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10 tactics to help prevent losing that fish

It’s always going to happen.  It’s part of fishing.
There’s always going to be the ones that get away.

Around here, conversations with other fishermen we encounter often go like this.
“How did you do today?”
“Not bad, we went six for ten.”    Or, “6/10” if we’re texting, emailing, or whatever.

That gives a quick picture of how the day went.  We had ten fish on the line, and landed six of them.  That sums up how we did on our two main tasks.  Getting fish to bite, and landing them once they do.

6/10 isn’t a bad day, at least when salmon fishing. Still, those ones that got away always chap the behind, don’t they?

You’re always going to have some fish spit the hook on you.  It’s part of the challenge, and part of the frustration.  Learning to play and land fish is a very large part of becoming a better fisherman.  So here are ten top tips for getting that fish from the strike to the net.

Tight Lines

This has become such a common greeting between anglers, that there are some new to the sport that think it’s merely a friendly salutation.
One of the first things I tell newbies when they come fishing with me is that slack line is the enemy.  If you don’t keep line tension, it makes it very easy for the fish to shake the hook out of its mouth.  That’s especially true in areas like here, where we are required to use barbless hooks.
Whether they are taking line, in a tug-o-war stand off with you, or, most dangerously, running right toward you (king salmon in particular have a nasty habit of charging right at the boat), keep your line tight to keep your fish.

No Horsing Around

Don’t horse him!”  It’s a pretty common thing you hear on the fishing grounds.  Essentially, it means don’t try to force the fish in too fast.  That’s sort of taking the tight lines rule to an excessive extreme.  Landing a fish isn’t a sprint, it’s a …. well, it’s not a marathon.  It’s more of a …. the point is, it’s not a sprint.
Even if you have a good hook set, yarding on it (pulling too hard) can yank the hook out of the fish’s face, or is some cases, tear its lip right off.
Remember, you want to play the fish.  Smell these roses, enjoy the process. This is the fun part.  And while you’re having fun, you’re tiring the fish out.  Landing a green fish, one that is still full of fight, is tricky.  A lot of fish are lost right at the boat/shore for that reason.  So enjoy the fight, let that fish sow its oats, and land it when it’s tuckered out.

Stay Sharp

This is a big one, folks, and probably the most overlooked.  Keep sharp hooks on your rigs. It’s really simple; sharp hooks penetrate and stay set, dull hooks get shaken loose and spit out.
Sharpening files are a nice way to touch up a hook between fish.  But there is no way you can hand-sharpen a hook to as fine of a point as the chemically-sharpened ones fresh out of the box have.  So stock up on good quality, open eye hooks.  And after a lure has had some active use, even one busy day of fishing, put a fresh hook on it.
It’s not just use that will dull your hooks.  Corrosion and time will take their toll as well.  As I’m writing this, it’s early Spring.  That means it’s time to start going through my lures for the upcoming season, clipping off the old hooks, and putting fresh sharp ones on.
Preparation is the key to success.

Be a Drag

I’m really surprised at the number of guys I encounter who think that if the fish is pulling line off the reel, then the drag is set too loose.  NO!  That’s exactly what the drag is designed for.  Let that fish take some line, rather than breaking it.
Then there are the guys whose drag is set so loose that it plays out when they try to set the hook.  Clearly, that’s no good either.  So the upshot is that you want the drag set somewhere between tightened all the way down and a completely open spool.
All right, that wasn’t much help, was it?
Just approach it this way.  Check your drag before you start fishing.  It should let line slip when you pull on it with moderate force.  Of course, you’ll have to judge just how much “moderate” is, depending on what type of fish you’re targeting, and how heavy your gear is.  Also, keep checking it periodically; the drag will loosen or tighten during use on many reels.

Get Bent

Tight lines keep the hook in place when the fish charges at you.  A properly set drag will keep the fish on the line when it runs away from you.  And a bent rod will keep the hook in place when the fish starts thrashing or shaking its head.
Your rod is your shock absorber, taking and giving small amounts of tension to compensate for sudden, jerky movements.  But it only works when the rod is bent in that crucial bow shape.  Keep your rod perpendicular to the way the fish is pulling.  NEVER POINT YOUR ROD AT THE FISH.  A friend did that a couple years ago while trying to land a beast of a ling cod.  The ling gave a quick shake of its face, and without the rod bend to absorb the pull, the hooks shot out of its mouth, grazed past my face, and stuck into another buddy’s arm.

Set it Straight

I’ve written before about how tricky it can be to break your hook setting habits.  I come from the land of when the fish strikes, you strike back.  Moving to the Northwest, I stepped into a world with a bunch of variations on how to set the hook.  Bait fishing for albacore, you let them run in free spool for a count of 5 Mississippi, and then slowly tighten the drag down. In downrigger trolling, the strike and the tension of the boat pulling sets the hook.  Running herring for salmon, you want to give them time to eat it, and then reel down on them.  When ling cod fishing, if you’re using artificial lures, you set the hook right away.  If you’re using bait, you let them chomp on it, and chomp on it some more, until they finally turn it around in their mouths and try to swim away.
According to many of the pro guides in this area, trying to keep the tourist anglers from trying to set the hook incorrectly is a big part of what they do.  Nick Kester of All Star Charters has a line he uses with clients on his ling cod fishing charters: “The only one on this boat who hooks the fish is a guy named Rod Holder.”  Which means, leave the rod in the holder until the ling has hooked himself.
So what’s the takeaway here?  Basically you need to know what is the best way to get a hook-set in whatever fishery you’re working.  Are you casting for bass, float drifting for steelhead, or jigging for bottom fish where you need to set the hook fast and hard?  Or are you involved in one of the styles of angling I listed above where you need to back off and let the fish hook himself?
Setting the hook (or not setting the hook, I suppose) gets to be a reflex, and ignoring that can be trickier than you may think.   So rehearse it in your mind, visualize what you’re going to do when a fish is on the line.  Make the right move in that first moment and get your fish.

Follow Your Leader

I believe I may be writing this one as much for myself as anyone else.  I’ve been working on being more meticulous about checking my leaders and the terminal end of my line.
If you’re scraping the bottom, bouncing across rocks or logs, catching toothy fish like muskies, lings, or…….  You know, even if you’re not doing any of that, you need to keep an eye on your leader line.  A small nick, or a little bit of fray, can mean a significant loss of line strength.
Keep an eye on your leader, be ready to change it out at the first sign of wear.  Because we all know how the fish gods work.  As soon as you cast that worn leader back out there, that’s when a big one is going to hit your lure.

Stay in the Driver’s Seat

 This fish is OWNING you!
It’s actually pretty damned fun when that happens.  Maybe not the taunting so much, but hooking into a fish that is the angling equivalent of a bucking bronco is the thrill many of us are seeking.
If you’re in open water, you may be able to let that beast run and hopefully tire himself out. But if you’re on a river, or near structure that the fish could wrap the line around, you have to at least try to stay in control.  You may not be able to pull him back toward you… yet, but you have to try to steer him.
There is no easy way to write out how to do that.  It varies and changes in an instant, and to a certain extent, a great extent actually, it’s a matter of experience.  I can tell you this much though.  Usually when you are reeling the fish in toward you, you’re keeping the rod tip high.  But if you’re trying to turn its head to the side, often you want to bring the rod tip down and to the side in order to swing him in the direction you want.
And speaking of bringing your rod tip down, that leads me to the next tactic.

Fish High / Rod Low

Those are some incredible moments.  You’ve got a fish on the line and it just went airborne. Bet you wish you had a high speed camera getting video of that jump.  Unless of course, that was one of those jumps where the hook went flying out of the fish’s mouth.
As cool as they may look, those jumps are dangerous.  They tend to come with violent head shakes, and that, combined with a lack of water resistance, has a nasty habit of un-setting the hook.
My approach to this situation is one I learned from tarpon fishermen when I lived in the Florida Keys.  In case you haven’t heard, tarpon are known for their spectacular jumps and their spectacular ability to shake loose the hook.  The guys that fish them down there taught me that when the fish goes up, the rod tip goes down: like into the water, down.
Keeping the rod tip high is only pulling in the direction that the hook is likely to shake free. If you bring the rod tip down, you might just bring the tension against the direction of the jump, and against the fish’s lip.  It’s not foolproof, but it tips the odds a bit more in your direction.

Hone Your Netting Skills

90 percent of the fish that get off the line are lost at the boat/shore.
That’s one of those little “facts” that gets thrown around a lot, without any real solid data to back it up.  Still, it is definitely true in my humble experience that the time when a fish is most likely to get away is just when you are trying to get it in the net.
We spend a good amount of time figuring out how to find fish, attract fish, hook fish, play fish…  It’s surprising how many of us don’t focus more on improving our skills with a net.
A couple things to keep in mind:
1) A green fish is more likely to shake loose on you. Don’t be afraid to let the it run around and tire itself a bit when you have him in close.
2) Don’t suddenly plunge the net into the water right next to the fish.  Startling it like that can set off one of those freak-outs that ends with you watching your fish flip you the fin, and swim away.  Instead, lower the net into the water while the fish is slightly away, then lead the fish into it.
3) Whenever possible, net them head first.  Your ideal scenario is to get the fish to swim into the net, and then just lift him out …. obviously.  Trying to net it tail first sets that fish up to make a last minute lunge right back out.  Have you ever had a fish actually inside the net, but still ended losing him?  I’ve seen it happen, more than a couple times.  Those are some rod snapping, hair pulling, frustrating moments right there.
Net him head first and that last second burst of energy will only send that fish deeper into the net.

Many of you likely have a lot, if not most, of these already dialed in.  But remember, becoming a better angler is often about making those little tweaks that improve your odds of success.

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