A few years back, I was on the Utah section of the Green River with my friend Ryan Kelly. Ryan’s one of the best fishermen I know, and he was busy trying to teach me how to throw streamers while also rowing the drift boat.
I hadn’t fished streamers much at all in my angling career – I grew up in a family where dry flies were the only flies, and it wasn’t until my late teens that I discovered all the other flies that caught fish – and the lack of experience was showing. The fishing was on fire, with big trout tagging my streamer multiple times on each cast.
And, inevitably, I missed each fish.
Because I wasn’t setting the hook correctly.
The hookset is one part of landing and fighting fish that we don’t discuss much as an angling community. I’m even guilty of overlooking that when guiding – I’d rather the client just get the hook into the fish’s mouth, and I’ll work quickly to net it.
But if you’re looking to improve as an angler, and to have more tools at your disposal to catch fish like this, then you need to learn how to set the hook when fly fishing.
When to set the hook
Timing is everything in fly fishing. Whether you’re looking to fish a certain hatch, or you’re targeting really big fish, you want to be on the water at a certain time.
The same goes for when you’re setting the hook. Some fish practically set the hook themselves, while others demand a lot of patience from you.
As a general rule of thumb, you want to set the hook as quickly as possible when you see or feel a fish take your flies. The quick, splashy rises of smaller trout to dry flies are a good example of being quick on the set. If you wait too long, those trout are long gone.
Over time, you’ll gain a better intuition for when to set the hook on different takes, but you want to make sure that you’re setting the hook firmly, and quickly, once you feel good contact with a fish. This is especially true when fishing with streamers. Often, fish will tag, or “short strike” a streamer, only grabbing at the tail end of the fly. Those bites feel different than when trout eat enough of the streamer to give you something to set the hook in. You’ll be able to learn the timing of hooksets by spending more time fishing with a wide variety of flies and techniques.
Different hookset methods
I’ve hinted at this above, but when you’re fly fishing, you have a few different ways to set the hook. They correlate directly to the flies that you’re fishing.
A traditional “trout set” is used when fishing dries, nymphs, or a dry-dropper rig. This is the simple lifting of the rod and clamping down on your fly line – in one fluid motion – that we’re all taught from day one of fly fishing.
That technique of lifting the rod works great to drive the point of a dry fly or nymph hook home, and for a lot of trout anglers, that’s really the only hookset you’ll ever need to use. However, there are some slight variances to that technique.
One arises when fishing only nymphs – especially if you’re fishing under an indicator on a river. Generally speaking, you’ll want to set the rod at an angle with the current of the river. The thinking here is that by using the power of both the current and your fly rod, you can really drive home the point of the nymph into a trout’s mouth.
When guiding, I like to tell my clients to try and set the hook at a 45-degree angle away from the fish when nymphing. This slight variation on the trout set results in quite a few more good hooksets.
Now, when you’re fishing dry flies, there are even more variables to take into account.
Splashy, quick rises are often made by small trout, and those rises demand a quick hookset. Not only is the fish moving quickly, but its mouth is smaller, so you have a smaller target to hit with your dry fly. A quick, firm lift of the rod and simultaneous clamping of your fly line to the cork grip, usually results in a solid hookup.
When trout get bigger, though, or when you’re fishing exceptionally slow-moving water, they’re far more picky. I’ve heard some anglers describe it as watching a trout come up and count the tail-feathers on your fly before deciding if they’ll eat it or not.
In these circumstances, the fish will open wide, and slowly swallow your fly and go back beneath the water. Almost every angler, at some point, sets the hook as soon as they see the fish rise. They’re subsequently frustrated by the lack of hookups.
What you should do instead is remember that the trout doesn’t have your fly fully in its mouth until it’s back beneath the water. On slow, deliberate rises, fish are often sucking in big gulps of the surface film of the river, getting all the flies they possibly can in a single bite. It’s a great survival strategy when you stop to think about it.
So, since the trout are just rising, swallowing, and going back beneath the river’s surface, you won’t have a place to set the fly until after the fish has it in its mouth. I’ve found it very helpful to count out loud “one, two, set” when I have fish rise like this around me.
Lastly, we come to the issue that plagued me on the Green years ago. When fishing streamers, I kept trying to do a traditional trout set. I’d lift the rod, feel the fish wiggle, and then they’d be gone.
The problem with a trout set while using a streamer is that, once again, instead of setting the hook, you’re pulling the streamer right out of the fish’s mouth.
Instead, you want to do a strip set. When you feel a fish tug on your streamer, keep your rod tip low, and pull hard with your free hand on your fly line. If you’re trying to set the hook at a great distance, you can move your rod in tandem with your free hand, to give the hookset a bit of extra backbone. This hookset gives you more real estate to work with in the trout’s mouth, and once I started strip-setting, I quit losing so many fish.
How hard do you set the hook
This is one of the more common questions I get when guiding. Because I guide primarily for trout, and we’re using finer tippets and smaller flies, I generally tell folks to just lift up firmly with the rod. Usually, that works.
But, as we’ve discussed already, there’s more nuance to it than that. I personally like to set the hook quickly and firmly, with enough force that tiny trout (five inches or smaller) often rocket out of the water when they take my flies. That may seem like overkill to some folks, but it’s what I’ve been doing successfully ever since I started fly fishing at five years old.
Honestly, the amount of power you put into a hookset depends on the size of the fish, the fly, and the current you’re playing with. A big fly, swung to a big fish, demands a firm, hard set. But you don’t want to go so hard that you break your line, or worse – tear through a fish’s outer lip.
Tips for improving your hook set
The best way to get a better hook set is simply to spend more time hooking up with trout. Now, that’s easier said than done, but if you’re really struggling with a hookset, then I’d suggest going to a local community pond. Those stocked fish aren’t terribly smart, and will usually hit any well-presented fly. You can practice throwing dries, nymphs, and streamers at these fish to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t when setting the hook.
I’d also urge you to remember to keep your fly line tight. I’ve guided plenty of people who lift only the rod, and let the fly line dangle freely. That doesn’t put any pressure on the hook, or on the fish. Keep your line tight, your hooksets firm, and you’ll end up with more fish in the net.