A question I am often asked is "how do you know a fish has taken the fly?"
Let me put your fears to rest: you will know. There are plenty of fish out there that will take the fly so aggressively, that they obviously intend to pull you in. These ones are fairly easy to notice. Hooking them can be another story. How on earth a fish can manage to take a fly, almost pull the rod out of your hand and yet not get hooked is an absolute mystery to me. But there it stands.
Down the scale on subtleness is the solid fish-hooking take. This is often immediately followed by a large amount of splashing, and in the case of surface feeding fish, a dramatic 'here I am' joyous leap.
Along the same lines (pun! – sorry) is the 'everything just stops' take. You are pulling the fly back and everything just locks up.
When fishing dry flies, the best clue we have as to fish taking our fly, is it poking its head out and slurping it down.
Of course these are all pretty easy, but with imitative fly fishing, especially dead drift, the takes can be far harder to detect. Sometimes we watch the end of the flyline for a movement, at other times we can grease up some of the leader and watch that.
Karen: Paul, would you please brief me on (grease up) thanks.
Paul: This made me smile :-) What we sometimes do is apply some floatant to part of the leader. This makes the leader stay in the surface film where we can watch it. When a fish takes the fly a bit of the leader disappears. This only really works well at close range and under calm conditions. BTW it is very important not to get any grease on the leader close to the fly as a floating leader looks like a streak of lightening when viewed from below.
Strike indicators can be attached to the leader (where allowed – it's a bit like float fishing and hence frowned upon by some, but you can get around this by fishing a big colourful dry fly half way up the leader, assuming the rules allow two flies).
The flyline near the tip of the rod can be studied – I do this with sinking lines during pauses in the retrieve.
Subtler still, are surface disturbances in the area where we expect our flies to be. When a fish turns on the fly it displaces water. This can be a good indication of a take.
Harder to see are flashes of silver of a turning fish. Glimpses of white can be an indication of a take (the inside of a trout's mouth is white – now we are really getting optimistic).
Harder to describe but certainly as important, if not more important, is a feeling. It's a sort of "not sure why but something just ain't right" feeling. This is always a fish.
So the next question is what do you do next?
Let me first tell you what you don't do. You don't give the line a good yank with your free hand. I point this out because I have seen it done. If you want to pull the fly out of the fishes mouth, then this is a good technique to try, of course, no doubt, if you want to miss the fish, the rules of these things state that every fish will be well and truly hooked.
Another thing you don't do is leap backwards in a dramatic manner, simultaneously violently striking the rod and yelling 'fish on' at the top of your lungs. Not unless you want someone to come along and throw you in.
So what you do do is you smartly lift the rod tip. This movement set the hook. Easy.
Now let me give you a tip. Strike sideways. You will hook more fish. This goes double if you are fishing with a sinking flyline.