How to Fight a Fish
Successfully identifying a strike and responding fast enough to set the hook solidly aren't enough to ensure that you'll consistently catch fish. Hooking fish and getting them to your boat are two entirely different things. Even pros lose their share of fish, especially when using light tackle. There are lots of bruisers out there, many that have been caught before, and plenty of structure for them to cut you off with. When you hook a fish, you have to fight smart or lose.
Determine the size of the fish. When you first set the hook, keep the rod at about 2 o'clock for a moment. Be ready to loosen your drag immediately if you think the fish is big enough to break off. The fish will either run, jump, or simply wiggle a lot.
Raise the rod but don't reel up line. Pick the rod tip up until you're holding it at 1 o'clock. Hold on for a moment; let the fish fight the bend of the rod, the drag, and the bend/stretch in the line. If the fish is taking line, don't turn the reel handle. Adjust the drag if necessary. Cranking while the fish is running will only twist the line, so watch the spool. Every time you raise the rod, you gain a bit of line on the fish.
Lower the rod and gain line. Repeat Step 2. When the fish stops running, lower the rod tip as you're taking up line. Only crank the handle as you're lowering the tip. Go back to Step 2.
Tiring the Fish and Gaining Line
Once you've set the hook, one of two things will occur. If the fish is relatively small, you can simply drop your rod tip, take up slack, and reel it in. Other fish will be too strong to pull to the surface; in this case your goal is to tire out the fish using the drag, the line, and the rod. You have to keep constant pressure on them; if you let any slack in between you and the fish, it will more often than not shake the hook. There's a sure method for keeping slack out of your line, and that's by slowly and surely pumping the fish towards you. Hold your rod tip up, slowly drop it towards the fish, take up slack, and repeat. Every time you raise the rod tip you'll gain a foot or so of line.
If your drag is set properly, a big fish will often run with the lure or bait. Don't turn the handle if the fish is taking line off the reel; you'll only succeed in twisting the line. If the fish is running, let it run. You might have to steer it away from structure, but you shouldn't put too much pressure on it (called horsing).
Let the fish tire, and bring it gently to the side of your boat. Fish often run once or twice and then settle down to a hard tugging contest. That's the time to gain line. When they get close enough to see you or the boat for the first time, they sometimes get a second wind and take off again. Be patient, pumping when you can, and you'll win your share of the battles.
Some fish, particularly tarpon and snook, jump when they're hooked. You can usually tell that a fish is going to jump because you'll see the line heading to the surface. If this happens, keep constant and smooth pressure on the fish to make sure it doesn't throw the hook out. Be careful, too. If the fish is close enough, it can throw the lure, along with all its sharp hooks, directly at you.
Tarpon can exhibit some incredible aerobatics. If you pull while they're jumping you will almost always pull the hook out. They're just too heavy to pressure. When a tarpon jumps, bow toward it, bending at the waist (called bowing to the tarpon).
This decreases the chance that it will get away. (Ninety percent of the ones you hook will get off anyway, despite any bowing, praying, or cursing you might try!
Steering the Fish
Steering a fish is one of the most interesting and important skills you can develop. Controlling a fish's direction isn't so important if you hook a fish in deep water or on open flats. Hook a fish under a dock, near heavy oysters, around a bridge, or underneath heavy mangroves, however, controlling a fish's movement can make the difference between a gentle release and a suddenly disconnected line. Fish will always try to cut you off if there is structure nearby.
You have to watch the line where it meets the water, and monitor the direction the fish is moving. If the fish moves right, pull left. If it pulls left, apply pressure to the right. This way you can steer it in the right direction.