PLAYING a fish well, with poise, anticipation and without undue anxiety, is an art which springs only from experience. But even though you have not yet caught large numbers of fish, there is no need for any feeling of inadequacy. You have only to stick to certain basic principles of rod and reel management, and you can be confident of your ability successfully to play and land your first fish on fly.

Let us suppose that you have risen, struck and hooked a fish. In an instant, the line tightens and you will feel a downward plunge of the rod as it responds to the weight and pull of the fish. Make sure that the index finger of your right hand is in no way checking the free movement of the line, keep the rod up and your elbow well bent. The best position in the early stages of the fight is to have the rubber end-button tucked into your body and the butt at an angle of about 45 degrees. In this way, the most effective use can be made of the flexibility of the top segments, from which, of course, the playing power of any rod is derived. You are, in fact, attempting to tire your fish by making it pull against a spring which can be adjusted in strength according to the angle at which you hold it. If you keep the rod in a horizontal or straight position, then the fish has an advantage, for it can run without having to induce any bend. And, without bend, only the check of the reel is arresting the free movement of your quarry. If, on the other hand, the rod is held rigidly at an acute angle close to the vertical, there may be too much flex. The upward pull exerted at this angle can be too great and may tear the hook from the mouth of the fish. The ideal position is that which imposes just enough stopping power to make the fish pull hard against the check of both rod and reel, but not so fiercely as to risk dislodging the hook or breaking the leader.

In the opening seconds, the sudden surge as the fish feels the hook and starts to run may take you by surprise and, in the excitement of the moment, you may straighten your arm or allow the fish to pull at an unbent rod. This is particularly dangerous, and, if you allow it to happen, the fish may dislodge the hook with its first plunge, or take a very considerable amount of line from the reel in its first rush. And the further the fish is from you, the less control you are able to exert. Remember then, keep the rod well up and your elbow bent in the playing position.

Which Hand?

One question immediately arises – which hand should hold the rod ? I am a right-handed caster myself and I much prefer to keep the rod in my left when engaged in playing. This, of course, necessitates changing over almost as soon as a fish is hooked. My reasons for choosing this method are twofold. I feel I can manipulate the reel more delicately and wind in more rapidly when necessary with my right hand; and I like my master hand in control of the net during the last tricky moments. Other experienced anglers, however, hold the rod in their right hand and work the reel with their left. It is principally a question of which method feels most comfortable to you. Ask a friend to act the part of the fish and pull out line while you hold the rod up against the strain. This will permit you to see and feel rod flex in action and will help you to appreciate just what happens when you drop your rod point. At the same time, you can determine whether you prefer a right-or a left-hand wind on your reel.

Let us suppose then that you are starting to play your fish. Almost as soon as it was hooked, you decided to switch over to holding the rod in your left hand. Your fingers are just at the top of the cork grip and the rod is flexed into a nice arc. With your elbow bent, you are aware of the pressure in your upper arm as you maintain the butt at an angle of about 45 degrees. It is most likely that the fish will start the struggle by moving away at speed and, if the water is open, the best advice is to let it run as it will. As line whips out from the reel, keep the rod in the playing position, and resist any tendency to let the rod tip straighten. If it does so, increase the flex again by raising the arm and the rod closer to the vertical.

Should the fish continue to win ground despite these measures, it may be essential to apply a little more braking pressure. This may be accomplished by pressing the fingertips against the revolving reel drum, taking care to avoid the handle. This is usually sufficient to halt or slow down the first mad rush. If not, it is often possible to follow the fish. Don’t be afraid to move. Beginners sometimes find themselves rooted to the spot as a good fish steadily takes line. You can easily avoid this paralysis by remembering that there is no danger involved in taking a few steps so long as the pressure is maintained on the fish. In fact, with salmon, it is advantageous to begin making for the bank as soon as the fish is hooked. With trout, this is not normally required.

Regaining Line

When the first dash has been halted, the next aim is to regain lost line. The first sign that the fish is yielding is the slackening of the rod tip. Reel in at once, until the rod regains the right arc. Here it is necessary to counsel patience. Do not try to force the pace. Often you will find that there is a halfway mark where, for the moment, the fish is unwilling to take more line and you are unable to recover any. Let the fish hang there under the pressure of the rod. If it moves from side to side, swing the rod tip to follow it. You may be aware of a knocking or jerking sensation if the fish tries to free itself by shaking its head, but there is little you can do about this except to hold on anxiously! One of three things is now likely to happen. You must anticipate and be on guard for any of them.

First, the fish may suddenly make another run. Do not try to stop it by holding on to the handle of the reel. If you do so, the chances are that the rod tip will plunge down and the hook may be torn free. Let the fish run until you can stop it by braking as before. Secondly, the fish may give way and permit you to reel in. If so, recover line as quickly as you can. Thirdly, the fish may turn unexpectedly and move in towards you so that the line goes slack and the rod straightens. As the fish is then free from strain and may throw the hook, it is imperative that you regain control as soon as possible. This can be done by reeling in but the fastest and most effective way of re-establishing contact, I find, is by hand-lining.


Hand-lining simply means pulling in slack line through the rod rings with the fingers instead of the reel. Several feet can be brought in with a single haul of the right hand. As this is recovered, the index finger of the left hand hooks the line at the cork grip and holds it until the right hand is back ready to make another pull. The retrieved line is dropped on to the water until the strain is back on the fish and the rod is bent again in the playing position. For the time being, the hands are taking the place of the reel. Should the fish move out again before you have had an opportunity to wind in the discarded slack, you must pay out line through your fingers. Keep your eye on the rod tip: if it is being flexed into too great an arc, slip more line steadily to the fish; if the tip is straightening, then stop feeding line and pull some in until the right flex has been recovered. The important thing is to keep up an unrelenting pressure. Sooner or later, you will halt the fish and have a breathing space in which to wind in slack line and bring the reel back into play. Knowing how to hand-line can save you many a fish and it’s worthwhile having a practice run or two with a friend so that you become familiar with the method.

Leaping Fish

You are now playing your fish extremely well, confidently keeping it under control and endeavouring to bring it closer and closer to the net. There are, however, other dangers still to meet. Without warning, your fish may leap upwards from the water in a gleaming silver arc – a form of behaviour extremely common in sea trout and rainbows in their first run. The main risk in these exciting and startling leaps lies in the fact that the fish may fall backwards on a taut line and so snap the leader or tear out the hook. The correct procedure is to lower the rod point as soon as the fish jumps clear of the water so that, when it re-enters, there is less chance of a sudden jerk on the cast. Such advice is easy to give but often very difficult to follow, and it is almost certain that you will be taken unawares on the first few occasions. Try to lower the rod point, but if you find yourself transfixed, there is no need to worry. The dangers of losing fish in this manner are often exaggerated. Concentrate on getting the correct strain back on your fish.

Avoiding Snags

So far, it has been assumed that the water is open and that you have been able to let your fish move freely. On many rivers and lakes, however, snags abound in the form of underwater stones and weeds, and you may be sure that your fish will head unerringly in their direction. When this happens, drastic measures may become necessary. A fish can sometimes be stopped by the application of side-pressure. Instead of holding the rod vertically, bring it round sideways until it is at right angles to your body, keeping up the strain as you do so. This change of directional pull may turn the head of the fish and induce it to alter course. If not, clamp down on the line with the fingers of the left hand, keep the butt up and hold your breath! If the fish is big enough and strong enough, it will break your cast and go free. Do not bemoan your luck – this is part of the sport of angling. No fish is yours until it is safely in the net.

Should a fish become entangled in underwater weed, however, it is not inevitably lost. I have my own system in such a case and it works quite well. Retreat towards the bank paying out line from the reel as you go. Once on the land, lay the rod down and get hold of the line. Apply a gentle pressure from different angles. If the hook-hold is good, it is occasionally possible to persuade a fish to work itself out of the enmeshing weeds. If it does so, keep the pressure on with your fingers, pick up the rod again and continue the fight.

The Final Stages

If all goes well and snags are avoided, the fish eventually begins to tire and more and more line is gradually recovered. At this stage, there are several important points to watch. As the distance between you and the fish is reduced, the upward pull on the hook is increased. To minimise the risk of putting too much strain on it, gradually lower the butt from 45 degrees to an angle of about 30 degrees as the fish comes closer and closer. This allows you more room for manoeuvre when it finally comes to netting or beaching, and prevents the fish being forced too quickly to the surface of the water. If a fish is not thoroughly tired out, it will splash and jerk and may loosen the hook-hold in the last seconds. Decreasing the pressure lessens this risk and enables you to play evenly until the fish is completely ready for the net. Remember, too, that as the fish sees you, perhaps for the first time, it is likely to gather strength for a last desperate bid for freedom. So be ready for it and, if necessary, bring the rod back up into the full playing position.

The real secret of playing fish lies in smoothness of operation. Neither the rod nor the angler should be rigid, both must be ready to respond to any and every move of the fish, whether it be the cartwheeling tactics of a fresh sea trout, the steady, powerful bore of a big salmon or the quick, short runs of a good brown trout. You will make mistakes but there is much fun in learning, and a fish which has outwitted you by an unexpected move deserves to go free.


As the line shortens and the fish is revealed, guard against any erratic or ill-considered move. Try to avoid any thought of losing the fish, and concentrate on seizing a suitable opportunity to get your landing-net ready. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to release it from its resting place; a net brought to hand before the fish is ready becomes a dangerous inconvenience. Far better to play your fish to a standstill with a steady but not unduly forceful strain. Eventually, the moment will come when the fish ‘hangs’ almost motionless. Then hook your index finger round the line as a precaution and release the catch of your net. One quick flick should open it out. Make sure that the meshes are quite free of the supporting arms of the net, then tuck the net under your left arm and continue playing. A fish is not ready to net until it is well on its side.

When, at last, you see the white gleam of its belly, it is time to start the operation. Hold the rod with the left hand and keep up the steady strain. Sink the net well below the surface of the water. Take your time. It is easy in these last seconds to make a rash, scooping movement which misses the fish completely, or worse, strikes the taut nylon of your cast and jerks the hook free. Your plan is to draw a beaten fish over a sunken net. Then, when it is mid-way between the arms of your net, it can be lifted safely out of the water in one quick movement.

With a fish on a very short line and the cast only a few feet from the rod tip, you can no longer use your reel. Instead, you must rely on moving the rod backwards towards your body, so as to draw the fish within the reach of your extended net. Be careful not to impose too much strain. The more of the fish’s body which is raised clear of the supporting water, the greater the weight on the hook. The most successful procedure is to try to hold the head only above the surface. Keep the fish moving by easing the rod towards the side of your body. If necessary, the wrist can be turned outwards and the arm taken behind you in order to gain an extra foot or two. Do not falter nor hesitate. Once the fish is centred and the tail clear of the outer net arm, lift at once and the prize is yours.

Netting from a Boat

If you are fishing from a boat with a gillie or a boatman, he will, of course, net your fish for you. In many famous angling waters, however, two or even three men may be fishing at the same time. In these circumstances, should the bow or stern angler hook a fish, it is customary for him to bring the fish to the back of the boat for netting. As soon as the fish is under control, side pressure is exerted in order to bring it round into this position, when the procedure for playing is exactly the same as for bank fishing.

Beaching Fish

In some situations where the bank slopes gently and the bottom consists of gravel or sand, it is just as safe and as expedient to land a fish without bothering about a net at all. The fish is played until the point of exhaustion and is lying on its side. It will be recalled that, at this point, I suggested it was sound policy to lower the rod tip slightly to avoid too much strain on a short line. In this position, maximum control is possible. You may now choose in which direction it is best to swing the fish. On a river, downstream is usually best; on a lake, it depends whether there are many obvious obstacles. As the rod is swung firmly towards the bank, the fish is forced to follow. Avoid raising the rod tip and use as much pressure as the breaking strain of the nylon and the hook size will permit. The speed imparted to the fish by the swinging rod will run the fish out of the water until friction between earth and skin stops the movement. Keep up the strain and in most cases the fish will remain motionless. Now step towards it, moving the rod upward to maintain pressure, and grasp it firmly around the middle. Although this appears to be a dangerous method, it is, in fact, very much safer than it seems and beaching is often used for large fish such as salmon and sea trout. Should you forget your net or find yourself alone with a fish that is too large to be comfortably netted, it offers a solution to your problem. Better still, try it out on smaller trout until you feel confident that you can guide any fish to a chosen spot for landing.