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How to Reel in a Fish: Everything You Need to Know

The excitement of the fight is a big part of what keeps anglers coming back to the water, and knowing how to reel in the fish you’ve hooked is an important part of learning the sport.

What you may not realize, though, is that your technique needs to be adjusted to the size and strength of the fish on your line, as well as the tackle you’re using.

And while this isn’t as complicated as it might sound, you need to get a firm grasp of the techniques involved.

If you want to know how to reel in a fish, keep reading!


Tackle Matters: Rods, Reels, and Drag

If you’re fishing offshore for tuna, chances are you’ll be using a thick, sturdy rod and a massive reel. Tuna and other pelagic species are fast swimmers and hard fighters, and their muscular bodies and powerful fins can exert enormous pressure on your tackle.

reeling in deep sea fish

Tackle for deep sea fishing tends to be heavy and robust.

By contrast, you might be throwing worms to crappie on a small pond, watching a float for any signs of a bite. Your rod will be pencil-thin and light, and the reel might be no bigger than your fist! Check out our top recommendations here:

Best Light Fishing Rod | Best Light Fishing Reel

reeling in panfish

Tackle for trout and panfish tends to be light.

Obviously, your tackle will be matched to the size and strength of your quarry: big, heavy tackle for big heavy fish, and progressively lighter tackle as you work your way down to the little guys.

Your rod will act like a spring, and its stiffness should be paired to the species you're after. The right choice here means that you’ll have enough rod to maintain pressure on the fish, tiring it out and allowing you to control (or at least affect) its movements.

Your reel is no less important. It has a critical setting called the drag. This mechanism exerts force against the line, protecting it from sudden surges by releasing line to prevent a shock that might break it. Typically, your drag will be set at about 30 percent of the strength of your line.

For instance, this means that if you're fishing with 12-pound line, your drag will be set in the neighborhood of 4 pounds. That means that if a fish exerts more than 4 pounds of force on your line, the spool will release in a controlled manner, allowing the fish to “take” line and run.

If you try to reel against the drag, nothing will happen: the spool will release when the pull on the line exceeds the drag setting, no matter how hard you crank it!

That’s intentional; that’s how it should work.

If you set your drag too high, you’ll risk breaking off your line. If you set your drag too low, it will be all but impossible to fight the fish.

When a fish is “taking” your drag, let it run!

How to Fight Small Fish

fisherman reeled in crappie

Trust me, panfish like crappie know how to fight!

You’ve set the hook on a big smallmouth bass on a crystal-clear river, and the fight is on!

What do you do?

If you’ve set your drag properly, you’ll find that unless the fish makes a sudden, hard turn or really rushes away from you, your reel will hold as you crank the handle.

Keep your rod tip at about 45 degrees - never point it along the line to the fish.

You want the rod to bend, acting like a spring to protect your line and place more pressure on the fish.

Keep your line tight!

Loose line with slack releases pressure on your hook and can allow the fish to dislodge it with rapid, hard head shakes.

With your rod tip high and a tight line, start cranking the reel handle. If you hear the drag releasing, stop reeling, and let the fish fight the drag and your rod.

Pick up the slack, and begin reeling again.

If necessary, use your rod tip to exert pressure on the fish by raising it to 90 degrees or so, then lower it back to 45 degrees while you reel in the slack you’ve created.

How to Fight Bigger Fish

fisherman reeled in bass

It will take some skill to fight this bass into your boat.

Maybe you’re bass fishing on a big lake and a largemouth has just hammered your jerkbait.

What do you do?

Keep your rod tip at about 45 degrees - never point it along the line to the fish.

Keep your line tight!

Crank your reel, and if necessary, pull your rod tip up to 90 degrees or sweep it to the side to put more pressure on the fish. The lighter your tackle relative to the size of the fish, the more necessary this will be.

You want to work that fish through the water with your rod, cranking as you need to to keep your line tight.

The bass will sense the danger it’s in and may try to head for cover like submerged branches, roots, stumps, or trees. If it manages this, at the very least, things will get together for you, and at worst, it might be able to break your line.

You want to use your rod like a spring to help you fight that fish away from these obstacles.

Once you have your fish out in the open, raise your rod tip to exert pressure and lower it again as you retrieve

How to Fight Big Fish

fish put up a fight when reeling in

A big red like this is going to put up a memorable fight!

You’ve finally hooked a big bull red, and that brute is fighting for all its worth.

What do you do?

Keep your rod tip at about 45 degrees - never point it along the line to the fish.

Keep your line tight!

With the drag set properly, the fish may still take line from time to time, making runs that will inevitably tire it out. During these runs, keep your rod tip high and let the fish do its thing.

The drag is working to tire the fish, making it fight for line - and it can’t do that forever.

As soon as the run stops, start picking up line to remove any slack, and use your rod to exert pressure on the fish and win that line back. Raise the tip to 90 degrees, using your rod like a spring, and lower it again to 45 degrees, picking up the line you’ve fought for and won as you do.

But if the fish makes a run for mangroves or other obstacles, you’ll want to try to turn it with your rod, fighting it back away from anything that can help the fish break your line. Keep your rod tip high and turn the fish back toward you.

Then, return to the pump and retrieve pattern.

For true monsters like grouper, large sharks, big tuna, and the like, you’ll need specialized techniques that your charter captain will show you.

specialized techniques to reel in big fish

True monsters may require specialized techniques.

Final Thoughts

You’ll notice a few things that every fight has in common:

  • Keep your rod angle at 45 degrees or higher
  • Keep your line tight
  • Reel as you lower your rod, not once the rod is in the “down” position

Those are the basics around which you build your skills as a fisherman.

And always try to return your fish to the water as quickly and gently as possible!

If you have any questions or comments, we’re here to help, so please drop us a line below!

About The Author
Pete Danylewycz