An angler (he didn't deserve the title!) whom I once met on New York's famous Beaverkill River had just caught a 3-pound Rainbow Trout on tackle that would have made any fly-fisherman cry. His worm-baited hook was tied to a leader of about 15-pound-test, on a fish line too heavy to be called anything but "rope." His rod was a two-handed salt-water deal good for big Tuna; his reel could have held enough legitimate Trout line to encircle the world three times. He'd let the worm drift downstream with the current and (accidentally, of course) the Rainbow had grabbed it. Then he'd simply reeled in the fish.
"Queer kind of Trout tackle," I commented sarcastically.
"Fish don't care what tackle they're caught on," he jeered.
True! Only a "sportsman" cares about what tackle he uses. A "meat-fisherman," such as this angler, was interested just in the fish itself, not in the fun of catching it. Actually, he couldn't have known what he was missing, as anyone who has fought a similar slashing, leaping 3-pound Rainbow on a light fly rod will verify. To a sportsman, the fun begins when he's trying to fool the fish into taking his lure or bait. It ends with the fish on his dinner table. Between this beginning and end occurs that part of angling that makes it the most popular sport in the world—the contest between angler and fish. If this weren't so, all of us probably would be using hooks, worms, and hand lines, and hauling in our fish like bunches of bananas. An angler's success in this contest, of course, depends upon his skill with his tackle.
Using Fly Tackle
A fish takes a floating fly (dry fly) on the surface where you can see him, and you must strike him immediately before he realizes he's been tricked and spits it out, which he can do in a split second. Only occasionally will he hook himself. In order to strike him, there should be only a small amount of slack line between your rod and the fly, and your rod should be extended forward at about a 45-degree angle so that by lifting the tip you can instantly straighten this slack line and put pressure on the hook. If your rod is too low, a fish that takes the fly and immediately runs will snap your leader; if it is too high, you won't be able to lift it any higher to straighten the slack. The same rod position is advisable when you're using a sinking fly (wet fly) although this fishing is more difficult because you can't see when the fish takes it. Neither can you feel him. You must watch the loop which connects your leader to your line. Strike when this loop makes a slight movement away from you, caused by the tug of the fish. Some anglers fish a wet fly with a dry-fly "dropper" (tied to the leader by a snell several feet above the "tail" fly which is tied to the end of the leader). And they watch this dry fly. When a fish takes the wet fly, the slight jerk will move the dry fly, too, telling the angler to strike.
The function of the rod, once the fish is hooked, is to tire him so he can be netted without danger of breaking the leader. Therefore, always hold the rod in a vertical position so that he fights its springiness. Your free hand controls the line at the reel—holding the line tight as long as the fish is making your rod bend, taking in line as the fish tires or when it runs toward you, and letting out line when the fish bends the rod so far that too much strain is being placed on the leader. When your fish tires, bring him in close, but never closer to the rod tip than the length of the rod itself. Hold the rod high over your head if necessary, transfer the line to your rod hand, hold your landing net under the water below him, lead him over it, then lower the rod so he drops into it headfirst. He may be only playing 'possum, however, so be ready to give him line if he wants to run again. The secret of fighting fish on fly tackle is: gentleness. Don't be a strongarm! That's why girls often make better anglers than boys; they're not as rough.
Using Bait-Casting Tackle
Gentleness pays off with a bait-casting rod, too. If you force a fish, you're apt to lose him because your line and leader may be strong enough but his mouth isn't, and the hooks will pull out. When retrieving a lure, hold your rod at a 45-degree angle as with fly tackle. And for the same reasons. As you wind in, keep your thumb on the bait-casting reel's spool, ready for action. When a fish strikes, clamp that thumb down for an instant as you lift the rod tip so that there's enough resistance to set the hook in his jaw, then release it slightly so he can run. Without your thumb pressure, his strike will make your reel backlash. Use your thumb as a brake; you might get a blister on it from a big fish, but that's a wound of honor. If you already have a blister on it, use a glove. Make the fish fight the bend in your rod, but give him line when he wants it! When he's tired, coax him in, never closer to your rod tip than the length of your rod, then lead him over your landing net, and drop him in headfirst. For fish that are too large for a hand net, anglers use a "gaff" which is a large barbless hook with a long handle. Another landing method you can use on smaller fish when you've forgotten your net is to grasp them by the lower jaw—but not if they have teeth like the Pike family. In their case you can sink the tips of your thumb and finger in their eye sockets and lift them aboard that way.
Using Spinning and Spin-Casting Tackle
The rules which pertain to bait-casting also apply to this tackle, although with these reels you don't have as much control of your line and you'll lose more fish if you're not extremely careful. With spinning reels, hooking a fish is more difficult. Be extra certain to use needle-sharp hooks so they'll be sure to sink into the fish. The problem is this: you must adjust your spinning reel's drag before you start casting— and an adjustment that's loose enough to protect the line while you're playing a fish usually isn't tight enough to hook the fish. If you don't think the hook is set, release the reel handle for an instant, grab the line near the reel and, while holding it, bear back on the rod. While you're fighting the fish, of course, the drag adjustment determines whether or not you can reel in the line (and fish). If the pull is too great, the pickup will turn but the spool will unwind to nullify it. Frequently it is necessary to tighten the drag as the fish becomes tired so you can put more pressure on him to bring him close. The change in drag adjustment is also necessary for a spin-cast reel, although with this type you won't have as great a hook-setting problem; just press down on the thumb button—this momentarily locks the line so you can exert a maximum pull on it. Netting with both spinning and spin-casting tackle is the same as with the bait-casting type.
No matter what tackle you use, there's an important rule to remember to keep a fish on your line once he's hooked—don't give him slack! Keep him fighting against the pressure of the rod. When a fish goes into his head-wagging act, either underwater or at the top of a leap, if you give him slack he'll shake loose your lure just as easily as you'd shake loose a grasshopper that's clinging to your hand. When he arcs up into the air, pull back on your rod and turn him over. Of course, no matter how careful you are, some clever fish will still throw your lure. But not as many!
And remember—be gentle! The rougher you are with a fish, the more likely you are to lose him!