Photo: Jeff Mishler
When fishing floating lines for summer steelhead, I almost always have my clients hold a “shock loop” of fly line between there rod hand and their reel. The loop is typically about 2’ of line. The shock loop is there to insure that a steelhead can grab the fly, turn, and run away before the hook is set. In general, steelhead will almost always grab the fly and turn. Sometimes this happens in the blink of an eye; sometimes it may take up to five seconds or more! Despite the intensity of the grab, the fish should feel zero tension as it grabs the bug and turns. You almost feed it to them. If you set the hook as soon as you feel the fish come tight, one of two things will happen. You’ll either pull the fly away from the fish -effectively scarring the hell out it, or, you’ll get a hook set which will usually pull free after a few head shakes. Either way, it’s not the result we’re looking for. If done properly, the loop should easily slip through your fingers and you should feel the fish engage the reel. Once your reel starts to turn, it’s time to blast off. Sweep the rod towards your bank and hold on! If the fish hasn’t fully committed to taking the fly, it may only take part of the loop out of your hand. At that point, you haven’t spooked the fish and you can switch flies to try and coax it back.
When fishing sink-tips, I discourage my clients from holding a shock loop. Typically, I’ll set their drag fairly loose and have them hold the line lightly in their fingers. When the fish grabs, I want to hear the reel “bark”. The fish only needs to engage the reel and we’re off to the races. I have gone this route because of simple on-stream observation. I truly believe we hook almost the exact numbers of fish on sink-tips despite holding a loop or not holding a loop. However, I know we land more fish when we fish straight to the reel. I have a few theories on why this might be. First, all of our sub-surface flies are either tube flies rigged with a stinger hook or stinger hook style flies. Consequently, the smaller hooks penetrate very quickly. I also believe there is a slight lag time between the actual strike and when the angler feels the pull. This is more than likely caused by the sag in the sink-tip as it hangs off the Skagit head. When a fish grabs a floating line presentation, the angler is instantly in contact with the fish, not the case with a sink-tip. The final reason is the actual attack itself. When a fish comes to a surface or near-surface fly, they often times do so in a gingerly fashion. There are those bone crushing blows from time to time, but for the most part the follow/grab sequence takes a little time. On the other hand, when a steelhead hunts a sink-tip fly, they do so with scary efficiency. I once watched a steelhead flash ten feet away from my fly before smashing it. What was so crazy about that grab was the flash was between the shore and my fly. In other words, the fish passed my fly by at least ten feet, turned, and hit my tube leech with enough authority to instantly break 10lb. maxima like a spider web. I think they often times make the turn before they ever get to the fly. On a side note, I’ve noticed a better landing ratio when the angler sets the hook a little more vertical when fishing sink-tips. Not straight up, but just a little canted to the bank side.
Give these theories a try, I think you’ll loose less and land more. Just remember to hold a loop with floating lines, go straight to the reel with sink-tips.