The problem with a dead straight line lying on the water is that any current or wind acting on that line is going to affect the drift of the fly. This consequential unnatural movement of the fly is called drag, and it is often a major hindrance to catching fish.
Drag occurs when the line and leader lying across the water (or under the water), has current (or wind) or even boat movement acting on it. Drag not only affects the behaviour of the fly as the fish sees it, but it can also prevent the fly from getting to a fish, especially to a fish holding deep.
The most obvious drag you’ll see is when you have to cast across faster flowing water to put a fly into slower water. But drag applies right across the spectrum of fly fishing, on almost every species, in all waters. It is far from being restricted to trout, dry flies and flowing water.
Drag can operate across the surface and is most apparent with floating flies; it can be obvious or it can be very subtle. For example, we can make a cast across still water with the line straightening out perfectly on touch down, but then the leader and line starts to slowly coil towards us. Thiws is going to drag the fly, and to a fish looking for static or dead-drifting insects, it’s going to set off alarm bells.
A moving boat or crosswind will also cause a dry to drag on still water. Any time we see the line being bent when we’ve cast it straight out, there is drag acting on the fly.
Drag also prevents sinking flies from getting to the required depth. Sinking resistance acting on the fly line and the leader is a form of drag. It also puts a belly in the line such that if a fish does eat the fly, we’re simply not going to have sufficient tension to set the hook.
To determine whether or not a fly is dragging, use a reference point — something floating naturally in the current, such as froth in a bubble line, a leaf or a twig — or in still water use a fixed point, or something floating nearby. Drag can also affect sub-surface flies and this can be difficult to detect. This is when we need to read the water, the fly, and the line, and to start using tactics on the suspicion that drag may be affecting what we’re trying to do — indicators can tell us a lot.
To overcome the affects of drag we need to develop the ability to mend the line. These are corrective measures to counter the unwanted effects of forces acting on the line that result in the fly behaving unnaturally.
But before we start mending the line and throwing creative casts there are measures we can take to reduce drag. Leader construction is one — longer finer leaders and tippet sections made from limp material can help — and positioning ourselves in relation to the current to avoid drag is another. It also helps if you don’t fish too long a line — the more line on the water, the greater the potential for drag, and the harder it is to know what’s going on with the fly.
TIPS FOR BETTER MENDING
Use high-floating, cleaned and dressed lines.
Lines that carry a lot of weight forward do not mend as well as lines with a long front taper.
Use shorter drifts; improve your accuracy.
Slower rods mend better and longer rods mend better.
Make mends early and often.
Learn to break the surface tension before mending. To do this, wiggle the line as you lift it.
Practise and use targets for this.
Knowing when to apply mends, and what shape those mends should take, is a mystery to many, but there’s a simple rule. The mend shape we create in the line should be the opposite, or mirror image of whatever layout the current or wind would otherwise create in the line during the drift.
There are two types of mends: in-
the-air mends, and on-the-water mends. The latter are the ones most are familiar with. As the name suggests, these are applied once the line has touched down. The problem with on-the-water mends is that they frequently move (drag) the fly. To avoid or diminish this, they need to be applied early, from the moment the line touches down. Some floating lines (double tapers and Spey-type lines in particular) mend better than others and longer rods that can lift more line off the water are definitely an advantage.
But we can also apply mends to the line before it touches down. These are known as aerial mends. We can determine what kind of line shape we need by applying the mirror principle. While the line is in the air, we need to create the mirror image of whatever shape the wind, water flow, or boat movement would otherwise induce in the line on the water.
The key to understanding the timing is ‘loop formation’. Once the loop has formed off the tip of the rod the line has two legs — the fly leg and the rod leg. After loop formation we cannot manipulate the fly leg, but once that loop has formed we can do all sorts of things with the rod leg to create layout shapes. Understanding this is the key to creating aerial mends.
The most fundamental layout is called a reach (see FL#60). It is the simplest and probably the most valuable of the mends we can learn. We can use it when we’re stationary and the water is moving, or we can use it when we’re moving and the water is stationary. Think of the curved belly of line that develops on the water when we’re fishing from a drifting boat — that belly is dragging the fly and is easily overcome by a reach in the direction of the drift. Apply the mirror principle. The reach can also be used for a myriad of other situations: shortening up a cast in midair, laying a line along the edge of a weed bed, avoiding an obstacle or avoiding lining a fish. Learn it and apply it.
LEADER TIPS FOR REDUCING DRAG
Practise and use targets for this.
Use longer finer tippets and a casting stroke and leader design that won’t fully unroll, to give you extra time for a drag-free drift.
A great example of this is the basic Tongariro leader, which is a simple piece of straight through tippet from fly-line to fly.
The next move to learn is a complete aerial mend and this is used to deal with casting across a seam of faster (or slower) moving water. In the reach we take the rod out to the side and leave it there and we follow the line on the water with the rod tip as it moves. To create a full aerial mend, after loop formation we move the rod tip to one side and then we move it back again and this creates the mend layout shape.
Make the move very soon after loop formation and the mend will be positioned out towards the fly; make the move late before the line touches down, and the mend will be close to the rod tip. The size and position of the mend is determined by the time, speed, shape and distance of the rod- tip movement. The line will essentially do what the tip of the rod does — move it out and move it back before the line touches down. Do it quickly, do it slowly, do it wide and do it shallow and you will get different layout shapes.
We can also create line layout shapes through using trajectory, as well as underpowered and overpowered casts. A deliberately thrown tailing loop or a wide open loop that almost collapses back on itself kills line speed and prevents a leader from straightening.
NOT JUST TROUT
My single biggest lesson in drag management came while fishing for barramundi in the Northern Territory on the Daly River. The fish were stacked up in an eddy created by a combination of a rock bar and a snag, hard against the bank, that the current was hitting with great force. But with a boat anchored in mid-stream you had to cast across a ripping out-going tidal flow and you had to get your fly deep in the murky water in the eddy. But of course the belly of intermediate-density line sinking across the flow whipped the fly out of the zone before it had sunk 30 cm.
With the intermediate line, an on-the-water mend was not possible, so the required line shape had to be created in the air. A reach mend was one option but it didn’t give sufficient time; a big aerial mend was another but it had to be a big upstream curve in the entire line. The best option was a curve cast that put the fly in the zone with a big belly of curving line lying upstream. By the time the line had straightened, the fly was more than a metre deep, and every time you got it right you got a bite.
Read the rest of this feature article in FlyLife Magazine Issue #88.