The trail down from the road was steep and the thin veneer of gravel washed onto the trail from the road base crunched and slid under my feet. I kept my hand out for each tree branch and trunk to try and stay on my feet. Making my way to the valley floor, the mountain laurel filled the slopes as far as I could see upstream and downstream. I could hear the stream before I saw it. This was the first time I visited this stream, but from the glimpses I had from bridge crossing and what I had read in books on the region, the river system was steep, pocket water with large boulders and falling water.
I cross an old oxbow wetland feature, using a fallen tree as a bridge. The roar of the stream drowns out the sound of my steps on fallen vegetation. Hemlocks line the channel banks and as I crest the stream bank, the view does not disappoint. The river flows from my right to my left, with deep emerald, green water falling over interlocking boulders. A steep cascade plunges into a run right in front of me. It is as fishy a run as I have encountered in my days fishing. I quickly tie on my flies; I know there is a fish in there. I plan the location of my cast and drop the line into the water to wet the flies and prepare to cast. My arm makes a smooth motion with the rod, and I feel good even on the cold morning. I look for my flies to enter the water so I can manage a nice drift, but they don’t hit the water.
Looking up, I see the egg and turbo midge flies dangling from a tree branch over my head about ten feet in front of me. I exhale. Too much excitement and too little awareness of my surroundings. I resisted the urge to yank my line and pull the flies out by force, a rarity for me. When a moving line hits a thin solid object, the line will hit the obstruction and spin around, wrapping itself around the object. Yanking hard on the rod can tighten the wrapped line into a knot and further embed the hook, leading to either a breaking of your line or of the branch. Just like jumping to conclusions and harsh reactions in a conflict can lock another person in their position, patience and gentle movements work best to jostle flies and seek understanding.
With a prayer and quick wiggle of the rod, the flies luckily came out of the branch and landed near my feet behind me. A light shake of the line loosened the fly from the branch and prevented a tight connection from forming and helped the weight of the fly slide the line off the tree branch. Looking up into the tree, I noticed several flies attached to short lengths of tippets hanging from different branches on the tree. The tree may have eaten just as many flies as any fish hidden below the emerald water.
Just as tires and shopping carts are indicators of wetland and low-lying areas in developed areas, flies hanging from a tree indicate a great fishing hole. An overhanging tree provides bank stability, cover from predators, and a protecting source of shade. It also makes it hard to cast a fly. Trees catch flies not just from errant casts or overzealous anglers, but from other moments when tension is quickly released from the line create uncontrolled snapbacks that can fling the line in many different directions. As I have learned to focus on my settings and how to be in position to cast, contrary to the story, I have reduced my casts into trees. But when I can make an accurate cast into a tight spot and then hook and lose a fish or get hung up on the stream bottom and the hook frees itself, often the backlash from the line ends up in a tree.
Minimizing the chances for hanging up in trees starts with the awareness I mention above. Looking around and moving to a position to cast accurately helps to avoid situations where you can get tangled in a tree. I also have learned to keep tree branches in my peripheral vision and not to focus on them directly. You normally cast at what you directly look at, so looking at the tree often will catch the tree. It is good to challenge yourself though and in those protected lies, there is often a fish. Is the risk of losing a fly worth the reward of potentially catching a big fish? Most times I choose yes to challenging myself to make the cast.
A fish throwing a hook or a hook releasing from a snag also can be managed. While nothing is guaranteed to work and I lose plenty of flies from kickbacks, keeping a low rod angle while fighting a fish keeps the line close to parallel with the stream. This lower angle often can direct a released fly to the water, the streambank, or lower vegetation where your flies can be easily retrieved. When an obstruction on the stream bottom catches your fly, I have learned to move myself and the rod upstream toward the point where the hook likely lodged itself (Thanks to Bill Dell.). Pulling upstream with a low rod angle against the tension directs the released fly upstream and toward the water surface, preventing further tangles.
As a fly angler, you’re going to lose some flies. That’s part of the reason I tie my own flies. I know I can make more if I lose them. If I am using larger streamer flies, I use stronger, larger diameter tippets and can sometimes muscle them out of a tree branch with little fear of breaking the line. Most often a delicate shake and patience work best, especially with thinner tippets and multiple flies. But the best solution is to be aware and adjust in your position and your cast to minimize the risk of hitting overhanging vegetation. After all the goal of fishing is to catch fish, not to catch trees.