Rigging For Big Fish

Are big fish caught by mistake?  Absolutely.  However, it would be equally fair to say more big fish are lost as a result of a mistake. This post exists to help you create a framework in your mental approach, gear & preparation for when you decide you don’t need to catch every fish in the river, just the biggest. While this post isn’t specific to any one species of fish, the principles will serve you well in any high-stakes fishing situation

 Catching big fish boils down to one word….Preparation


  1. the action or process of making ready or being made ready for use for an event or undertaking.
    synonyms: devising, putting together, drawing up, construction, composition, production, getting ready


Question: What is the best thing I can do to prepare for a big fish/high stakes fishing situation?

Answer: Commit yourself to becoming a better caster, everything else is a far second.  If your fly never gets to the fish; your rod, reel, sharp hook, perfect leader, perfect knot, and everything else I’ll cover in this post will not matter. It’s that simple.

Instantly you’re probably asking why do I need to cast the entire fly line to catch a fish?  The answer is you don’t.  I can only think of a few fish of any consequence I’ve ever caught at the end of a cast that long.  However, I see time and time again, those who can effectively and quickly cast 80+ feet, inadvertently become extremely accurate and are able to make the cast when it counts.

In recent years, the indicator and subsequent “water load cast” combined with bobber chasing from a boat, have created a catastrophic regression in the art of fly casting.  The inability to double is the largest barrier to entry into the world of fly fishing opportunities that exists beyond the trout stream. As it relates to fishing for big fish, being able to quickly and accurately deliver a fly of any size, to a moving target within 50 feet is extremely important.Have you every noticed that world’s best fishing destinations are also some of the windiest places on earth?!?!

Your Fly Fishing 90 Day Challenge: Learn How to cast a 9′ 5wt consistently and in control 80+ feet with no more than 3 false casts.

While there are very few people on this earth that can run a 40-yard dash in sub 4.5 seconds, there is nothing genetically or physically limiting any man or woman of any age reading this article from accomplishing this goal.  It takes about 30 minutes a day for 3 months if you’re starting from ground zero. If you don’t know where to begin, you are a drive to a local fly shop away from beginning the process.  I’d also poke around www.sexyloops.com where you’ll find some extremely valuable and detailed information on what a fly cast should look like.

Question: What do you consider to be a big fish?

Answer:  A 20″ rainbow is a dime a dozen on Grey Reef, while a 12″ brook trout in a small creek in RMNP might be the biggest fish in that stretch of river. There also certain fish that are instantly special regardless of size because of how uncommon they are and/or how difficult they can be to hook on a fly. Examples being wild steelhead, permit, roosterfish etc.

Question: If I go to  ____________ for a week, how many ______can I expect to catch?

Answer: Fishing is fishing and nothing is automatic.  Especially, as it pertains to trophy size and high stakes fish.  These big fish didn’t get to be big by not learning a thing or two about survival. This applies to about every highly sought after type of game fish that swims.  The best you can do is to put yourself in the right place, at the right time, with the right rod in your hand and leave as few things to chance as possible for when (or if) that opportunity comes.  Pre-trip preparation and learning about what seasons, tides, time of day or other occurrences tend to create those windows of opportunity is extremely valuable.

You should also prepare yourself mentally for what this type of high-stakes fishing generally entails. Whether you’re trying to bring a marlin to the boat, walking the beach in search of roosterfish, swinging flies for steelhead or hucking streamers at the bank for big brown trout, you will be sadly disappointed if nonstop action all day is your expectation. Long story short, there is always a LOT of down time between those opportunities that often go much faster than they come.

Question: What gear should I use when I’m targeting big fish?

Rigging for high stakes fish is about leaving as few things to chance as you can.

Regardless of your setup, a good word of advice is to use the rig setup for the fish you’re after as minimally as possible until the opportunity presents itself.  This might mean having the rod sitting in the boat until a certain fish shows up.  This might also mean not throwing you beautiful fly and clean leader at a school of ladyfish or a giant needlefish that comes by when Roosterfish are in the area.

  • Rod: A rod that is generally on the faster side, but not so fast that you can’t feel the rod bend and unbend without having to have 30 feet of line out of the tip. A rod that is too stiff will hinder your ability to make quick, accurate casts to short ranges. The rod should be powerful enough to deliver the size fly you need to throw, and also help you land the size of fish you will be targeting.
  • Reel: The key with any reel is reliability and as minimal maintenance as possible.  Generally, less moving parts with as few critical parts being exposed to the elements is best, especially in remote fishing destinations.  Start-up inertia and range of drag adjustments are always more important than sheer stopping power.  Backing capacity can also be very important for certain saltwater species.  After any saltwater trip, it’s very important to let your reels soak for a day in distilled water. The distilled water has no minerals and will allow for the majority of the salt to be removed from the reel. More on reel maintenance. 
  • Fly Line and Backing: Use a line that effectively loads your rod.  I like clear lines (clear floating tip or all clear intermediate).  I don’t know that it is a deal breaker, but I know it doesn’t hurt.   For backing, I’ve never experienced any of the horror stories you hear floating around about gelspun nor do I personally know anyone who has. For that reason, it’s my go-to backing in either a 30 or 50 lb.  I use a 40 turn doubled bimini to join the fly line to the backing.  When joining the backing to the fly line, I pass the disk of the fly line back through the bimini loop twice to form a box knot above the loop on the fly line. I’ll get a video up on this soon.  This reduced the stress on the connection and prevents the gelspun from cutting into the fly line.  Finally, I do not trust the loops on any fly line.  I’ve never had them fail on a fish, but I’ve eventually had welds on a number of fly line loops fail.  My thought is, why risk it if it can be avoided? For this reason, I always make my own loops on the end of the fly line using two back to back nail knots. Put the nail knots back to back instead of spaced as in the video I linked. It’s cleaner.
  • Leader: When it really matters, I always incorporate a twisted portion of leader above a bimini.  This creates a spring in the leader that cushions your tippet and your hook.  Here is a video on how to make this leader.  For 20lb and up I will make my entire leader out of one size tippet.  The spring section acts as your butt section to help turn the fly over. I make this section roughly 1/3 the overall length of the leader. Here is a video on how to make this leader (for this leader you only need concern yourself with part 1of the video).
  • Tippet: Use the strongest tippet you can get away with.  I almost always use fluorocarbon. As long as the tippet isn’t so heavy that it inhibits the movement of the fly you are fishing, there are a hundred things that will make the fish not eat than the size of your tippet.  So for example, an 8-inch streamer fished as fast as humanly possibly will get eaten just as much on 35lb as it will on 20lb.  On the contrary, fishing a #16 trout nymph on tippet that won’t fit through the eye of the hook won’t let the fly move naturally if you’re dead drifting it.
  • Flies: There is certainly truth to the old saying,  “big fish eat big flies.” However, this will be relevant to the size of water you are fishing. My go to streamer for about any species features a spun deer hair head with softer material behind it.  Galloup’s Dungeon is a perfect example. When targeting big fish, I almost use a single fly.
  • Hooks:  The biggest and strongest hook that the fish, fly size and conditions will allow. It’s also important to keep a hook file with you and use the triangle point sharpening technique.
  • Knots: I generally use a loop knot to most my streamers.  My preferred knot is the Rapala knot because in most head to head tests, it rates the strongest.  Here is a good video on loop knots and their strength. In a situation where you want a snugged-knot, the Palomar knot consistently wins.  Here is a good video comparing the strength of various snug knots  Once you’re knot’s are secure, cover your knots with Loom UV Knot sense.

For some species, a lot of the above may seem like overkill, you are correct. However, it’s comforting to know that your gear and knots won’t fail you on the trout of a lifetime.  Getting in the practice of setting up this way will pay dividends making your rig as bullet proof as possible gives you a fighting chance.

Rigging For Big Fish was last modified: March 20th, 2017 by flywateroutdoors