Written by John Berry
One of the most misused and misunderstood pieces of fly fishing equipment is the reel. Most anglers consider it some sort of glorified line storage device. I must say that I feel the reel doesn’t really matter until you hook a good fish. Most of my clients choose to just strip in most, if not all of the fish they hook. In fact, I often ask why did you spend four hundred dollars (or any other astronomical amount) to buy that reel, if you are not going to use it. If you are going to successfully land a big fish, you must fight it on the reel.
The other day I was guiding two gentlemen at Rim Shoals. One of them hooked a trophy trout. I got a pretty good look at it and it was a righteous twenty four inch rainbow with broad shoulders and a bad attitude. My client was stripping in the fish. I suggested that he fight the fish on the reel. He told me that he would just strip it in. As you can imagine, the rainbow easily broke the 5X tippet and quickly escaped. I said nothing.
Two hours later my other client, who was on his first fly fishing trip, hooked a good trout. In this case it was a stout twenty one inch brown. I suggested that he fight it on the reel. He carefully listened as I explained how to get the line on the reel and fight the trout and did exactly what I suggested. Four minutes later the brown was in the net and we were taking pictures and swapping high fives. Both of the anglers learned something important that day, if you hook a big fish, fight it on the reel.
When you are stripping in a fish, you pull the line in and hold it with one or more fingers of your rod hand. If the fish takes a run it is difficult to smoothly let out line to accommodate the fish’s movements. In fact, the tendency is to hold the line tightly. If the line does not smoothly play out, the fish can break it or slip the hook.
On the other hand, if the fish is on the reel, the line goes out with the fish and it is unable to break the line. It is also more difficult to slip the hook. The secret is to keep constant pressure on the trout. You crank line in when you can. The tendency is to try and muscle the fish in. I always tell my clients that only one of you (the trout or the angler) can do something at a time. If you are cranking in the fish and it begins to struggle, stop cranking. If the fish wants to take a run, let it. I have seen many anglers lock down the reel by holding on to the reel handle. This is essentially the same thing as holding the line tightly. When I am fighting a fish, the only time I touch the handle is when I am cranking in line. If the trout begins to struggle or run, I take my hand off of the reel.
One thing that happens often is that we discover that we have hooked a big fish as we are stripping the line in. There are several feet of line on the deck of the boat or the surface of the water that must be wound on the reel. The trick is to put the fish on the reel with out losing it. If you are lucky, the trout will take a long run and pull all of the line out for you. If not, you have to quickly crank the extra line on the reel all the while keeping pressure on the line under your finger.
When fighting a good fish, it is important to keep constant pressure on the fish. How do you determine exactly how much pressure you are putting on a fish? Your rod can tell you. The amount of bend in the rod increases as you put more pressure on it. Different rods will bend more or less based on their overall stiffness. A light four weight will bend more easily than a stiff six weight. Of course, you can put more pressure on 4X tippet than you can 5X.
All reels have a drag system. As the fish pulls out line he is working against the drag system that puts a given amount of pressure on it. You crank the fish in when you can and it will pull out line when it makes a run. Over time it will expend its energy from fighting against the drag and it can then be landed.
It is best to get in the habit of fighting your fish on the reel. When the opportunity to land a big fish comes, you will be more comfortable with the process and more likely to prevail. I try to fight all of my fish that way and find it very effective. If you are going to spend the big bucks to buy a quality reel, use it. It will enable you to land the big ones.