Line Control

 

Line control and playing fish.

Some excellent video footage of remote fishing for large trout on social media had me all fired up. Beautiful scenery and wonderful fishing and I am not going to give the details because it may seem that I am being offensive to an angler who has put in huge effort to make these wonderful vlogs.

That said, I wasn’t only fired up by the fishing and the scenery but also by the numbers of fish lost due to poor control of the line and the rod angles whilst playing fish, and it got me to thinking. As a casting instructor I do a great deal of work teaching people to cast better but does anyone teach you to play fish more effectively?

One can find endless blogs, vlogs, and video clips  on fly patterns. There are loads of SBS’s on fly tying, leader set ups, tackle and casting but very very few on playing fish. I have seen recently a number of videos from various parts of the world where anglers lose control of the fish and either bust off or end up with the fish in the weeds or around a log.

So I thought that perhaps it was worth discussing my views on the better ways to manage ones rod and line when playing fish.

To my mind one of the most common reasons for people losing or breaking off fish is loss of the protective rod angles discussed in “Trout Torque”, doing what you can to avoid that, will greatly increase your rate of landed versus lost fish.

I have watched too many video clips of late, where the above scenario is played out in devastatingly graphic form. With the loss of great fish which deserved to be captured, but for an error on the part of the angler in playing the fish.

Firstly the reel set up:

I am Cornish by birth and in the UK virtually all reels , fly reels, spinning reels, rock and surf reels are all set up for left hand wind when you take them off the shelf. (They are of course all interchangeable if you have the need to put them the other way around)

So that’s how I learned to fish, as a right hander, right hand on the rod left hand to manipulate the line or the reel, the rod goes into the right hand at the beginning of the day and stays there until the end of the fishing, that is how I learned to fish and I still think that it is the right way to do things.

Most South African fly anglers  and quite a few in other countries, who cast with their right hands also reel with their right hands and so swap hands when they have a fish on. I have never understood this, why force yourself to swap hands at the precise moment that you have hooked your quarry? Yes we can argue about it, and everyone has a point of view, but to me it is something worth considering, particularly if you are starting out and haven’t become habituated one method or another.

If you do swap hands, then I suppose that isn’t so bad, but to my mind, then you must not swap back again until the fish is landed. If you have to swap back to strip in line and then swap back again to use the reel I think that makes for a serious loss of control.

Personally I can reel with either hand, but I cannot control the rod adequately with my left hand, no doubt because I have never practiced doing that in 40 odd years of fishing. I think that for many who cast right handed, you are constantly building your brain/muscle pathways to your rod hand when casting and as such naturally over time have a far more instinctive feel for the angle of the rod or the amount of pressure applied. This isn’t something being reinforced with your left hand which only holds the rod when you are playing fish. I suppose if you do it enough you will get used to it but for me playing the fish puts more complex demands on your rod hand than your reel hand. I prefer to use my dominant hand to control the fish. I am not saying everyone must do that, but I am suggesting that you should at least carefully consider the options.  If you are in doubt, try doing some basic things at home with your non dominant hand, stir your coffee, or pick up your mug and see which hand offers better control. (practice with cold coffee, you are likely to end up with it in your lap)

As said a few videos I have watched of late have seen many fish lost due to lack of control and one of the big issues has been swapping the rod to and fro when playing the fish or reaching for the net.

 

 

Maintaining rod angles.

In a previous post “Trout Torque” I discussed in depth the pressures and forces applied when playing fish. You are recommended to read that either before or after you read this post as they sort of go hand in hand. The main reason for mentioning that now is that almost all of the time the loss of fish is the result of losing that rod angle.
It can happen from simple carelessness, or reaching forwards, but most commonly it occurs because you are unable to hold the rod at the correct angle. Any jamming of the line, knots in guides, over tightened drag systems when a fish is pulling will force your rod tip towards the fish and invite disaster. Most of the issues listed below have the potential to force you to lose this angle and are well worth consideration if you wish to reduce the number of lost fish. Bear in mind break offs and hooks pulling out are the result of the same thing. Application of more pressure than the hook hold or tippet will withstand.

Line hand positions.

Bear with me, I am going to discuss this in terms of someone who uses their casting hand on the rod all the time and their other hand on the reel, although the same principles apply if you swap hands.

There are limited options for correct use of your hands when playing fish:

#1: The initial run

When hooking large fish which you are expecting to run, the best option is to simply form an “O” with your non casting hand fingers, keep your hands apart so that the line doesn’t entangle the reel or rod and let the line slide through your fingers. If you are fortunate, there are no tangles and you end up playing the fish off the reel, actually the easiest option.

During the initial run of a strong fish it is best to just let the line slide through an “O’ shape between your thumb and forefinger, keeping the line away from entanglements with the reel and rod.

#:2: The Pulley and Brake
For most trout fishing you are going to be trapping the line under one of the fingers of your rod hand, using pressure against the cork to act as a brake and at the same time using your finger as a “pulley” over which line can be retrieved with your non casting hand. This is much the same set up that you use when retrieving a fly when fishing,except of course when you are playing a fish you are going to be holding the rod at pretty much a 90 degree angle to the fish.  In my opinion it is far better to use your middle finger as the pulley/brake, using your forefinger as some people do makes it very hard to let go line whilst at the same time apply torque to the rod. (The primary lever of torque when playing fish is your index finger, so the line easily gets trapped underneath it. )

I also think that it is better to have the brake ON or OFF, fly line tends to sick and jump when you are trying to control the pressure on it. That leads to slack and dreadful bouncing of the rod, so try to make the transitions from retrieving line to giving line as rapid and as smooth as possible.

My preferred method is to use the middle finger of my rod hand as the pulley/brake. This is how I retrieve line, either when fishing or when playing a fish. Using the middle finger allows me to still apply pressure to the rod with my index finger without trapping the line.

 

Using the index finger can make it very difficult to let off pressure quickly, given that this finger is also responsible for applying pressure to the fish.

#3: Stripping line

If you are playing fish that haven’t run the line onto the reel, you will need to use the pulley brake system to control the line as you pull the fish in. Pulling and then trapping the line against the rod handle cork is an effective way of dealing with this. But, you do need to be able to release pressure rapidly should the fish run. Trying to hold on and allowing the rod angle to drop too low invites disaster.  You should never be in the position where you are trying to control the line with your non casting hand without the pulley brake system. I have seen video footage of some well known anglers fishing like this, and it results in near total lack of line control.

Ending up in this position, retrieving line without the benefit of a pulley/brake system is very dangerous. You cannot retrieve fast when called upon to do so and you can let go or reduce pressure quickly should the fish run. This retrieve position should be avoided at all costs.

#4: Winding the reel.

This is the only time that I don’t have my non casting hand on the line. Usually when a fish runs out the line I have out of the reel and I will then automatically switch to playing the fish from the reel. Some anglers will trap the line against the cork with their rod hand (Position #2) and then reel in the slack line to put the fish onto the reel. Unless there are significant snags around your feet I don’t think that this is a good thing to do.
When trying to reel in slack line with the line trapped against the cork two or three potentially bad things happen.

Firstly it can be very difficult to quickly let line slip should the need arise when you are winding in with the reel.

Secondly because you have one hand trapping the line and the other hand on the reel there is no control of the slack line that will all too easily wrap around the rod or the reel and snag.

Thirdly winding with the reel tends to cause the rod tip to bounce and particularly with smaller fish it isn’t uncommon for this bouncing motion to rattle the hookhold lose.

So generally speaking I think that it is better to play the fish with the line unless the fish takes all the line and “put’s itself on the reel”. You can of course , if there is sufficient space, encourage the fish to simply run the line out until it is on the reel and proceed from there.

That pretty much sums up the various and relatively limited different ways you would ever need to hold the line or reel whilst fishing, casting or playing fish.

Problems with the changeover.

It isn’t uncommon for larger fish to strip line off the reel , you are now in position #4 winding with the reel and the fish plunges towards you faster than you can reel in. In this instance (and it is a very common way for people to lose control of and ultimately lose entirely a hooked fish) you should be ready to let go of the reel handle and swap back to positon #3, line hand on the line, rod hand acting as a brake/pulley system. That involves two changes of position, if you use a style that also forces you to swap rod hands at the same time, then you are going to lose control at some point.

There is another option worthy of consideration, particularly with light tackle and that is to never totally give up the middle finger pulley even when using the reel. Just let the line slide through the pulley/brake of your middle finger whilst winding or letting line off the reel. (with heavy gear or a really big fish you can’t do this, you will burn your fingers).

By keeping the pulley/brake in play it requires only that you trap the line quickly and switch to the stripping position by grabbing the line with your non rod hand. Requiring now only one change of position.

 

Setting the drag on your reel.

Most reels have an adjustable drag system and certainly in almost all trout fishing applications there is no need to set this drag tight at all. Personally I think that you should set the drag at the minimum level required to prevent the line over-winding when the line is stripped off fast. Other than that it should be left alone.
In most freshwater situations additional braking can come from either the brake/pulley system of your finger against the cork or through braking the reel with your non rod hand. This can be done by either cupping the exposed rim of the reel or in some cases simply holding the reel handle and winding in reverse if you need to give line.

If you set the drag tighter, what will inevitably happen when you have a fish run is that you rod hand will not be able to maintain enough torque to hold the rod at sufficient angle to protect the tippet. The rod tip will be dragged downwards (towards the fish) the protective angle will be lost and the tippet will break or the hook will pull out. I have seen this happen thousands of times, on the river and on video. If you set the drag tight so that you are not able to hold the rod up (at an angle) you are going to break off almost every good fish you hook.

Other tackle set up issues.

Most fly fishing techniques today, be it dry fly or Euronymphing use leaders that exceed the length of the rod. With that in mind you want the smoothest connection possible. A knot jamming in the guides will surely result in your rod tip being pulled down and risking a break off.  Consider what you can do to get the smoothest transition possible. (See “Super Glue Leader Splice).The same goes for large knots in self tied leaders, particularly those in the butt section which are both larger and more likely to come through the guides during landing of a fish. Get them as small as possible and perhaps smooth them out with UV resin.

All of the above considerations need to be seen as providing seamless and rapid changes of hand positions and line control options during the playing of the fish. Things happen VERY quickly when playing even small fish and sudden changes of what the fish is doing need to be rapidly and easily adapted to by the angler.  (Which to me means that swapping the rod from one hand to the other is a very bad idea).

Outside of the tackle set up there are a few other considerations which may help maintaining control.

The forearm lock

If you can, it is a good habit to get into to hold the butt of your rod against your forearm. It is more easily achieved with a rod with a small fighting butt on it, reel seats tend to hurt when pressed into your forearm.

The forearm lock provides two valuable benefits, it takes a huge amount of pressure off your wrist whilst playing fish, and it prevents loose line jumping around the butt of the rod and snagging.

Side strain:

Maintaining the best rod angle is critical to taking pressure off the tippet/hook hold, but that angle doesn’t need to be in the vertical plane. On the horizontal plane you are not wasting any energy or pressure trying to “lift the fish”. It probably also contributes to keeping the fish “off balance”. In some overgrown streams your only option would be side strain anyway due to overhanging branches, but side strain is a valuable tool in your arsenal.

Netting the fish:

Firstly it is important NOT to reach for the net too early, all too often the fish is not spent, you now have a net in your hands when they should be controlling the line. It is all too easy to lose control like this, and I snapped off a good fish this past weekend making this elementary mistake. Keep the net out of the game until the fish is ready to be netted.
When the fish is ready it should be an easy matter of lifting the fish’s head just out of the water and as it is only capable of swimming forwards you can slide it into the net with one smooth draw, maintaining a high rod angle to protect the tippet in the case of a last minute dive.

Where possible steer the fish to slack water where you have more control and the fish cannot take advantage of the current.
Adjusting line length

There is an ideal length of line to have out when you net a fish, depending on the softness of the rod that will be slightly longer than the rod is. Too much line out and the fish will be short of the net when you try to land it. Too short (a common beginner error) and you are trying to lift the fish out of the water. Set up the correct line length BEFORE  trying to slide the fish into the net. Better still, don’t even reach for the net until you are in that position.

Adjusting the reel drag during the fight.
In fresh water situations I don’t believe there is a necessity to adjust the drag if you have set it up properly in the first place. Cranking up the drag leaves you exposed to break offs during last moment lunges of fish as you are about to net them. With one hand on the net and the other on the rod there is no way of releasing pressure should the fish make a last lunge (and they usually do try to do exactly that). Keep the drag as it was, be ready for that lunge and if necessary just give line and set up to net the fish again.

Planning:

Particularly if you have a good fish in your sights, it pays to plan “What will happen next”. Often we are so caught up in the idea of hooking the fish that we don’t consider what to do once we hook it.

There are two sides to this coin, What you think the fish will do and what you can plan in advance.
In some cases it is obvious that the fish will dive for the undercut or a sunken log or whatever. You can’t always plan around that but you can be prepared for it. You should also consider if your casting position is the ideal landing position and if not be prepared to move as soon as you set the hook. Ideally you will have located slack water with easy access where you can land the fish and be aiming for that from the original hook set. Looking around for a spot whilst playing the fish usually results in loss of control. It is also generally better that you move towards the fish , rather than trying to drag the fish towards you. Oh and do all you can not to let the fish get downstream of you, because then you are fighting both the fish and the current at the same time.

Giving up:

It takes some nerve to do this , but if all seems lost try to immediately remove all pressure on the fish, it is surprising how often it will just stop. You can then potentially get into a better position and recommence the fight.

There may be other considerations I haven’t included, but the above should cover most of the basics and no doubt identify errors that we all make or have made. If you follow all the rules above it won’t stop you breaking off or losing fish, but it will reduce the numbers drastically. In writing this I was actually quite surprised about how many factors there were, I don’t think about them most of the time. It is little wonder that people who have not considered them or not been taught them lose so many fish. We focus so much on casting and fishing, flies and presentations that when we finally hook our prize we find ourselves at a serious disadvantage. So perhaps you can agree, it is worth the effort to think about it, even practice a bit. Drag a weight around on the lawn, practice netting it, practice letting line slide through your fingers or swapping from reeling to stripping. We practice casting so why shouldn’t we practice playing fish.

I hope that this all helps you land more fish, and reduce the frustrations of lost ones in the future.

P.S. If you haven’t read the post on Trout Torque, thoughts on playing fish, I suggest you do read that now, as the two posts go hand in hand when it comes to more effective landing of fish.

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3 Responses to “Line Control”

  1. Oom T ony Says:

    You still haven’t learned to cast with both hands? I am surprised.

    • paracaddis Says:

      A requirement of the MCI exam is to cast with your non dominant hand. But that doesn’t meant that one wishes to play a fish with the non dominant hand.

  2. anglersguide71 Says:

    Very informative article, I think any angler starting out can take a lot from this! I also understand exactly what you are saying about which hand makes more sense to wind the reel. I started fishing as a kid back in the UK, and as a right handed person, it was always rod in the right hand, and wind the reel with the left. Now I live in Australia, and they do the exact opposite, and I feel exactly the same about this as you do…basically that it makes no sense!!! Anyway, great read, thank you once again

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