Beyond the rods, reels and lines lies the pointy end of the stick of fly fishing. So, what makes the most important end of the game work and how can we get the most out of it?
TIPPING THE SCALES
If things are to go wrong, the tippet is probably where it’s going to happen. After all, it’s the weakest connection between you and the fish (unless you want to point a bony finger at what’s rolling around between your ears).
As anglers, we just don’t give this short, relatively lightweight section of fishing line enough credit or enough grace. Hell, how many times have you stood on it at the back of the car while you’re rigging up? Bad, bad, bad! It’s only plastic monofilament; it does not contain diamonds wrapped in carbon steel!
This is just one of the things that can ruin an entire fishing trip, because you didn’t pay enough attention to this skinny piece of fishing line before it parted company on that one fish you dreamt about all year.
Here are some ‘everyday’ issues that you should remember when on the water…
Probably the biggest culprit of tippet destruction is shock-stressing knots and tippet materials by hitting ‘something’. That something can be anything from one single willow tree leaf, to a bunch of grass, to the T-top on a boat. The bottom line is that if you hit anything at all, regardless of what it is, there’s a good chance you’ve shocked something in the system.
This all happens at a micro level, so don’t expect to be able to see it. It’s all about over-tightening knots, stretching tippet materials and friction burning fishing line. All the things you didn’t do when you tied it all together, but have now done in that split second you hit something whilst casting.
What’s the remedy? Instantly stop and pull your line in. You need to check the knot by bounce-testing your rig. Grab the fly by the bend of the hook and the leader above the tippet knot, and gently bounce or stretch your tippet section as though it were a rubber band. Two or three times is good. Then get your act together and cast better!
Tying crappy knots is second on the list. If you don’t think it pulled down well, tie it again. Also watch out when you change to a new or different type of tippet material. You have to experiment at home (not on the water) with new materials and the knots you’re comfortable with. If you can’t make it work, move on to a different material. You need to keep your knots consistent and your materials in the ‘friendly zone’. In other words, change your tippet material — not your knots. We all know you’re too old to learn anything new!
Make sure you understand your tippet materials and specifically what their make up means to your fishing day. Being that line shock is a big deal to most people and knot strength is another, don’t discredit ‘nylon’ tippet materials as second rate against fluorocarbon. As a rule I use nylon mostly for my entire leader system, including tippet. If things are really bright and the water is super clear, I’ll change the last two sections of my leader to fluorocarbon, and my tippet will be one metre plus for added stretch.
Reasons: I never tie fluorocarbon tippet directly to nylon because the materials have different properties. Fluoro is hard and unforgiving, whilst nylon (after being wet) is soft and spongy. These two don’t play well together when the heat is on. I’d prefer to change out the last two sections in order to be tying into the slightly heavier sections, therefore making it more robust.
I like the fact that nylon is forgiving to shock and stretch. Far more it would seem than fluorocarbon. I’ll trade the fact that fluoro is more abrasion-resistant, for better knot strength any day of the week.
TO THE POINT
How tough are the hooks you use? Are they all different? Probably. Have you ever looked? It’s okay if you haven’t; it’s not a test or a trick question. But it sure is nice to know.
Past all the hullabaloo of your million dollar rod and reel, sits a 35-cent hook. Not much to pay for the most important part of your equipment. Before we jump into the tech, let’s all investigate the most important part of your hook — the point.
The ‘she’ll be right’ attitude doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to hook points. If they’re not prickly sharp, they’re blunt. No in-betweens. Sharp is sharp and nothing else.
How do you know? Your fingernails can tell you. If the hook bites straight into your nail without sliding, it’s sharp. If it slides at all, and/or leaves a white mark it’s blunt. The end!
So what if it’s blunt and you don’t have a sharpener (which 90% of you don’t). Thankfully you’ve been standing on trillions of really good hook files for years — rocks! Little, flat, smooth rocks (which more often are black in colour) are what you’re looking for. If you can find a few of these, all the better. So when you misplace it or if you drop it, you’ve got another. You want it to be wet, and if you’re not near water (it happens) spit on it.
If it’s possible — which sometimes it’s not — you want to push your file/stone towards the point. Pushing away from the point can turn the point over and not sharpen it at all. If this isn’t working for you, try going across ways. Be gentle and take your time. Keep checking the point on your fingernail for sharpness.
The hook point is more or less at 180 degrees to the power of you pulling against it. This directional force is always trying to bend the hook open. Thankfully in a hook’s design, there’s a bend. This bend creates not only a capture point but it also turns the tables on the hook point wanting to straighten out. The more fish flesh you can put into the back of the bend, the less chance there’ll be of the hook straightening out.
Where and how fish are hooked is the great unknown. You can have a good guess at the point of contact, and there are some very likely places and common spots where hooks often end up, but you just can’t be sure. That’s why fish sometimes just ‘get off’.
The strength of the steel in modern-day hooks (being that most of them are now high carbon steel) relates to the gauge of the steel. This brings up some interesting points (pun intended). First and foremost, is the steel gauge of your hook too light or too thin for you to be able to pull against it sufficiently to control your fish? And to a slightly lesser extent, but just as important, is your hook steel too thick for you to be able to set it properly for the hook to gain sufficient hold?
To be honest I’ve lost many more fish because of straightened hooks than because of a possible bad connection due to penetration via steel gauge. But these are real problems worth some thought.
If you’re a fly tier then you’ll have an instant appreciation for steel gauge and strength. One of the first things you do after tightening a hook in a vice is give it a ‘ping’ from the eye end to see if it’s in there good and tight. As a fly buyer, I would be checking and looking at the hooks those flies are tied on. It’s not always possible to know what brand of hook it is, but consistency is key. If you have one failure, you’ll have more.
Testing some flies against the backyard fence is a great way to learn what’s what with regards to how hard you can pull.
Barbless has been a thing I’ve been advocating for a while, and after 10 years of fishing them on and off, against barbed, I’ve found a positive increase in fish landed on barbless hooks. Strange but true. Why? The simple reason is (in my mind anyway) that the barb in most cases stops the hook from penetrating into the fish and placing the contact point in the bend. Barbless hooks have the ability to bypass this and the fish almost always ends up connecting with the back of the bend. Lowering the level of possibility of straightening your hook, and getting more hook in your fish for a better hold is always a plus.
DRAGS & KNOBS
Reels these days are just downright sexy. They’re works of art, there’s no doubt. There are also blurring lines between what’s saltwater and what’s freshwater, with many anglers taking the same outfit into both arenas. This scenario is made easier with the advent of the disc drag system that’s found in many fly reels these days.
The thing I see and feel is that many people are fiddling with and adjusting the drag system too much, and to the wrong pressures. I get it! It’s a knob. Guys just gotta play with it. But it isn’t the knob that’s going to fall off if you play with it too much, it’s the fish!
Looking back to when fly reels were much simpler, all you had was the ability to adjust how much stripping tension you needed. This is to say, that all you needed was to adjust this to ‘your’ liking. Some people would strip line like a crazy person, and others not so much. It was just a simple stiffening of the stripping tension. Well, guess what… nothing’s changed.
The idea behind this system is that when stripping line from your reel — let’s say in a medium panicked state — it doesn’t overrun and create a tangle or birds nest.
This is also the idea behind the same system for when a fish is about to ‘get you on the reel’ (as the line that you have stripped to your feet is picked up by the running fish). In this instance, you definitely don’t want an overrun.
However, in this ‘get you on the reel’ scenario, if your drag is too tight and the fish is running with some speed, you’ll soon find that the only thing you’ll be connected to is a hailstorm of abuse from anyone that might have been watching.
So the rule here is, regardless of what you’re catching, always set your drag system to the tension that doesn’t let you overrun your reel, but only to that setting. Once the fish is on the reel you can screw the drag up to your heart’s content and let me tell you, some fish need it. #GT
If any of this made you think about how you fish and changed it for the better, well that’s great. Job done! Improving your angling skills all the time is important because it keeps you sharp, and makes one hell of a difference to your end game.