The gentle sound of falling water, a cool breeze, and lush streamside vegetation create an atmosphere for most fly fishing adventures capable of soothing any stressed soul. Fly fishing starts with the foundation of incredibly beautiful settings and adds history, art, elegant movements, and hand-crafted tackle and flies. It can be quite romantic. Until you get tangled.
Tangles are the equivalent of an inopportune slice during a round of golf or a flat tire on a long drive. It takes you out of the idyllic setting and throws you into club throwing and curse word spewing frustration. The angler has spent hours preparing and driving to the stream, only to spend minutes, that seem like hours, staring at a bird’s nest of tangled line with several dangerously sharp hooks that can painfully imbed themselves in you at any given moment.
There have been times on a stream where I have spent more time untangling lines and retying knots than fishing. These are the moments where I question my fly fishing habit (addiction) the most. Several talented anglers (Troutbitten, FlyLords, and FlyFishingFix) have written helpful blogs, providing tips and tricks to get out of knots and into the water. I hope the tips I provide build off all the great ideas they generated.
A mess of intertwined lines that are seemingly impossible to realign properly in fly fishing is inevitable. As flies are propelled through the air attached to different weighted and shaped lines, you are going to be out of alignment, hit things around you, and be impacted by wind. In the water, logs, boulders, and fish can bungle your line.
Connections, weight, length, and speed all contribute to presenting flies to match water conditions but can also add up to a mess. Once one or more of these factors are off kilter, the line twists, spinning the weighted flies, attached by different materials at different lengths around each other. When attempting to straighten the line, pulling on ends to separate them can tighten knots and lock the twisted monofilament into knots. Keeping calm and not pulling on the lines is critical.
For the purpose of fly fishing, a connection serves as any node that transitions different items or materials. A tag, fly, tippet ring, strike indicator, or uneven knot can act as a connection. Fishing one fly has the fewest moving pieces with zero nodes from the line to the terminal fly. This is a simple, but highly impactful variable. The more connections that can form a hinge and cause rotation and catch points in a rig, the more likely you will have tangles. Complicated rigs require more precise and consistent casting to prevent tangles.
Weight is a complicated variable in the tangle formula. Flies typically weigh very little, but when fishing rigs with more than one fly, more weight is better. With weight comes tension, keeping your line straight when under control. However, if you lose control of the line, like when you hit an obstruction, the weight can spin your flies around the adjacent line.
Increased length between nodes creates more potential for tangles. Greater length pushes elements further apart, exposing the line to different water velocity, different materials, and allows for more of the line to spin around itself. For most droppers, using a short tag line (3-5”) or short dropper off the bend of the hook (6-14”) reduces this risk.
Speed is like weight in that it requires control. Line speed can improve accuracy of casting, but if the rig is out of alignment, speed increases the risk of tangles. Especially when induced by frustration, yanking or flailing with the line will tighten knots and make the situation worse.
Once you are tied up in knots how do you get back to fishing? Take a deep breath and slow down first, eliminate the speed. Slowly investigate what is wrapped around each other. Normally the line will be only twisted with one or two potential knots. If it is wrapped very tightly, cut off the flies on tags, remove any indicators and try to untangle starting with the terminal fly. My next step is to cut off the terminal fly and if nothing works, I cut off the entire rig and start over. No romance with a tangle, but it’s part of fly fishing and life. Being mindful of connections, weight, length, and speed can prevent some frustration. Staying positive and practicing knots will get you back to fishing faster every time.