WHEN a trout rises and snatches an artificial fly between its jaws, special sense organs of taste and touch on its tongue and in the other mucous membranes of the mouth inform the brain that the apparently soft and succulent morsel is, in fact, hard and unpalatable. Its reaction is to spit it out – a movement which is achieved by closing the gill flaps and reversing the normal flow of water through the mouth. Although this rejection of the fly is often extremely quick, an interval invariably elapses between the entry of the fly into the mouth and its subsequent ejection. The angler uses this short period of time to produce his own response. He attempts to beat the fish by striking.
The strike is carried out by cocking the wrist upwards or to one side. This movement is intended to tighten the line and to ensure that the barb of the hook is driven into the jaw of the fish before it has the opportunity of expelling the fly. In its simplest terms, it is a contest in the speed of reaction. The fisherman himself needs time to react since he must see and appreciate the significance of the rise before his own brain can direct his arm muscles to move. For most anglers, this fractional instant of time, measurable in hundredths of a second, is the most exciting, the most frustrating and the most difficult part of angling. Even the best and most experienced fishermen miss a proportion of the fish which rise to them. Perhaps an analysis of some of the factors involved may help you to hook more fish and assist you to understand the complexities of the situation.
Let us suppose that you have seen a sudden boil in the water at your fly. This does not necessarily mean that the fish has taken it into its mouth. It may miss the fly completely as a result of a miscalculation in its movements, or it may deliberately refuse at the very last moment because it has realised that the fly is unnatural. This form of behaviour is often called ‘rising short’. Obviously, it does not matter how you attempt to strike, you cannot hook such a fish fairly; you may occasionally ‘foul-hook’ it accidentally by pulling the hook into the side of the body or the tail. A foul-hooked fish usually fights very fiercely and you will certainly have fun playing it, but it is luck and not skill which has enabled you to catch it.
If we return again to the boil at your fly, it is also possible that you may be taken unawares. If you cannot actually see the fish in the water, the rise may be completely unexpected. When this occurs, there may be a longer interval than usual before your brain comprehends what has happened. During this period, the fish has time to eject your unwanted titbit. When you finally spring into action and strike, you draw your hook through empty water. You have ‘missed’ the rise.
On Being Alert
The first essential then in the art of striking is to be constantly on the alert. Your eyes should always be in the area where your fly is working. During a rise of fish, you will have no difficulty in maintaining a close watch. But remember that you must focus your attention on your own fly. Do not allow you mind to be so diverted by watching fish outside your reach that you miss the move to your own fly.
The Human Factor
Once you have appreciated the necessity for constant vigi- lance while fishing, the next step is to achieve mastery of your reactions. The commonest mistake in beginners is that of too speedy a response. This often results in an over-vigorous strike. The fish rises and you are so keyed up and tense with excitement that you are inclined to ‘snatch’. Instead of cocking the wrist and moving the rod a few inches in order to tighten the line, the strike becomes an exaggerated movement of the wrist and arm in which the whole rod may be forcibly moved several feet. The rapidity of your reaction may pull the fly away from the fish or even out of its closing jaws. Again you have missed the fish – this time not by being too slow, but by being too quick. How then can you learn to adjust the striking movement? Practice is part of the answer. If you will devote a few moments before you start fishing, you can master the controlled wrist turn in which you deliberately limit the range of movement to a few inches. When the real thing happens and a fish rises, this practice will certainly assist you to avoid ‘snatching’.
In dry-fly fishing where you are covering a known fish, the advantage should lie with you. There is a definite target in your mind, and the brain has a ‘get ready’ signal as the fly floats down over the area where you are hoping for a rise. When it comes, restrain that desperate impulse to ‘snatch’. In the fleeting instant of the rise itself, you may be able to observe information which is useful to you and to act upon it. Try to see the direction in which the fish is moving. It is advantageous to turn the wrist in the opposite way, as this has the effect of tending to pull the fly into rather than out of the jaws. Sometimes a fish will simply suck down a fly, in which case a quick reaction from you is required. At others, the fish may curve out of the water and come down to take the fly from above. Here patience is a virtue, and you must wait until the fly has been mouthed before you strike. There is no set formula. Each and every rise must be judged on its own merits. If in doubt, a straight upwards movement of the wrist is probably the best compromise.
In lake or reservoir fishing, especially during the daytime when there may be no active general rise in progress, a move to your wet-fly is very often unexpected. You may have no warning signal at all and it is very difficult to determine the angle at which the fish has approached your fly. Once again, concentration on the area in which your flies are working is the key to consistent success. In this form of fishing, I favour the immediate strike and cock my wrist upwards just as soon as I am aware of the boil. There are many experienced lake anglers, however, who state that they prefer what they call the ‘delayed strike’. They pause fractionally after observing the rise before tightening. This slow strike is often very successful with individuals but I have the impression that, in many cases, the fish hooks itself by driving the barb home as it turns. In short, no definite movement by the fisherman is really required.
Trial and Error
As your own experience grows, you will be able to experiment for yourself. In striking, every individual tends to differ in his responses. It is often a process of trial and error before you finally hit upon the method which works best for you. If you miss a number of rises in quick succession, try to ask yourself the possible reasons for failure. If you have the impression that you are missing because you are striking too fast, hold the rod higher up so that a little loose line is created in your contact with the fly. This sometimes helps to slow down the tightening of the line. If you feel you are too slow, try the effect of combining a short, sharp left-hand pull on the line as you turn your wrist. This may speed up the strike.