December 29th, 2003

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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Lessons Learned

By Harry Briscoe, Kingwood, Texas

The strike startled me. It was a sharp and brief tug and it was gone as quickly as it came. I looked up to see a swirl, a splash and I felt another firm hit. I reacted. Feeling a good fish, I turned to the bank to exit the waist-deep water. And just as quickly, the fish was gone. I uttered something like "Shucks"! We were fishing the Rio Gallegos in Southern Argentina for sea-run brown trout. Strikes don't come real often here, and missing one might mean the difference in the entire day.

Nick Hart, my guide, was watching from the bank and had seen the entire event. I climbed out of the pool and sat with him for few minutes to reflect upon what had just happened. We concluded that despite my 35 years of fly-fishing experience, I had managed to make at least 6 "Rookie" mistakes in dealing with that situation. Those mistakes cost me a shot at landing a really nice fish. I smiled to myself in false comfort as I recounted the little maxims that I had ignored. Perhaps a review of them might help you avoid my fate.

Rule 1 - Pay attention! The straight line down-and-across swing that we use so often for Salmon, Steelhead, Sea Trout, or even when fishing streamers for smaller fish is effective, but it requires attention. Our day had been slow to that point and, in retrospect, I recalled that my focus had been wandering - perhaps to thoughts of another gourmet dinner at the Bella Vista Lodge that evening, or to the watching of the Rheas or Magellan Geese, or even the grazing sheep and wonderful clouds. Nothing wrong with any of those mental pursuits mind you, but lack of attention to the business at hand caused me to be startled, rather than ready, when the strike came.

Rule 2 - Take it seriously! In most streams the population of fish includes a variety of players. The Rio Gallegos is full of smaller "resident" trout in addition to the transient sea-runs that were our quarry. The initial strike that brought my attention back to the stream was quick and brief. On reflection, I recalled specifically that my first thoughts identified the hit as a small "second-class" prize, and with that erroneous conclusion my reflex attention fell back from "startled" to "no big deal."

Rule 3 - Set the hook! Given the mental state that created my violation of Rule 2, I reacted with less than full enthusiasm in setting the hook. The splash, swirl, and quick roll of a heavy fish that followed surprised me, to say the least, but I was already past the point of reacting strongly.

Rule 4 - Get things under control! Despite the less-than-adequate hook set, the big fish was on and began an initial "thrashing." In the excitement that had jumped into an otherwise slow day, I was so surprised at that reality that I turned to head to shallower water to get myself into a better fighting position. I should have stayed put until it was clear that the fish was well-hooked and that I had some idea of what he was going to do.

Rule 5 - Face the fish! By turning away I lost contact and had no way of knowing if the fish was going to come at me, run away or take to the air. I was not in control and it cost me. Once in control I should have begun a slow, backward shuffle to shallower water, maintaining vigilance of the fish's intent. In turning, I also violated Rule 6.

Rule 6 - Keep the rod tip high until you know that Rule 4 (control) is in effect. In turning away from the fish, I stumbled just a bit and inadvertently allowed the rod tip to dip. Since the hook was not particularly well set (violation of Rule 3), the fish was able to take advantage of the ever-so-slight slack I gave him by dipping the rod tip. And with that he was gone.

I felt foolish, for sure, but as Nick and I reviewed the details of what had happened, I was amazed to discover just how much can occur in a very short amount of time. The entire episode with that fish took less than 10 seconds. I was making mistakes faster than I could think. The truth is, that Rule 1 - Pay Attention! - is the key to them all.

So, the next time you get a strike - don't think about it - you won't have time. Make sure you've thought about it before it happens and that your "second nature" takes over. And the next time you lose a fish, take a minute to analyze why. There are probably a couple more "Rules" I haven't thought of yet. And then, while you've got all of that on your mind, don't forget to look at the Rheas, the geese and the clouds - catching a big fish isn't everything! ~ Harry

About Harry:

Harry Briscoe is geologist who works in the energy industry. He is also the President and principal owner of Hexagraph Fly Rod Co. He has been a fly fisher since his childhood and is trying his hardest to fish in neat places around the country and the world. You can reach Harry by email or by phone at 713-464-0505.

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