In fly fishing, there are a lot of different elements to consider in order to find success. Leader length, type of rig, flies, weight, tippet size and location are just some of the variables we need to solve for if we want to catch fish. Once you’ve figured these things out and have your rig drifting perfectly through some likely water, the hookset is the final piece of the puzzle required to come tight to a fish. It’s the crucial aspect of fly fishing that bridges the gap between preparation and the payoff we chase. It also happens to be one of the parts I see people struggle with most, so today, we're gonna be talking all about perhaps the most important part of fly fishing, setting the hook.
We’ve all been there before, your indicator or hopper gets violently ripped below the surface and you’re thinking, ”that’s gotta be a fish right”? Instead, you execute a hook set and your rig comes flying out of the water, finding itself 10 feet off the ground in the tree behind you. You look around bashfully, making sure no one else was there to see what you’ve just done. It’s a painful reality of fly fishing, but it happens to everyone from time to time.
So how do we avoid finding ourselves in this situation? One of the best tips to hook more fish and less trees comes from adjusting the angle of your hookset. I see many novice and even intermediate anglers set their hook in a vertical “rainbow” shape. While this can work, if you miss the fish or just ticked the bottom, your rig is gonna come flying out of the water directly over your head and tangle into whatever structure may be behind you. To solve this problem, keep the angle of your trout set LOW and DOWNSTREAM. In other words, think about keeping the stroke of your hookset closer to parallel with the ground as opposed to perpendicular to it.
This style of hookset solves two problems at once. One, by keeping the angle of the set lower it stops your flies from shooting out of the water (as much). Second, setting in the downstream direction usually results in more fish hooked. Trout tend to face upstream, so by setting downstream you give your flies a better chance of finding a secure spot in the corner of the fish's mouth. If there’s a fish directly across the river from me and I set upstream, there’s a good chance I’ll pull the flies right out the front of its mouth.
The low and downstream method is a great general rule for setting your hook, but when it comes to consistently hooking more fish, the devil is in the details. Let’s take a look at some of the finer points of a good hookset as they apply to fishing different rigs.
I always tell people, “hooksets are free” and this pertains to nymphing or hopper dropper rigs. Most of the time, fish don’t charge your nymph and yank your indicator or hopper fully under. It’s nice when it happens, but for the most part we need to keep our eyes peeled for more subtle indications that there's something fishy going on beneath the surface. Your indicator might slow down, it might come to a complete stop, or it could just wobble or tilt to one side a little bit. I like to describe it as, “the indicator just looked at me wrong”. If anything suspicious happens at all, set first and ask questions later. Also, sooner is ALWAYS better than later when it comes to nymphs. Trout can feel that your fly is not real as soon as they eat it and they can spit it out quickly, so make sure you’re setting LOW and DOWNSTREAM in a timely manner.
There’s little in the world of fly fishing that makes my heart race quite like a dry fly eat. There are two types of dry fly eats, the quick “splashy” eat and the slow “sip”, and we should respond to these two different eats in two different ways. If you’re fishing a bushy dry fly on a small stream, you have likely had a smaller trout come up and slam your dry. This is a quick eat, and you don’t really see much of the fish as it all happens very fast. In these situations I prefer to set the hook as quickly as I can.
The inverse of this would be say, during a mayfly hatch when fish will slowly approach your fly, open their mouth to eat the fly, then close their mouth around it and sink back down. These sorts of eats are a slow “sip” and require a little more finesse. It’s really easy to jump the gun and set the hook as soon as you think the fish has your fly in its mouth. The correct way to go about hooking this fish is to wait that extra second for the fish to close its mouth around your fly and then turn back down. It’s really hard to do in the heat of the moment and it can feel like an eternity, but it is absolutely critical to avoid pulling the fly out of the fish’s open mouth.
The main takeaway here is that you should match the timing of your hookset to the cadence with which the fish takes your fly, they aren't all “quick” or “slow”, but they do all fall somewhere along the spectrum of quick to slow.
Forget everything we just learned about hooksets, streamer fishing is a different game altogether. While we sometimes will see a fish boil or flash on our streamer, for the most part we are waiting to “feel” that fish grab it. For this reason, it is important when streamer fishing to keep your rod tip at or even under the water’s surface. This will eliminate a “bow” of slack line that would otherwise dangle from your rod tip to the water, this slack is the enemy when it comes to streamer fishing as it creates a disconnect from us and the fly, making it harder to detect strikes.
You cast, you bring your rod tip to the water, you strip, you strip again and BAM, your fly gets eaten. What now? STRIP SET IMMEDIATELY! Using your stripping hand, yank on your fly line, and don’t even think about lifting that rod tip. Why? Streamer hooks are much thicker than your standard nymph or dry fly hooks. This thicker hook requires more force to be securely set which you achieve by striping rather than lifting the rod. Vertical hook sets are great for nymphs and dries as they help to pick up slack line and get you tight to the fish faster. The last thing we want when setting the hook on a streamer eat is to dampen the force of our hookset by bending that rod. More often than not you will feel one headshake and then the fish is off because that thick hook didn’t penetrate properly. It is this same principle that makes the strip set so important for salt water applications as well. Fish with bony mouths eating flies tied on thick, sturdy hooks require a powerful hookset to drive it home.
In summation, start doing your trout set at a lower angle and always in the downstream direction. Definitely start setting the hook more often when fishing with nymphs. If a fish explodes on your dry, set the hook quickly, and if it sips it nice and slow, give the fish a second to close its mouth and turn around. If a fish eats your streamer, hammer that strip set and if you raise that rod, well… better luck next time champ.