An observer may find a fly fisherman working with a rapt concentration on a knot, placing the line in his mouth for an instant, then pulling carefully on the line until the knot slips into place. Why does he give such attention to the simple act of tying two pieces of fishing line together? Fly fishermen know how important knots are to angling success. The backing must be knotted where it attaches to the reel. Fly line is attached to the backing and to the leader, the leader is tied to the tippet, and the tippet is tied to the fly. Sometimes, a second fly is tied to the hook of the first fly. The best fly fishing equipment will not catch fish if any one of these knots fails.
Anglers rig up their lines before they arrive at stream or pond. However, the nature of the sport requires fishermen to tie on new tippets and flies while they are fishing, often while they are wading in a stream. This is yet another reason why fly fishing requires patience. Tying intricate knots in nearly invisibly fine filament while standing in flowing water, with a stiff breeze blowing and a nine-foot fishing rod tucked under one’s arm is quite a trick. In addition to patience, it requires practice, preferably on dry land, in a comfortable location, so that one can do it under more demanding conditions.
Essential Knots Used in Fly Fishing
Every fly fisherman must master these six basic knots:
- Backing to fly reel
- Albright Knot
- Nail Knot
- Loop-to-Loop Connection
- Surgeon’s Knot
- Clinch Knot
There are more knots that are useful, but these six are enough to keep an angler’s lines together.
The backing must be tied securely to the reel so that it does not allow the whole mass of backing to slip freely on the spool, which would hinder the angler’s ability to play the fish. The backing is secured by being looped around the spool hub twice, then tied securely with an overhand knot. The end of the backing should be knotted as well, to prevent it from slipping free.
Albright Knot & Nail Knot
The Albright Knot and Nail Knot provide strong connections between lines of differing diameters, such as between backing and fly line and between the fly line and leader. A nail or tube was originally used for this knot, but pocket-sized tools are available to make Nail Knots easier.
The Loop-to-Loop Connection is quick and strong, but it’s easy to connect the two ends incorrectly and end up with a weak connection. The Surgeon’s Knot, which any surgeon will attest is not actually used during surgery, is an indispensable fisherman’s knot. Quickly tied and very strong, it gets the angler back to casting while the fish are still rising.
The Clinch Knot is used most frequently to attach the fly to the tippet, or a dropper fly to the hook of the first fly. Many anglers insist that an Improved Clinch Knot should always be used since it is stronger, but that is a matter of preference and experience.
Here’s a quick video of how to improve clinch knot:
Guides to Knot Tying
Learning how to tie these intricate knots requires demonstration or at least illustration. The aspiring fly fisherman can readily learn these skills by purchasing an illustrated guide to knot tying. Practicing with a piece of stiff cord allows for an easier understanding of knot construction. Once the techniques are mastered and the ins and outs of line and tag ends are well understood, it’s time to practice with fly line, leader, and tippet. An excellent guide is Tom Rosenbauer’s Orvis Vest Pocket Guide to Leaders, Knots & Tippets, (Lyons Press).
The angler who has mastered these six basic knots is ready to go after some fish. When an acrobatic trout snaps off the tippet and the fly is lost, the fisherman is ready. He attaches a new tippet securely to his leader, lubricating the Surgeon’s Knot with a bit of saliva to help the lines slide into place. He selects a new fly from his fly box and deftly ties it on with a quick but strong Clinch Knot. In only a couple of minutes, he is ready to cast again, secure in the knowledge that when the fish takes the fly, those good knots will hold tight.