Written by: Drew Price
It was on my first saltwater trip to the Everglades that I came to understand the importance of tying good knots. I had made the long trip from northern New York to Flamingo with one of my college professors (and fishing buddies) to chase snook, tarpon, and redfish from a canoe.
We were working Coot Bay, a fairly good-size piece of water, by casting bunny flies to the edges, just like we would for pike back home. Many hours had passed, but we’d seen little more than needlefish, small snappers, and the occasional alligator or crocodile in the mangroves. We got to the far end of the bay, close to Tarpon Creek, when I learned the lesson I had so sorely needed and have never forgotten since.
A huge snook came charging out of the mangroves and smashed the yellow bunny. More than two decades later, I can still see it clearly. I am willing to bet the fish was close to 40 inches, the fish of a lifetime. I set the hook and can still feel the horror as one of my blood knots parted effortlessly. Being a poor college kid, I had tied my own leaders out of heavy mono. I thought I had tied good blood knots . . . but I had not checked them.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf says to Frodo “The burned hand teaches best. After that, advice about fire goes to the heart.” I got burned badly, and the lesson stuck. I worked on my knots and frequently tested them.
Knots are your connection to the line, the fly, and ultimately the fish. Knowing what knots to tie, how to tie them well, and how to check them will help you land more fish. There is no question that knots can be a challenging part of fly fishing, but there are tricks that will help make a big difference.
The best place to learn a new knot is sitting at home. When I am guiding, I am happy to show a client which knot I am using and how to tie it. After that, I tell them that I will gladly tie that knot for the rest of the day. A new-to-you knot is not likely to have the strength of a practiced knot. Muscle memory is very important, and after you have tied a knot several dozen times, your fingers become used to the movements needed to successfully tie a strong knot. After my snook incident, I started tying knots while sitting at home watching TV or listening to music.
When I am trying to learn a new knot, I do the same thing. Sometimes I still sit down and just tie knots for practice. Get an inexpensive spool of monofilament to practice with, and keep tying the knot over and over again. See how much faster you get between the time you start to practice and when you finish. You will also likely see that the knots get smaller and test stronger.
There is a wealth of information available—books, magazine articles, videos and tutorials online, apps, and fishing buddies—to help you learn fly fishing knots. At times it can be overwhelming to see how much is out there, making you feel like you need to know a hundred knots to be successful. Nothing could be further from the truth. In all the fishing and guiding that I do, I use about a half dozen knots regularly. I know them, trust them, and they have served me well. I have my own preferences, and you will surely develop your own, as well. The key is to find which knots work for you and then to practice tying them efficiently and well.
The number of turns in your knots matters. In Fly Fisherman Magazine years ago, the late, great Lefty Kreh wrote that he had developed a knot-testing tool and tested hundreds of knots of different turns in the same tippet material. My biggest takeaway from that is that, for most knots, 6 turns is the magic number, especially with fluorocarbon. More turns was just wasted effort. In my experience, this holds true except when you get into heavier line. Usually, 4 or 5 turns does the trick for mono and fluorocarbon over 20-pound-test, and you might need just 2 or 3 for bite wire.
Another key to knots is lubrication. With most knots, the final pull produces a fair amount of friction, which heats up the line and can cause it to lose strength. Wetting the line in your mouth with some spit helps to reduce the friction.
There are a whole lot of knot-helping tools on the market. Some of them work really well, while others not so much. Much like tying the knots themselves, it pays to practice with the tool and know how it works before you get to the water. There are subtleties in using the tools that are much easier to learn at home than while you are watching a feeding trout 30 feet away.
Another trick I have found myself using a fair amount these days is the tippet ring. I don’t use them for all types of fishing but they come in really handy in a couple of situations. The first is where I am using a long straight piece of tippet as a means to get and keep my flies deep. A straight piece of 8 or 10 lb fluorocarbon to a tippet ring with the terminal knot of your choice and then tying on the lighter tippet to the ring. This rig helps sink things fast and provides a stopper for any shot you might put on the line.
The second situation is with wire or heavy mono/fluoro. Most of the time I prefer an Albright knot but there are times this connection just doesn’t seem to be working for the materials I am using or I might just want to be able to replace the bite without losing much leader (a must for busy spring pike fishing). It also helps if you have a really light leader to connect to the bite tippet (I have a client that chases line class fish and this method has worked wonders). I tie my leader to the tippet ring with a Trilene knot then tie a clinch with the bite and finish with a non-slip mono loop to the fly.
Testing your knots helps a great deal too. There is no worse feeling than making your first cast and seeing the leader or fly part because of a poorly tied knot, except of course losing a fish to that same connection. After seating the knot properly I like to give a steady pull on the fly and connecting knots. With a heavier fly and tippet for larger fish instead of holding the fly I will put it in a hole in my pliers, hemostats or a carabiner and really reef on it. In those situations, especially if I am using a bite tippet connection I will often give it a really hard sharp tug to simulate a strike. If my connection can’t handle that it definitely will not survive a big pike or musky smashing it.
Thinking about knots before you need to use them makes a huge difference. Learn them, practice them and you will start turning the odds in your favor to land more and bigger fish. Hopefully that will help prevent you from seeing the notorious tippet pig tail of shame.
For the record, here are the knots I use:
Application: Tippet to fly or tippet ring.
Number of turns: 6 turns up to 20-pound test, then 4.
Number of turns: 6 turns up to 20-pound test, then 4.
Non-Slip Mono Loop
Application: Tippet to fly; wire or hard mono/fluoro to fly.
Number of turns: 5 or 6 turns under 12-pound test, then 4 turns; 2 or 3 turns in wire or very heavy mono.
Application: tippet to tippet.
Number of turns: 6 turns per side in similar-sized tippet, 5 and 7 if big difference in diameter.
Notes: 5 turns in the heavier side, 7 in the lighter.
Application: Loop-to-loop connection to fly line.
Notes: I also tie it as a large loop in my backing to connect to a loop in the back of the fly line.
Application: Tippet to wire or hard/fluoro bite tippet.
Number of turns: 8 to 10.
Application: Backing to fly line; on-the-water repair for loop in end of fly line.
Number of turns: 6 to 10, depending on application.
Notes: I use a Nail Knot tool.
Application: Wire or heavy mono/fluoro to tippet ring.
Number of turns: 2 or 3.
Notes: While this is one of the most common knots for tying on a fly, it doesn’t have great strength compared to other terminal knots, which is why I reserve it for the specific purpose listed here.
Drew Price lives in Northern Vermont and is the owner and operator of Drew Price Fly Fishing. He fishes Lake Champlain and surrounding waters targeting carp, pike, bowfin, gar, bass and other species (even the occasional trout). He’s also a former Trout Bum of the Week.