We all get snagged from time to time—it’s a fact of fishing. And just as Babe Ruth simultaneously led the league in home runs and strike-outs, my guess is that the best anglers get snagged more than their lesser-skilled brethren, possibly because they fish closer to structure like mangroves, lily pads, and root wads, and when trout fishing they are better at fishing close to the bottom where trout feed. But they also get unsnagged more. Snags of all descriptions are inevitable; the key is being able to deal with them. Here are some of the most common snag situations and tips that will save you time, flies, and frustration.
1. Your first gut reaction to a snag may be to jerk, or yank the hook to free it. This rarely does anything but bury the hook, or even break a rod tip. Instead, relax, assess the situation, and make a plan.
2. When you’re casting to a shoreline and overshoot your target, chances are that the hook is not stuck at all—it’s just resting in the grass or branches. Stop. Take a breath, point the rod tip at the fly, and slowly tease the fly toward you. Most of the time the fly slides into the water or gently drops to the surface. If the leader is wrapped around a branch one revolution, pull the fly close to the branch and give it a quick pop. The fly often unwraps without snagging.
3. When the tease doesn’t work and you feel resistance, try a slow, steady pull without bending the rod. If the fly is hooked on a leaf or grass, it should tear out. If you’re using 15-pound-test tippet or stronger, you can likely break any small branches, save the fly, and preserve your rod tip.
4. This is the least dependable of the methods mentioned here, but sometimes it works. Start by pointing the rod tip at the snag, and with your line hand, pull the line tight. Next, quickly release the line, resulting in a sudden loss of tension. The initial tightening up can bury the hook deeper, or damage the point, so be sure to check the fly if it comes free.
5. When fishing a stream, underwater snags can be particularly maddening because most of the time you are not able to see the problem, but you can deduce how it happened. If you were drawing the fly upstream when you got snagged, you probably need a downstream pull to free it. With the rod tip pointed downstream, pay out enough line so that the fly line goes well beyond the snag—the more line, the stronger the downstream pull. If the fly doesn’t free from the pressure of the current, try giving a few short strips with the rod tip still pointed downstream, and the belly of the fly line still below the snag.
6. This technique is great for logjams and rock snags. Start with a few feet of loose fly line in your hands. From a low position, point the rod tip at the snag and start a gentle side-to-side motion while raising the rod, slipping some line out, and making the wiggles progressively wider. The side-to-side motion is often enough to pull your fly free.
7. When you have an underwater snag and can get close to it, you may want to try stripping the line in and submerging the rod tip all the way to the fly and gently pushing it free. Be careful with this technique not to break or damage the fragile rod tip.
8. For snags that are more out in the open, such as a single branch, log, or rock, a roll cast release often sets you free. If you have a good roll cast, this should be easy. Begin by stripping line off of the reel and lowering the rod with the tip pointing at the snag. Smoothly draw the rod tip back (preferably to the side) until the fly line is well behind you. Move the rod to the upright position and make a brisk forward stroke, stopping the rod tip high enough that the fly line unrolls above and beyond the snag. A short haul on the forward stroke gives your roll cast extra zing. It is critical to use enough fly line (not just the leader) so that it pulls the fly in a direction opposite the snag.
9. If the fly is hopelessly stuck, and you’re unable to remove it by hand, breaking it off is your only choice. Be careful when doing this, as the line (and sometimes the fly) can come back at you with great force. To safely break off a fly, point the rod tip at the snag, turn your head away, clamp the line under your rod hand, and using your hand and your body, create enough force to break the tippet without bending the rod. The goal here is to lose a fly, without breaking a rod.
10. When all else fails, and you choose to remove the snag by going to the fly, resist the temptation to stick the rod tip in the trees and bushes—especially when you’re fishing from a boat. A much better idea is to pull out enough line to completely relax the rod, and then reach in with your hand to grab the fly.
Okay, so you hooked the big one and it heads straight for the dock pilings. Or weed bed. Or logjam. The tug stops and you figure that the fish is gone. Maybe not. Often, when a fish no longer feels pressure, they stop fighting. As soon as a fish gets you hung, take the pressure off, and wait. Sometimes they swim back out of the snag on their own.
Slow steady pressure sometimes pays off as well. I once hooked a 6-pound largemouth using 10-pound-test tippet and after a few jumps, the fish disappeared into a mountain of hydrilla. After 15 minutes of steady pressure, I finally hand-lined that beauty to the kayak. A little patience and the right approach keeps more flies in your box and, every once in a while, helps you land a memorable fish.
Joe Mahler (joemahler.com) is a casting instructor and author of Essential Knots and Rigs for Trout (2010) and Essential Knots and Rigs for Salt Water (2011).