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How to Fight Big Fish

A beginner's guide to playing, and landing, the fish of a lifetime.


Big fish are a challenge on fly gear. Because most reels have a 1:1 drag ratio (one turn of the reel equals one turn of the spool), the onus is on you to pick up slack when the fish storms towards you, the same way you must let off tension when it wants to run. This repeated struggle of bringing the fish close, only to have it run on you, can be a long and tiring process. To fight fish more efficiently, try switching up your angles on the fish, as this will make it harder for it to rest and dog during the fight. This photo by Trevor Neri is a perfect freeze-frame of what this looks like. Clearly battling a nice fish in strong current, he knows that the fish has an edge on him, since it can use the current to its advantage. To counteract this, he’s pulling the fish from the side, causing it to spend more energy trying to right itself against the strong flow. Now, instead of the fish using the current against him, he’s using the current against the fish. To quote the great Michael Scott, oh, how the turn tables. If you understand how to pull a fish from different directions (and how to pick up on references to The Office ), you’ll be able to wear down fish much more efficiently. Powerful fish aren’t going to make it easy, and when the water is working against you, you’ll need all the help you can get. So use your rod to gain leverage and keep the fish off balance. You’ll land it a lot quicker, reduce the chances that it gets away, and save your arms a bit of soreness.


One of the most common questions from beginner fly anglers: do I fight fish from the reel or by stripping line? To those of us who’ve been fly fishing for a while, this may not be a question that we think to explain to newcomers, but if you think about it, it really is valid. If you’re trying to save face and not risk asking an embarrassing question, you might be inclined to just “monkey-see, monkey-do” this type of thing. The problem with that, though, is that you’ll see people doing it both ways, and you might not understand why. The short answer is this: with smaller fish that you can land more easily, fighting a fish with strips is easier and faster than reeling up all of your slack to fight it from the reel. It’s also a bit of personal preference, as some people feel that they can play a fish’s short runs smoothly with the slack line that they’ve gathered off of the reel, letting it go and taking it back in as they see fit.

The use-case for fighting a fish on the reel is usually when you’re chasing bigger, fast-running fish. When you have a fish that could take you into your backing on a single run, you can’t risk having stripped line get caught on something as it’s burning through your guides. It needs to just flow. That’s why a good drag system is so key for big fish- it’ll give them line at a smooth, consistent rate, without getting stuck on your waders, a stick, or burning your fingers as it races through your hand. That’s the short answer, but there are always nuances. There’s no hard and fast rule for how big a fish should be for you to take it from the reel, but the more you fish, the more you’ll be able to sense when it’s necessary. Over the course of the fight, you may also switch between the two- if a fish races in on you unexpectedly, bringing with it a lot of slack line, you may need to switch to strips to take up that slack and maintain tension, before reeling it back up to the reel. Either way, understanding the use case for each style is the important takeaway, and ultimately, you’re going to want to become comfortable with both to have consistent success.

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