How to Use Side Pressure to Catch More Fish

If you’ve ever hooked into a massive fish, there’s also a decent chance you’ve lost a massive fish. Sometimes it’s bad luck, but often it’s because you’ve done something wrong while playing the fish. Learning to use side pressure while fighting a fish can be the difference between a great catch and a broken line.

First, we need to break down some basics.

How the rod works

Fly rods are designed to help you out when you’re trying to land fish. They simultaneously bend to absorb pressure and also provide a backbone for you to leverage during the fight. While modern fly rods are extremely well-designed products that do their job well, they aren’t much use if not used properly.

Depending on what gear you’re using and what sort of fish you’re catching, the rod needs to be used accordingly. Sometimes this means keeping your rod tip high (as quoted by nearly every instructor out there), and sometimes it means breaking that golden rule.

When to keep your rod tip high

If you’ve ever taken a casting class, gone on a guided trip, or had a buddy teach you to fish, there’s a good chance you’ve been told to keep your rod tip high while fighting a fish. And, there’s a good chance this was good advice at the time.

Often, keeping the rod tip up is the right thing to do. The rod tip is very flexible compared to the butt section. When you keep your rod tip high, you’re causing the rod to bend more at the tip and less in the butt section. This is exactly what you want when you’re fighting smaller fish.

As small fish dart and thrash, you need the rod to give in to the pressure quickly and frequently to avoid breaking your tippet. Since you usually use thin tippet with small to medium fish, if the rod tip doesn’t provide some give, the tippet will likely break. Keeping the rod tip high in this situation will be an efficient way to constantly provide the give needed to play the fish.

When to drop your rod tip

When you’re fishing for monsters, you’ll probably be using a heavier rod and stronger tippet. In this case, it’s less important that you give in to a crazy thrashing fish, and more important that you actually put strong, steady pressure on the fish. If you’re using the appropriate tippet for the conditions, you should expect to be able to give some decent pressure during the fight.

At this point, holding the rod tip straight up will just cause you to fight the fish for way too long. Yeah, you probably won’t break your line, but you also won’t be making progress toward landing the fish. Dropping the rod will allow you to use the thick butt section of the rod to fight the fish. Now, you can actually apply pressure to the fish and bring it in.

A diagram showing how a fly rod flexes while pointed up and pointed down.
The difference in flex between a high-tip position and a low-tip position.

What is side pressure?

Knowing when to keep the rod high and when to drop the tip is useful. However, simply lowering the rod doesn’t do a lot by itself. This is especially true when the fish makes it downstream of you, because at that point you’ll have both the fish and the river working against you.

This is where side pressure comes in. Side pressure is essentially just tilting your lowered rod left or right to efficiently fight the fish. The key here is to “guide” the fish instead of just pulling against it. The fish can only pull in the direction it’s facing. This means that if you control which way it faces, you can essentially make it go where you want it.

You can use side pressure whether the fish is upstream, straight out, or downstream of you. However, the way you use it may be different in each scenario.

How to use side pressure…

…when the fish is upstream

If the fish is upstream of you, that’s good. You already have the upper hand here, because the river is working to your advantage and you’re not at risk of the fish acting as deadweight in the current.

In this situation, side pressure may not be vital to actually getting the fish to come downstream to you, but you can use it to guide the fish toward your bank. As you face the fish upstream, angle your rod tip down to the side closest to your bank.

You won’t need to apply a ton of force to get the fish to slowly move to the side, since the current is coming toward you, and you’re simply making the fish “move over” instead of trying to turn it around. As the fish drifts toward your shore, you can walk upstream and attempt to net it. If it makes another run upstream away from you, no biggie. Just repeat. You still have the upper hand.

…when the fish is straight out

Okay, don’t panic. The fish is no longer upstream, but you’re still not that likely to break it off at this point. Now, you’ll be using side pressure to keep the fish from going downstream.

Whereas before you used side pressure to slowly guide the fish to its left or right, now you’ll use it to stop the fish in its tracks. The whole goal here is to keep the fish where you want it. Keeping the rod tip up in this situation wouldn’t actually command the fish to go in any direction but toward you. Since you wouldn’t actually be able to apply strong pressure in your direction with just the tip, odds are that the fish would pull back and eventually end up downstream.

Instead, if the fish starts to head downstream, drop your rod to the upstream side and apply pressure. If you’re using the butt section of your rod, you should have enough support to turn the fish around and get it facing upstream again. Once it’s facing upstream, keep using this upstream side pressure to guide the fish upstream.

Remember, the fish can only swim in the direction it’s facing.

…when the fish is downstream

Code red. You blew it and now the fish is downstream. But, you can still save yourself if you know what you’re doing.

The first step here, even before using side pressure, is to make an attempt at catching up to the fish. If you’re wading along a smooth shore in calm water, it’s super easy to just walk downstream until you’re in line with the fish. I’ve done plenty of sprints to catch up to an escaping fish, and it often solves my problem.

But, sometimes this isn’t an option. Maybe you’re in very fast water. Maybe there are giant boulders preventing you from running downstream. Maybe it’s slippery. In these cases, side pressure saves the day again.

Side pressure downstream works a lot like side pressure upstream. At this point, you don’t want to just pull the fish toward you. Between the downstream pull of the fish and the current, you’re sure to break your tippet. Your only option here is to encourage the fish to move toward your shore.

A diagram of how to use side pressure when fishing a river

Drop your rod on the side toward your shore and use the backbone of the rod to lead the fish. As it gets close to your bank, you can try to make it down to net it. If that’s not possible, you will at least not have the full force of the mid-river current working against you. Then, you may be able to get the fish turned around and moving upstream.

If you can get it back up to your position in the river, you’re back to having the upper hand.

Using side pressure isn’t going to be necessary on most small trout streams. If you like chasing the big boys though, it can make or break you. Learning to do it correctly will absolutely up your success with larger fish and make you more confident on the water.

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This is a list I made and use for my own trips, and I think any backcountry angler will find it handy.