There are always doubters when something new or different replaces a standard. I first used a two-handed retrieve with the rod under my arm back in the mid-’60s. I learned about this while reading one of Joe Brooks’ fly-fishing books, in which he mentioned using both hands to increase the speed of the fly on the retrieve.
But once I started to use this retrieve, it seemed so natural. It added a flow, a rhythm to the fly’s movement that I soon became addicted to. And it was not long before I retrieved with both hands almost exclusively. I suppose you could say the two-handed retrieve became my trademark. One of the major criticisms of this method concerned hooking fish — most anglers thought it would not work on many species, and certainly not on difficult-to-hook fish like tarpon. At the time, I had little experience fishing for tarpon and hoped to have a chance to prove that this method would work on this challenging game fish. In the early ’70s, I got my opportunity. I had a lot of confidence in this retrieve. On a trip to Costa Rica, I put it to the test. Hooking jungle-river tarpon is trial by fire because you are casting a long line and then fishing a sinking line well below the surface, and often there is a bow in the line. Most tarpon guides in other areas like to limit casting distance to 50 feet and prefer a straight line to the fish. In six days of fishing, I thought my hooking success was very good on river tarpon — I landed seven or eight, dropped perhaps the same number and broke off four. The fish ranged from 50 to 90 pounds. I had better success than most. It was not a hot fishing week for anyone by Casa Mar standards, but there was enough action to prove how well a two-handed retrieve worked. On a later trip, fishing for tarpon in Mexico, I hooked and landed five fish in one day. I had about a 70 percent hooking-landing ratio on tarpon. The fish were smaller, 20 to 40 pounds, but again, the hooking effectiveness was excellent.
When I first started recommending this technique, I ran into numerous doubters. There were anglers who actually thought they would drop the rod after hooking a fish and that the action of the fly would be limited. But the looming question was about hooking fish. How could you hook a fish without using the rod? Well, the rod should never be used to hook a fish unless you’re fishing with small hooks and using a light tippet. Trout anglers set the hook with the rod because the tip bends and absorbs most of the shock with a thin tippet. In salt water, penetrating a fish’s tough jaw with a big hook is the major issue. Anglers who lift the rod to hook a fish lose some of the positive pull required to drive the hook home. I tell my students that you use the rod to present the fly and fight the fish, but you use your hands to work the fly and hook the fish.
After making a cast, use your noncasting hand to slip the rod under your casting arm, putting the handle in your armpit. The reel should be right behind the triceps muscle of your arm. Be sure to hold only the rod’s handle, not the reel. If you feel your arm going numb, you’re probably pinching the reel handle into your upper arm muscle. Use just enough pressure to keep the rod in place. Some anglers use their noncasting arm to hold the rod, but I actually prefer using my casting arm. For me, putting the rod under my casting arm is a much easier and natural transition from casting to retrieving. I’ve found that when I’m sight-casting, this seems to be much quicker, with less motion. But experiment by retrieving with the rod under each arm, and see what works best for you. Once you use this system, the movement of the rod from arm to hand and back becomes second nature. I never think about — if I need to make a quick cast, the rod is there, ready for action.
Hooking fish with the rod under your arm does two advantageous things. First, it creates a straight line between you and the fish. This straight line allows for maximum pressure during the actual hook-set. Second, hooking fish with the rod under your arm keeps the fly in the fish’s range. If the strike is missed, the fly will almost always remain in range of the fish for a follow-up bite. When anglers strike with the rod, the fly is moved many feet from the fish more often than not — setting the hook with both hands keeps the fly close to the fish. Many times when hooking fish, you just continue retrieving until the line tightens. Often there is no need to set the hook because the routine of stripping actually sets it automatically. There are many other advantages. Fish that take a fly while swimming toward the boat will most often put a good amount of slack in the line. It’s easier and much faster to recover this slack line with two hands. Also, using two hands can help you adjust to the way a fish is moving. Some anglers like to set the hook using a long, hard pull, which can pop a leader if the fish strikes hard and quickly turns. By using a two-handed retrieve, you can adjust based on how the fish takes the fly. If there is slack, a steady recovery of line is more effective.
Different Retrieve Types
A continuous retrieve keeps the fly moving in a steady flow. Depending on the speed that is needed, this can be just a hand-over-hand retrieve. When you’re using short pulls, the fly’s action will be slightly erratic — for a steady flow, use long pulls and try to start the next pull before finishing the strip you are doing. This seems to be the latest craze among tarpon anglers fishing worm patterns. And coincidentally, it is a good retrieve to use when stripers are feeding during the nereis worm hatch that takes place up north.
Anglers who head offshore should be aware that when they’re fishing for speedsters like tuna, false albacore and bonito, a quick takeup is a major advantage in enticing fish to bite, as well as in actually hooking fish.
Stripping your fly with two hands offers many benefits. It allows your casting arm to rest between casts and also gives you two free hands to control your line when a fish runs. It takes a little getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, you will see this technique increase your catching.