Hit or Miss?

Guest Blogger: Rabbit Jensen, editor of  A Woman’s Angle—Celebrating 20 Years of Women Fly Fishing and an active member of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association.

Watching beginners on their first fly-fishing forays takes me back… ‘way back… to memories of my own early angling experiences. Knot tying I can’t claim to have ever mastered, but I quickly learned to tie three basic knots in a slow, fumbling, but serviceable fashion. Fly choice by the “whatever catches my eye” method worked well enough. I could even tie effective flies; time has shown me that scruffy flies work better than neat ones, so my early efforts were fish-catchers for sure. Casting…! Well, I rapidly learned the two rules: (1) A fly won’t catch anything in the air. Limit your false-casts. (2) Any cast that actually hits the water might have a fish waiting for it. Don’t pick it up for another cast just because it didn’t land where you aimed it.

grip

grip

Most of all, I remember the increasingly-frustrated voice of my angling mentor saying (or sometimes yelling), “That was a hit!” “Strike now!” “Fish!” or, “Now, now, NOW!” Over the years I’ve observed that detecting a hit and hooking the fish are the most common stumbling-blocks novice anglers encounter. It’s also almost impossible to teach someone these skills except by actual experience.

One of the problems is, there are many different, sometimes subtle, indications that a fish has taken the fly. Strike timing is also something learned by experience, as it varies with fish species, what they are eating, the size of your fly, and probably astrology. The best I’ve been able to do to teach people how to react to the take is, when instructing by “grass casting,” to go out to the end of the leader after a cast, pick it up, tug lightly, and shout, “You’ve got a bite! What do you do?” Several repetitions of this usually results in burning a “when you feel a tug, raise the rod sharply” sequence into the brain and muscles.

The important thing leading to hooking your first fish is line control. Keeping your left hand grip on the line while casting not only is important to a successful cast, it allows you to quickly transfer that line to a position under the right forefinger and against the rod grip. This position is essential for hooking a fish, especially one that takes the fly the instant it lands on the water, which happens frequently. The forefinger grip provides line tension that sinks the hook when you strike; the flexibility of the rod cushions the force enough to keep from breaking the tippet. It’s not important in your first attempts to worry about how much force to use or when to strike, just raise that rod tip smartly as soon as you detect a hit. Experience will refine your technique.

BW80316mecasting1

I always start beginners with dry flies. Both the fly and the hit are visible which makes it easier to get the timing right to hook something. I choose a very visible fly, such as a bright-colored popper, a Wulff with its tall white wings, a white-winged X-Caddis, or a big beetle with a wide strip of chartreuse Razor Foam tied along its entire back. Next, I introduce the student to some willing fish in a panfish cove or fee-fishing pond. Fishing from the bank puts the new angler in a position to see the fish, and certainly to see the take. But I caution them to keep their eyes on the fly. If they suddenly lose sight of the fly, strike; or, even better, if a big ring of disturbed water occurs where their fly is, strike. I try not to yell, “That was a fish!” or “Now, now, NOW!” but usually the best I can do is, the same words in a patient voice. If the grass-practice session went well, they usually react, although most of the time a little too slowly. This is due to processing-time: What the heck? Oh, yeah, Rabbit said that’s a sign of a hit. STRIKE! Miss… If there’s one thing I must emphasize, it’s that, to hook a fish, you must react, not think, anytime there is a disturbance close to your fly.

On the opposite end of the strike-speed spectrum, if a student finds herself striking too fast and pulling the fly out of the fish’s mouth before he can close it, I recommend changing to an underwater fly. I usually put on the highly-visible Green Weenie or a murky-water panfish fly I use that has a brightly fluorescent marabou tail. Cast it out and watch it intently as it sinks. If it vanishes, strike. Keep the end of the fly line or, better yet, the point where the leader penetrates the surface, in your peripheral vision; if either starts sinking more rapidly, twitches down or forward, or begins moving to one side or the other, strike. For overexcited beginners that consistently strike too fast, this wet-fly technique slows their detection of hits just enough for them to magically begin hooking fish.

Flies

Flies

Why don’t I advise beginners to use strike indicators or drop a nymph off the bend of a bushy dry fly? Anglers at the stage of not detecting hits or hooking the fish are usually on their first actual fishing experiences, and their casting skills aren’t up for the timing changes needed when there are extra objects on the leader. When I take someone on their first fishing outing, I try to keep it simple and enjoyable, and do my best to provide positive reinforcement in the form of fish hooked. The more successful hook-ups, the more confidence the new angler has, and striking at a hit quickly becomes reflex.

Intermediate anglers that have not fished in a while can exhibit the same symptoms, as their strike reflex becomes rusty. I suggest they follow the same regime as a beginner:

  • Practice your strike grass-casting with a partner to pretend to be the fish. Remember, no actual hooks!
  • Even practice-casting, transfer the excess line to the right-forefinger grip quickly and smoothly.
  • Choose a fishing spot to practice with ample back-cast room and willing fish.
  • Focus on your fly while it’s on or in the water.
    Any disturbance near your fly could be a hit. This includes your line twitching, sinking rapidly, or moving to the side.
  • The fly disappearing is usually a hit.
  • React, don’t think, if any of these things occur.
  • If you’re not sure, strike. You can always cast again.
  • No one hooks them all. One fish solidly hooked out of four hits is a respectable ratio.

We are all out there to catch fish, and developing the strike reflex and ability to detect hits is an important, but frequently overlooked part of learning. However, never forget that our most important catch is fun. Even when practicing, keep your sense of humor, be patient, and you’ll always come home with a creel full of happy memories.

2 thoughts on “Hit or Miss?

  1. Mike Cline

    Rabitt,
    Excellent assessment of issues facing new, novice and even experienced anglers. When detecting and hopefully connecting with strikes, the angler has two powerful senses—sight and feel. For either or those to be effective, the angler must be attentive. Because fish are unpredictable, any amount of inattention on the part of the angler rises the possibility of a missed strike. I have missed countless fish because my attention was momentarily diverted to a rustle along the bank, a bird overhead or merely stumbling along the creek bed. Where ever you are fishing—river, lake, flats, ocean—when your fly is in or on the water—pay attention with your sense of observation and your sense of feel. They are remarkable tools in your quest to hook that elusive piscus.

    Reply
  2. Michael Vorhis

    Nice article Rabbit. Sounds like you do a lot of teaching. A question: With subsurface flies, do you teach novices to strike whenever they feel a “bump” or tiny tug on the line? Even if their strike is sure to be at least a full second (and probably more) after the tiny tug has slackened? Or do you find the odds are better for learning the “feel” if they wait for a definitive “take”? You said you believe that “One fish solidly hooked out of four hits” is acceptable, but it may depend on how you describe a hit.

    Reason I ask is that I sometimes struggle to find good ways to guide my 11-year-old daughter. How does one describe that decision process? when I was a kid, trial and error taught me there are a lot of “nibbles” too weak to ever result in a hook-set, and they’re best waited out, in hopes of more commitment. I’ve tried to suggest that to others through the years. Of course that was a worms and doughballs and non-trout world back then, and it might be different. I’m wondering whether I’m doing my child and other novices (and maybe even myself) a disservice by continuing to think that way. Your thoughts?

    > A fly won’t catch anything in the air.

    On that one I beg to differ. I’ve caught lots…maybe not perch but certainly birch. Also a perfectly good hiker’s ear once.

    – Mike

    Reply

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