Tying into a big trout can be like jumping out of the gates on the back of a rodeo bull. White knuckles wrap around the cork of our rod as we hold on for dear life as the battle commences. Sown into every fiber of the trout’s body and reinforced over thousands of generations is an indomitable will to fight. In response to the fly firmly set in its lip and the steady pressure seeking to pull it from the water, the trout will throw every bit of cunning and ounce of strength against us. Explosive dives into fast current, aerial acrobatics, and a magnetic-like draw to the bottom of the river have been the undoing of many a 5x tippet which leave the trout with a new piece of lip jewelry and a frustrated angler screaming at the sky. Learning to apply side pressure will enable you to control and regularly land big fish instead of being taken for a ride.
Fighting big fish is a battle with time and as well as to see who will break first – the will and stamina of the fish or the angler’s tippet. True to the rodeo analogy, trout fight the angler with explosive spurts of energy, leaps from the water, and quick head shakes that can exceed the breaking strain of leader and tippet, letting the fish go free. Even without the line-tangling refuge of a fallen tree or boulder in which to wrap the anglers line, the shear force and flow of the river is one of the greatest assets of the trout seeking to escape. By positioning its body against the flow of the current, a large trout essentially becomes an aquatic parachute, harnessing and focusing the force of the river against the angler. If left to its devices, the large trout will break you off more times than not. In order to land big fish, we need to adapt to their tricks and learn to turn the power of the river against them.
It is with smooth, persistent, and reactive pressure on the fish, and a varying rod angle that the angler is going to be able to control and consistently land big fish. We do this first by reducing the angle of the rod in relation to the fish to less than 45° in order to utilize the rod to its full potential (See The Geometry of Fighting & Landing Big Fish: Part I). The angle of our rod is going to constantly change as we do battle with the trout. When the fish shakes its head or leaps from the water, show respect, and bow your rod to the water. By quickly reducing the angle of the rod and lowering the tip to the water we reduce the pressure on our line and instead let the explosive exertion sap the strength of the trout instead of our light tippet. Trout are often off balance after rigorous jumps and head shakes, giving the angler the chance to apply side pressure and retrieve line.
Side pressure is achieved when the length of the rod is held almost parallel to the water and a smooth, even pressure is applied with the rod directed towards one of the banks of the river. Regardless of if the fish is upstream or downstream of you, it is going to to try to veer toward either the near or far bank. As we begin our battle with the fish, we are going to work with it, applying side pressure towards the bank it wishes to swim, and in so doing, work with the strength of the river instead of against it. Trout will regularly change position and the bank they are swimming for as they fight. We must move with them, switching the direction in which we apply side pressure. Depending on where the trout is positioned in the river (upstream of the angler, across the river from the angler, or downstream of the angler) by simply pivoting your body and rod like the arms of a clock, you will be able to apply maximum side pressure that will begin to guide the fish to you and will save you from a stumbling run up and down the river bank.
As the fish tires, it will try to reduce the stinging pressure of the hook embedded in its lip. In order to do this, trout will begin to swim or drift in the direction of the steady, unrelenting pressure of our flexed rod and slowly clicking reel. The tiring trout should be able to be walked like a dog into a position slightly upstream of the angler as we dip our rod tip low to the water, slowly drawing the fish upstream of us and guiding it with an even pressure toward our bank. Once the fish is positioned upstream of us, raise the rod tip to lift the head of the trout while simultaneously allowing it to drift toward our waiting net.
So the next time you hook up with a big fish, get a tight grip on your rod and drop the tip low. Let the river work with you and bow to the fish are it jumps and lashes. While it is likely to be longer than an 8 second ride, the result of applying a steady side pressure as you fight big fish is going to be more fish in your net every trip to the river!