The “Triangle of Death”

Tips for fighting and landing big trout on light fly fishing gear


Anyone who has ever been a fly fishing guide can vouch for how frustrating it can be when a simple case of “angler error” results in the loss of a trout of a lifetime. It is much easier when I make a mistake personally and lose a large fish because I know I will get another opportunity to land a behemoth; I can fish whenever I want, whereas, the majority of the people I take out fly fishing are lucky to a shot or two at a pig over the course a season – and this is only if they have the time to get out on the water at least a couple of times.

There are literally hundreds of ways that a fly fisherman can lose a nice trout on prolific fisheries like the White River, the Norfork Tailwater and Lake Taneycomo, and in the majority of cases, fate plays just as big a role in success or failure as any blatant errors that an angler may make. Sometimes, after a properly-played fight, a fish will pop off for no apparent reason, or conversely, someone will get a hog to the net after making every mistake in the book, so it’s critical to realize that skill and luck both play major roles when it comes to actually landing a big one. The fish on our rivers do not grow to trophy size by being stupid with what they eat and how they engage in battle, so there are definitely elements of luck and skill involved when it comes to landing massive trout quickly (as to avoid over-stressing the fish) and successfully. Hopefully, the tips below will help those new to fishing for big trout with their ability to effectively fight and bring to hand a much sought-after Ozark beauty.


The quickest way to lose a hard-fighting and wily fish is to let the fly line go slack; even if it just happens for a split-second. There are many ways that unintended slack can become an issue: a pole could be dropped in a fit of excitement, the fish may make such a long run that a portion of the fly line becomes submerged (thus causing slack) or a “submarine” of a brown may make a 180-degree turn and start heading straight at the angler with such speed that it is impossible to strip or reel in the line fast enough to maintain a tight connection with the fish. It is not overly difficult to practice different techniques for avoiding and make the most out of these types of mishaps with a short amount of productive time on the water fighting trout of all sizes, as the most common ways in which anglers lose tightness on large fish are almost completely avoidable – this fundamental ‘process of errors’ is what I refer to as the “triangle of death”.


Hopefully, I have made it clear that slack in the fly line is the number-one way in which anglers of all skill levels lose big fish. Effectively fighting and landing a large, wily trout is a 50/50 proposition if everything is done perfectly, and these odds shift significantly in the fish’s favor with each minor mistake an angler makes. The “triangle of death” refers to how the fly line appears with respect to how the fly rod is handled during a fight with a fish, and the worst error that many excited fishermen make is when they accidentally strip line in front of their forefinger on their casting hand. This is a common mistake, but a deadly one because the angler will inevitably lose control of the fly line and this will almost always result in unwanted slack. The “triangle” in the “triangle of death” refers to the triangular shape that line resembles in front of forefinger. With this unneeded slack, it becomes impossible to maintain the line-control that is mandatory when trying to keep a tight line on an unpredictable trophy fish.

Combating and eventually eliminating the “triangle of death” involves commitment, and there will likely be some heartbreak along the way. Once you realize the mistakes that you commonly make, it will not take long for the “triangle of death” to be in your past. The first step in the process of becoming more proficient at fighting large fish involves getting into the habit of ALWAYS stripping your line from behind your forefinger – whether you are fighting a fish or stripping your line to make a fresh cast, and NEVER allow for there to be even a smidgen of slack between your stripping finger and the first guide on the fly rod.  Remember that your forefinger acts as your drag system, especially during the first few moments after hooking up. I do prefer that my clients fight big fish ‘on the reel’, but getting to this point takes patience and concentration; trying to reel in a bunch of excess fly line while worrying about the sudden actions of an angry trout is another way to put unwanted slack in your line or to make a myriad of other mistakes. A fish that is big enough to fight on the reel will usually get on the reel without any help during their first or second long run, but there are situations when a trout will fight close in, and if this occurs, trying to ‘force’ such a fish onto the reel will most likely result in a tragedy. In order to be a complete and confident fly fishermen who is ready to take their skill set to the next level, learning to control slack line while utilizing correct stripping techniques is what separates pro-status anglers from the pretenders.

Please feel free to call or email me if you have other questions regarding the “triangle of death” or any other technical aspects of handling big trout with a relatively light setup (3 to 6-weight rods rigged with 5x or 6x tippet). I made plenty of critical errors regarding line control during my learning phase as a fly fisherman, but luckily for me, I cut my teeth on the White River Basin, so there was always the chance to redeem myself on any given cast. There is no way that I would claim that practice has made me perfect, but I now am confident enough in my abilities to the point that I rarely lose a big fish because of poor stripping techniques or slack fly lines, and I do relish the times when one of my clients shows marked improvement over the course of a day on the water and they land a big one as a result. Although I do pride myself on putting fly anglers on as many fish as possible for the conditions at hand, my biggest satisfaction comes from showing people how to have the most fun and an extremely productive day on the water.


~ by troutdoctor101 on October 22, 2010.

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