Striking Out

M issing the strike of a fish doing its suicidal best to get caught is one of the most aggravating things in angling. Frantic reactions aside, the ham-handed fumble often is aided and abetted by specialized techniques and conflicting circumstances.

For example, when you’re saltwater fly fishing with a streamer, the accepted method for setting the hook is the “strip strike.” The angler points the low rod down the line during the retrieve and when a fish grabs he pulls straight back with the line-stripping hand.

The pull does not need to be long, a foot or two. The advantage of this technique is that it transmits main-line contact directly to the fish, allowing a positive hook-set against a hard or rubbery jaw.

 Also, important, the straight yank keeps the line and fly in the water. Should the fish miss, the offering remains right in front for a follow-up grab. Conversely, lifting the rod tip high is a knee jerk (well, more correctly, a wrist jerk) reaction that, on a miss, rips the line across the surface and launches the fly into the air.

However, that same rod lift is exactly what the stream angler wants when drifting a dry fly or nymph for trout. The hard strip strike is an overload likely to snap a light tippet against a good fish.

Another advantage of the “high stick” method is that a miss propels the line up and back, much like a false cast for a quick follow-up to the same area. Maybe this works, maybe it doesn’t, but at least you are back in the zone with minimal wasted time.

A bad habit, especially in saltwater, is to combine the two techniques. I do it all the time. It drives me crazy. I give a proper strip, but lift the rod at the same time. This looks fine if the fly sticks in the jaw of a greedy redfish or bonefish—not so fine if the fly goes airborne, and the startled fish spooks.

Worth note, the aggressive strip-strike mantra should be tempered if a big fish is very close when it takes. The leader has virtually no shock absorber. Stripping hard on a turning 100-pound tarpon or sailfish at 20 feet can vaporize a 20-pound-class tippet. Trust me. I know first-hand.

The excitable rookie probably is better off just pulling low to the opposite angle, using the flex of the rod to cushion the contact. If the fish shakes off, at least the terminal rigging remains intact.

When fishing with natural bait on a traditional “J” hook, the age-old reaction is to lower the rod tip, reel tight, and yank back with gusto. However, this aggressive reaction is a major mistake when you use a circle hook. Trust me again.

The violent J-hook sweep snatches the circle hook away without allowing time for the point to rotate into the jaw. If given the opportunity to function properly, the circle hook will almost always set itself against the weight of a departing fish.

The deliberate angler feeds controlled free-spool line for several counts, then engages the reel and waits for the growing surge of weight before pulling back slowly to the side—Presto! A moderate drag setting to provide adequate resistance works well.

Frankly, when you drift offshore, doing nothing can be a great tactic. Leave the rod in a holder and wait until it is bending and the reel is humming before you grab the rig.

A fly caster who wades a river and swings a downstream streamer for steelhead or Atlantic salmon is also well-advised to basically do nothing. As a fish grabs the fly, the bellying line begins to straighten, and the savvy angler allows the resistance of the current to set the small hook.

Jerking the rod against the first tug almost certainly will result in a swing and a miss. Lift the long tip only after the line is tight and the fish is “on the reel.”

Another good time to slow the response is when you grind crankbaits for bass. The fast retrieve, and the small sharp trebles combine for an almost automatic hookup. Conversely, a vicious yank (especially with a stiff rod) might tear the plug away before the bass can get a good grip.

Most plug casters agree that a topwater strike is the most exciting. And, almost always, the “fast strike” theory is a mistake. A fish—bass, speck, red, take your pick—makes a commitment when it elevates several feet and snatches a surface lure. The fish turns back down, slow to realize it’s made a mistake.

By pausing a count, you have a better chance to drive the hooks into the corner of the jaw. Conversely, hitting too fast can “burn his lip.” This especially is true on a slow and deliberate rise.

Also, keep in mind that a thrilling splash does not always mean that a fish has taken the lure. Many fish strike short, rolling under or behind the lure without making contact.

It takes a cool hand to hold firm when a fish is firing short, but suffice it to say, if you can still see the plug, the following fish does not have nine-tenths of the law in its favor. Put another way, don’t trust your eyes. Wait until you feel weight.

These are examples of specialized techniques. The angler who fishes primarily with one favored method, can get in a groove and minimize blown chances. Problems typically arise when you go from one situation to another, and what once was right, is now wrong.

Conditioned reflexes can be hard to control, and it is horrifyingly easy to get flustered on unfamiliar water. But “striking out” now and then is just part of fishing.

Email Joe Doggett at




Email Joe Doggett at ContactUs@fishgame.com


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