Classic Pro Tips: Fly-Line Tricks to Give Your Flies More Action

Using your fly line to move a streamer in the current will draw more strikes.
Photo by Joe Phillips

“For many anglers,” a fellow guide once argued, “mending is a simple concept poorly understood.” Most fly-fishing professionals will agree that even some of those clients who know how to mend don’t necessarily understand why it’s such an important part of a proper presentation. The reason for this, of course, is that mastering the mend requires the angler to conceptualize how the behavior of his line on the surface—which he can see—affects the drift of his fly—which, if it’s a nymph or a streamer, he often can’t see. The day it all makes sense represents a great leap forward in the development of a fly fisherman.

But once you’ve learned to use line mends to render your drifts lifeless, it’s time to think about using these same concepts to give patterns life—to activate the presentation. Rather than counteracting the effects of current on your line, you can instead use this tension to make a streamer dart erratically without pulling it out of a good lie, make a nymph rise in the water column, or work flies into spaces that you could never cast to. Using the current and your line to work the fly means you can keep it in the strike zone longer, fishing slower, or make multiple presentations within the same drift.

Adding Life

Since we’re talking about imparting action to flies, this technique is most useful when you’re fishing streamers. One of the simplest ways to move your fly using mends is to cast quartering downstream and then start making short, sharp downstream mends very quickly. This has the effect of causing your fly to dart up and across the current as the line swings. Especially if you’re using a pattern with a lot of marabou or other soft fibers, this darting motion will cause the pattern to pulse in a lifelike manner rather than simply move across the current stiffly—as in the traditional Atlantic salmon or steelhead swing. And since you’re not stripping line, the fly doesn’t get pulled out of the strike zone as quickly.

When you want to fish a streamer on a small creek that has a lot of overhanging brush, which makes casting a real problem, you’ll find this mending technique useful. Instead of trying some tricky cast that’s bound to end up in the bushes, simply let out a bunch of line and start mending in one direction, until your fly comes close to the bank. Then mend in the other direction to move the fly across stream to the other bank. Take a few steps downstream and repeat the process. With this method, you can cover all the water in the stream without ever casting, and you can make presentations with pinpoint accuracy to plumb deep holes or the eddies behind rocks. I’ve spent countless hours fishing a Muddler Minnow this way on the small mountain streams of southern Vermont, and I’ve caught some of my biggest native brookies in the process.

Similarly, when you’re wading a really big river, such as the Deschutes, that doesn’t allow you to wade far out into the current, you can use mends to work your fly into likely holding water against the bank downstream. The same technique works on waters where wading is prohibited or dangerous, as well. Simply cast sharply downstream and mend the line into the bank. You can vary the action of the fly by experimenting with the size, speed, and sharpness of your mends. If you simply want the fly to drift into the bank, make a large mend close to your rod tip; the current will swing the fly toward the bank. For more action, use repeated short, choppy mends.

You use this same technique with caddisfly patterns to imitate the naturals skipping across the surface while laying their eggs. Slather floatant on the fly, the leader, and even the tip of the fly line to keep them from sinking, and make constant mends to make the fly dance and skitter. Oftentimes, insects congregate under overhanging bushes, and you can mend your dry fly under the vegetation without fear of tangling.

Beating the Drift

A few years ago, while floating the Colorado River below Glenwood Springs, my friend Bob Streb showed me how you can use mending to give a streamer more action when you’re fishing from a drift boat. Normally, when you cast quartering downstream against the bank, the motion of the boat works against your stripping motion. The first couple of strips don’t usually move the fly much at all because you have to “catch up” to the downstream progress of the boat. This means that your fly just sits there or floats downstream. To trigger strikes from aggressive browns, you want your streamer to look like a fleeing baitfish, not a dead one.

To solve this problem, as soon as the fly hits the water, throw a downstream mend into your line. The current pushing against the belly of the line will both start your fly moving right away and remove some the slack from your line, which means that you can establish contact with the fly sooner. It sounds counterintuitive, but it really works. You simply need to train yourself to make that immediate mend and then strip like a madman. You’ll be amazed how it drives the fish wild.

The Rise and Fall

You can also use this dynamic mending technique when you’re nymphing or fishing emerger patterns. This time, instead of using standard mends, you’ll need to perfect the stack mend, also called the roll-cast mend. Normally, you use mends to counteract the effects of the current and maintain a dead drift, keeping your flies near the stream bottom. Sometimes, however, the fish are looking for rising nymphs. Techniques such as the Leisenring lift were developed for just such situations, but it’s a short-line game. What if you want to present rising nymphs to fish farther away?

Here’s where you can use tension on the line to achieve long drifts with several “lifts.” Use a floating line and a nymph rig with or without an indicator. Start by making an across-and-down reach cast, and allow the indicator to dead drift, which will help the flies sink toward the bottom. This first part is basic nymphing 101, but instead of trying to extend the dead drift, as soon as you think the flies have sunk to the bottom you want to let the line come under tension. This will cause the flies to rise toward the surface, mimicking emerging nymphs.

Here’s where the mending comes in. Once the nymphs rise through the water column, don’t let the rig swing all the way through the current. Instead, throw a stack mend by making an underpowered roll cast directly toward the end of the fly line. This will release the tension on the line, allowing the flies to start sinking again. When the line comes under tension again, the flies will rise again.

Depending on the circumstances—the amount of fly line you can manage, the speed of the current, and so on—you might be able to get your flies to rise and fall three or four times in a single drift. The farther away the flies get, the smaller the “rise” will be because the flies won’t have time to sink as much, but sometimes the mere hint of upward motion is all that is required to trigger a strike. When you can see fish porpoising just below the surface, they are taking emergers from the top few inches of the water column, which means that your flies don’t have to sink and rise much at all.

Once you’ve reached your limit, you can let the rig swing across the current. With this method, you can present flies on a dead drift, rising in the water column, and swinging across the current with a single cast. It’s kind of a “kitchen sink” approach, which increases the chances that you will show the fish exactly what they’re looking for.

Final Thoughts

If you get a strike when you are employing any of these techniques, set the hook by sweeping the rod backward, low and parallel to the water. This removes the slack from the line and uses the tension of the line in the water to drive the hook home. The classic “rod tip to the sky” hook set takes the slack line off the water, making it more difficult to establish quick contact with the fly, and you also run the risk of simply pulling the fly out of the trout’s mouth. The standard streamer strip set is also problematic because of the slack in the line. There’s nothing worse than making a strip set and feeling no resistance at all.

As the old saying goes, you can’t catch fish if your line is out of the water, and one of the real advantages of all these techniques is that they keep your flies in the water and in the strike zone longer. Most fly fishermen love to cast, but you can catch more fish by focusing instead on putting your flies in front of the fish. Focus on learning to work the line after the cast, and you’ll open up a whole new range of possible fish-tempting presentations.

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