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May 23, 2007

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When Is It OK To Snag A Fish In The Mouth?

By Kirk Deeter

When Is It OK To Snag A Fish In The Mouth?I received a ton of (mostly positive) feedback on the “Going Deep in the Name of Trout Research” piece we ran in Field & Stream. The one point that earned the most criticism, however, was where I talked about missing strikes, and how, if you get in the habit of lifting or “mini-setting” your fly at the end of every cast, you’ll hook up more often.

Some say that’s snagging. But I wonder, is it possible to snag a trout in the mouth? More to the point, isn’t every fly-caught fish, technically-speaking, snagged in the mouth?

After all, from the bottom of the river, I watched trout routinely inhale and spit out all sorts of things – leaves, twigs, weeds, and yes, flies. It seemed to me that trout were able to taste the difference between real food and everything else, and it only took a moment or two for them to reject the bad stuff, including flies.

In the perfect scenario, a trout rises and sips down your dry fly. If you wait too long to set the hook then, what happens? Right. It spits the fly.
And, sometimes, in fact, you foul-hook that fish. I remember once fouling a brown on the Bighorn, and after guide Dan Stein plucked the nymph out of the trout’s tail, he said, “It ate it, and crapped it out … you were too slow.” Well, not literally, but the point was well taken.

All of which leads me to ask if it is really dirty pool to set the hook when you aren’t 100 percent sure? Isn’t that just improving your odds by getting the jump on the fish? Dare I say that being a bit quicker on the draw might actually decrease the snag factor?

No doubt, intentional snagging is bad form. Foul hookups will happen, but less often among good anglers.

Believe me, even if you mini-set, you’ll still miss a good percentage of takes that you cannot see under the surface. I’m just not sold on the argument that setting the hook first and asking questions later is an angling sin. Just a thought … tell me what you think.


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SD Bob

I am surprised you didn't hit the topic of "lining" fish? The idea of fishing is to fool one in to eating your offering, therefore if a fish strikes a bait and misses but gets hooked anyway I don't see that as a snagged fish. This happens more in hard bait fishing than fly fishing but I have caught trout while ripping streamers where you could see the fish rise and strike and get hooked in a pectoral fin.

Driftless Angler

Best example of lining is some great lakes 'steelhead' and salmon fishermen. Since the kype of salmon keeps their mouth open the line drifts in, and bingo you feel the fish and line away. If you get a big enough belly in your line you can just mini set away and line fish all day. Glorified snagging.
I would say the difference between a lined fish and a "snagged in the mouth fish" as you call it is that a lined fish has the hook on the outside of the mouth while a fair caught fish has the hook inside.


Driftless Angler, very well put and I could not have said it more diplomatically!

Tom Chandler

The problem with setting the hook at the end of every drift isn't the fish "snagged in the mouth" -- it's the fish who are foul hooked elsewhere. And it's entirely too-common occurrence when you blind set, especially in confined runs and pocket water.

That was my objection to the practice.

Kirk Deeter

I think that's a valid, and a fair point, Tom. I truthfully wonder, however, whether foul hookups happen more often by being too fast, or by being too slow. It would be interesting to really look into that. I'm interested in other opinions.

I'll concede to the extent that setting the hook only when there's a distinct and obvious sign is a way to really cut down on fouls. You are right but you're also going to miss a ton of fish. Which, in my mind, is perfectly fine.


Hi ;
I would like to know how to disinguish among different strikes which fish is taking the bait and how to set the hook on strike.

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