Fighting fish tropical gilbey

When I was young and starting out on my shore based fishing journey all of the focus was on hooking the fish. The process of fighting fish once they were hooked was almost an afterthought.

My father really only had four pieces of advice and when I did hook up on my first trout he pretty much left me to my own devices which, unfortunately, often tended to end in tears. His advice though was pretty sound for trout and can be summarised as:-

  • Keep the line between you and the fish tight at all times
  • Keep the rod tip up
  • Stay slightly downstream of the fish and
  • Drop your rod tip immediately if the fish jumps

However, as I progressed into the saltwater and started to hook fish, such as kahawai, that jumped repeatedly I started to question the logic of keeping the rod tip up at all times as it seemed to encourage them to jump more and I was forever dropping the rod tip. This is not ideal if you are fishing with jig heads as when the fish jumps and starts shaking its head it is very easy to dislodge the hook due to pendulum effect of the weighted shank. While the theory of keeping a trout’s head up so that it is off the bottom fighting the current probably does help tire the fish for kahawai it is an open invitation to go aerial.

Rob Sloane wrote in a Flylife magazine article many years ago that “Playing and landing the larger, hard fighting saltwater fish on fly tackle does, however, require a total change in mind-set. The conversion from saltwater conventional to a fly rod is quite natural because the saltwater fly rod should be used in much the same way as a shorter spinning rod or trolling rod.

The idea is to play the fish with the butt section of the rod, not the tip of the rod as we tend to do when fly fishing for trout. Keep the rod at a low angle and lift the butt to exert pressure, then you can pump and wind to regain fly line.

You should be winning or losing ground at all times, never get into a stalemate situation or the fish will just swim around and around all day. So the message is that it’s okay if you are losing line at a rapid rate, but as soon as the fish stops running you need to be working hard to regain line and ultimately unbalance the fish when you’ve got it back within ten metres or so.

Keep the rod low, constantly change the angle of pull from side to side and try to force the fish to roll or roll over or swim backwards.” Sage advice.

Over time I’ve built on this to develop my own set of rules for fighting fish and the important thing to be aware of is that the process starts well before you hook the fish.

The first thing to get sorted is the drag setting on the reel. Conventional wisdom has it that the reel drag should be set at 30% of the line weight. This is a mistake for lighter line weights as it ignores the force required to bend the rod into a working curve before line can be pulled off the reel against the drag. The force required to bend the rod (the working curve) should be deducted from the line weight and the drag set at 30% of this lower weight to eliminate breakages. If you want to learn more about why you need to do this and how then click on:- WHY YOU SHOULD ADJUST THE REEL DRAG DURING THE FIGHT and HOW TO SET THE REEL DRAG PROPERLY

Fog - Spinning

The second thing to remember is that as soon as the fish feels the hook it is going to resist the force that is feeling and flee. Newton must have been an angler as his third law of motion sums it the response of the fish perfectly namely “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. The harder the angler pressures the fish the greater the resistance from the fish will be. Alexander Wanless, an early 20th century spin fishing guru, demonstrated that salmon will run against the pressure that an angler exerts. If this is excessive then the fish can become unstoppable. In order to catch big fish on light lines it is necessary to exert steady, light pressure and coax the fish to exhaustion. His advice was to let the fish run and pull line off the reel against the drag as the exertion required to do this will eventually tire the fish out. (If you want to read more about Alexander Wanless then click on this link . Sometimes however, there is no option but to apply pressure to stop the fish running into cover but if there are no obstructions then letting the fish run is sound advice.

The next important thing to do is get the fish “on the reel” as soon as possible. “On the reel” means that all of the slack line is wound back onto the reel so that the line becomes tight between angler and fish. When the line is tight every time the fish runs it has to run against the reel drag. It has become very popular for fly fishermen, in particular, to hand strip line in to keep in touch with the fish but this is a risky practice as the loose coils of stripped line become unmanageable and often end up catching something when the fish does decide to go on a long run. For spinning reels there is another issue which is also important.

The major disadvantage of spinning reels is line twist. When a fish pulls line off a spinning reel (and the bail arm is closed), the spool rotates. The line twists once for each complete rotation of the spool. If the angler makes the mistake of turning the handle of the reel while line is being pulled from the spool then this twisting effect is multiplied by the gear ratio of the reel. This means that, if the reel has a gear ratio of 5:1 (each turn of the handle rotates the bail arm roller five complete revolutions), five twists will be imparted on the line for every rotation of the handle when line is being pulled from the spool. The most important skill for an angler fighting a fish with a spinning reel to learn, is to not touch the handle of the reel when the spool is rotating.

The fourth rule of fighting fish is to use the rod to draw stubborn fish towards you. This is sometimes called pumping and is a two step process. The first step is to use the rod to pull the fish closer to you. The second step is to carefully lower the rod tip, while reeling in the slack line, until the tip is nearly pointing at the fish. It is critical that no slack is introduced when the rod tip is dropped else the fish may be able to use this slack to throw the hook. The entire process is then repeated. Essentially the rod should be doing most of the work.


It is important to constantly keep the fish off balance. This can be difficult if there is any current present as the fish will angle its body across the current which the forces the fish away from you. At the same time the fish will angle its fins to drive itself towards the bottom. None of this takes much energy so it is not tiring out the fish. What the angler must do is force the fish to change its angle in the current to offset the pull of the rod. The best way to do this is to make sure that the rod is kept close to horizontal (rather than the vertical “tip up”) as this changes the angle so that the fish is being pulled from the side, not from above. When this happens the fish has to fight to maintain the angle. One thing that can help with a really stubborn fish is to suddenly relax the pressure on the fish so that it realigns itself in the current. Then begin pulling side ways again. Sometimes changing the sideways pull to the other side of the angler (fighting from the left instead of the right) forces the fish to readjust its position relative to the current further and expend more energy. This tactic works very well if the fish is upstream or downstream of the angler.

The fifth rule of fighting fish is to reduce the rod pressure on a fish and introduce slack whenever it jumps. Bending at the waist and pointing the rod tip straight at the jumping fish is good advice and it is critical to “bow to your opponent”. Tony Bishop has written an excellent article on this an it is worth a read:-

The most dangerous part of the fight is when the fish starts to weaken and allows itself to be pulled towards the shore. If the fish is coming towards you and is still nose down then be prepared for it to take off again when it reaches shallow water. A huge number of fish are lost at this point as there is not much stretch in a short length of line and if the fish takes off suddenly then the extra force applied can break the trace or tippet. If the fish does run then the best thing to do is drop the rod tip and point it at the fish so that the fish is pulling line directly off the spool against the drag. Do not try to force the fish at this point. When it is ready to land it will lie on its side.


Finally remember to treat the fish with care and consideration. If you are going to kill it then do so quickly and humanely. If you are going to release it then wet your hands, leave it in the water and grip it gently while removing the hook.


  1. One other trick a guide taught me – holding the rod tip to the side instead of up reduces the fish’s “feeling” of being pulled up and out of its element. I’ve actually had fish swim toward me if the rod is kept parallel to the water’s surface. But you have to resist the tendency to try and net the fish when it is still fresh, even if it’s close enough to do so. Once the rod tip is raised to bring the fish close, it’s “off to the races” again.

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