The strike startled me. It was a sharp and brief tug and it was gone as quickly as it came. I looked up to see a swirl, a splash and I felt another firm hit. I reacted. Feeling a good fish, I turned to the bank to exit the waist-deep water. And just as quickly, the fish was gone. I uttered something like “Shucks!” We were fishing the Rio Gallegos in Southern Argentina for sea-run brown trout. Strikes don’t come real often here, and missing one might mean the difference in the entire day.
Nick Hart, my guide, saw the entire event from the bank. I climbed out of the pool and sat with him for few minutes to reflect upon what had just happened. We concluded that despite my 35 years of fly-fishing experience, I had managed to make at least six “rookie” mistakes. Those mistakes cost me a shot at landing a really nice fish. I smiled to myself in false comfort as I recounted the little maxims that I had ignored. Perhaps a review of them might help you avoid my fate.
Rule 1: Pay attention! The straight line down-and-across swing that we use so often for salmon, steelhead, sea trout, or even when fishing streamers for smaller fish requires attention. Our day had been slow to that point and, in retrospect, I recalled that my focus had been wandering—perhaps to thoughts of another gourmet dinner at the Bella Vista Lodge that evening or to watching the rheas or Magellan geese or even the grazing sheep and wonderful clouds. Nothing wrong with any of those mental pursuits, mind you, but lack of attention to the business at hand caused me to be startled, rather than ready, when the strike came.
Rule 2: Take it seriously! In most streams the population of fish includes a variety of players. The Rio Gallegos is full of smaller “resident” trout in addition to the transient sea-runs that were our quarry. The initial strike that brought my attention back to the stream was quick and brief. I recalled specifically that my first thoughts identified the hit as a small “second-class” prize, and with that erroneous conclusion my reflex attention fell back from “startled” to “no big deal.”
Rule 3: Set the hook! Given the mental state that created my violation of Rule 2, I reacted with less than full enthusiasm in setting the hook. The splash, swirl, and quick roll of a heavy fish surprised me, to say the least, but I was already past the point of reacting strongly.
Rule 4: Get things under control! Despite the less-than-adequate hookset, the big fish was on and began an initial “thrashing.” In the excitement that had jumped into an otherwise slow day, I was so surprised that I turned to head to shallower water to get myself into a better fighting position. I should have stayed put until it was clear that the fish was well hooked and I had some idea of what he was going to do.
Rule 5: Face the fish! By turning away I lost contact and had no way of knowing if the fish was going to come at me, run away, or take to the air. I was not in control and it cost me. Once in control I should have begun a slow, backward shuffle to shallower water, maintaining vigilance of the fish’s intent. In turning, I also violated Rule 6.
Rule 6: Keep the rod tip high! Until you know that Rule 4 (control) is in effect, keep the tip up. In turning away from the fish, I stumbled just a bit and inadvertently dipped the rod tip. Since the hook was not particularly well set (see Rule 3), the fish was able to take advantage of the ever-so-slight slack I gave him by dipping the rod tip. And with that he was gone.
I felt foolish, for sure, but as Nick and I reviewed the details of what had happened, I was amazed to discover just how much can occur in a very short time. The entire episode with that fish took less than 10 seconds. I was making mistakes faster than I could think. The truth is, that Rule 1—Pay Attention!—is the key to them all.