This thread is for my good friend, Louis. For those who have been following, you know that Louis has been trying to find ways to see in the dark and ways to have better retention of the fish he hooks. You also know that I have teased him mercilessly about both of these quests. I was skeptical about the "glow-in-the-dark" thing, but he seems to have found some answers despite my heckling (hectoring?). With regard to the retention quest, I think you'd agree that the research and testing Louis did on the topics of leaders, tippets, and knots has educated and benefited us all. (This, again, despite my playing the role of kibitzer.)
But attempting to solve the retention problem involves much more than just good tippets and strong knots. Louis knows this, of course, and I just wanted to take a few moments to look at the less tangible side of the retention equation. The following thoughts address some of the things that influence our success in retaining fish once they are hooked, but many of these influences are only partly under our control.
Fishing partners and other distractions: This may seem like a strange place to start, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who often catches and lands more fish when fishing alone. (Please, no cheap shots like "Sure, that's because there's no one to verify it, and you can claim to have caught or landed whatever you want!" Despite the obvious truth in that statement, I'm trying to be serious--for the moment.)
When fishing alone, all of the shots at fish are mine, as is the pace and the approach, so it's not unusual that I often catch twice as many fish as when fishing the same stretch with a partner. When fishing with a partner (and here I mean fishing with a partner, not just fishing the same stream), the shots are divided and compromises are often made in pace and approach. Now, this really doesn't affect hooking/landing much, but it can influence the perception of success. If you hook 20 and land 10 fishing alone, you feel (and are) more successful than when you hook 10 and land 5 fishing with a partner--but the ratio is the same.
The more significant influence is just the comraderie of fishing with a friend. Of course, this is one of the main reasons for fishing with a partner. But, unless that partner is the fishing equivalent of Silent Bob, the conversation/competition can interfere with optimum performance. How many times have you looked at the fish your friend is fighting only to blow the response to a take of your own? Or tried to answer a question or make a comment at the critical moment when you should have had a laserlike focus on your line/fly? Friends are not the only sources of distraction that cause us to make ineffectual hook-ups, but they are often the hardest to ignore. I've mentioned the "distraction factor" before, but I am continually amazed at how often fish seem to take at the moment when we are least prepared. (How do they know?)
Timing and touch: Knowing when and how to set the hook in various situations is often one of the most critical factors in retention. Experience alone seems the only sufficient way to train and hone these reactions, but even very experienced anglers can overreact or underreact or react in the wrong way at times. Sometimes we recognize our mistake, but it is usually too late--the deed is done and we must live with the consequences.
Shawn could tell you that during our recent trib-fishing excursion, the rise-to-landing ratio was extremely low for both of us, despite having lots of good action from the fish. Some of this was attributable to rises that were really refusals. (Yes, recent pressure can cause refusals even on tiny waters where the fish are usually eager takers of the fly). Some was undoubtedly due to my incessant chatter--that comraderie thing. And some was due to the need to temper our response to the take. If you don't control your reactions on tiny waters, you end up flinging a lot of small fish into the air. Sometimes that happens even when you do try to exercise control. But the tentative second guessing can also cause bad hook-ups with better fish. Once, I was demonstrating an approach/delivery that I thought might be more effective, and sure enough, the fish responded on cue. I, however, experienced an inexplicable paralysis of the wrist as the fish slowly came up and took my fly--I did nothing! I may have been surprised that the fish actually cooperated with my little demo (because they rarely go out of their way to make me look good), but I felt like an idiot. Timing and touch are essential in order to have any hope of consistently landing fish.
The bad move: Sometimes the reasons for loss are more about what happens after the hook-up than the quality of the hook-up itself. Bad habits, poor planning, or impatience are the biggest factors in producing the bad move. Low lateral rod angles are often the best for fighting fish, but many of us automatically resort to lifting the rod to the sky during the fight. Not only does this limit the effective pressure we can put on the fish, but it means that the fish can have more control over the situation. We open up the options for the fish with a high rod, allowing it to wallow or maneuver in ways that it couldn't under the lateral pull of a low rod.
Poor planning contributes to our losses when we don't consider our options before we hook the best fish of the hole. Fish that reach cover or bolt downstream are often lost. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but at other times, having a game plan can give us an edge. Thinking about our fighting position rather than just our fishing position can make a difference. Many times I have done everything right from the standpoint of getting the fish to take and hooking it, only to find myself dealing with the old question, "Now that you've got it, what are you going to do with it?" Without a good plan for fighting a big fish, the answer is often "Lose it!"
Impatience is probably the prime cause of the bad move. Often this happens just as the fish seems to be within our grasp. A sudden surge, a little slip, a tad too much pressure, and the fish is gone. Everyone knows that sinking feeling of having been so close and yet so far. Yes, we should fight the fish with everything we have and bring it in as soon as possible, but just when the battle seems to be won is not the time to get impatient. When the fish is close, much of our margin for error is lost. The rod is bent to the max, the leader knot is often inside the guides, and whatever abrasion/weakening of tippet and knot has occurred during the fight is at its most critical. Patience is hard to exercise when the prize is so close.
The long/slack line: For those who can throw and work a long line, sometimes the temptation is irresistible. Yet we all know that the longer the line, the lower the chances of getting a good hook-up (or controlling the fish). Sometimes the gamble is worth it, but if we are throwing a long line just because we can (as opposed to it being the only option), we are just asking for trouble. How many times could we have moved our feet closer rather than casting farther? And how many times have we paid the price for that laziness?
Slack is often a factor in failure to hook fish on a long line, but it is worth considering even at shorter distances. Sometimes the very slack we need to properly present the fly works against us when the fish takes. My one-armed fishing partner could tell you all about this. He has far fewer options for controlling/gathering slack than most of us, and most of his failures to hook and land fish are all about slack. In his case this is quite understandable, and he has come to accept this as part of the game. (Usually.) But when the same thing happens to me, I often find myself asking, "OK, Gonzo, what's your excuse?"
Commitment vs. involvement: There's a folksy little saying about the difference between commitment and involvement that is often told over the breakfast table. The chicken that laid the eggs, the saying goes, was involved in my breakfast, but the pig that made the bacon was committed. I think this often applies to the way fish take our flies, and it bears directly on the nature of our hook-ups. Fish that are truly committed to the fly are easy to hook solidly and are consequently more likely to be landed. Fish that are merely involved with the fly, on the other hand, are often poorly hooked (if at all) and stand a good chance of getting off.
Once, I was fishing my favorite Drunella hatch on one of my favorite streams, and the wild browns were so committed to the fly that I considered quitting for the day. They were taking it so solidly and deeply that I worried about doing them some harm. Every fish that rose to the fly was hooked and all were landed. On other occasions, the fish's involvement with the fly seemed so tentative that getting a good hook-up was almost impossible, and most fish that did get hooked were lost. Whenever I am fishing over extremely pressured fish that are going through their inspecting/testing/tasting routine, I would like to hook and land every fish that takes my fly, but I know from experience that the expectation is entirely unreasonable.
Damned fish flesh: This is perhaps the inescapable bottom line in fish retention. No matter what else we may do right or wrong, fish flesh is the weak link in the chain that leads from hook-up to hand. Until we devise a laser-guided hook that unerringly finds the toughest part of a fish's mouth, a few pull-outs will be inevitable. And because big fish pull harder on that same weak flesh, many of those pull-outs will be on the biggest fish we hook. Sad, but true. I sometimes kid my fishing partner after a pull-out by saying that he needs to start "aiming for the bone." The look he gives me in response says it all when it comes to solving this eternal problem. Sometimes the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak!