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Fly fishing knot fundamentals

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Most of us fly fishers get stuck in our ways. We learn a few basic fly fishing knots and never really venture out beyond the improved clinch knot and blood knot. While both of these knots serve admirably and pretty much cover every situation you might need to tie leader, tippet, and fly, there are many other knots that offer unique advantages and attributes that should not be overlooked as an angler advances from beginner, to novice, to intermediate, advanced, and finally a master angler with the fly.

A knot is nothing more than a connection, but is absolutely critical to fly fishing success. Put Lee Wulff, Bob Clouser, Ted Willams, Lefty Kreh, or any other fly fishing pro on the water using inferior, poorly tied, incorrectly tied, or totally inadequate knots, and regardless of their incredible skill, they would be unlikely to land the kind of fish that have made them famous anglers.

Factors in knot tying include:

  • The objective of the connection: tippet to hook, tippet to leader connection, leader to fly line connection, fly line to backing connection, or backing to reel connection.
  • The gamefish - how it fights, the characteristics of its mouth (toothy, hard, soft, etc.).
  • The hook size and wire gauge.
  • The tippet diameter - the finer the diameter, the more turns may be needed.
  • The line material - nylon mono, flourocarbon, and braid all have different characteristics that may impact the strength of the knot being tied. Additionally, connections of unlike size (i.e., 4X to 3X tippet) or material (i.e., mono to fly line) have important considerations.
  • The fishing conditions. Certain knots may survive harsher conditions, such as those encountered in abrasive environments, structure, and current.
  • The amount of time available to tie the knot. More intricate knots may be stronger, but an angler might not have the time if the fishing is fast and furious.
  • The purpose of the fly. When fishing a popper or streamer where movement is key, a loop type connection that allows the fly to move is better than a fixed knot connection such as an improved clinch knot.

Basics in tying effective knots:

  • Moisten the knot after it is formed and before it is tightened.
  • Slowly tighten the knot. A quick pull creates friction, heat, and reduces the knot strength.
  • Make sure you tighten the knot properly. In some cases, like the non-slip mono loop knot, this means tightening from the hook, the tag end, and the standing end, simultaneously.
  • Test the knot by pulling on it hard. All knots begin to slip just before they break. The tighter one can draw a knot, the more force it can withstand before slippage occurs.
  • Trim the knot carefully. It's best not to burn the end as this can weaken the knot. Some knots actually require a tag end that's a little longer, but in general, trim closely and at a 45 degree angle facing back toward the knot. Where a connection knot might need to slip through rod guides, coat the knot with a rubber based cement that remains flexible.

Knot tying can appear complex, causing many anglers to learn only a few basic knots. Additionally, many anglers never take time to learn key knot-tying fundamentals. I remember one fishing trip as a young angler where I hooked many fish and kept losing them. I was fishing for spawning white bass and using very fine tippet. I failed to realize that a clinch knot with too few turns can easily slip. I had also not learned the improved clinch knot and did not understand its advantages. It wasn't until I lost a series of nice bass when a kind and much wiser angler diagnosed my problem and saved the day for me.

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