I remember as a kid fishing the beaver ponds in the mountains with my grandfather. Grandpa never was big on sitting around untangling kid's fishing lines, which I'm sure you understand. Anyone who has fished with kids knows that most of your time is spent trying to keep their lines in the water. I think he figured I would learn more if I fixed my own messes, so I chose to tie my flies on with a series of overhand, granny knots. It worked. I caught lots of 8 to 10 inch rainbows. The recipe for success back then was a Lead Winged Coachman with a tiny bit of angle worm on the back. But I digress.
The point is that one day up at the beaver pond I hooked “Walter,” a whopping, 14 inch cutbow. I wanted that trophy so bad I could taste it. I already pictured myself presenting it to my grandfather, when suddenly Walter took a great run across the pond toward the pile of sticks that made up the dam. I had never experienced such strength and power. I tried to slow him down but all was for naught. The line snapped right at the knot and all hope of landing Walter was dashed.
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Grandpa thought it was hilarious - me not so much (I could have been a hero). It was then that he decided I really did have the fishing gene. I was serious about it and I wanted to learn. The reason I had lost the fish was due to my choice of knots. A simple overhand in monofilament cuts into itself, weakening the line by up to 60%. That's why, knowing what I know now, I don't recommend putting wind knots in your leader. A 60% loss in strength when you're already fishing 5x, doesn’t leave you with much. So began my formal training as a fly fisherman.
Experimenting with the Clinch Knot
First on the list, the fisherman's knot or the clinch knot. You know, the one around and around back through the loop, wet with a little saliva and pull tight. Later as my education continued, my uncle, an incredible fly fisherman, introduced me to the “improved” clinch. With this knot you add one more step and go back through the last loop you just made. This locks the knot and keeps it from slipping. It's recommended to learn this knot if you are a beginning fly fisherman.
Has your leader ever come back with no fly and little curly cues on the end? If so, the knot slipped. My suggestion? Add my uncle's improved version of the clinch knot to your repertoire. I always remind my clients to remember to wet the knot. I wet all my monofilament knots. As you pull mono tight the friction of the knot tightening creates heat, which weakens the filament. Keeping it wet helps to cool it down.
The improved clinch was my go to knot for years. I could tie it under any conditions - extreme cold, pitch black darkness, whatever. One day, this all changed. While I was guiding a father and his two sons, one 12 and one 14 yrs old, I found myself in for a big surprise. These kids were really good. The 12 year old knew how to double haul and could put a streamer 2 inches from the bank every time. They both tied up their own gear and all their own knots.
A Fascinating Discovery
I was watching the younger of the two tying on his fly and I realized it wasn't a clinch knot. I thought he was going with my old system - just a bunch of grannies - but when I looked his fly was tied on a nice little loop. I tested the knot for strength and found it to be more than adequate. When I asked him what kind of knot it was, he told me it was a double surgeon. I had used double surgeons for years to tie on a tippet, but I'd never heard of using it for tying on a fly.
He showed me how to tie it. It was simple, fast and strong, but most of all it allowed the fly to move freely on the loop, resulting in much greater movement and action. To tie the surgeon's loop, thread the leader through the eye, throw a loop in the two lines, and go through the loop with the fly twice. If you tighten the knot at this point, the loop will be too large. Instead, you need to hook the loop over the eye of the fly, then slowly tighten it until it cinches right up close to the eye, then let it slip off before it tightens around the hook eye. This gives you a sweet little loop and a fly with lots of wiggle and sass. I've been tying my loops like this ever since.
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I believe that no matter how thin you go on a tippet, the fish can see the line. If they can see a size 20 mayfly nymph at midnight on a moonless night (and I know they can) they can see your tippet. What gives it away is not the tippet size but how the fly behaves on the end of the tippet. When a tippet is too thick, the fly behaves like it is on a piece of wire and appears very unnatural. Typically thinner tippets will get better action, although this matters less if you're fishing streamers, dries or dead drifting nymphs. The beauty of the loop is that you can get away with murder on tippet size, because the fly is free to move and wiggle in the loop.
So if everyone else is fishing 4x you can go to 3 or even 2x. I'm always a big fan of fishing the thickest tippet possible. I think it makes it easier to quickly get the fish in, raising the odds you will actually get it into the net. It also reduces the stress on the fish, making it more likely that you'll see that same fish on another day. A thicker tippet is also better for ripping the flies out of the grass when your cast to the bank has gone out 2 inches too far.
The Secret to the Kids' Success
A little side note on the kids. On the way up in the car their dad told me how his kids catch scads of big fish while he never seems to catch any. Later I got to thinking about this loop - could it really make that much difference? We stopped at a nice wading stretch on the Madison. Their dad went upstream and I went downstream with the boys. We stopped at a nice deep hole that I knew was home to some mighty big fish. We ran a bugger and a bead through and got a couple of 12 inchers.
I figured that was about it, and it was time to get back to the boat to meet up with their father. Then the older of the two said “let's see what is really in this hole," and he pulled out a 4 inch long, deep-diving rapala. And see he did! He proceeded to whack a 19 incher followed by a 20 inch brown. He had his own system for casting it, then the perfect swing through the hole. WHAM! So that's how you two catch all those big fish. "Yep," he said, "But please don't tell our dad. If he finds out we’re either both dead or grounded for a month!"
Never did see that crew again but who would guess what a veteran fishing guide like me could learn from a 12 yr old. Today I use the surgeon's loop to tie flies almost exclusively, and because of it, I land more big fish. So if you're sitting around waiting for the wind to go down or the rain to stop, grab a piece of mono and practice a surgeon's loop. You might just like it.
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