By Jeff Little
My Instagram feed tells the same story I live out each Saturday: shots of fish in the net, arm’s length selfies with vertically held fish, grip n grins and release shots. As vivid and beautiful these memories are to each of us, somehow they aren’t the moments in time that we recall the most. Somehow that split second of a huge airborne bass gets more highlight reel play time in our brains. You know - the one that rattled it’s gills and tossed your jerkbait aside like it was a used tissue. Yep. That one. The one you really wish that you got to hang on your Boca Grip to see exactly how heavy it was, but didn’t.
These memories serve the same purpose as a high school football team watching game film following a pride crushing loss to a bitter rival. Who missed that block? Did the ball carrier miss a hole big enough to drive a bus through? Who’s tackling with their arms instead of their whole body? The only difference is that it’s not a team loss. It’s on your shoulders alone. So think about those "one’s that got away". They can teach you a lot if you can break down your mechanics during the fight.
One of the lessons that has been slow to sink into my skull is drag management. Setting your drag is something that you’ll just have to experiment with to get it where it needs to be for the lure you are using. I’ll set my drag on trolled baits looser than I would a rod that I’m flipping a brush jig with. However you set the drag, consider backing off the drag once you know that you’ve effectively buried the hooks into the fish’s jaw.
Treble hooks had been particularly problematic for me. Even with a moderate action rod, fish could twist, head shake or simply swim past me at speed, resulting in the bait popping free. My hookset itself has evolved from the same upward swing I employ with a jig to one that is best described as simply speeding up the retrieve to maximum speed without swinging the rod in order to dig the hooks in.
To be honest, there is a quarter sweep of the rod at the end, but the main force of burying the treble hooks comes from the reel, not the rod’s swing. Once that’s done, I allow the rod to load appropriately and do it’s job. So there’s a burst of reeling speed once you realize there’s a fish, then you back off the speed and feel the fish on a slightly bent rod.
At this point, I am forming an opinion: "Is this a big fish, or something I can horse in, unhook and get back to casting?" If it feels big and it isn’t charging directly at me, I’ll back off the drag some. I needed the drag tight when I was fast reeling to set the hooks. But now, any tightness in the drag will just serve to rip that hole in the fish’s jaw even larger, allowing room for it to back out of the hole on the first head shake. There are exceptions to this approach, but barring heavy cover, I almost always back off the drag a quarter turn for the portion of the fight following the burying of the hooks.
It doesn’t matter if I am using a spinning rod or baitcaster. Backing off the drag helps me land more fish. Now retrieve speed, or lack thereof combined with controlling the angle of your rod make up the rest of the mechanics of your fight. People figure that part out.
You do what you can to keep there from being slack in the line, which can be tough with a hard charging smallmouth that wants to tail walk with open mouth directly into the side of your kayak. You can shove your rod tip down into the water when you see them moving toward the surface to jump. Keep them in the water if you can. But having that drag loosened a little keeps that hole you just poked in their jaw as small as possible. That prevents many examples of spitting the bait following a hard charge.
When you do manage to get the fish into the net, know that your drag adjustment job isn’t over. Before you get back to casting again, you’ll want to make sure that you bring the drag back to tight again. Otherwise you’ll be reeling into a hookset that won’t happen because you left the drag loose. I’ve done it many times, and that leads to more of the kind of highlight reel footage you don’t want to see.