Eat to Landed

By Scott O’Donnell


Eat, bite, chew, nibble, pluck, pull, yank, take, tug, grab, ripped, slammed, hammered – whatever you want to call it, when you’re swinging a fly for steelhead you’re lucky to get a couple of them in a full day of fishing. That’s not very many chances. If while I’m guiding we get two or three grabs in a day and fail to convert one to even a hook-up, the day usually winds down with comments like – “Nice day.” – “Beautiful river” – “Great lunch.” – “Thanks for the instruction.” (but now I’ll try something totally different that actually catches fish) – “Is the river always this crowded?” – or my favorite, “That’s why they call it fishing, not catching.” (that one actually causes muscle spasms on the left side of my face).

On the other hand, if those same grabs are converted into a couple of trophy pictures, taken at just the right angle to make the fish look twenty pounds bigger, and maybe the memory of a third fish lost during an epic battle, then the day ends with calls to my booking agent before they even get out of their waders. They make it rain money on me and would force their daughters to marry me just for the asking. As you can imagine, this is an area in which I’ve studied with great diligence.

How to set the hook is by far the most important part of this equation. I believe that for most of the fish that are lost, regardless of when they are lost, the fault lies with what happened (or didn’t happen) during the hooking process. Unfortunately there’s no step by step process that I know of, that works all the time for the limitless combinations of current speed and type, to where in the swing the fish grabbed, to the tenacity of the pull, to other factors known and unknown.

Then there’s the survival instinct. The one that causes your arms to fly up when someone takes a swing at you or when a snowball hit’s the windshield…and…when… something pulls on your fly (often the latter also causes a verbal reflex). This reflex action should be curbed at all cost. You can get lucky doing it, but it’s a very low percentage. It’s absolutely crucial that the conscious mind takes complete control of the body during this most critical and dangerous moment.

I’ve seen grabs cause grown men to freeze up in a state of shock, pulls that cause the knees to buckle resulting in a frantic thrashing about in the water. A good tug can often cause several moments of complete memory loss, like an alcohol induced blackout. More often though the opposite occurs. A good yank will send you into a different dimension where time is slowed way down. It’s the only possible explanation for the regularity in which someone explains to me a sequence of events that occurred between the initial pull and the hookset, one that would have taken several minutes, when in fact the time that elapsed from first tug to rod flying over the head like a spring loaded bear trap was around a nanosecond. For this reason it’s good to have a technique that works more or less automatically.