There is a natural evolution in the sport of fly fishing. Early in an fly fisher's initiation to the sport, hooking and landing fish is paramount. Over time an angler slowly begins to improve their skills and the focus often shifts from numbers to quality. Hooking and landing truly big fish often becomes a focus. Whether you are still a novice or have paid your dues for a few years - it pays to have a game plan for landing big fish once they are hooked. Even highly experienced anglers only have a few shots at really big fish in a given season and when the moment of truth arrives you want to stack the deck in your favor. Like a great baseball hitter, even the best anglers never bat 1000. You always need a little luck on your side to land "the big one" but there are a few tips that you can employ to up your landing percentages with big fish.
Setting the hook
Successfully landing a big fish starts with the hook set. If your hook setting technique isn’t solid then it will be difficult to land a big fish. When setting the hook it is important to visualize where you fly is in relation to where the fish is. In most cases, the fish will be facing upstream. Your fly will be drifting downstream with the current. When a fish strikes, set the hook by pulling your rod tip in the downstream direction to maximize the placement of the fly. For example, if you are fishing with the current moving right to left, set the hook to the left. You want to have your rod at a low angle when you set and aggressively rip the rod down the river in a sideways motion. A downstream hook set will often place the hook in the corner of a trout's mouth where it tends to hold firmly. If you set up stream or lift straight up the hook is more likely to set in the front of the mouth - where it often will pull out without hooking at all, or embed in a portion of the mouth where it may pull out later in the fight.
Let it run
After a good hook set, the fish will likely react to the realization that all is not right in the world and enter flight or flight mode. The first few second of the fight are very important as the trout is fresh and strong and can easily break the line. Early in the fight you should err on the side of letting the fish run and avoid maximizing pressure on the fish. Often you have some free line coiled at your feet or on the water. Lift the rod high and then tilt it at a shallow angle and prepare to react. Most of the time a big fish will run quickly down river. When a fish is running hard you need to make sure that the extra "working line" that is loose and dangling below the reel doesn't catch around the butt of the reel, your feet, or any other obstacles. Once the trout has pulled the "extra working line" through the guides of the rod let the drag of the reel take over. After the first blistering run you can begin to apply more pressure to the trout. You do want to keep the rod tip up pointed at a 45 degree angler or slightly less. If the rod is at too high of an angle you risk breaking it off, but if you don't have any bend in the rod you do not allow the rod to act as a shock absorber and protect your tippet. If you’ve hooked a ‘hot’ fish, don’t get your hands too close to the reel handle, as nothing stings like a knuckle busting blast from a fast spinning reel. And you certainly don’t want that knuckle buster to end up stopping the reel and breaking of the fish. Sometimes a big fish will get in the current and move downriver quickly. It is very difficult to bring a big fish back up through heavy current so you often need to move down the river quickly to have a shot at landing it.
Occasionally a big fish will not run immediately after being hooked. Big brown trout are notorious for this. Many anglers make the mistake of assuming they have hooked a small fish when the trout doesn't immediately run hard and then are caught by surprise when a big fish finally bolts. A good practice is to assume that every fish is big until you visually confirm otherwise. Sometimes a big trout will also run directly at you after being hooked - at this point you risk loosing the fish if they generate slack line which allows the fish to easily shake the hook out (we recommend pinching barbs to minimize damage to trout when released). Be prepared to strip line aggressively when a fish runs to you (this is much faster than reeling line). Learn how to maximize your stripping technique. You can strip line much faster if you push the rod away from your body and then swing your stripping line from the reel (now at arms length in front of your body) all the way behind your body on a single strip. This retrieves about 3-4 feet of line per strip. Make sure the line is pinched under your casting hand fingers and with each strip grab the line just below the casting hand so you do not need to "catch the line" again to pinch it. Once you have the fish tight be ready for the fish to run by pinching the line somewhat loosely in your non casting hand to keep some tension on the line but still letting the fish run. Again once the fish pulls out the slack line you should fight from the reel.
The position of your fly rod is very important. You always want to see a bend in the rod. The deeper the bend the more pressure is placed on the fish. There is a sweet spot of every fish and every situation. The only way to learn where the sweet spot is through trial and error. The best way to learn this is to be willing to lose a few fish by putting too much pressure on them. It is better on the fish to bring them in fast to minimize fatigue. Losing a few fish by putting too much pressure on them is better than wearing them out to complete exhaustion by not putting enough pressure on a fish. Each time you do lose a fish, assess what happened… too much pressure, too little? A good rule of thumb is to keep the rod at a 45 degree angle with the water most of the time and then adjust accordingly. To relieve pressure on a fish, which is often important when a fish is freshly hooked or running hard, you can drop the angler or flatten the rod a bit. A flatter rod reduces friction. If you completely drop your rod and point it at the fish there is no bend in the rod which can be risky since a bent rod also helps act as a shock absorber to protect your tippet. When a fish turns back towards you, gets tired or is running for an obstacle like a rapid, logjam, etc you should add extra pressure. The best way to add pressure is to lift the rod to a steeper angler with the rod but section nearly vertical.
Some trout anglers like to debate the need for a reel with a disc drag system. It is true that in most trout fishing situations, a reel is mostly a storage device for fly line and an expensive drag system is not really needed. While the majority of the trout don't require a reel or the drag system, you will certainly miss a high quality drag when you finally hook that trout of a lifetime. When fighting big fish, the drag system is often critical to the success of landing that fish. The job of a drag system is to tire the fish out more quickly than it there was no drag on the reel. Setting the drag to the correct setting is extremely important. For general fishing situations set the drag so that the reel won’t backlash during the startup phase. You can check you drag by pulling the line aggressively off the reel in one pull. If the excess line on the reel from a backlash, then the drag needs to be stronger. The perfectly set drag won’t backlash. When you see an expensive reel in the fly shop the cost is generally in the drag system. A good drag will have a low level of static friction - in other words it won't get "stuck" before activating. A great drag system will also be very smooth and dispense pressure evenly. A good drag system can also be adjusted gradually - you want to avoid a reel where a small twist of the drag knob results in a major change in the setting. Finally, high quality reels have drags that do not "creep": once you set the drag it keeps that position and doesn't drift later on its own.
You’ll need a net
A net is rarely needed when landing smaller trout. If you are on water where big fish do reside, you need a net. There is a lot that goes into successfully landing a big fish - setting the hook, fighting with just the right amount of pressure, and finally bringing the fish to hand. There is nothing more heart breaking than loosing a big fish at your feet… especially if you didn’t bring a net. If you’re traveling in a boat, a net is 100% required, and it often has a large basket and long handle. If you are trying to land a big fish it is much more difficult to bring them in effectively if you are trying to hand land the fish. Hand landing big fish also requires that you fight them longer which also decreases the odds that the fish will survive once released. Do yourself and the trout of a lifetime a favor - bring a net!
Truly big fish don't come along every day. When that special moment finally arrives make sure you are prepared to give yourself a better chance of admiring the "big one" up close!