed of the water (mostly). Next watch carefully and when you see the trout has taken and turned (use your imagination as well as your eyes) and make a relaxed lift of the rod, enough to move the fly a few inches.  More often than not, it should result in the thrill of the solid weight of a nice fish.

Oh yeah, let me know how you go !

Author: twigandstream

Fly fishing Guide and Casting Coach.

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