Use your rod position to maximum advantage
When I was a fly-fishing guide, and I had beginners in my boat, I remember my frequent first admonition when they hooked a trout was "keep your rod tip up!"
When I became a client on my first Florida tarpon trip, the guide yelled "keep the rod tip low!" while I was fighting my first fish.
This is one of fly fishing's age-old conundrums. When you hook a fish, do you keep your rod tip up or down? The answer to that question is, of course, "it depends."
In trout fishing, whether you are nymphing or dry-fly fishing, you are often engaged in slackline presentations. Reach mends, parachute casts, puddle casts, and wiggle casts all are intended to throw slack into the line with the goal of dead-drifting the fly. And when you are fishing in a river you are often casting upstream, with the current naturally bringing the fly toward you, all the while adding slack into the system.
When the trout takes the fly, raising the rod tip is the quickest and most effective way to remove slack from the system and keep the line tight between you and the fish. A slack line helps you hook the fish, and a tight line helps you land a fish.
Apart from being a casting implement, your fly rod is a giant shock absorber. A big part of the "natural presentation" mantra in trout fishing comes from using thin-diameter tippet so the fly drifts naturally and unencumbered. To protect this delicate connection to your quarry, you must keep your rod tip high so the flex of your rod acts as a buffer, cushioning your tippet against the thrashing head shakes of a truly large trout.
The same thing is true with small flies. When you're using a size 20 or size 22 fly, you hold the fish by an insignificant thread of flesh that can easily rip or tear, so a softer rod tip and high rod angle become paramount.
When a trout, bonefish, or permit takes off running there's another reason to keep the rod tip high: Coral heads, small mangroves, rocks, drowned logs, and boulders can snag the line or cut your leader in an instant. Holding your rod high helps avoid these potential pitfalls and helps you guide the line should the fish take a 90-degree turn around an obstacle.
I can't tell you how many times I've taken off running after a large trout after it runs hard down the creek past a logjam, then makes a hard right turn as the stream changes direction. I chase with the rod tip held high, watching the trout do a giant slalom around instream deadfall and boulders. A high rod tip gives you an overhead straightline connection to the fish, and the angle of the rod and line gives you the opportunity to navigate possible obstructions.
A high rod tip also puts drag on the line. When the fish switches to "turbo" mode, you don't want to adjust the drag on your reel to change the drag on the fish. Each line guide creates friction against the fly line, and when a fish is moving away quickly on a light drag setting (on the reel), a high rod tip creates friction, slowing the fish and making it work harder to take line, while still maintaining the cushioning effect of the rod.
It's obvious that there are many times when a high rod tip is your best option for keeping connected, especially when the tippet is fragile and your most important objective is to avoid breakage. Most trout tire themselves out. Don't break the line, stay connected for a few minutes, and you'll soon have that trout in the net.
But light pressure is a distinct disadvantage when you are in open water, using heavy tippet, and dealing with exceptionally large fish. With a big permit, tarpon, or a Chinook salmon you cannot play the waiting game, or else you'll be waiting a very long time.
And with any trophy quarry, time is your #1 enemy. As the fight progresses the pressure on the hook causes the hook hole to become larger and larger. Each jump, each head shake, each twist and turn is another opportunity for that hook to become unbuttoned. And with truly large fish like tarpon, tuna, and salmon, that are genetically programmed to swim thousands of miles, the light pressure from a rod tip will never wear them out.
And if you intend to release the fish, a long fight is the antithesis of a good game plan. A long fight causes oxygen depletion in the muscle tissue and the resulting lactic acid can kill the fish, or make it so weak and slow it can't survive after the release. And in salt water there is the constant danger of sharks showing up. The quicker you can land the fish and release it, the greater its odds of survival.
Measure Your Efforts
Legendary saltwater guide Stu Apte taught me everything I needed to know about rod angles in the parking lot of his home in Tavernier, Florida, nearly two decades ago.
Apte held a Chatillon scale tied to the tippet of my tarpon line, and I stood 80 feet across the parking lot from him. He encouraged me to hold the rod high and see how much weight (or pressure) I could register on the scales. I cranked the line tight on the reel and levered the rod tip high against the scale, but all I could was produce with that 12-weight rod was about 4 pounds of steady pressure, and occasional bursts of up to 5 pounds of pressure.
By pointing the rod directly at the scale like a Roman soldier with a spear, and pulling the rod away from the target (or stepping back) I could produce 16 or 18 pounds of pressure—near the limit of IGFA-legal fly-fishing tippet.
Many saltwater guides talk about using the stiffer butt of the rod to exert pressure, and indeed that's a significant step up in pressuring a fish. As you lower the rod tip, and bring the rod butt section down from 90 degrees to 45 degrees or less, the rod butt becomes more engaged, and you can actually pull the fish using the strongest part of the rod.
When you use your rod butt to pressure a fish like this, avoid lifting straight up. Control the fish's head by levering the rod to the downstream side. This way, the fish has to work harder against both your rod pressure, and against the current. With a strictly upward lift, it's easier for the fish to use the current to push it toward the bottom—away from you.
But even with the rod angled down to 30 or 40 degrees, the flex of the rod still significantly saps the actual "pull" you exert on the fish. For maximum pressure on truly large fish you must take the rod out of the equation completely. Think of it this way, when your fly is hooked on the bottom of a river and you are forced to break the line, you don't raise your rod tip to break the line. You'll find with each upward lift that the rod flexes, the line stretches, and it's difficult to break the line.
If you've ever hooked the bottom using heavy line you'll know that you have to point the rod directly at the fly and pull the rod backward or even step back to snap the tippet, and this is exactly how you exert maximum pressure on a trophy gamefish.
Only with a big game you don't want to break the line, and this is where a great reel comes into play. Instead of using the rod tip to cushion say a 4-pound-test or 6-pound-test tippet, a smooth, high-performance reel can exert 12 or 14 pounds of smooth pressure on the fish.
Keep the rod low, with the rod tip pointed at the fish, and the reel becomes the critical factor in whether you land the fish or not. Crank up the tension and you'll whip the fish quickly. Be careful: turn it up too much and you may exceed the breaking strength of the line and break off the fish.
Of course, pointing the rod at the fish is easy if the fish is some distance away in shallow water. In deep water (like when you are tuna fishing) or in the final moments of the fight with any trophy, the fish is often too close to get a straight-line pull, and you may have to resort to using the rod butt to lift the fish. This is when many rods are broken: The fish comes close, you keep lifting the rod tip higher and higher as the fish comes closer and closer, and eventually the rod comes past 90 degrees to where it's behind you, over your shoulder. Snap! This is where many rods break
Never "high-stick" a big fish like this. Use the rod butt to lift, and step backward to pull the fish toward the hands of your fishing companion. Keep the rod in front of you—in your forward field of vision—and it should survive. Fly rods can take a great deal of pressure in that direction.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.