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Fly Fishing Retrieves

by Vic Attardo   |  September 11th, 2015 1

A good cast, a convincing fly, and an accurate reading of the water are critical elements in your success, but the right line retrieve can be most important in tempting a fish to strike. Yet stripping is one of the most overlooked techniques in fly fishing. No matter how good the pattern, the cast, or the location, a lifeless or poorly presented fly will not tempt a fish to bite.

The first thing I tell students in my fly-fishing classes about stripping is that they must put personality into their flies. I describe the action as making the imitation on the end of the line behave like the natural bait being imitated. For that reason, I don’t retrieve a crayfish imitation the way I do a Blacknose Dace pattern, nor do I work a stonefly nymph the same way I do a sculpin. Each pattern imitates a different creature; I want my fly to mimic the actions of the natural. I also want those actions to resemble a creature in trouble or injured.

When I teach, students often remark about the aggressive nature in which I strip a streamer. When I compare their techniques with mine, I notice that their slow, uneventful retrieves fail to entice fish to strike. But when I teach them to put more life into their flies, they get more hits.

When you use streamers, whether they’re meant to imitate minnows, leeches, or other naturals, think in terms of triggering a strike. Don’t get bogged down in the dead-drift and drag-free float mentality. Fish react with aggression to a creature fleeing their domain or one that seems to be in trouble. I’ve had students ask whether a trout or bass can catch up to my streamer. They needn’t worry: Gamefish are rarely outrun by prey, and even in cold water temperatures, they can catch a fleeing minnow or fry.

The Fundamentals, First
To improve your fundamental stripping techniques, start with the positions of your rod and line hands. I am naturally right-handed, so I cast with my right arm, and when I strip, I continue to hold the rod in my right hand and use my left hand to manipulate the line. I grasp the line beneath the rod’s handle with the index finger of my right hand for better control of the line during the strip.

I don’t believe you should switch the rod from hand to hand when a strike occurs, as many anglers do, but that’s not at issue here. What’s more important is that you keep your line hand close to the reel. Each stroke of the retrieve should begin and end near the rod—no more than one foot to 18 inches away from the reel. This tight system keeps your line hand in a good position for the next retrieval and aids in setting the hook.

A stripping action in which your line hand makes long, actionless pulls and finishes 21/2 to 3 feet from the reel has limited applications. Long stripping is at best awkward to perform and, even worse, does not allow for proper striking control.

Another important fundamental is the level, or plane, in which you hold your rod. Many anglers point their rod tip close to, or practically touching, the water during the retrieve, but a tip held on a downward angle does not allow for much movement of the fly or a good hook-set.

Instead of the tip-down rod position, hold your rod parallel to the water’s surface (this can be a bit above or below the horizontal plane, depending on how deep you are wading, or whether you are fishing from a boat). This close-to-
parallel position creates a slight amount of slack beneath the rod tip and permits a greater manipulation of the fly—your fly will rise and fall each time you retrieve slack.

The slack, which looks like a backward L, aids in the hook-set because it allows a fish to grab and run with the fly before it feels the pressure of the line. I call this curvature of line from the rod tip to the water surface “the hinge,” and when I maintain this slight slack during my retrieves, my strike-to-hookup ratio increases significantly. I hesitate to put a number of inches on this “slack” because it really depends on your position in the water. It should, however, not be a loose circle of line below the rod tip, but a somewhat taut L.

Fly Fishing Retrieves

When fishing down-and-across with subsurface flies, maintain a bit of controlled slack in the form of a “hinge” at the rod tip (bottom). This enables the fly to move naturally during the retrieve and helps the hook-set because it allows a fish to take the fly before it feels any resistance.

Stripping Tempos
Now we’ll discuss the meat of the matter—the actions that lure fish to streamers and nymphs. Most of my fishing takes place in rivers, and the following stripping suggestions are best used on moving water with an across or down-and-and across presentation.

To best describe the action of stripping a fly I like to use the musical term “staccato,” the short, clear-cut playing of tones and chords. For many flies, short, clear-cut pulls and pauses rather than long, slow drags, imitate the naturals they are meant to represent. In particular, minnow-imitation streamers score more often when fished with a series of staccato movements that imitate natural baitfish motions.

When I fish crayfish patterns, I combine the staccato movements with a few tactical pauses. When I fish nymphs, I control the line with short, sharp, almost herky-jerky, strips.

Observation of the foods that fish eat is key. As I retrieve line, I visualize the creature I’m trying to copy and make my fly act accordingly. That is the best advice I can offer on stripping.

A note on making a fly appear injured: Flies with weight placed close to the head are best fished with a few quick strips of line followed by an abrupt stop. This causes the fly to flutter momentarily and appear stunned or injured, provoking strikes by feeding fish.

How should you vary the speed of your retrieve in relation to water temperature and clarity? Fast and slow are relative terms, but there are several common-sense rules that apply. The first concerns water clarity.

You should strip fast in clear water and slow in murky water. A gamefish can see farther in clear water than in murky water, and it will charge at prey over a longer distance. But in clear water the fish is more likely to detect your imitation, and if it is presented with a slow retrieve, the fish gets a good look. If, however, your fly is retrieved with a staccato action, the motion and fly design blend and the fish must react quickly without a close inspection.

A fish’s activity level is influenced by water temperature—slow in cold water and fast in warm water. Thus the water temperature and fish activity should dictate the speed of your retrieve. When the water temperature gets far below a fish’s preferred range (the low 40s F. for trout and the low 50s F. for most bass), then you should slow your retrieve, but not so much that your fly appears lifeless. Instead, impart a motion that gives the fly a short burst of activity, followed by a natural drift with the current. Remember, most creatures you imitate are restrained in their coldwater actions—they are not lifeless.
When you impart a slower motion, your choice of fly is even more important than during a faster retrieve. For longer drifts in coldwater situations, use marabou or rabbit-fur streamers that appear to breathe or move on their own. For nymphs, use patterns with rubber legs that gyrate at slower speeds.

3 Advanced Techniques
The most interesting lifelike movement technique was shown to me by Pennsylvania angler Bruce Fairfull, who uses it to catch both smallmouth and trout in slow to moderate water. I call it “jostling.”

Fly Fishing Retrieves

In slow to moderate water, cast 30 to 40 feet down-and-across to a spot you think may hold a fish. With the rod parallel to the water (Motion 1), snap your wrist and raise the rod tip abruptly to the 11 o’clock position (Motion 2). Next, drop the rod gradually (Motion 3, 4, and 5) to its original plane (Motion 5). Repeat this technique quickly three or four times during a drift to make the streamer imitate a minnow swimming to the surface and then falling back to bottom.

The quick lift-and-drop action of this technique causes the fly line beneath the rod tip to jump forward and then settle back. On the end of the line the fly darts toward you, swimming upward as it comes forward. On the drop, the fly falls back and starts to sink. Done right, the jostling fly looks like a darting minnow swimming toward the surface and then falling back.
Since at first no additional line is retrieved, jostling keeps the fly in relatively the same location. It drives fish wild.
Another effective technique is the “slide-and-glide”—good for long, across-stream casts. “Slide-and-glide” describes the action you give the fly as it moves downstream in a moderate to strong current.

Fly Fishing Retrieves

To make your fly slide and glide, strip the fly in one to two feet with a staccato action then allow short lengths of retrieved line to slip back through your fingers so that the fly drifts downstream.

With most stripping techniques, you retrieve a fly in one direction—back to you. The across-stream slide-and-glide technique allows the fly to be carried away from you; it covers more distance with natural movement.

To perform the slide-and-glide, simply allow short lengths of previously retrieved line to slip back through your fingers and let the current pull the fly along. After a strip of one or two feet with a good staccato action, let some of the retrieved line drift downstream before you resume your strip. This causes the fly to dart forward with the retrieve and then, when the line is released, float downstream for several feet. The appearance is of a creature that bolts forward, runs out of energy, and is swept back downstream by the current. The action is deadly.

I particularly like the slide-and-glide in heavy water where the current reduces visibility and the fish have little time to think. It also works great at the end of a drift when your line is below you. The technique is not effective in a slow pool.
One technique that brings a lot of fish to the rod is done at the end of the drift in slow to moderate flow. I call it the “stalled strip,” or “dead-sticking,” and it allows a fly to stay in place and still have motion.

Fly Fishing Retrieves

The “stalled strip” technique allows a fly to stay close to fish-holding structure, yet still have motion to trigger a strike. At the end of a drift, use your line hand to make repeated short tugs, keeping the fly active, but in the prime spot.

In this technique, your line hand does not shorten the line; it makes short, repetitive tugs, keeping the fly active, but in place. The stalled strip allows you to keep a fly active and near cover to trigger a strike.

This technique can be deadly when imitating nymphs and crustaceans, and it works in imitating slow-moving forage fish such as stonecats and sculpins.

When you combine a number of stripping techniques with the solid fundamentals, you have an arsenal of methods that should increase your strikes. Remember, you have to persuade the fish that your fly is alive, and possibly in trouble, to produce a hit.

Vic Attardo is a full-time outdoor writer and mayor of Red Hill, Pennsylvania.

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