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Fighting Fish – Make ‘Em Earn the Reel

Posted on August 19 2016

Fighting silver salmon at Alaska West.
This one earned the reel. Photo: Greg Houska.

‘Tis the season for fighting fish! August in Alaska brings fast paced action for big feisty fish, and that means there’s no shortage of practice for fighting (and hopefully landing) fish.

During this part of our season we see hundreds (yes, hundreds) of fish fought each week, and with that we’re able to get a good idea of what works (and of course what doesn’t) to bring more fish, especially big fish, to hand.

One thing we’ve noticed from anglers not use to fighting big scrappy fish in moving water (think silver salmon, chum salmon, big trout, ect.) is that the majority of fish are lost during the small window of time between setting the hook and getting the fish on the reel.

Modern fly reels are extremely well engineered fish fighting tools. They fight fish far better than we do, so if given the opportunity, getting them on the reel is generally a good idea. However, we find there’s often confusion around getting the fish on the reel while still maintaining enough tension on the hook to keep it pinned. Slack is the enemy is just about every facet of fly fishing, and fighting fish is no exception.

Sure, if a fish takes off in a blistering run, getting them on the reel is simple – Let him take the whole kit and caboodle until he locks up to the reel. However, during the latter part of our Alaskan seasons, the majority of fish on our river systems (silvers, chums, pinks, trout, ect.) tend to fight in a more vertical nature (up and down) often begging the question, “okay, I’ve hooked a fish in close, now how do I get all this excess line back on the reel without losing him.” To answer that, we think long-time Deneki guest, Ross Beatty, said it best while fishing with us last week at Alaska West.. Make ‘Em Earn the Reel!

In other words, getting a fish onto the reel should not be your automatic response immediately after hooking a fish. Make him fight hard enough to get that far! Instead, after setting the hook, we like to think of the beginning of the fight (where most fish are lost) as three possible scenarios:

  1. The fish runs away from you. Perfect! Let that excess line slip through your fingers (with a little friction to keep it tight) all the way to the reel, and put the heat on (low and towards the bank, please).
  2. The fish stays in the same general area its hooked. We see this all the time in slower, sloughy, water. The fish is hooked, jumps straight up in the air, and bounces around in the same pocket (or close to it) where you stung him. Strip the line tight to maintain tension, pin the line against the cork, and hold it there while taking up the excess line with the reel. Just be wary to let up on the line should he decide head in the other direction (ahem, see number 1).
  3. The fish runs at you. Take up line by stripping, not by reeling! Stripping line is much faster than the pickup of even the largest arbor reels, and is the best way to maintain the required tension to keep the hook pinned. Keep stripping until tight, and only change if stops (see number 2), or starts to run away from you (number 3). If he doesn’t do either, keep putting the heat on with your line hand until he earns the reel.

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