Matt's Corner: Dropping Line

Dropping Line is a unique technique used by many steelhead anglers to improve the quality of the hookup when fishing a swung fly. The method was actually developed for Atlantic salmon fishing and is attributed to A.H.E. Wood, whose angling prowess was immortalized by Jock Scott in Greased Line Fishing for Salmon.

Don’t Set the Hook!

The technique is simple and applies when fishing the traditional swung fly or the broadside “greased line” presentation, either on or near the surface with a floating line, or deep in the water column with sink tips. To execute the technique, the angler holds a loop of slack line between the reel and her/his rod hand with the fingers on the rod hand. If a steelhead takes the fly as it is swinging around toward the dangle the angler must then very quickly convince himself to do exactly the opposite of what he thinks he should do. He must not set the hook! Rather, he allows the steelhead to pull the loop of slack line out without any resistance. Once the loop of slack line is taken out and the anglers feel the weight of the steelhead on the line, he simply raises the rod tip smoothly up and toward the near bank. The fish is hooked, usually, and either begins some stationary antics like head shakes or body twists, or (and this is the good stuff) goes dashing across and downstream at full speed, which for a large steelhead can be well over 20 mph (32 km/hr).

corner hook

PS – Despite the fact that I have use the word “He” throughout this paragraph, I have no reason to believe that “She” would catch fewer steelhead using this method. Back when I guided for trout my female clients nearly always outfished their male counterparts.


As far as I’m concerned, dropping line is a brilliant method for several reasons:

It results in a majority of fished hooked securely well back or in the corner of the jaw. When a steelhead takes on a tight line (no slack line is dropped) the hook either penetrates at its first point of contact, or not at all. This often translates to fish hooked lightly in the skin or up near the nose where the hook often pulls free because the skin tears or the hook levers back and forth during the fight and eventually falls out. For those who haven’t fished for steelhead, realize that you don’t hook very many of them, and that that losing them is bad. When you drop line after a steelhead has grabbed the fly, the fish is allowed to turn down towards the bottom or away from the angler before the hook point makes initial contact with its mouth. When the line comes tight it pulls the hook back into the corner of the mouth in the opposite direction that the fish is now headed. The hook set is nearly automatic. Another thing that may happen (if the fish does not turn or move away after taking the fly) is that the current can create a bit of a belly in the slack line and when it comes tight the fly is pulled to the side of the fish and into the jaw rather than straight upstream and into the skin of its nose or out of its mouth.

You can learn a lot about how fish are taking your fly. The combination of water speed and the speed and direction the fish is traveling during and after the take determines how quickly the loop of slack line is taken out. If the fish are moving fast and taking aggressively, you will hardly have time to think about the technique. The slack loop will literally be ripped from you hand by the fish. Less aggressive fish in no hurry to take the fly will test your patience and the loop will be taken out slowly. I’ve had it take as much as 6 seconds I’d guess to drop 3 or 4 feet of slack line. Also, pay attention to the side of the mouth in which the fish is hooked (if you land it). This can give you a clue about how the fish reacted after taking the fly. Imagine the fish facing upstream. If the fly is hooked on the side of the fish facing the bank you are fishing from, then the fish either took the fly in the classic head and tail rise and turned down for the bottom after taking the fly, it saw the fly swinging in towards it and raced out farther into the river to grab it, or it followed the fly across the current and swam past it in order to take the fly on the way back out into the main current. If the fish is hooked on the side facing away from your bank then it likely raced across the current in pursuit and then turned downstream after grabbing the fly. In my experience, this is the take that feels like “a ton of bricks” or “a bolt of lightning”. *

It teaches you mental discipline in the face of pure excitement and adrenaline. It is hard to learn to react properly (Don’t set the hook!) because most of us started out trout fishing, where you set the hook when you see or feel a strike. It is a hard habit to break, but it can be done. Every year I get better, and I find myself much more poised toward the end of the steelhead season than I was for those first few grabs of the year. Yeah, this is probably just more Zen crap about fly fishing, but if you take the time to learn the method and then execute it properly, you will be rewarded with more landed steelhead.

It gives you another excuse for lost fish. “I just didn’t drop enough line on it.” This reason is pure rubbish of course, but I’ve heard it used so many times that I just had to include it. People lose fish for lots of reasons, but most need only be categorized as either the fish’s fault (it did not take the fly well enough to become hooked well) or the fisherman’s fault (he wasn’t good enough to land the fish).

A fish taking your slack loop out is the most exhilarating part of steelheading. All of your excitement, anticipation, hope, and fear are amplified in those few short moments. In Sexyloops terms, you go from “It’s all about to happen.” to “It’s all happening!” in the blink of an eye.


With any fishing technique there are nuances and tricks that help improve your success. There is no substitute for real, on the water experience and first hand learning, but here are a couple of things to think about when the grab finally comes. These are just a couple of things I’ve learned over the last few years.

When I started to use this technique a while back, it took the name “dropping line” literally, and simply let go of my loop of slack line as soon as I felt a fish take the fly. This worked well on occasions where the take was particularly fast and violent, but failed miserably on occasions where the take was more subtle. The slack line would just sit there or go out so slowly I could not judge it well. Sometimes this would take as much as 10 seconds. On some occasions it would come tight again, on others it would not. Now I use a different technique. I don’t let the line go. I let it slip through my fingers, making sure to give no resistance, but remaining in contact with the loop of slack line. This seems to work a lot better, and I get too feel every bit of the action. I can feel how quickly the slack line is being taken by the fish, and I can tell if the fish has lost its hold on the fly.

Loop size matters. I like to carry a bigger loop of slack line for faster/deeper water or when I expect a fish to move farther for my fly (such as when fishing with a floating line and light fly). I carry a smaller loop when fishing very deep with sink tips, especially in slow, cold water where a fish does not have to move very far to take the fly. In general, my length of slack line varies from 2 to 6 feet, but I find myself holding about 3 feet most of the time.

drop loop

This photo shows the typical amount of slack line I carry in a loop.
Paul, I hope you like the tights better than my hairy legs.

Other Observations

Often a fish takes the fly as it swings into the dangle, the fly hanging straight downstream in the current. This situation presents problems for me, and others I’ve talked to. A solid hookup is rare, and I believe has more to do with how the fish takes the fly that what the angler does during and after the take. If the take is aggressive dropping line can work just fine. Often, however, fish that are not taking aggressively will follow the fly around until it stops swinging and then nip or grab it. Such fish are often in no hurry to return to their original lie. Dropping line can work but it is a real test of patience. For me, soft takes on the hang down rarely result in solid hookups. I just haven’t come up with a way to hook them better yet. Even so, there are 2 things that I do to improve my odds. Very late in the swing, as the fly comes into the dangle, I give it a bit of additional action by giving the line a short (6-12 inches), sharp tug, and letting it fall back into its swing. I always do this 2 or 3 times before casting again, and it seems to trigger an aggressive response from some of those fish that follow the fly in. These takes usually result in solid hookups. If I fish does take softly on the dangle, and I do hook it, I tend to play the fish with caution, exerting less pressure on the fish that I would normally do. I’m not sure if this makes a difference, but at least I feel like I’m trying my best to maximize my odds of landing the fish.

As well as Dropping Line works for hooking steelhead and Atlantic salmon, I’ve had crappy luck getting it to work while swinging wet flies or streamers for other fish such as trout or smallmouth bass. I intend to experiment more with this as there seems to be no obvious reason for my failures. The only thing I can think of is that small trout and bass do not have enough speed and mass to pull the slack line out and you end up with a bit of loose line in there that ruins the hookset. I’d love to hear any observations on this if you have them.

* For more on how steelhead take flies read the chapter How a Steelhead Takes Your Fly in Dec Hogan’s fine book, A Passion For Steelhead.

Matt Klara is a great all-round fly fisher, from chasing Montana browns to Bahamas bonefish, an innovative tyer who casts with his mouth open, he bought himself a camo hat last year and now mistakenly believes he's invisible. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.

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