Preparation for and Handling of Large Trout

By Wes Bigney

“It is an ill wind that blows no one good.”
Consider the stay-home curfew we are all living by. Every month that we have to stay home the fish grow another inch. By fall the fish stocked in March will be “Braggin” sized.

“Braggin’ Rights”

These rights are associated with any fish larger than average. Frequently we get only one of these fish per day. Also, frequently these fish swim off with our fly and our braggin’ rights because we are not prepared to handle them. Much of the time we put away our equipment and reuse it at the start of the next trip so that is the same fly, leader and the same reel drag setting for an average 10 to 12-inch fish.

There are three phases to the fight that a fish puts up.  The first phase is crazed with fear and the need to get away. The second phase is the fish using its shape to resist. It uses its shape to turn broadside and swim from side to side in front of us. Finally, in the third phase, the fish wears down and turns allowing us to bring the fish in.

Regarding phase one, the fish is using all its power to get away from us. We need to be able to let the fish take line off the reel so the leader won’t be broken. Therefore, the reel drag should be zero. In phase two the fish is not resisting vigorously and some more drag can be applied. Phase three can have more drag to get the fish into shore when there is little resistance.

The point is that a consistent drag does not fit the needs of landing a fish and it may lead to a lost fish. Large fish do not announce their intention to strike; suddenly they are on and pulling strongly. So, one should fish with no drag to avoid break offs and loss of fish with “braggin’ rights.”

It must be emphasized that the rod should be kept upright and bent at all times. This provides a shock absorber that keeps the fish from breaking off. When the fish in phase one rushes away from you and pulls your rod down straight, you must let out line so you can get the rod up straight and bending again toward the fish. One should not allow the rod to be pulled down straight along the line to the fish. This is called a “straight pull.”  This tests the whole line system – line, leader, and knot at the fly and finds the weakest link resulting in a possible break off.

In order to play a large fish and finally land it – one needs to stay attached to the fish. Some fish will be large enough to take all your fly line and you need some “backing” to stay tied to the fish. You will need 25 to 30 yards of at least 25-lb test nylon bait casting line. This means you will need a reel with enough capacity to hold the 75 to 90 feet of fly line plus 25 yards of backing at the end of your fly line loop to loop connection so this joint will go through the guides. It will usually take a 3 to 4-inch diameter reel.

Line Management – handling the line when retrieving the fly.

My dad taught me this method some eighty years ago when I was fourteen, and I have used it ever since.

Assuming you are right-handed and are holding the rod in your right hand, use your left hand to pick up the line at the stripper guide and pull it down to the middle finger of your right hand (RMF). The stripper guide is the largest of all the guides with a ring in the center for the line to pass through on the way to threading the rode toward the tip. Open that finger and hook the line in it. The thumb and the other fingers keep gripping the rod. Keep the line running through that finger. When your left hand has swung as far back as you can reach – close the RMF to stop the line from sliding back out of the rod. Now you bring the left hand up to the RMF and pick up the line. Be sure to leave the line hooked in the crook of the RMF while you strip in another reach of your left arm. The line gained with each left arm reach can be coiled in your left hand or dropped at your feet. Coiling avoids a loop being pulled down stream while wading, or a loop being dragged in the dirt and weeds when changing position on shore. Also, this is a good technique to use landing a fish. Once the fish is in the net or on the bank – reel up the loose line so it won’t be stepped on and damaged.

Finally, when reeling in, you put the line into the crook of your little finger of your rod hand. As you are reeling, move the little finger to the left and right. That will put the line on the spool in a level wind pattern, and will avoid mounds of line on the spool.

A straight pull usually leads to a break off. The rod is pointed straight at the fly wherever it is anchored (never bend or lift the rod). Grab the line tightly in the left hand and pull. Some part of the line will break, usually where the leader ties to the fly. If you try to break the fly free by lifting the rod you can break the rod.

Reel Drag

Fly reels were made to hold line since working a fly required loose line to be able to drop a fly at various points. Casting requires slipping line off the reel to feed a cast. Reels tend to overrun and build loose wraps on the spool and overlaps can lock up the spool like any backlash. In order to stop overlaps reel makers installed a click to keep the spool from over running. The click equates to a drag if the fish is taking line off a reel. The use of the click and your fingers is all that is required to control a large fish. Large fish “break off” when too much drag is applied and the fish is allowed “straight pulls.”

New reels have a mechanical drag added to them which gives the idea that bigger fish should be applied more drag. This only works if you have heavy leader and generally if you are trout fishing you are using light leader. See the section on Line Management for a way to play a large fish using your fingers for drag.

If you have fished the San Juan and landed a fish over 17 inches, you have seen several midges size 20 embedded in the area around the fish’s mouth with no leader attached. This means the fish has broken that many times from a fisherman who had his reel drag set too tight. Also, no leader hanging off the flies means the leader broke at the knot. Knots weaken the leader.


Strips are generally small pieces of any material. When we are on the water and cast out a fly we generally pull in the fly in small moves, strips, so it will appear to be alive. Fish generally want live food. (When we keep stripping a fly, we wind up with a hand full of line and we cannot keep pulling a fly to make it look alive.) There are 2 ways we can get rid of this excess line.  One is to drop the line at your feet, the other is to coil the line in your left hand.

Try this: having cast your fly out you move the incoming line from the stripper guide down along the rod to your right middle finger and hook the line around that finger. Then use the left thumb and finger to pick up the line. You use the left hand to pull line through the rod guides. After you have moved your left hand back to the left as far as is comfortable, you bring your left hand forward forming a coil in the left hand. You continue these moves making more coils of line to hang in your left hand. This is called stripping.

Now, to recast the line you close your right middle finger so the line won’t slip through the guides. You keep the RMF closed until you make the back cast and come forward. You loosen the grip in your left hand so the forward movement of your line will pull the coils off your left hand and let them slide through the guides. After the line reaches out and lands on the water, you’re ready to start stripping again. The RMF closes to keep the line from slipping through the guides until the line is moving forward through the air. Practice stripping and line handling on the lawn so the moves will come easily on the water.

A good test is to tie the fly and hold it with a pair of pliers.  Then set up a straight pull against the reel and reel drag. If something breaks, the drag is too tight and should be loosened so line will come off the reel. The reel drag should be set low enough that the leader is strong enough to take line off the reel without breaking. Light leader, light drag – heavy leader, heavy drag.  The rod is pretty much a shock absorber between the fish and the reel.

The fisherman and his equipment should be ready for the big fish strike every moment the line is in the water.

See Wes’s previous post: Reminiscences of an Old Fly Fisherman.