Setting the hook is what happens at that moment in time after the fish has consumed your fly and you feeling that vibration on your line. It is here that many a fish is lost due to excitement, over-reaction, or incorrect response.
As with all types of fishing, many a hook set can be increased by simply sharpening your hooks. Most fishermen at the end of the day simply untie their fly from the line and store it back in the box. The next time out the fly is tied back on the line, ready to be cast again.
Each and every time you use a fly the hook point is degraded a bit. After every use you should wash the fly in fresh water, let it dry and then sharpen it a bit with a hook hone. You could do this on the way back to shore after a day on the water. This is also true of plugs.
A steel rasp sharpener can work wonders. Just a few strokes can put a sharp point back on the hook. You can also use a small whet stone as well. Remember that most hooks are triangular, so sharpen the three sides and then test it on you finger nail. If it raises a little material off your nail it is sharp.
In fly fishing you must be ready to control your outfit the moment the fly hits the water.
When I was first learning to fly fish, my mentor told me to cast with my dominant hand and then reel with the other. For example, I am right handed and so I cast with my right hand. This means my left hand controls the line. Once the line hits the water my right forefinger pinches the line to the cork and I take up any slack by reeling with the left hand. Or, I simply strip in the extra line and let it lie at my feet. But, as I strip in the extra line, it slides between the cork and my right forefinger.
Many fly fishermen change hands at this point and reel in line or control the line with their right hand. Many a strike has gone bad right at that moment. So, practice just using your right hand to control the rod and your left to either strip line or rotate the reel.
The next control point is when you are letting your fly drift or are stripping it back to you. If you are fishing for big fish like stripers, tuna, tarpon, redfish, etc. you MUST keep the line in your left hand and not just pinch it against the cork with your right. It is so easy to simply let your left hand dangle at your side when the line floats along, but you are going to lose a lot of big fish at the moment of the strike. You should always be fishing with two hands; the right controlling the rod, the left controlling the line.
If you are fishing for big fish, setting the hook is critical. And, if you are going to land the fish, you cannot be breaking it off with the haul back and slamming technique like you see on the bass shows. When a big fish strikes he generates a lot of foot/pounds of pressure. The idea is to instantly set the hook and then let the fish have his head for the first run. If you try to stop the fish at the point of the strike, you are going to hear a lot of leaders popping.
So, what to do. When you feel the fish hit your fly, set the hook by stripping in the leader with a short, quick stroke of your left forearm. Point the rod almost at the fish and pull your left elbow back quickly. How hard depends on the species for which you are fishing. You point at the fish because you do not want the bend of the rod to absorb the energy you want in setting the hook.
For stripers you do not have to pull with all of your might as you might just yank the hook right through the lip. A good strong yank will set a properly sharpened hook deep into the flesh. For a bonier fish like a tarpon, I yank on the line hard three times to really drive the hook deep into it’s hard-lined jaw. In either case, once the fish has turned, raise your rod a bit, and let the reel and line do their job.
Keep your fingers away from the spinning knob. (I can’t tell you how many times I have banged my knuckles hard on a spinning reel!) If you have set the drag right, the line should stay tight from the reel to the fish. Do not raise the tip of you rod way up in the air. You will need the space to keep the line tight if the fish suddenly turns back toward you.
I have watched any number of people blow up their rods because they put to much pressure on the wand, not trusting their drag and line. They idea is to let the fish fight and wear himself out. Let the drag apply the pressure and let the fish jump and wander about until he is spent. Do not be in a hurry. If you keep the line tight the sharp hook buried in his jaw should stay there.
If you are striper fishing in near structure or fresh water bass fishing in structure you will need to get control of the fish early or they will break off on sharp stuff. In that case get control of the line with your reel and apply the appropriate pressure, understanding that you are making a choice between breaking the leader by power or by structure.
So, before you head out this long weekend for a bit of fishing, take the time to sharpen your hooks on your favorite flies. Get out in the back yard and practice a bit with controlling the line with your left hand, and then have at it. See you out there.