Warning, this is long with no pictures. I have tried to explain how I have landed many large fish but I may need to edit this after it is posted. I hope it is helpful in some of what it says.
This article is being posted into the Spey Fishing section of the forum because I have been using the 2 handed rods exclusively now for 6 full seasons to catch all fish. The species range from small grayling to some very good sized salmon but the content of this piece will be focused on landing fish between 8 and 45 pounds. The same techniques I will attempt to outline here are applicable to your use of single hand rods also, I have used this forum because I haven't landed a big fish on a single hand rod for 4 or 5 years I forget which. That landing occurred while trout fishing a small stream and getting hooked to a silver salmon of about 6.5 pounds, I was using a 6'6" three weight bamboo flea rod at the time....... The rod is fine and the fish was released unharmed.
I'm going to try explaining something based on what I've experienced regarding getting a big fish to shore or the net. So we're going to look at what can happen from the moment you realize you have a fish hooked to the point when you are considering taking a photograph of it.
Before and after I began working as a fishing guide I have fished with a number of other people. I am convinced that when a truly large fish is hooked up and decides to do a little more than be reeled in like a slab of driftwood there are 2 ways the fish get landed, one way is a skillset developed by the angler and the other involves a good deal of luck. The luck factor comes into play with 100% of hookup to landing scenarios because the unknown factor is whether or not the hook is planted firm and deep in tissue that won't give way. So with that understood I'll keep talking about this.
Since this is being written on October 30th it is unlikely that many of you will be able to try one of my see for yourself experiments until warm weather comes to your area again. Now this experiment may seem strange but there is a point to it and what can be proven is directly related to landing big strong fish. What I'm going to describe, I have done and so can assure you of what you'll find if you do this yourself. If you were to wade out into a river or to use a swimming pool, both will work to prove this point. Find yourself in about 4 1/2 feet of water and extend your arm & hand with your hand perpendicular to the water. Now with the arm extended and your hand just under the surface make a sweeping motion of 90* and feel the level of resistance to your motion. Speeding up this motion will increase the resistance because you are trying to push water which is way heavier than air. Now that you have a sense of the amount of weight / resistance the water produces at a depth of roughly 6 inches take a deep breath and submerge yourself. Did I mention not to wear waders for this? So submerge and exhale enough air so that you can sit with your butt on the bottom. This position will put your shoulder approximately 2 1/2 feet off the bottom and about 2 feet deep from the surface. From this position you extend the arm and with the hand perpendicular to the bottom try to replicate the sweeping action you preformed while standing and just below the surface. You will find that it takes a whole lot more energy to make the motion at the same speed as you can right at the surface. At just 2 feet of depth there is more density to the water. Furthermore when you sweep the arm the water doesn't bulge up and break the surface tension and so there is considerable more resistance at greater depths. Hopefully this will begin to make sense as I begin to talk about what I think is happening while a fish is trying to fight against the pressure you are applying to the hook via the rod and line that are attached to that hook.
As many readers know I fish with streamers and various styles of salmon flies all the time. The flies range in size and style from standard salmon and trout patterns on size 4 - 8 hooks and include both tube flies and shank tied patterns with a #6 Owner hook trailing the shank. All my flies are single hook patterns although I did successfully use some double hook salmon flies this year for silvers. I think that explaining what it is that I'm sticking in a fishes jaw is important so the reader can consider what it is they are hooking up with for sake of comparison. I am also seldom using a leader tippet lighter than 16 pound fluorocarbon or at the very lightest 15 pound Maxima Ultra Green mono. Because of the leader strength I am not usually the victim of a broken connection, if there is a failure it is generally because the hook just lost its hold and the fish is gone.
Let us say that you are fishing away and the morning hasn't been too productive but you continue to cast your fly onto the water and mend as you control the depth and speed of the fly as it makes the swing down and across the channel. All of a sudden it happens, it may be a series of taps followed by a substantial pull or it may be an all out whack followed by the sensation of weight on the line. Even though this is why you fish, even though this is what you always wanted it often comes as a surprise when you wake up to find that you're hooked to something bigger than ever before. How you react to a series of taps on a swinging fly can mean the difference between having a chance and what you will describe as "missing a fish". I have found that whether I'm fishing for trout or salmon it is always best to do nothing when you feel that tap tap tap on the end of your line. If the fish does not manage to get the point of the hook stuck into itself and you find there is nothing attached to your line even after a series of good hard taps there is no harm done and you still have a chance. If you react to a tap by whipping the rod tip back or up you stand a good chance of pricking but not hooking the fish. At the very least you may succeed at frightening the fish that was testing that fly to see what the heck it was. So let's first determine that the best way to get started in hooking a big fish is to let the fish do 75% of the job by itself OK?
So there have been a series of taps followed by the weight on the line, now what? Do you whip the rod back or up? It seems that only multiple experiences can teach proper reactions unless you have the advantage of someone giving you detailed instructions about how you might try to react. That's what I'm doing here, trying to provide something for you to store in memory and retrieve when your moment of truth come and believe me, if you fish long enough it's coming. Before going on to describe what happens once hooked up let me tell you what I think happens when you learn not to react when a fish is playing at the fly. If the fish doesn't feel the hook point or even if it does, as long as you don't rip it away the fish usually remains interested enough to chase it again. When this happens you have what we call the comeback fish and many times you end up catching them. If you react and prick or scare them they won't look at that fly again no matter what kingd of nippers you own
OK, the fish is there. What I do is to point the rod tip at the area where the fly and fish are at but I keep it at a slight angle raised angle that is, and I pull the line tight with my free / line hand. Once the line is tight and the fish still there it's time for a more energetic tug. This tug is an effort to drive the hook point home into a solid area. This results in either pulling it free or a much better hook set. If it comes loose you did the best you could. You didn't strike too soon, you waited and you attempted a very premeditated maneuver in driving the hook deep. Much better to have one come lose at this time than after a 5 minute struggle as you try to bring the fish in.
So what was all that business about water resistance about? All this wasted text about hooking a fish? I'm just trying to be thorough here so I'm covering as many things that can go wrong as possible. Let's say that it is hooked and hooked pretty well and get on with this. What next? Do you give him the make it or break it pressure from rod reel and line? I used to do that but evolved quite a bit. Now when I know there's a good one hooked I would prefer that the fish relax and not panic it by applying too much pressure. Now that may seem strange to you but I find that if you keep the ling just barely tight the fish will in many cases just try to swim back to where it was before it got that nasty hook in it. Now this may sound as if it runs against common wisdom because I'm saying that you should not be applying a lot of rod pressure and trying to bring the fish toward you. Once you have things under control there'll be plenty of rod pressure used and you will be trying to bring that fish to you but sometimes early on it's better if the fish doesn't panic and go running out of your area. A truly large fish can do just that and can do it quickly so I try to keep them calm and under control. They all can act differently when hooked, some will beach themselves and others will hunker on the bottom. Some will make a fast run downstream and others upstream. Then there's the fish that just goes airborne right off the bat, these are sometimes the ones that come loose quickly but some remain hooked throughout the jumping actions.
Each of the scenarios I mentioned require a different reaction from the angler if you want to try to remain in control of the outcome. Because of my acting as a guide I've fished with quite a few different anglers over the past 4 years. Some of them were willing to take advice on what to do when the big one was hooked up and others were set in their ways and wanted no pointers. I'm not saying that my ways are correct but because of my living and fishing year after year in an area where I catch a lot of fish between 8 and 40 pounds I have learned a few things. One thing I avoid is the high rod position. I was able to study the effects of this technique because I fished with a fellow who handled every fish with the same system. Once the fish was hooked the rod was kept directly in front of the angler with the tip almost straight up. Many fish came unhooked before we were able to net them. What I was seeing was that whenever the fish was being reeled in the rapid motions of cranking the reel were being transmitted up the 14' long rod shaft to its tip. The result was that the tip was wobbling rapidly in a side to side motion. That motion was transmitted down the line to where it contacted with the surface. Now stop and picture this if you will. Rod high, tip shaking hard enough that the line is dancing wildly right to the surface and the fish is just under the surface. I think that all that motion was helping to free the hooks from wherever they were planted on the fish that got away.
Remember all that talk about sweeping your arm at the surface verses a few feet deep? I'm about to talk about that now. There's a time to take the rod high but most of the time you want it low. When a big fish is several feet deep in a current it can seem that it is applying enough pressure to break a 15 pound leader and to an extent it is. However it is the depth that is making it so hard to pull or move that fish and not just the fish itself.
Lifting and sliding a big one.............
When one is staying deep on you it's time to crank up any and all slack with your rod low and in a position that is applying a side pull against the fish. Once that line is tight it is time to extend the rod and point it right at the fish, now is the time to lift that fish to the surface. Lift with your arms and rod tip and bring it toward the surface. As you lift it high in the water column you now need to continue to crank up any slack. Now you are attempting to lift the fish right up to the surface where there is very little water resistance to aid it in the attempt to hold back against the pressure you are applying. When that fish is at the surface it's time to quickly drop the rod tip and crank up the slack created by this rapid change of angles between tip and fish. With the rod low you pull hard sideways and when you reach the point where the rod is extending behind you and you can no longer continue pulling you work that reel as fast as you can but you keep that line tight and the rod low to avoid that dancing line effect that I mentioned earlier. This is the simple pump and reel technique but I think of it as the slide. While the fish is right on the surface you can move a really big one a whole lot easier than when it's 2 or more feet deep. You need to focus on the direction of the head and try to turn that head toward you and shore. If at any point while you are doing this you end up with the fish coming at you head first and right at the surface it's time to move!
There are no guarantees of what will happen when you lift one, sometimes they just lay there at the surface other times they bolt. I have found that some fish need to be taken through this stage of the landing process several times before you have full control. For the sake of finishing up let's assume it does not bolt but has allowed you to turn it right at you and now it can be brought toward shore.
With a big fish coming toward shore head first and right at the surface you need to continue reeling with the rod pointed at the fish but the tip elevated enough to absorb any sudden change in the fishes behavior. If you have sufficient landscape to your rear you can end the fight at this point. Keep going back away from the water, now raise the rod tip to keep the fishes head elevated and keep it coming forward. They can not swim backward very well at all and at this stage you can bring the fish in until it is at the shoreline. If you get the fish on the shore line it's time to put the rod down preferably lean it against bushes or the like and run like hell to catch that fish by the tail. Once you have control of the tail place the other hand cupped in front of the nose and you have it done.
This can become a lot more hectic if you have a net and intend to use it alone. Unless you are accustomed to handling a rod - reel and a net all at the same moment you have the fish of a lifetime close to shore I don't recommend trying to use the net. After you have done what the preceding paragraph lines out to you, you are free to get hold of your net and use it to safely and humanely contain the fish while you figure out how to get a photo of it.
Whenever you are fishing where there is a realistic chance of hooking into a ten pound or larger fish you should take time to study both the river currents and the surrounding shoreline before you begin trying to hook that fish. Know where there are soft water spots along shore both upstream and down from where you are casting from. When the fish is hooked your job is to try leading it toward these landing zones prior to the lifting and sliding the fish towards shore. Having some sort of a plan of action before you have a giant hooked up is well worth the few seconds taken to think things over. I usually either leave my net laying right on the shoreline so during the landing process I can snatch it up and toss it in the direction where I figure I'll land the fish.
Finding big fish can be a hit of miss thing many days but when you do you need to use each occurrence as a learning / training opportunity. Landing big ones is like many other learned skills practice makes for better results so even though you are catching 12 - 16 inch trout you should handle each one as if it were a 13 pound monster. Try the lift and slide. Figure out how best to keep every stage of the encounter from the fish grabbing the fly to you removing the hook under control. I learned how to fish in Pennsylvania then I took what I learned and fished all over the country. The next thing I went after was bigger fish and salmon offered that chance. First it was Landlocked Atlantic's in Northern Maine and from there to Newfoundland for the real thing. Next came those Great Lakes transplants and by 1989 Alaskan Kings. I lost plenty, I hooked more and tried to use whatever seemed to have worked previously to help get the next fish to the net or shore. In Late 2004 I came here and have been home ever since. Living here year round gave me the chance to hook as many as 30 big fish in a day and with those numbers you learn what works and what doesn't.
The lift and slide are my principle weapons. Keeping a fish calm while I work it into position to lift it is important. If it runs I don't try to stop them unless it is imperative to do so. When the run slows I try to lead the fish while allowing it to come back toward where it was prior to being hooked. I don't know if any of this will make sense to readers but I've tried not to wander too much as I typed out my memory on how it is done.