Monday, December 12, 2016

Them's Fightin' Words! - 7 Fish Fighting Tips

The three slashes represent 32nd notes, you big dummy. 

 Around the time I began teaching drum lessons, one of my favorite students was a middle aged school teacher. She was a beginning drummer, but a very enthusiastic student. We worked through the material in Breeze Easy vol. I, which is the drumming equivalent of learning how to tie a Woolly Bugger. One day, she asked me a very basic question about drum roll notation. It was something I had known how to play for many years, but never considered the theory behind how it was written.

     "Is it notated this way because,..?" she asked.

     "Uh...yes, exactly," I replied. What I was actually thinking was, "Wow, I never thought of that before. It makes total sense! How could I miss that? I'm a conservatory-trained embarrassing!" A few minutes later, I said all of this out loud and we had a good laugh.

     Besides the notation tidbit I learned that day, I learned another important lesson. Teaching is a two-way street. The teacher often learns as much as the student. I had heard it said before, but that was the first time I experienced it myself.

     When I guide anglers, I try to focus on education. Often times, I learn as much as they do. In my experience, fish fighting technique is one of the more difficult things to teach. First, the angler must remain calm immediately after the excitement of the hookup. I try to explain the basics before a fish is hooked, then gently reinforce the points throughout the fight. Trying to coach someone while a fish is going bananas isn't easy, though. Over the past few years, I've noticed some technical areas which can be improved upon, resulting in more fish landed and safer releases for the fish. The following tips pertain mainly to freshwater fishing in rivers.

Henrik Mortensen displays several of the fish fighting tips below

Tip #1: The Game Plan

     Before fishing a run, pool, etc., form a fish fighting/landing game plan. It can be hard to think clearly with a big, strong, leaping fish at the end of the line. It pays to scope out the area to find suitable spots from which to fight and land fish. This is especially important when fishing solo. Once the game plan is in place, try your best to stick to it. Fish can be unpredictable and they don't always follow the script. However, with good technique, a fair number can be controlled with solid technique and a good strategy.

Tip #2: Be Mobile

     This one baffles me. If the fish moves throughout the fight, why doesn't the angler? The fish struggles to get a good position so it can free itself. The angler should attempt to gain a favorable position on the fish so it can be fought as quickly and efficiently as possible. Whenever possible, I prefer to stay parallel with the fish, not downstream of it and definitely not upstream of it. If I keep the fish on a  relatively short line, I can see the moves it makes and adjust instantly, keeping the maximum amount of pressure on a fish.

     Of course, it's not always possible to move around. Deep water or big obstructions can block our downstream movement. My favorite spring fishing spot is like this. Fish must be hauled upstream against a heavy current. As a result, I lose more fish than I'd would if I could reposition myself. Also, some anglers might not be as steady on their feet as others. Older anglers often have to fight fish from one position. For the young and able bodied, however, it pays to keep moving.

Tip #3: Call the Shots

     Assuming we're not fishing with really light tackle, the angler has the advantage most of the time. We shouldn't let the fish dictate the terms of the fight. With good technique, we can make all but the most crazy and unruly fish go where we want them to go. When we pull hard, the fish wants to pull hard in the opposite direction. When we ease off the pressure, the fish usually backs off. Use light pressure around treacherous obstacles like boulders, downed trees, bridge pilings, etc. If the obstacle is downstream, get below the fish and pull like hell. Often times, the fish will move upstream, clear of the obstacle. When it runs back down, ease up until the fish can be brought back upstream. Then pull like hell again.

     Don't let the fish call the shots. The longer it's on the line, the more time it has to get free. Even if it's landed, a fish fought for a long time might be exhausted. Call the shots. Fight them fast and hard. The angler is in charge!

This angler applies heavy pressure and pulls the hook into salmon's mouth.

Tip #4: Pull the Hook Into the Mouth

     If a fish can be kept relatively close, the angler can see which direction the fish faces at all times. If the fish is facing upstream, pull the hook into its mouth by angling the rod downstream. If the fish changes direction, make a smooth change of direction with the rod. We want to prevent pulling the hook out of the fish's mouth. Keeping the line tight pulling the hook into the fish's mouth (whenever possible) helps keep the fish on the line. This gets trickier with small hooks, so be careful.

    Pulling the fish in either an up or downstream direction requires using side pressure. Bend the rod to the cork and put the wood to 'em! This is essential with big, powerful fish. We have to fight these fish hard or else we'll never break them.

Tip #5: Keep the Line Tight

     The angler should keep a tight line however possible. If a fish is always pulling downstream, this usually isn't difficult. I see many fish lost when an abrupt change of direction happens. The fish runs downstream, then stops and runs right towards the angler. There are times when we can't reel up the slack fast enough to stay tight, even with a large arbor reel. When this happens, I strip in line with my reel hand.

     It is a risky move. The fish can take off downstream again and the loose line might get stuck on something. I try to strip in line while pinching it against the cork and keep pressure on the fish. As soon as I feel the fish stop moving towards me, I reel up the slack as quickly as possible. Sometimes the fish starts to move towards me again before all the line is reeled up, forcing me to go back to stripping. It can be a delicate operation, but it often is the difference between a fish lost and a fish landed.

This fish would not have been landed without stripping in a lot of slippery
running line. Sometimes we have to take risks. 

Tip #6: Low Rod

     When guiding, I see this mistake more than any other, trout anglers being the main offenders. When fighting a fish, the angler keeps his or her rod up in the air. No, no, no! First of all, the fish will be fought from the tip of the rod, which is its weakest section. We want to fight the fish from the butt end of the rod. Also, unless you're Inspector Gadget, there is nowhere to go once an arm is fully extended. What if the fish runs around a rock? The angler can't lift the line any higher to clear the rock. The default rod position should be low. Use the fighting butt!

Tip #7: Fight Them Hard, Take Risks

     If you plan on releasing the fish, fight it hard. Don't mess around. Get that fish in as quickly as possible so it can be released safely. You might lose some, but you'll probably lose more if you let the fish control the fight.

     Take risks. The worst that can happen is that the fish will get off. It might get off if the angler doesn't take the risk. Any day might be your lucky day, but you'll never know if you don't test your luck regularly.


      I've lost some pretty nice fish. One in particular will be forever burned into my memory. Years later, I still replay the scene in my mind, thinking of what I would do differently now. That salmon dictated the terms of the fight. I complied. Ultimately, she broke me off on a rock. If I had moved with the fish, applied more pressure at strategic times, and controlled the fight, I might have landed her. I lost a beautiful, bright salmon, but the experience taught me a lot. These are some of the lessons I hope to pass on when guiding. When I'm just an observer, I can watch both the angler and the fish and, often times, I become the student.

Had I taken some risks, this one might have been landed...lesson learned


  1. Excellent tips! The fast stripping technique saved me with my albie this summer, I was taught that technique a long time ago and wanted ever since then for a fish to charge at me so I could practice... it works!

    1. Thanks...It has definitely save my ass a number of times!


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