Photo Courtesy of Dave McKenzie
Catching big fish can make even the most seasoned angler weak in the knees. There is, however, an even higher level of both apprehension and satisfaction associated with targeting trophy fish on light tippet. To tip the odds in your favor, I've compiled some helpful tips that you can apply whether you find yourself hooked up to a 20 inch rainbow or 100 pound tarpon!
- Make sure knots are tied properly. Tie knots slowly and carefully, moisten them well before tightening, and fully tighten them by working all ends evenly. Knots tied with thicker lines can be a little harder to cinch fully tight, so in that case I'll often wear gloves for added grip and protection so I can pull hard to get that knot to seat. Pliers are also a necessity for pulling on short tag ends.
- Check the drag before and during the day. Always make it a point to set your drag before the first cast is made. Sounds simple enough, but I've seen people forget to do so more than once—not a pretty sight when that first fish gets on the reel! Also, be conscious of the drag setting during the day. When reels get handled and jostled around, there's the possibility of the drag getting knocked off the optimal setting.
- Get the fish on the reel as quickly as possible while keeping adequate tension. When a fish runs and you let the loose fly line slip through your free hand, the outgoing tension is jerky and uneven since it's impossible to let line slip out totally smoothly. Fighting a fish directly from the reel keeps loose fly line from potentially tangling around something and the drag system lets the fish take line at a smooth, even tension—provided you have a smooth drag!
- During the fight, keep the rod tip high if obstacles might pose a threat. This is a problem especially in shallow water where a fish might pull the line into hazards like boulders or mangrove shoots. By keeping a high rod tip in situations like this, the angle of the line is greater which helps elevate a little more of it higher above water. There may even be times when you need to hold the rod over your head to keep the line from rubbing or tangling on junk.
- Is your fish taking off to parts unknown? Don't just stand there, chase it! Staying closer to the fish means less stretch in the line, a faster retrieve (thanks to more backing/fly line on the reel), more control, and a better line angle (see tip above). This is really important when fishing somewhere like a river that has current. It's tough to move a fish directly upcurrent (especially with a light tippet!), but chasing the fish can give you a better fighting angle that's more perpendicular to the current while also being able to more effectively avoid line-fraying hazards. It’s also a good practice to check your tippet for abrasions from time to time, especially after you’ve landed a fish.
- Use side pressure/rod angles to your advantage. One of our very first articles touches on this very subject right here.
- If fishing from a boat, be ready to adjust the drag at a moment's notice. Whether in deep or shallow water, a fish can run under the boat and out the opposite side, putting a crazy angle on the line and, thus, crazy tension on the rod and line. When a fish gets close, be ready to back off the drag in case it darts under the boat, or just back off the drag anyway and apply any extra pressure you may need with your hand. If you can bring your rod tip around the bow or transom to the same side the fish is on, you'll want to do that asap, too.
- Let the rod do its job. A rod is not just a casting tool, but a shock absorber. Keeping the rod around a 45-degree angle allows it to flex optimally throughout its length and offers a lot of nice cushion while giving you great positioning/control.
- Use your arm as a second shock absorber. This one probably sounds kind of weird, but it works. What I basically mean here is to not be so rigid with the positioning of the rod during the fight. If a fish lunges or gives some massive head shakes, drop the rod a bit each time there's sudden movement to soften the impact and provide further cushioning. You'll still want to keep that optimal bend in the rod, but providing a little bit of extra "give" by moving the rod with the movement of the fish really helps. For an everyday comparison, it's kind of like catching a baseball bare-handed. If you catch the ball with your hand stationary, the impact is greater and it might sting a bit. But, if you catch the ball while moving your hand in the same direction as the ball is going, the impact is softened.
- Don't rush it. Catching a big fish on light line takes patience but gets easier with experience. I'm willing to bet pretty much every angler on planet earth gets really jittery and impatient with a brag-worthy fish on the line, but you've really gotta focus on both the fish and possible hazards in the vicinity around you and in the water. It all takes time. There's also a fine line though—you don't want to play a fish so long that it's completely exhausted and at risk of dying. Don't be totally complacent and let the fish do what it wants 100% of the time.....be patient but also try to maintain some control and direction whenever possible.