The fish was huge. I could barely make it out, as it was hunkered down  near the bottom of the pool. Trout this large don’t come along often and I knew I was going to have to do everything right to have a shot at landing it. The right fly, a precise cast, and the perfect drift all had to come together. When the fish finally sucked in the fly and took off upstream, the battle was just beginning.

Much has been written about fly fishing, fly casting, flies, and gear, but rarely do you read about how to land fish, especially big fish. It is pretty tough to get a picture of that “fish of a lifetime” if you can’t get it in the net. When I first started targeting large trout, I was hooking a lot of fish, but not landing many. It wasn’t until I started watching guys who consistently catch monster trout and tried some new tactics on my own, that I started to land these fish.

If you are targeting trophy trout, and have a good idea where they are located in the river, you should develop a plan in your head before you ever put a cast near the fish. Large trout have likely been caught before and will have their own plan once hooked. Take notice of nearby obstacles or fast moving water, as these are the first places the fish will head. You should also locate a likely area to land the fish, preferably in shallow water, with little to no current. Know where you will move if the fish decides to head upriver or downriver. Some fish may require you to cross the river during the battle, so make sure you have a safe wading path across the river.

If you want to get a leg up on the fish, try to position yourself so that the fish has to go upriver, once hooked. A fish heading upriver can be more easily turned back after its initial run, as you will be bringing the fish back downriver with the current. A fish headed downstream would have to be turned back against the current to be brought back towards you, and most large fish don’t like this option. We’ve all lost that monster trout that took off downriver and just kept on going. Another benefit of the fish heading upriver is that the fish will be fighting against the current, in addition to you, tiring the fish out much more quickly.

One little talked about fighting tactic that every “trophy stalker” should experiment with is using your rod and different rod angles to your advantage. Using your rod correctly can be the difference in landing a large fish in a minute or two, or spending 4-5 minutes fighting a fish. The longer you fight a fish, the more you increase your chances of losing it. I see many anglers fighting fish with their rod straight up above their head. There are times when this may be necessary, but unless you are trying to steer a fish around a rock or away from a log, your rod should be angled to the side or down in the water. If you are keeping your rod high, you are doing two things: Pulling the fish’s head up, which is an awkward and unnatural angle for fighting a fish; and pulling the fish closer to the surface, which will encourage the fish to jump and shake your fly. Angling your rod at a 45 degree angle or lower, so that it is parallel to the fish, allows you to put side-pressure on the fish. You can then turn the fish’s head to either side, as it would swim naturally. This may involve putting your rod tip in the water in order to get a better angle on the fish. It can also help to reduce the slack line between you and the fish. You’d be surprised how easy it is to reel in a large fish with your rod tip under water, using the right angles. If you can get a fish turned after its first initial run, you’ve won the battle. Sure, they will have additional runs and maybe one last run prior to the net, but most really large trout are lost during the first initial run.

I like to use light tippet when targeting larger trout, especially on tailwaters. Many of these trout are tippet shy and depending on the conditions, sometimes 6x tippet is needed to get the trout to take the fly. I often hear people say they will only use heavy tippet because they don’t want to play the fish out and exhaust them from the fight. This might work, but I guarantee these anglers don’t hook as many fish. It is possible to catch large trout on light tippet and get them landed quickly.

Many anglers don’t give enough credit to the strength of some of the newer flouro-carbon tippets on the market. I once had a discussion with a well known guide regarding tippet strength. To demonstrate the strength of the 6x tippet I was using, he had me tie my tippet to his camera, which weighed about 5-6 pounds. He then asked me to lift my rod and try to lift the camera off the ground. After pulling the line taught, I gave him a skeptical look and decided against it. No doubt my rod would have snapped before the tippet gave out. His point was, with the tippet pulled tight with the rod, the tippet has immense strength. If you can replicate this when fighting a large trout, you’ll soon realize how easy it is to land trout by keeping your line tight to the fish. If you give the fish any slack at all during the fight, you’ve given the fish the opportunity to snap your tippet.

The last opportunity for the fish to break off is right before being netted. Make sure you and your net guy have a plan in place. If I loose a fish at the net, I want it to be my fault, not the net guy’s. Near the end of the fight, the fish will often make one last run. I always try to make sure the fish makes this last run before it even gets close to the net. There may times when your net guy may need to “go for it”, but often big fish will let you know when they are tired. It may be one of their last tactics to get away or they may just be tired out, but often near the end of the fight the fish will come up to the surface and stop fighting. They’ll float on the surface or tumble downriver with the current. This is the best time to try to net the fish, as they won’t try to break away when they see the net. If you make sure the fish is completely tired out before netting it, you’ll put a lot more of these large trout in the net.

Even I was a little surprised when the trout finally took the fly. I had spotted him earlier in the day and he was a beast of a fish. Being very wary, he had always sunk off out of site before I could get a cast near him. My reel screamed and I immediately took off across the river. I knew exactly where he was headed, a submerged tree at the head of the pool. I positioned myself downstream of the fish and was able to apply enough side pressure to turn him away, just short of the tree. He settled down a bit and stayed down near the bottom of the pool. I could feel his massive head-shakes as I continued crossing the tail-end of the pool. On the opposite side of the river was shallow, sandy area where I hoped to be able to land the fish. He made a few more solid runs, but each time I was able to turn him around and gradually work him back towards me. He finally came up to the surface, cruising in the shallow water and looking strong enough for one more run. He was so large that his back was now exposed, looking almost shark-line in the water. The run never came and in one scoop, he was in the net. The fish of a lifetime was now landed and ready to pose for his picture.