Ramblings of a Catskill fly fisher

Playing large trout on the fly rod

Posted 7/12/23

Readers of this column who are avid anglers and who use a fly rod as their primary means for fishing, might wonder: Why a column about playing fish?

My guess is that most fly fishers are more …

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Ramblings of a Catskill fly fisher

Playing large trout on the fly rod


Readers of this column who are avid anglers and who use a fly rod as their primary means for fishing, might wonder: Why a column about playing fish?

My guess is that most fly fishers are more concerned about rising and hooking trout than about landing them.

That being said, I decided to write this column because over the years, I’ve heard more than one really good angler exclaim, “I hooked a really big trout, but he broke me off.”

In fact, I had a good friend, who recently passed, who was a professional fly fisherman. All too often, he would say that to me.

And I would reply, “You’re too good a fisherman to have trout quote-unquote break you off. The trout is not breaking you off—you are breaking the trout off.”

I don’t think he liked what I told him, because there is a certain fantasy associated with the loss of a big trout, since its size is not actually known.

I never received a response from my friend, because he knew I was right.

So while rising and hooking trout might be a top priority for most fly fishers, if they fish long enough, there will be a time when they will hook a fish of a lifetime, and lose it because the tippet broke.

It can’t feel good when a really large trout breaks off and heads downriver with three feet of 5X tippet trailing behind. That makes a good story. because the angler will elicit sympathy from fellow fly fishers. But deep down, he or she will feel remorse, because the big one got away.

Today’s tippet material is stronger than ever. I use Stroft, a material made in Germany; it is one of the strongest monofilament tippet materials available. I believe that 4X tests at 7 pounds, 5X at 4.9 pounds, 6X at 4 pounds and 7X at 3 pounds. Not so long ago, 4X tested at about 4 pounds. So there have been huge strides in the manufacture of tippet materials when it comes to strength per diameter.

Why then are anglers causing trout or other large fish to break off, when today’s tippet material is so strong?

First of all most of today’s fly fishers are using fast-action graphite fly rods. While these angling tools are light in the hand and cast long distances—a lot more easily than does bamboo or glass—they don’t have the same shock-absorbing qualities as the other two materials. So when a fish takes off, the  angler is not ready to drop the rod tip and release line, and pop goes the tippet.

A large trout usually makes its first run a long one. It can be very fast, with one or more jumps. For example, I’ve had large brown and rainbow trout take all my fly line on the first run. That almost always happens when the hook is set and the trout panics.

Sometimes after a long downstream run, the fish will turn and head upstream, creating a big loop in the fly line, putting a lot of pressure on the tippet. A break-off can occur during this time of the struggle, because it’s difficult to retrieve line fast enough.

Another problem that anglers have when they hook a large fish, is that they play it by holding the line against the rod grip, then strip line as the fish tires. That can result in a long length of fly line in the water downstream from the angler. So when the fish takes off again, there’s a good chance a knot will form in the loose fly line, ending the fight when that knot hits the stripping guide.

That is why it is essential, when a large trout is hooked, to get it on the reel immediately and play it off the reel until the fish is ready to be netted.

Speaking of nets—that is, other than on the first long run, the time that most break-offs occur—very often, an excited angler will try and net a fish too soon. As the fish is brought toward the net, it will panic, make a lunge, and if the angler is not ready, the tippet will part. So, anglers must be prepared to release the reel handle, so the fish can take line. I’ve had large trout make several short lunges before they were ready to net.

Another very important factor that fly fishers need to be aware of is the angle the fly rod is held, while playing a large trout. All too often, anglers hold their rods almost vertically while fighting a big trout. That means the rod tip is taking all of the stress, and not doing a very good job of tiring the fish. In addition to prolonging the struggle, it’s a very good way to break a tip, especially on a fine bamboo fly rod.

The proper way to fight a large trout on a fly rod is to hold the rod at about 45 degrees from the horizontal. That way the pressure is off the tip, and the fish has to fight against the entire rod shaft, including the stronger mid- and butt sections.

I hope what I have written here will help anglers in general, and any angler that has lost a large trout, as a result of a broken tippet!

Or in other words, don’t let a trout break you off.

trout, catching trout, playing trout, fly fishing


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  • barnhllo

    GREAT article....will save for rereading and sharing with my grandson. Thank You!

    Lloyd Barnhart

    Sunday, July 16, 2023 Report this