How to Set the Hook Fly Fishing: Mastering the Strike

Learn to time the strike so you don’t miss another hook up with our guide to timing the strike in fly fishing. It covers nymphing, dries and streamers

Setting the hook properly is second only to casting your fly in the right spot in terms of your ability to catch fish on the fly.

But there’s more to this seemingly simple action than meets the eye.

In this article we are going to look at the key lessons in setting the hook properly when fly fishing.

How to set the hook: the physical action

We’ll worry about timing the strike later on, but first we want to run through how to actually set the hook when a fish takes your fly in a range of different situations.

For trout fishing, the action of setting the hook is dead simple: raise the rod tip fast and firm but not hard enough to break the tippet. But there are a few other things you can do to maximize your chances of connecting with any fish you convince to eat your fly.

Rod Tip and Line Control

Keeping the rod tip low and eliminating slack line helps create good hook sets

Simple as setting the hook should be, there are a few bad habits than cause people to mess it up and most related to line control. As your fly comes back towards you when you are river fishing you need to keep the rod tip close to the water while you are simultaneously stripping back line to eliminate slack line.

After a while when you fly fish this becomes second nature, but a lot of anglers leave the rod tip a foot or two above the water with a belly of line it. What this means is when they lift the rod to strike, it moves through a fair angle before the line pulls tight.

This means a delay to the strike potentially a less than solid hook up. Whereas if you have the rod tip near the water and little slack, you’ve only got to have lifted the rod through two feet or so before it comes tight.

When we say lift, of course we mean in a semicircular motion bending at the elbow as if you were going to cast.

With soft-mouthed fish such as trout, once we feel the line come up tight and the hook set, we depower the striking motion to avoid pulling the hook. We have to make sure to keep the tension on as bring the rod tip up to vertical to begin the fight.

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How to set the hook while dry fly fishing

It is easy to strike too early when a fish comes up to your fly in clear water

Dry fly fishing is my favourite form of fishing. The excitement of watching the take, and sometimes watching the fish swim over to the fly, can’t be matched by other forms of fly fishing.

However, it is the hardest form of fishing to get the timing of the strike correct.

As stated above, the key to a good hook up is line control (reducing slack) and keeping the rod tip low as you fish the fly – the same applies with dry flies.

I think that more often than not, fly fishers strike too early when dry fly fishing. The excitement of seeing the fish gobble down the fly is too much for them and they end up pulling it out of their mouth.

I also see some anglers fail to adjust their strike for the type of rise, type of water and type of prey item and the length of line they have out. We’ll go through each of these in turn.

Type of Rise and Prey

Fish will rise pretty damn slowly to a big grasshopper or cicada in slow water

Timing the strike depends on the type of rise and what the fish are feeding on. When fish are taking caddis on the wing, you’ll see slashy rises often in the tailout of pools. These require a relatively quick strike. The fish knows the caddis is always on the brink of escaping his jaws, so he’ll take (and expel) the fly in pretty quick fashion.

At the other extreme is fishing with big terrestrials such as hoppers and cicadas. The fish know these critters are stuck in the water and can’t get away, so they’ll come up slowly, gulp the fly and turn back down. In this situation you absolutely have to wait until they’ve turned down or these big foam or deer hair flies will come right out of his mouth. This is particularly true of large fish.

This is hard to time visually so many anglers say a little mantra before striking to keep their timing right – we’ve heard of “God Save the Queen …” and “One, Two, Three…” as popular sayings to mouth before you lift the rod to get your timing right to get a good hook set. More often than not with this slight pause the hook will lodge firmly in the corner of the fish’s mouth.

Type of Water

The other thing that impacts on timing the strike so you don’t pull the fly out of the fish’s mouth, or delay too long so he spits it out, is the type of water you are fishing.

Generally speaking, fishing a slow running pool or glide, you will get a bit time before you need to strike.

But fishing pocket water in rapids and bouldery runs the fish will come up, eat and head back down in rapid succession, so it pays to be a bit quicker on the strike when fishing dry flies in these areas.

Length of Line Out from the Tip of the Fly Rod

Finally, the other thing that impacts on strike timing is the amount of line you have got out. If you have cast pretty much the whole line the rise of the fish to your fly will take a few microseconds to register and you’ve also a bit of stretch possible in the line, so I don’t mind striking a bit quicker on a long line even to those long, slow rises.

How To Set The Hook While Nymphing

Eats are easily missed by inexperienced nymph fishers. Strike early to get the hook up

Nymphing can pose the opposite problem for setting the hook to dry fly fishing. Many anglers fail to life when their indicator stops thinking it is just a quirk of the current, a rock or a snag or something and end up missing a trout.

For indicator nymph fishing, the principles of keeping the rod tip close to the water and managing the fly line well are even more important. Trout eject a small subsurface fly very quickly when they release it’s not edible. If you have ever watched one feeding from close up, they sometimes take sticks and small objects drifting down with the current by mistake and you can see how quickly they spit them out.

There is no such thing as being too quick with the hook set when indicator nymph fishing. As soon as the indicator stops and/or goes down, lift the rod to set the hook.

The other key thing to remember is you should be very controlled with your lift so you don’t lift the nymph too far out of the strike zone if it is a false alarm. If you have kept the fly line tight and eliminated any slack line, you may only have to lift it 40 degrees or so to make an effective strike. If you don’t feel anything, lower the rod tip and the fly will drop back down to the bottom and you can continue with the drift. This also helps stop a fly fisher from getting too exuberant with the strike and breaking off light tippets.

How To Set The Hook When Streamer Fishing

A big trout on streamers requires a solid hook set

Getting a good hook set with a streamer is a bit different. Usually with a streamer we are retrieving it actively with your non casting hand giving you the option to strip into the strike: ie to strip, or at the very least hold the line tight, as you lift. With trout this is not totally necessary, but I feel it doesn’t hurt as the streamer hooks are usually size #4 to #8 and it doesn’t hurt to drive the point in a little bit, especially as we are targeting big fish with streamers and usually using a heavy tippet of say 2X or 3X instead of 4X and 5X that we might use for fishing dry flies and nymphs.

The Strip Strike: Saltwater Fishing

You need to strip strike with bonefish and other saltwater targets to drive the hook in

We take things a step further when we step out into the salt. Here we are dealing with hard mouthed fish and big flies, so we need to rethink the whole concept of lifting to strike. It is an easy way to spot a fly fisher who exclusively fishes for trout when they do the lift – this is where guides say you can’t “trout strike” in the salt and they are right.

The same principle of eliminating loose line and keeping the rod tip low to the water still apply.

But with the striking motion you need to do everything with the left and DON’T lift the rod tip. As the name strip strike suggests, you set the hook on saltwater fish by ripping the fly line back six inches or so with the left hand while keeping the rod pointed at the fish.

This results in a solid strike that will drive the hook point in and ensure it is properly set and can keep you connected to the fish. Obviously don’t try this when trout fishing – it is not necessary and will break light tippet or bend small dry fly hooks, particularly with large trout.

Final Thoughts on How to Set the Hook when Fly Fishing

So that’s our take on how to set the hook in fly fishing. We’ve summarized these rules below to help you catch more fish and stay connected to those that you do hook to boost your conversion rate.

  • Always keep the rod tip close to the water when you are fishing your fly/flies
  • Strip line back as the fly comes back towards you to maintain a tight line
  • Consider the circumstances, type of water, type of food and length of line to time your hook set
  • Lift from the elbow bring the rod tip up to set the hook with trout and other soft mouthed fish
  • Strip strike/slip strike/strip set in the salt by pulling the fly line back with the non rod hand while keeping the rod pointed at the fish
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Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water. He's into kayak fishing, ultralight lure fishing and pretty much any other kind of fishing out there.
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