Leave No Fly Behind and Avoid “The Hanging Tree”

Written by: George Daniel, author of Dynamic Nymphing

A fluorescent yellow Mop Fly makes for an unnatural and dangerous ornament in a streamside tree.
Photo by George Daniel

Editor’s note: This classic story by George Daniel never goes out of style, and it offers a good reminder to all anglers that the “Leave No Trace” ethic is important.

Anyone familiar with The Hunger Games trilogy will recall a scene in the movie when the heroine sings the lyrics to a song titled, “The Hanging Tree.” This morbid tune is about death, but for some reason it made me think about several recent trips on a nearby trout stream.

Recently I’ve been amazed by the number of flies and rigs that anglers have left hanging on streamside trees and bushes. On one stretch of water that I frequent on a weekly basis, I’ll usually see a number of hanging patterns, so I wade across the stream and cut them free. The flies are in great shape since they’ve only been there for less than seven days (since the last time I waded across and cut them from the same spot). Sure enough, there will be in the same spots the time I show up. And it’s easy to wade across and retrieve the pattern, so I can’t understand why these patterns are left to hang.

I have heard numerous fly fishers criticize spin and bait anglers for throwing trash on the ground as well as leaving large bobbers and monofilament in the trees. This garbage becomes an eye sore for the next angler travelling through, and there’s always the possibility of a bird accidently eating the bait or lure hanging on the tree. In that case, the tree become a literal “hanging tree,” where bird corpses hang. In 2017, I cut down four dead swallows that mistook a hanging fly for live insect.

I’ve come to the realization that fly anglers are sometimes just as guilty (if not more so) as those who participate in other forms of fishing. The introduction of the Mop Fly, especially the larger and gaudier ones, has made this even more apparent. It’s easy to miss a Pheasant Tail Nymph or a small Elk-Hair Caddis dry fly that’s been broken off in a tree. These patterns are small and blend into the surroundings. The Fisherman’s Paradise section on Pennsylvania’s Spring Creek, is a perfect example of a highly pressured trout stream where, if you were to spend time looking close in the canopy surrounding the most popular sections, you would find dozens of small midge patterns hanging in the trees. However, replace every small, drab pattern for a brightly colored Mop Fly, and it would look like anglers were decorating for Christmas. Many of my favorite stream sections are now riddled with these gaudy patterns. In my opinion, this is no different than seeing empty beer cans or candy-bar wrappers on the ground. We are better than this. And let me make it clear, I’m not excusing myself for these eyesores and bird snares.

I make plenty of bad casts and stick flies in the trees with disturbing regularity. Often, I’ll decide to wait to wade across stream to retrieve the fly, so I can continue fishing the water without spooking the fish. Sometimes, however, I become so focused on fishing that I forget about the almost invisible midge pattern I left hanging. It’s easy to do with small patterns, but I can’t recall a time when I left a large brightly colored pattern in the tree. When I leave a Mop Fly in a tree, it’s always in view and reminds me not to forget it when moving to another section. The only reason I’ll leave a fly hanging in the tree is if it’s dangerous on not feasible for me to retrieve it. However, so many of the patterns I see hanging in trees are easy to retrieve.

The treefish is easy to hook but notoriously difficult to land.
Photo by Phil Monahan

Consider this a reminder for all anglers to think about the impact they leave for wildlife and other anglers. With more fly anglers fishing less public property, it’s important that we take the extra minute to do everything we can to retrieve our hanging flies, so the next angler is not exposed to our littering nor is a curious birds sent to its death. These occurrences are not 100% unavoidable, but we can do more to minimize our footprint.

One of my resolutions for 2018 is to leave no fly behind, so I don’t contribute to the hanging tree. I understand this goal is probably impossible, as there will be many occasions when my ill placed cast will not allow me to retrieve a fly (as when the fly ends up too high in the tree, where I can’t climb). However, if all anglers make a more conscious effort to leave no fly behind, we’ll allow the next passing angler to better enjoy his or her experience. And even better yet, we won’t be reminded of that morbid “Hanging Tree” song while bathing in our fly fishing bliss.

George Daniel operates Livin On The Fly, a guide service in State College, Pennsylvania. He is also the author of Strip-Set: Fly-Fishing Techniques, Tactics, & Patterns for Streamers, as well as Dynamic Nymphing

28 thoughts on “Leave No Fly Behind and Avoid “The Hanging Tree””

  1. The ‘tree trout’ struck this weekend, I lost a lovely Yellow Dancer. Anyway about 20 mins later it struck again. In retrieving this one, I hooked my original lost one….both safely back in the boxw….hat are the chances of that?

  2. Great write; Great resolution for 2018! Growing up on small streams, I can remember an older gentleman who would just look for flies on lower branches if the fishing was slow. I can recall vividly how he would give names to these new flies like “the intiminator”, “the dominator”, “the persuader”, among other others.

  3. I do everything possible to get my flies back the majority of the time HOWEVER…how do I get the ones that pop out of the fishes mouth or that I jerk from being stuck on the other side of the bank and they end up 15+ feet above me in a tree? I was hoping this article was going to explain to me how to get those buggers down!

    1. When I started fly fishing i saw a gadget for sale online at a fly fishinf dealer and i made my own but you can get them on ebay for £8.99 look for ‘Flyback Fishing Fly & Spinner Retriever – Essential Gadget’ i have used mine on quite a few occasions with great success wort every penny they are made of stainless steel and come in a pouch with a strong cord attached

  4. No fly left behind is a ballsy. Might do more damage to the tree trying to get those high up stuck guys. I mean “I certainly dont make casts that horrible”, but for those other guys that seem to be all over the place

  5. Ha I went an entire backpacking trip using fly’s from the tree’s .. in fact there was one I was certain was tied by the guide ahead of me that I copied his fly and now use it in my own box.. every time I pull one of his copies from my box I laugh. And it works so well on that particular stream too.. I would discourage people from retrieving their flies.. where would I get my new patterns .. All kidding aside .. it does make sense.. Tight lines everyone. See you streamside.

  6. Sometimes when Im hard up for flies I go to Ken Lockwood Gorge in New Jersey and scour the branches for low hanging fruit. Nice way to fill the fly box with stone flies and pheasant tails. 😉

  7. Allcocks made an attachment that screwed into the butt piece of their fly rods when the butt knob was removed. This attachment was in the shape of an “L” and was sharp on the inside of the “L” which allowed one to use the fly rod to extend the piece to the treed fly and cut the limb if it were possible and retrieve the fly. This attachment was popular from the 1920’s to the 40’s. I see one for sale on eBay about once a year.

  8. Good piece; let’s steal an idea from mountaineers on Everest, they now bring back more empty O2 bottles and bags of trash than they went up with full bottles and provisions, trying to de-clutter the earlier climbers’ messes left behind (over the last 60+ years). Why don’t we as fly anglers consciously remove 3,4,5,10 old flies and pieces of broken off mono as part of our day’s challenge/accomplishments. I’d bet we notice more birds, flowers, pretty things doing this little “task”, AND we’d leave a cleaner place behind and offset our “fly in tree” ratios…We also shouldn’t expect the found flies to be of great quality after sun and moisture have had their way with a fly for even a few days…

  9. I have a piece of velcro attached to the tip of my wading staff and when possible I retrieve my tree stuck flies that way. I can’t tell you how many times that’s come in handy! Many times with this method I retrieve lures with spinners hanging in trees that the sunlight catches. I even take the wading staff with me on my kayak to retrieve flies and lures I find hanging.

  10. I always try and bring back all my “stuf” – guess my basic cheapness helps here. Also try and cart out at least a bit of trash. There is unfortunately always something.

  11. Thank you for such a poignant article. The “hanging tree” has to be an awful way for a bird to meet it’s demise. It isn’t quick and definitely NOT painless. Gentleman if you can safely retrieve your flies, please do so. Remember the connotation of the “Hanging Tree”!

  12. I came across a dead bird hanging from a tree while fishing one of my favorite streams. Dude, it was morbid and definitely an eye-opener. This article is a good reminder to pick up after yourself and others. Nothing worse than people leaving trash.

  13. George, I fish many streams in SE and central PA too. Like others elsewhere, I see the same things. It disgusts me. Recently, I pulled about 50 yds of mono and separately, another 20 yds of same from a stream bank. Both attached to rather large spin lures. They were in the bank, not in trees! And don’t get me started on the styrofoam worm containers! But I have also picked fly patterns out of trees too. C’mon guys, clean up. I just don’t get it. I make every attempt, and with regular success to clean up my “mess” should I snag a fly in a tree or on the stream. I’ve used stream-side dead branches to reach flies – mine or others – to get them free. Carry a grocery store plastic bag in your pocket and help clean up after those who are to ignorant to do so.

  14. I like the idea of carrying some kind of instrument to retrieve flies. I always hate the idea of losing flies to tree branches—who doesn’t?—and have even been known to climb trees and bend limbs to rescue them. One solution that I’m surprised nobody has suggested here is the use of a roll cast. If you check back cast clearance, you’ll be aware of nasty predators lurking behind ready and to snatch your fly—no, it’s never your fault, right? If these eager fingers look a little close, go to a roll cast; that’s what it’s for, tight spots.

  15. this is a reason not to use fluorocarbon tippet. If you use nylon, your line will disintegrate in the sun, and the fly will drop in a while. If you use fluorocarbon tippet, the line (and the fly) will be there for a VERY VERY long time. Even after the hook rusts away, the fluorocarbon tippet will still be there.
    This isn’t to say that we should try to keep (and get) our flies out of trees; this it to say that Some WILL get stuck in them; if they’re on fluorocarbon, they aren’t going anywhere

  16. This weekend I am floating a fly only stretch of a very popular Michigan stream – and on Sunday will be harvesting the flies stuck in trees over the water. I’ve been doing it for years – its an interesting research project. I can see the styles, colors, patterns, preferences change over time. Its amazing how much line I retrieve attached to every fly.

  17. It didn’t take to much of your time to retrieve flys and monofilament from trees. I use a tool to spool up used Mono
    And a small trash bag to pick up cans, paper and other debries

    As for spinning lures I usually take them back to the parking area and put them where someone who uses them can find them

  18. I agree whole heartedly with your article. But remember safetey first, don’t wade into dangerous water, Dont climb a tree limb that might put you in a dangerous situation. I’ve been to quick care more than once to remove Fly that I was trying to get off a limb that slipped out of my hand only to be enbeded in my finger.

  19. At one time Orvis sold an item called “Flyback”. I loved mine until I lost it trying to get a fly back.

  20. Good read… enjoyed this article.

    I am about 3 years into my fly fishing obsession and am grateful to the first guide I had for half a day in Rocky Mountain National Park…. my newbie self hooked a tree up high.. next thing I know my guide is stripping gear off and climbing the tree saying: “ no fly left behind”.. he went up for 1 and came back with 4.

    Lasting lesson learned by the newbie.

  21. While canoeing with a friend of mine many years ago we came upon a small bird attached to a length of fishing line dangling from a tree branch. As I was much younger then, I climbed the tree and was able to get to the line and rescue the bird, that had a small dry fly hooked to his beak. Our thought was he saw it swinging in the breeze from the tippet and just like a trout was fooled. It was a great feeling to unhook it and watch it fly away.

  22. A friend and I were driving around his area of FL and came across what I said looked like a good fishing spot. He said ‘what makes you think that’ I pointed above us at the power line. It looked like a well-stocked shelf in the Bass Pro Shop’s fishing section. Crazy how many things were hanging from it.

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