It happens to all of us. You make the perfect cast, the type of cast that makes you feel like other anglers would gasp at its perfection if only they had seen it, and it leads to the perfect float. Your fly is presented perfectly as it enters the prime spot of a beautiful hole and you see a large trout rise to take. Your fly disappears into the fish's mouth, you set the hook, and the fish darts back down to the bottom of the hole as your line goes slack. You missed. Maybe he'll come back, you hope, but you know your opportunity has passed and after a few hopeless casts, you move on to the next run, riffle, or hole.
Missing strikes will happen, no matter how good of a fisherman you are. On some days, multiple misses can start to feel frustrating, and you're left questioning what is wrong with you or your gear. Here are a few things I have done to dramatically improve my success rate when setting hooks. I've broken them down by dry flies, nymphs, and streamers.
Better Hook Sets with Dry Flies
Getting good hook sets on dry flies takes a combination of patience and urgency. That sounds like a contradiction, but it'll make sense the more you refine your hook setting techniques.
1. Mind your slack. Too much slack in your line will make setting the hook difficult. In order to set the hook, you only need to move your fly an inch or so, but having to pull an extra 5-6 feet of slack line will delay your timing.
2. Let the fish fully take the fly. When the fish slowly rises to the take, it can be hard waiting to set the hook. You can't set it as soon as the fish breaks the surface, but rather once they have swallowed the fly. Some trout, such as cutthroat, will often turn as they take, and it makes the delay between them breaking the water surface and actually taking the fly a bit longer. If you keep setting the fly early, say something to yourself such as, "there it is" as the fish breaks the surface and then set the hook. This is the patience part.
3. Set the hook immediately! Once the fly has been fully taken, you're on a short clock. The fly won't feel natural to the fish, and they'll spit it out. You have less than a second to set the hook, so don't hesitate. Here is where urgency kicks in.
4. Keep the line between your fingers. As your line drifts, you should be making mends and gathering slack, but make sure that when you set the hook, you have the line pinched between your fingers. Pinching the line helps you create immediate tension on your hook set.
5. React differently based on the fly's position when it is taken. If your fly is floating upstream or across stream when it is taken, a quicker hook set is in order than when your fly is downstream. On downstream sets, a more gentle rod lift is proper.
6. Consider going to barbless hooks. Barbless hooks need less pressure to penetrate and set. A barbed hook is harder to set, and with these smaller dry flies, barbless hooks have a better hook rate.
Better Hook Sets While Nymphing (Wet Flies)
Hook sets while nymphing are a reaction to a change in your line's or an indicator's behavior. Unless you're fishing crystal clear water, it's rare that you will be able to watch for the moment when the fish takes your fly. Typically your fly is taken, and that causes your line to momentarily pause or shake in the drift. By the time you see this, the fish is already figuring out what it has taken is not food, so your time is already short. Here's how to make the most of that window of opportunity.
1. Slack is a killer. Having too much slack in your line can seriously delay your hook set timing. Only have the slack you need for a proper drift and keep your line mended.
2. React to almost everything. Since you're getting a delayed signal from the fish taking your fly to the reaction in your line or indicator, you need to react to even subtle twitches. Over time you'll be able to clearly distinguish between your flies bouncing on the bottom and a strike, but any hesitation in your drift that can't be easily dismissed as bouncing should be followed up with a hook set. Some takes are VERY subtle as the fish may simply open their mouth and close on the nymph without any additional movement.
3. Set the hook downstream. This one takes some training to burn into your muscle memory, but when a fish strikes, don't lift your rod up, but rather set downstream of the strike. Under the water the fish is taking your fly in the drift, and setting the hook downstream will pull the fly into the corner of its mouth and cause a more reliable hook rate than pulling it up or away from its mouth. If your fly is downstream on the take, set to an angle rather than straight up.
4. Pinch the line between your fingers on the set. See the full explanation in the previous section.
5. Like dry flies, consider barbless hooks.
Better Hook Sets While Streamer Fishing
Streamers can drive you crazy, because you are simply going to miss a lot more hook sets while using streamers than any other type of fly. Streamers will give you many false strikes, where a fish might just be swiping sideways at your fly out of aggression, but not necessarily taking a bite. Some streamers will also get nipped at, but the hooks are never in the fish's mouth. You have to be patient and willing to deal with additional "missed" strikes while using streamers. But for legit strikes, here's what you can do to improve your hook rate.
1. Keep your rod tip low. Once your streamer is in the water, keep the tip of your rod low to the surface. This keeps tension on your line, and any strikes can be more easily detected. When setting the hook, don't raise your rod tip until the fish is already on the line.
2. Strip set, don't lift. When stripping in your streamer, don't lift your rod tip when you feel a strike. Instead, strip the line with a quick short strip. This is the best way to set the hook, and if you miss, you can continue to strip line. Often a fish that misses the streamer will come right back for it. Lifting your rod tip will pull the fly out of the fish's view and is a far less reliable manner to set the hook than a strip set.
3. Once you've set the hook with a strip set, get your slack taken in quickly. With streamer fishing you have a lot of line on and in the water. Many fish are lost right after setting the hook by not getting pressure on the fish. Streamers are shaken easily if good pressure isn't maintained. After the set and pressure is applied, the fight can properly begin.
4. Seriously, don't lift your rod tip. The hardest habit to break for people who don't fish streamers often is to refrain from lifting their rod to set the hook. You REALLY need to do a strip set. Of all things, tip #2 is the most important thing here.