Ask FR&R

Ask FR&R

  • By: Buzz Bryson
Ask FR & R January 2009

Q. I’m going on a saltwater trip for big fish. I’m not sure I understand how to apply maximum pressure to the fish, but not break my rod. Can you help?

You've really asked two questions, because rod breakage is rarely related to properly applying maximum pressure to the fish if you’re using the proper tackle properly. So let’s look at rod breakage first. There are really only two ways most fly rods are broken while fighting a fish. The most common is “high sticking,” where the angler holds the rod at too high an angle, forcing it to bend too sharply at its weakest point—the tip.

If you’re using heavy tippet, 15- to 20-pounds or even stronger, you can easily break the tip of even a 12-weight or heavier rod by high sticking it. High-sticking breakage is most often a problem when a big fish is near the boat. Presumably, the fish is tired. But the angler is also tired, and typically either relaxes a bit, or thinks “just a little more pressure and the fish is mine.” The line is short, and the margin of error is reduced: the safety cushion that line stretch offers is minimized.

The angles are all wrong: with the fish near the boat, the tendency is to lift the rod (“high sticking”) to bring the fish closer. Compounded, all the above can easily lead to the rod tip being bent too far, and snapping.

Those same conditions can lead to the second-most-frequent way rods are broken. It’s common for a tiring fish next to the boat to surge away, from seeing the boat, the angler, the guide with net/gaff—thinking its life is about to end. When that happens, and if the angler doesn’t react instantly, the rod will be jerked down, hit the gunwale and snap.

You can avoid high sticking by keeping your rod at less than a 45 degree angle. Maximum pressure is applied to the fish by fighting it off the rod butt, not the rod tip. If you have never tested the actual pressure put on a fish at different rod angles, the exercise can be eye-opening. Take your heavyweight rod, string it up with about 15 to 20 feet of line out from the tip, and attach the end to an easy-to-read scale. Have a friend hold and read the scale. Hold the rod at about 45 degrees, pull what you would consider to be, say, 3 pounds of pressure, and ask your friend to tell you what the scale actually says. Try 5 pounds, a typical drag setting on a heavy outfit. Then lower the rod so that you’re pulling with the rod butt—the back three feet or so of the rod (most heavyweight rods, particularly bluewater rods, were designed for just such fish fighting). Try that same 3 pounds of pressure. Then 5. Try 10, if the rod and tippet are designed for it. It’s amazing how much pressure you can apply, when the rod is handled properly.

Now, if—and DON’T do it!—you try to put that much pressure on the fish with the rod at a high angle, all the load is put on the rod tip, and it is likely to break. Remember, the rod tip is for casting. The rod butt is for fighting fish. When the fish gets near the boat, you have to do two things. First, back up. If the fish is coming to the bow, you head to the stern, so you can keep the rod at a low angle. If the fish is amidships, or there’s not room to move forward or aft, move laterally to the opposite side of the boat. Trust the guide to land the fish. But if the fish is not as tired as you think—and big fish almost always surge away multiple times—be prepared to react immediately.

Second, ease off the drag. You lose some control of the fish, but you also give yourself some cushion against that sudden boatside surge that results in broken tips. Not only is the fish tired at that point, but so are you. You’re eager to move the fish those last few feet, and with a short line, there is less stretch for shock absorption. With a short line and a sudden downward surge from the fish, the rod follows—right into the gunwale. Snap.

In summary, for big fish, use the reel drag, fight the fish off the rod butt (with a low rod angle), avoid high sticking and be careful at boatside.

Buzz Bryson will happily address any angling conundrums you may have. Send your questions to [email protected]. For more advice on the question addressed here, go to Skills section.